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Natural Perspectives: Spending time in desert area of California

November 17, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Wild Horse Canyon in Mojave National Preserve.
Wild Horse Canyon in Mojave National Preserve. (HB Independent )

Vic led his Irvine Valley College Emeritus Program bird class for adults to the Mojave National Preserve this past weekend. I tagged along to take photos and provide a guest lecture on the natural history of the area. We stayed for three days at the Desert Studies Center near Baker. We saw fantastic scenery, found birds and other interesting critters and learned more about this fascinating and lightly visited part of California.

The 1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve was created when Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act in 1994. About half of the park is designated wilderness and is open only to hikers and horseback riders. But nearly a thousand miles of roads — some paved and some 4WD only — crisscross the preserve, making access easy.

If you've ever sped from Barstow to Las Vegas to get through the desert as fast as you can, you're missing an incredible adventure. The best parts of the Mojave Desert are not along I-15. The desert is best enjoyed slowly and close up, as we did it. But while the Mojave National Preserve is only 3.5 hours from Huntington Beach, the lack of good visitor services keeps many from exploring the area more thoroughly.

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We were fortunate to be able to stay at the Desert Studies Center at Soda Dry Lake. While the center is open to public visitors, the lodging and dining rooms are open only to organized groups with a desert-related academic purpose. Vic's bird class certainly qualified.

Soda Springs at Soda Dry Lake has attracted many different kinds of people over the centuries, from Native Americans and early explorers Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith, to wagon trains of pioneers, miners and railroaders in the mid to late 1800s.

Radio evangelist Curtis Springer came upon Soda Springs in 1944, finding only the crumbling foundations of an old military outpost there. Springer coined the name Zzyzx for his resort and advertised it as "the last word in health." He filed a mining claim to the property, but what he did with it was build a health resort. Using men recruited from Skid Row in Los Angeles for labor, he constructed the cinder block and stucco buildings at Zzyzx in part out of World War II surplus materials. For example, the metal door to the room where Vic and I stayed came from a Liberty ship that was scrapped after the war. The door frame was under six feet tall and Vic conked his head on it on one occasion.

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