The snow started coming down last week, in the middle of October, which seems a little early to have to put it into 4-wheel drive and dodge snowplows. But along the shores of Lake Superior, where we thought we’d catch some last glorious days of autumn, winter moves in whenever it wants to. Its arrival has me dreaming about getting to the desert as quickly as humanly possible. For thousands of other nomadic dwellers who hear the call of a south western migration, who entertain fantasies of flip-flops, short sleeves, and cactus, it is time to get a move on. With solar power as a part of a nomadic dwelling, options for enjoying these areas are almost limitless as the warm vibes on a sunny day.
“Desert” can conjure up negative images in the mind -- dry, hot, sandy, barren, even dangerous. Yet, our experiences in the winter of 2018-19 contradicted nearly all of these. In four months, we explored our four North American desert ecosystems, spanning nearly 730K square miles across 8 western states, and vast areas of Mexico. Others could have traversed this distance in four days, but we choose to move slowly, stay off interstates, and explore the backroads of our country. We snuggled up on chilly nights, got lost wandering among Saguaro forests, watched super blooms magically appear overnight, and marveled at the migratory birds we’d never seen anywhere else on our continent. Even after four months of hiking, mountain biking, paddling, and exploring these regions, we feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of the beauty, intrigue, and allure of these amazing landscapes. With the snow at our heels, we are heading back there this winter...
For anyone who RVs, no matter what make, model, or size of rig, the western deserts offer opportunities for winter living that few other parts of the world can. No other region in this country can beat the concentration and acreage of accessible public land. It is a solar powered boondocker's paradise, at least from October through April.
Because we boondock with solar as our main source of power, living in the desert is a no-brainer in the winter. We have a 100W Renogy folding solar suitcase (a portable solar panel that we set up on about 20 feet of extension cord), 12V/50AH Lithium Iron Phosphate Battery, 30A Wanderer Charge Controller, and 700W Pure Sine Wave Inverter. We can set the camper in an ideal position, perhaps even some shade, and place the panel out in the sun. With the abundance of sunshine, at all altitudes, our battery was always back up to 100% charge by 10am. Frankly, we never ran out of energy, nor even worried about it. Going solar frees us up to enjoy these areas right up to our stay limit and our Complete Guide to Solar for the New RVer will get you started building your own system.
We rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona, in the Sonoran desert in late January and discovered suddenly that we were far from the only ones with the idea of spending some time here. Quartzite draws nearly 2 million RVers each winter, but with millions of acres of BLM land within 25 miles of this tiny hamlet of less than 4,000 year-round residents, we were still able to find a quiet corner to call our own. Nearly every kind of RV, motorhome, 5th wheel, van, toy hauler, travel trailer, and tent could be found scattered across the landscape. Within the La Posa Long-Term Visitor Area, run by the BLM near Quartzite, folks can stay for up to 8 months for less than $200 and have all the services they need within a short drive.
We wandered into canyons, valleys and scrambled up steep cliffsides, where we were the only humans around. Evidence of prehistoric humans abounds throughout the region and proves that our millennia isn’t the only to hear the desert’s call. From pictographs and grain pounding holes, to cave dwellings perched high up sandstone walls, what remains of those who came before is a constant companion as you explore the area. Respect for their lost way of life is an easy lesson to acquire.
Nature also taught us other valuable lessons in respect. We drove up a winding dirt road, crossing several washes, to Cochise Stronghold campground in the Dragoon Mountains of southern Arizona for just a night of camping and a forecast of light rain. We awoke to 3.5 inches, and a wall of water rushing through the washes keeping everyone in place for the next few days. Fortunately, we had plenty of food, enough to share with the campers next to us, who had only brought enough for one night. A good camaraderie emerged among the other stranded campers as we simply accepted what we could not change and enjoyed every last minute of being there.
If your timing is right, you might be rewarded with nature's abundant beauty. When desert super blooms stole the headlines, we found ourselves right in the middle of it all. Rolling into a camping space at dusk gives little indication of what flowers might be pushing up all around you. In the morning, our curiosity was rewarded by vast fields of little yellow and orange solar panels blanketing the landscape -- California Poppies as far as we could see. The conditions were perfect that winter for this little wild flower to capture the world’s attention.
Can you name the four deserts in North America?
We’ve found that most people struggle to name even one, so we’ve included a bit of natural history and geography in addition to highlights in each region.
1. Great Basin Desert
Bordered by the Sierra Nevada range to the west, the Wasatch Mountains to the east, the Columbia Plateau to the north, and the Mojave Desert to the south, its distinctive natural feature is rugged north-south trending mountain ranges interspersed with broad sweeping valleys. It is classified as a cold, mid-latitude desert and covers an arid expanse of about 190,000 square miles, making it the largest of the North American deserts. Due to its remoteness, this desert does not draw many visitors.
Hwy 50 cuts through a vast and sparsely inhabited interior of Nevada. “The Loneliest Road in America,” makes you feel it, but if you have the time, you can feel it in a good way. Few places on the continent offer the perspective of pavement and landscape like this. Cresting one small mountain ridge the traveler observes the road playing out like a great unbroken ribbon plunging straight as a surveyor’s line into the valley below and up the next ridge some 10 to 15 miles distant. Here you fund your own speed, for fellow travelers or signs of anything coming before you are rare. It is not unlike being out on the ocean with nothing but the vastness of water and a compass heading to define you.
Great Basin National Park, which we thought would be a celebration of this immense landscape turns out to be in honor of a specific mountain range towering above this desert ocean like an “island” in the sky. It is the elevation above that is celebrated here and the home of the millennia spanning Bristlecone Pine which grows at only 10,000 feet or higher. Though winter had mostly passed by early April when we visited, we were still treated to its leftover storms and needed our snowshoes above 8000 feet to truly enjoy the park because many of the roads were still closed. Even with these tools, incoming weather and length of the day forced us to turn back before reaching the Bristlecone’s habitat….an adventure for next time!
A Few of Our Favorites In/Near this Desert:
2. Sonoran Desert
Covering 120,000 square miles in southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, much of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, and the western half of the state of Sonora, the Sonoran Desert has a subtropical climate and receives 3 to 15 inches of rain per year. Most of the precipitation comes during monsoon season (July–September), when strong, brief thunderstorms bring heavy rain. Typically, lighter winter rainfall also occurs. A distinctive feature of the Sonoran Desert is the majestic Saguaro cacti, many of which are hundreds of years old. The mountain ranges dotted amongst this desert create a diversity of ecosystems rising above the desert floor, creating wetter and cooler “Islands in the Sky.”
We had no idea what we were getting into when we approached the Sonoran Desert Museum just outside of Tucson, Arizona. But the moment we saw the words, “hummingbird enclosure” on our visitor map, we knew we were going to spend the rest of the day taking it all in. “Should we get an annual pass and come back again tomorrow?” Shari asked. We are unapologetic nature nerds, and though it was only 10am when we arrived, we were the last to leave at closing time. This interactive outdoor museum is a worthy love poem to the desert ecosystem it celebrates.
A Few of Our Favorites In/Near this Desert:
3. Mojave Desert
“Shari! Don’t move!” I hissed. She froze and scanned the immediate vicinity for the thing about to bite her. But it wasn’t danger that had caught my eye, it was fascination. About 20 feet off the trail winding through the brilliantly colored sandstone of Valley of Fire State Park, stood a Desert Tortoise, one of the more elusive creatures of the desert. We’d just learned from a park ranger that seeing one of these shy beings is a very rare treat. I didn’t want Shari to miss out.
We carefully and cautiously approached to a respectful distance. Frightening these animals by getting too close or worse, picking them up, can cause them to lose much of their stored water. In an effort to escape, the tortoise urinates out what they’ve stored for months, and in the desert, this can be difficult, or impossible, to replace. Being too eager to get up close and personal with nature can be a death sentence for these ancient creatures -- just like all those Super Bloom tourists who loved the flowers to death. Remember the lesson of all deserts, respect the environment and all who call it home.
We watched the tortoise casually wind its way through a rocky path that it seemed to know well, stopping to inspect a Beaver Tail Cactus, whose small, red fruit are one of its favorite foods. With the phone camera rolling, and Shari enthusiastically whispering in my ear, “He’s gonna eat the Beaver Tail! He’s gonna eat the Beaver Tail!” I captured the moment when this little fellow chomped his mid-morning snack. We followed from a respectful distance as he slowly ambled away between overhanging boulders to seek out some shade from the relentless desert sun.
Named for the Mojave people, the Mojave Desert occupies more than 25,000 square miles -- extending from the Sierra Nevada range to the Colorado Plateau and merges with the Great Basin to the north and the Sonoran Desert to the south and southeast. The fascinating Joshua Tree is unique to the Mojave area. Seeing the first of these spindly plants with its branches reaching plaintively in all directions might be your only landmark clue that you have actually arrived in the Mojave.
A Few of Our Favorites In/Near this Desert:
4. Chihuahuan Desert
Just east of the Sonoran Desert lies the huge Chihuahuan Desert. With an area of about 140,000 square miles, it is the second largest North American desert. It occupies much of western Texas, portions of the middle and lower Rio Grande Valley and the lower Pecos Valley of New Mexico, and parts of southeastern Arizona, as well as the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau. Lechuguilla, one of the indicator plants, is found only in this desert. It flowers just once in its lifetime, then promptly dies.
On Christmas morning, we found ourselves in the Chiricahua Mountains of south eastern Arizona. A simple note on the pit toilet door alerted us to a casual holiday brunch in the late morning at the camp host’s site. “Bring something to share, or just bring yourself!” the note cheerily read. We made our favorite coffee cake in our Fry Bake pan over the fire pit and joined in.
The camaraderie of strangers who suddenly coalesce into a community over a shared meal is always an enriching experience, and we lingered long into the afternoon. I retrieved my guitar from the trailer and folks gathered around the fire ring for music, and conversation. With just a small gathering, our dear camp host Peggy, exceeded our wildest expectations in her role. And, this is just one of dozens of other surprises that we found within these mountains and desert.
A Few of Our Favorites In/Near this Desert:
Our Tips for Enjoying the Desert in the Winter
Whether camping just outside of Tucson, or a hundred miles from anywhere in Nevada, the motto for visiting the desert is “be prepared.” With a little planning and an ounce of adventurous spirit, you too can answer the desert’s calling...safely.
• Go solar! Check out our Six Simple Strategies for Maximizing a Small Solar Powered System. The options for campgrounds and boondocking are limitless. You won’t need to stay in RV parks or expensive “hook up” campgrounds, or even make reservations. The Dyrt PRO app is the perfect companion to find campgrounds and public land across these regions.
• Drink lots of water and always carry plenty of extra water with you, even if you are just driving an hour to your next destination. The dryness can dehydrate you very quickly even in cooler weather. If you get a headache, you are probably already on your way to dehydration.
• Nearly every grocery store or gas station has a reverse osmosis water filling station. Bring your jugs and fill up.
• Bring your boats, there’s plenty of water for paddling just about everywhere, just be sure to stop at each Boat Inspection Station to get checked and cleared for invasive species.
• Creeks and washes can rise quickly with just a bit of rain. Never cross water unless you know how deep it is and can assess its flow – it doesn’t take much to take your vehicle downstream. Turn around, don’t drown.
• When the weather is warm, dip your hat in cold water before putting it on your head. It’ll keep you cooler than just putting it on dry.
• Be aware, but not afraid of snakes. We didn’t see a single one in 4 months as they are cold-blooded and don’t really like being outside in the cooler months.
• Sunrises and sunsets are the best light of the day. Even if you are not a morning person, try to get up and watch the sunrise a few times. It will set your day right.
• Be aware of where you put your feet and hands while climbing around on rocks. Everything in the desert pokes, stings, scratches, and bites.
• Cholla cacti are like painful Velcro and they stick to absolutely everything. Bring a hair pick or long-toothed comb with you when hiking or mountain biking to remove this unwanted friend from your shoe, leg, arm, etc.
• While mountain biking, always bring extra inner tubes as well as a patch kit. We went through 2 inner tubes per week, even with Slime protection in our tires.
• While there may not appear to be life in the desert soil, it is very fragile. Even the soil is alive! Cryptobiotic soil can take hundreds of years to regrow if accidentally stepped on. Watch where you step and don’t bust the crust!
Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison have turned their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking tours from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com. Or, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as “Freedom in a Can.”