Why the Turtles


After my fourth backpacking trip to the Turtle Mountain Wilderness in the Mojave Desert I was asked, “Why do you keep
going back to the Turtles?” The obvious disadvantage is distance. The time to drive to the eastern Mojave from the Bay Area is about the same as driving to Portland, Oregon or Salt Lake City. But also, why go that far to a vast, hot, dry, sandy wasteland that has spiny cacti, scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes? I thought about these questions while going on my fifth trip there a few weeks later.

The Turtle Mountains rise abruptly from the Mojave landscape, ascending several thousand feet to provide a background of sharply contrasting colors and shapes. There are strange volcanic features with cinder cones and eroded lava flows. There are saw-tooth ranges and huge flat top mesas with debris slopes reminiscent of the walls of the Grand Canyon.  There are many varieties of rocks including sedimentary rock with inclusions of many different colors and consistencies. Many of the mountains appear as if composed of layers of rock that were coarsely mixed in a cosmic blender.

Evidence of dramatic erosion includes house-size boulders, creating mazes to puzzle through, and multicolored gravels and sand on the floors in the arroyos. The bajadas (slopes) extend from the edge of the mountains to the arroyos with rocks ranging in size from boulders at the base of the steep-sided mountains down to the sand and gravel of the arroyos. 

The Turtle Mountains are famous for the Chalcedony Rose, quartz rocks that look like an extruded cake decorations. They are dense, translucent quartz of white, grey, or blue color with a waxy luster often covered with sparkling quartz crystals. Chalcedony Rose is formed underground from silica gels between layers of volcanic or sedimentary rock. They are exposed when the overlaying rock is eroded away and can be found throughout the mountain range.

The Mojave has marvelous backpacking weather in winter, with moderate days and cool nights. While the rainfall in the Mojave averages five inches per year, when and how much it rains can be highly variable. On the trips that I have made, rain has been frequent. I have been in brief snow flurries and have seen ice in water bottles. There was a downpour one night that caused wet down and some ruffled feathers.  Wet gear and spirits dried quickly in the sun and dry air the next day.

A typical Turtle Mountains backpacker’s day starts, after a long restful winter night camped in a sandy arroyo, with a hot drink and breakfast while decamping and packing up. The hiking begins on flat sand and gravel then to a steep rocky ravine with some rock scrambling, interesting route finding and navigation puzzles, heading to the rewarding experience of reaching a pass. New amazing views of the next valley and more distant mountain ridges greet the hiker. Later there are ridges, rock filled ravines, new bajadas and arroyo to cross. The landscape changes regularly through the day. Nighttime comes in a different bajada campsite where meals are cooked and stories shared; then early to bed to be ready for tomorrow’s daybreak.

There are springs in many forms in the Turtles. Coffin Spring is bathtub-size and is hidden in a steep arroyo. Mopah Spring is a classic desert oasis. It lies in a shallow ravine on the side of a mountain bowl surrounded by tightly clustered Californian fan palm trees. Whipple Wash has numerous seeps and small pools. These and others are important water sources for a wide assortment of animals that live in these mountains.

The higher elevations are home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcats, and mountain lions. In the arroyos and bajadas there are burros, rabbits, coyotes, foxes, ground squirrels, pack rats, desert tortoises, lizards, and snakes. Most animals are elusive, and if seen at all, will be moving away.  Evidence of their passing is in the form of tracks, spore, bones and tortoise shells.

Commonly observed birds are the quail, doves, roadrunners, ravens, chukar and phainopepla. Red-tailed hawks and golden eagles can be seen soaring in the mountain updrafts. The canyon wren is seldom seen but its’ distinctive declining scale song is easily identified. A dome shaped nest nestled deep in a cholla is the home of a cactus wren.

A wide variety of tiny beetles are often seen inside flowers. Grasshoppers are common. Harvester ant and their mounds are common sights. The solo red velvet ant is a flashy insect. Bees are found around flowering plants and at water sources. There are a few wasps. Mosquitoes are rare but occur near still water, even in old mine shafts with puddles pools of water at the bottom.

Low, widely spaced shrubs dominate the bajadas. An ephemeral kaleidoscope of spring annuals will appear after a winter rainfall. Desert hollys are seen in dense clusters. Creosote bushes give off a characteristic smell after rains.  The low-growing cacti have spectacular flowers, particularly the beavertail. Fishhook cacti have a ring of pink flowers below the crown that develops oblong, bright-red fruit.

There are many different types of long, narrow leafed yucca plants. Smoke trees, Palo Verde and mesquite grow in the lower arroyos.  Ocotillo, with long wispy stems and clusters of bright red flowers, are seen in large groups with barrels and cholla.

It is rare to dislike a plant, particularly if what is disliked is an amazing adaptation to the desert.  Jumping cholla deserve the name due to the unpleasant easy that segments of these plant will cling to clothing, shoes, or skin after the lightest touch and because the spines can be quite painful to remove.

For me, a special animosity is reserved for the catclaw. It looks like any other bush-like tree. It is aptly named in that all along its small-leafed branches are reversed claw-like thorns.   These thorns will rip through clothing, packs, or skin that brush by. In some ravines catclaws will block a reasonable path and force circuitous bypasses around them.

Even though some of the surprises in the Turtles are unpleasant, to me, in winter, it is a place of fascinatingly and beautiful landscapes, occupied by myriad of interesting plants and animals. It is place with clear skies, where the stars can be seen at night, and glorious sunsets are not rare. The backpacker’s days consists of vigorous exercise, while at the same time resolving the puzzles of wilderness exploration. All of this takes place in company of like-minded companions.  This is why I go back to the Turtles.

"Wilderness is a necessity... There must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls. Food and drink is not all.

 There is the spiritual. In some it is only a germ, of course, but the germ will grow." John Muir

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