Imperial Valley Desert


By: Ron Jones



Saturday morning at 8am, four folks met the leaders (a disappointing turnout for such an interesting trip) at the Cahuilla BLM Station on Highway 78 at the Imperial Dunes (aka Glamis/Algodomes Dunes). Leora and 1 had camped Friday night just east of the Dunes and were lulled to sleep with the sounds of Yamaha'S and Kawasaki's late into the night.

BLM Outdoor Recreation Planner, Greg Hill, had previously agreed to spend the day with us showing the group the many various areas of management that the El Centro District of the BLM is involved with. Greg formerly worked for the Sierra Club in Sacramento and is still a San Diego Chapter member. We started with introductions and a quick tour and visit to their Visitor Center housing brochures, maps, pictures and stuffed animals endemic to the area. The visitor Center is enclosed by a locked fence on Gecko Road, as its predecessor had been burned down in an arson fire. The nearby campground is home for as many as 15-25,000 people on Thanksgiving weekend and on into the late springtime. It is the most heavily used BLM recreation site in CA with more than 80,000 visitor/days annually.

As we were getting ready to leave, an emergency call came in reporting an accident at the Dunes. A ranger and a tow truck headed out quickly with emergency gear (they are all trained as EMT's) to the scene. As a side note, they are NOT paid for these efforts, except that a part of their wage is paid from the percentage the BLM receives from the "Green Sticker" fund from off road vehicular registration. (Only about 10% of the BLM Green Sticker fund comes from off-road money, the rest from a general recreation fund).

We caravanned down Gecko Road to its end, passing several paved parking areas for the RV's/Campers. It was overwhelming to see the thousands of bikes/3 & 4 wheels whizzing to and fro, and we wondered where they all left their bodily waste at night, (there are only 5 or 6 restrooms in the area, however most RV campers are self-contained) and realizing what a task it was for 3 BLM rangers to patrol this most heavily used BLM territory in the state. Helmets, whip antennas with a flag and speed limits are enforced as best as possible under the circumstances. They issue many Federal citations. The Dunes extend south of the highway for 40 miles, cross I-8, and cross the border into Mexico. A WSA is proposed by the Desert Protection Bill in the lower middle of this vast area. It seems impossible for it to be adequately protected when its boundaries are smack dab in the middle of this extremely heavily used BLM land.

On we went to the high point of the Dunes. It is a former "county park" but the BLM traded land with Imperial County to obtain this "in holding". In reality, it is a paved 100 yard long area where first-come first served RVers perch themselves for the weekend. Greg told us that on a holiday weekend, it is impossible for any passenger vehicle to squeeze in for a view from the top. The buggy enthusiasts are protecting its development into a day use area, in spite of their having 1000's of acres of unlimited camping currently. It is estimated the average dune use family has about $100,000 tied up in their motorhome, trailer and multiple RVs. In contrast with the 25,000 people using the approved recreation area over the Thanksgiving weekend, we guessed that perhaps 25-100 people hiked into the 22,767 acre North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Study Area north of Highway 78. This WSA protects the Flat Tailed Horned Lizard, the Silver-Leafed Dune Sunflower and Pierson's Loco Weed and a nice assortment of Dunes. It is closed to vehicle use. Next stop was the Mesquite Gold Nine. This is a leech pit operation & the 2nd largest gold mine in the state. Greg has been instrumental in helping build an interpretive trail to the top of a ridge (.8 mile) overlooking the operation. It is due to open to the public Nov. 2 but he had gotten special permission and the gate was unlocked for us. This Canadian/Japanese owned operation appears to be fairly environmentally conscious. They have invested in hi-tech equipment, including an impressive metal dome visible for miles, that almost eliminates dust from the crushing process. They are also committed to report any animal deaths from the covered and enclosed cyanide pits and have fenced their acreage with Desert Tortoise awareness signs. This is more than other mining operations have done that we have seen.

Further on down the road we stopped at a highway marker designating the area as a pre-Columbian Indian trail. There was a 200' stretch used as a foot path in years gone by. We found some shade in the nearby wash for our lunch spot. The temperature was over 100, but pleasant in the shade of the Ironwoods. Tunco, (Trumbull United Mining Company), was our next stop. This abandoned town, once home of 2500 people is soon to be redeveloped as an open pit mining site. We saw the remnants of home foundations, the 100-stamp mi11 and the cemetery. Next was the 100 yard long remnants of the old plank road near Gray's well on I-8. It was used by desert travelers to cross the dunes during the 1920's. It was actually established as a result of a race between politicians of San Diego and Los Angeles counties to see who could get to Phoenix first. San Diego won, even though their car was dragged 7 miles across the sand by horses. The BLM has fenced off the remains of this road to preserve what little is left.

Our last stop for the day was near Holtville, the McCabe Geothermal Power Plant. It is very accommodating to the wishes of the BLM, including raising the pipes 2 feet off the ground to allow the tortoise and horned lizards to pass below. An offshoot of this drilling produced a hot spring, now in the BLM's control. It is located directly across the street from the hot spring Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA). The inhabitants were crusty folk quite reminiscent of the Saline Valley crowd. They are permitted to live in LTVA'a for up to 9 months by paying a $25 feel There are no provisions or hookups-they must Lie completely sell contained. Greg left for his home in El Centro and we backtracked to the Picacho State Recreational Area, making it there about 5:45pm. After a quick dinner, we went to the campfire program that evening where a ranger described verbally and visually the interesting history of the Picacho area including the mine activity 5-1/2 miles away at the Picacho Nine near (Little) Picacho Peak and the stamp mill & steamboat port of Picacho on the river. Evening brought a beautiful sunset and perfect camping weather and temperature.

Sunday morning we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise and the sounds of quail and coyotes. A burro herd had passed through our campsite during the night only leaving their footprints and bodily excretions. We took a quick walk to the Colorado river shore and then began our second day of study. First, we hiked to the Stamp Mill via the Picacho Historic Trail. Several pieces of evidence remain showing the 700 man operation was a thriving mine at one time. The views were clear and long.

Because of warnings of sandy areas by the ranger and residents, we did not take the road west to Indian Peas west but rather we went hack to Winterhaven and the Ogliby Road and then east on the Indian Pass road, stopping at the Gold Rock Store on the way. It was a store filled with antiques, old bottles, books on the desert and its inhabitants, and, junk. A MUST stop for desert visitors in the area.

We made our final stop at Indian Pass. A few hours of searching gave us delight in finding old Indian trails, shards of pottery and that special feeling of being a part of the desert. We found the Singer Geoglyph Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Thanks to participants including Charlotte & John Gullsby, Hillary Gordon and Andrew Ledford.

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