Wednesday, September 9, 2015

on the road: coyote camping, joshua tree, the golden desert

Coyote camping!

(These blog posts have been sitting in my travel journal for a while now. Better late than never, I hope!)

I first heard the term "coyote camping" from one of the REI workers in Flagstaff, who mentioned that while the Lake Mead area was painfully crowded with river resort goers, her family used to pitch tents and swim right on the bank of Lake Mojave a little south of it... for free! So I headed west towards the intersection of the Arizona, Nevada and California borders, and between a helpful gas station attendant and a few sketchy Google results managed to find directions to what seemed like the right place.

Until you've driven through or flown over the American west it's hard to get a sense of just how much open land is out there: sprawling thousand-acre stretches of forest, open range and grassland unclaimed, unused and undeveloped for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management for the ecological wellbeing of the land and enjoyment of travelers. Coyote camping, also known as dispersed camping, means camping for free in undeveloped areas of publicly owned land. It can be a specific area designated for boondocking and big enough for RVs, or just a single flat space alongside a road or trail, marked by a brown BLM sign and a few old tire tracks. These areas are further from populated areas and generally without facilities, hosts, electricity or other amenities you'd find at a commercial campground, so it's not for everyone, but when you're attempting a long trip or trying to budget, you can't beat free.

I have to admit that this first dispersed camping experience of this past trip started out a little scary. The directions to the dispersed area on Lake Mojave said to watch for a particular mile-marker and then take the next turn onto a 5-mile downhill dirt road. The road wasn't well maintained, had a few confusing forks, steep curves and washboard surface. Driving at only 10mph in quickly darkening dusk made it feel like I was on this creepy Deliverance-esque road forever. I didn't even get out of my car for this photo:

Twenty minutes and two coyote sightings later, just as I was kicking myself for putting so much blind trust in a website called "" while traveling alone, I finally reached Telephone Cove, a beautiful flat sandy riverbank dotted with trees and a handful of other cars and tents right up against the water's edge. There was one pit toilet, primitive fire rings along the water and a whole lot of nothing else. So perfect!

The sky is already purple; the first few stars have appeared, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a handful of silver across the edge of the world.” - Alice Hoffman

I pitched my little tent, cooked dinner and headed out with my lantern into the edge of Spirit Mountain Wilderness to try more star photography. Incidentally, coyotes howled off in the distance as I plodded my way through the dark among smoke trees and startled hares.

Facing northeast towards Spirit Mountain, with the far-off glow of Las Vegas on the horizon. It's not obvious in this photo but the spring constellations were absolutely on fire -- Orion, Cassiopeia and the dippers just blazed in the dark sky surrounded by a million pinpoint stars. I had the best night's sleep next to the softly lapping water, and woke up to a pair of ducks chatting outside my tent.

The only person awake on the shore, I waded out into the water and watched the buttermilk sunrise blossom in the cloudless bluebell sky before packing up. This would have been an awesome place to just relax for a few days or weeks (the BLM technically allows free camping up to 14 days per location, though I didn't see anyone enforcing that.) My closest neighbors were two older couples in an RV and a tent and I felt very safe, though there were more than a few empty beer cans and bullet-riddled signposts on the way out and one or two people obviously living out of their trucks off in the far reaches of the cove.

It's a trade off: incredible silence, unintruded nature and a feeling of adventure comes with a bit of unease and risk. There's a real weirdness vs. freedom judgement system in play when you want to travel cheap and alone, especially as a woman.

Up with the sun, driving out of Spirit Mountain Wilderness.

I wouldn't have thought for a second that southern Nevada would be so pretty. The combination of rolling roads sheathed by jagged stone mountains caught the sideways morning sunlight and bounced it off yellow wildflowers, low white sage and bare brush alike, causing the whole mountainside to glow warm and gold. 

Crossing into California (yay!) the land got flatter and longer, the sky bigger and bluer as I drove south towards Whipple Mountain, through the closed-diner-trailer-park-train-depot of Vidal, past long-scorched attempts at desert civilization.

West on 62, south on 177 and into the oasis of Joshua Tree, where I planned to spend the whole day and night. There is backcountry camping within the park, overflow (parking lot) camping at each entrance and a few questionable boondocking spots on the outskirts that all would have been free, however I managed to snag the very last camping spot in Cottonwood (and possibly the last in the whole park, as there was a sign at Cottonwood saying that all campgrounds north were full) so I took it with gratitude.

Unlike the northern campgrounds which are famous for their tent sites beneath enormous boulder formations, Cottonwood is wide and brushy, with a red mountain ridge to the east and not much but flat cactus-strewn desert land past the small fire pits and tent pads. I went on one loop hike that brought me back to the flowering cholla field next to my tent just before dusk.

During the hour before sunset, known to photographers as "the golden hour," the sun is low on the horizon and sunlight travels through the most atmosphere, getting diluted into a dimensional, soft glow. As someone who is familiar-but-not-great with my DSLR, I feel it's the best time of day to take the kind of photos that actually look how the moment feels, if that makes sense. It is the easiest time to get those vibrant but soft colors, backlit halos and dreamy, magical dimension. 

And then just like that, it's gone, Sun sets on Joshua Tree and it's time to prowl around the desert taking night photos and creeping out my neighbors.

(Just kidding. As I wrote back in Maine, I usually chat up neighboring campers when appropriate to make myself visible; families seem to appreciate knowing they're next to a quiet neighbor, even if she is wandering around in the dark, and in my experience having more of a presence actually leads to less unwanted attention. I have never felt unsafe camping alone but if there were to be trouble around, it's better to have people know you're there than to have tried to hide away. Even if it does result in a lot of "Does your boyfriend/husband/parents know you're here?" and resisting the urge to answer, I have my permission slip the car.)

Anyway, stars.


  1. Now that is my kind of post, Mae!
    Anything to do with desert, cactus, lonely dirt've captured the sheer gorgeousness of it all.
    Your starry skies, my gosh! And all the neon blooms. Love.
    Thank you!

  2. Absolutely gorgeous. My family and I tented at a small campground in Lake Mead last year on a driving trip from MN to California and back. Stunning views. Listening to the coyotes yip at night was an experience I'll never forget. I was amazed how beautiful desert vistas can be. Too bad my boys didn't agree. They were a little unnerved.

  3. Love reading about your travels and seeing the sites I may never see. You are truly living
    well and many of us are able to live these experiences through you. So thank you for sharing it all.

  4. Gorgeous pictures Mae! So fun to hear of your solo travels! Inspires me to want to get out there! :)

  5. Once again these are very beautiful but I simply don't know how you can camp by yourself, I would be up all night! Thanks for sharing.

  6. I know I've said this before, but your writing style combined with your photos just paints the most vivid picture, like we are actually there. This is one of my favorite posts of yours. And ummmm you are pretty freaking great with your DSLR :)