Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 27, 2017

In the Slot … Canyon. Narrow is the Way.

When one thinks of canyons worth traveling to see, iconic choices come to mind. In the U.S., there are the Grand Canyon, Snake River Canyon and many more. Across the border in Mexico is the Copper Canyon. Tibet and Peru boast canyons that rival (by some measures exceed) the Grand Canyon: the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon and Cotahuasi Canyon, respectively. What’s your favorite canyon? Leave a comment.

Some canyons, though, merit attention despite their relatively shallow depth and modest length: slot canyons.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6764 (480x640)

Slot canyons are narrower than they are deep, often to an extreme degree. Formed by flowing water eroding rock in a tight seam, some canyons feature dramatic sculpturing of the nearly vertical cliffs.

Conditions for forming slot canyons don’t exist everywhere. In the U.S., they’re most common in southern Utah, with lesser numbers in Arizona, a few in New Mexico and California. There are slot canyons in the Pyrenees and Australia, among other places.

I had my first-ever opportunity to hike into a slot canyon on our recent trip to the Anza-Borrego Desert.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6769 (480x640)

Access to The Slot (yes, that’s its name) is 13 miles southeast from the center of Borrego Springs on paved roads. From that point, there are 2 miles of gravel “jeep road,” which most ordinary vehicles can negotiate. Don’t take the Ferrari.

IMG_6785 (640x476)

From the parking area on high ground above the canyon, you get a good view of the rugged Anza-Borrego Desert. That’s the head of the canyon at the bottom of the photo below.

Anza-Borrego Brad Nixon 6752 (640x447)

The descent into the canyon (and the climb back out) is the only moderately strenuous part of the hike. Most hikers of even modest ability will manage it easily. Here, looking down a little less than 50 feet, you see a person in the upper portion of The Slot, which is relatively wide and open.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6750 (640x480)

The floor of the canyon is relatively even, and you walk southwesterly down a gentle declivity. Over the .8 mile hike you’ll descend only 100 feet. The best part begins at about .3 miles in, when the walls close in to within a meter or two.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6770 (480x640)

Here’s The Counselor about to enter the dark, narrowest section.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6778 (480x640)

And me, emerging.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Marcy Vincent 7423 (554x640)

With only two or three feet of clearance and nearly 50 feet of rock wall rising straight above you, it’s a memorable experience. If you’re direly stricken with claustrophobia you might have a problem, but there is always sunlight above you, and it’s not an enormously long passage through the narrowest parts.

Always remember to look up, because there’s a lot of canyon above you.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Marcy Vincent 7450 (640x480)

And keep looking up.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6771 (480x640)

The walls are mostly bare rock, but sediment has clung to some portions, carved into intricate patterns.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Brad Nixon 6761 (480x640)

The canyon finally widens into a broad wash, giving you another view of the San Ysidro Mountains to the west.

Anza-Borrego Slot Canyon Marcy Vincent 7443 (640x480)

You can follow the wash farther downstream, then left in a long 180-degree curve on a wide track usable by some vehicles and back up to to the parking area if you want more hiking, less canyon. We preferred to turn around and have the experience of going back the way we came. It isn’t a steep climb, as you’ll already know from walking downstream.

Be Prepared

It’s hot in the desert. It was about 100 degrees on the mid-April day we were there. Take water. Extracting heatstroke victims from a narrow canyon 20 miles from a town takes a lot of time and effort. Wear shoes, not flip-flops. You’ll be walking over rocks and gravel and occasionally going up or down a few feet in narrow places, not to mention the more demanding walk into and out of the canyon at the start and finish.

Getting There

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is about 75 miles east of Interstate highway 15, northeast of San Diego. If you travel east on Route 78, The Slot is accessed by a left turn onto Buttes Pass Road (gravel jeep road) 1.4 miles after you pass Borrego Springs Road. Keep to the left at the fork on the jeep road. If you arrive in Borrego Springs from some other direction, take Borrego Springs Road southeast from the traffic circle, turn left on 78 and go 1.4 miles to Buttes Pass.

The Slot map Google (640x430)

The access trail to the canyon isn’t immediately obvious. Fortunately, avid travelers Tim and Joanne of have excellent detailed instructions (and photos) in their recent post about The Slot, which I relied on for my trip. Find their article by clicking here. Give ’em a like. Thank you, Tim and Joanne.

A BIG, Serious Caveat in Any Slot Canyon

Slot canyons can be treacherous. Rain in the desert tends to come in sudden, torrential storms. Some watercourses originate many miles away. Rainfall on the high ground can collect and concentrate into the extremely narrow slot canyon, bearing down on you as a literal wall of water with enormous speed and power. As you can see from this one example, there is no way to climb up, and you can’t outrun flowing water. Hikers, even experienced ones, do drown in slot canyons when caught in those circumstances. Check the weather report, or call a ranger office if there is one (Anza-Borrego’s is +1.760.767.4205).

Do you have a slot canyon destination to suggest? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 25, 2017

Anza-Borrego: Through the Canyon to an Oasis

Exploring southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert — as I’ve been doing in recent posts — is a big undertaking. At 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park would rank as the 18th largest U.S. National Park. The area includes rugged mountains, innumerable trails through rocky chaparral and along dry washes, and remnants of both historic and prehistoric settlements, like these morteros — grinding holes — at the site of a Native American village:

Those mortero holes were pecked into solid granite for grinding seeds and grain by the native Kumeyaay culture. The site is in Mine Wash, which I described in a previous post HERE.

Although there are a couple of days’ worth of spectacular scenery on tap by just driving around, the desert only reveals its nature to those who get out and explore it first-hand.

A large number of the popular trails follow washes and canyons. Probably the most popular canyon hike, both because of its accessibility and attractiveness, is Borrego Palm Canyon, situated near the park’s visitor center.

Anza-Borrego Brad Nixon 6797

There’s a parking area, camping, water and restrooms immediately adjacent to the trailhead. The trail requires only moderate effort, no special equipment (see “Safety,” below) and is always rewarding. For some visitors, it’s a first-ever experience of desert hiking, and it’s an excellent introduction to the dramatic extremes of the severe world of the desert Southwest.

Anza-Borrego Brad Nixon 6882

As I described in a previous post, there’s a pool of spring water at the trailhead. It supports a population of the rare and endangered Desert Pupfish, and you’ll see them, less than 3″ long, darting in the water. Depending on your luck, the pool is also your single best opportunity of spotting the park’s namesake, the Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep: Borregos.

Borregos Marcy Vincent 7453

Especially in hot weather, as the water in the canyon dries up, the Borregos come to the pond to drink. Not every day, so there’s luck involved. They’re enormously difficult to spot up in their typical habitat, the rocky slopes of the canyon.

You’ll start walking north, following Borrego Wash upstream for 1.5 miles. On either side, the steep slopes of the San Ysidro Mountains flank the canyon.

Anza Borrego Marcy Vincent 7480

Water runs through the lower wash only in times of excessive rainfall, but evidence of how powerful the flow can be is all around, like this tree trunk wedged between massive boulders.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6873

Over the mile and a half, you climb gradually from about 835 feet above sea level to just over 1,310 feet, not a difficult gradient. Along the way, you see the stark contrast between the vegetation in the watercourse — including willow, aspen and tamarisk trees — and the cactus, mesquite and Ocotillo scattered on the rocky slopes.

Anza Borrego Marcy Vincent7505

Life abounds among those crags and boulders, although you’ll almost never see anything but the vegetation. Not only Borregos, but mountain lions, bobcats, lizards, snakes and a host of other desert residents are up there. The lizards and snakes sometimes keep you company along the trail, so keep an eye out.

We were there at the tail end of the April bloom, and caught some last vestiges of flowers (click photos to enlarge).

Not every hike has a specific goal. Often, the experience is the only objective, whether one covers a specific distance or ever reaches “end” of the trail, and only the journey matters. This one, though, does have a “there,” which comes in sight after you’ve covered about 1.3 miles and made several turns around shoulders of the surrounding slopes.


It’s called “Palm Canyon” because it’s one of the limited number of places in which California’s only native palm tree, the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) grows in its natural setting.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6831

Yes, that’s flowing water, and most of the year you walk from this point accompanied by the sound of water gurgling over the rocks (stop to listen!).

When you enter the grove, you’re in another world from the harsh light of the open canyon.

This, if ever there was one, is the desert oasis at which you break out the water bottles and snacks, and simply abide. It’s one of the reasons you hiked there.

The trail does continue from this point, far up the canyon, over a crest and on into remote and rugged territory. There are more palm groves, but the going is not easy, and involves a good deal of clambering over boulders and following a less-evident trail. Most of us turn back at this point, satisfied for now. We’ll be back.

Safety and Prepareness

Hiking Borrego Palm Canyon, you are on the edge of near-wilderness. There are no services once you leave the trailhead, and although there is a staff of rangers in the park, they can’t be everywhere to rescue you.

From any time between April and October, temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees (it was 102 when we were there in mid-April this year. I’ve been there in July, and that was hot). There is little shade until you reach the palm grove. Yes, there are rattlesnakes, although they aren’t fond of the brutal heat of midday. Take a gallon of water per person. Cover up your sensitive skin, wear a hat and shoes suitable for walking on rock and gravel.


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is 75 miles inland from Carlsbad, California, and northeast of San Diego. Borrego Palm Canyon is at the west end of the town of Borrego Springs, where there are shops, restaurants and some accommodations. The state park visitor center is within a few hundred yards of the road leading to the campground and trailhead. Paved road S-22 passes West-East through Borrego Springs, and is a winding, rural 1-1/2 hours from Interstate 15 to the west and about the same travel time from the east end of the Coachella Valley to the north, where Palm Springs is the most recognizable city name.

I recommend the Anza-Borrego Desert Region map from Wilderness Press as a solid, basic guide to navigating around the desert. Most of the significant trails and attractions are clearly indicated, although if you’re hiking backcountry, you’ll need a more detailed map.

There are a lot of hiking guides for the park. A useful one is Hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert, Robin Halford, from Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. They have a shop in Borrego Springs.

Next: another Anza-Borrego canyon hike of a different nature.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 23, 2017

The California Super-Bloom of ’17

It’s winding to a close. Following a winter in which most of California received the greatest amount of precipitation in recorded history, the natural thing happened: Plants of every variety took advantage of the abundance of water, turned green and bloomed … in staggering profusion.

California wildflowers Brad Nixon 6559

The pattern itself is normal: Winter is our rainy season. “Rainy” is sometimes only a relative measure, since portions of California are desert. The entire state, though, after years of drought, received record precipitation. Plants are thriving, blooming. Hillsides and canyons that are customarily covered only sparsely with dry chaparral are thick with lush vegetation.

Santiago Oaks Brad Nixon 6547

People have been flocking to parks, forests and open spaces to see this brief, intense “super-bloom” that may not be equaled in a human lifetime.

It’s a narrow window. The timing of a “bloom” relies not just on rainfall but elevation and a variety of other conditions. I was in Joshua Tree National Park in mid February, and the bloom hadn’t begun except in its very low regions. By the time of a mid-April visit to the Anza-Borrego Desert — below 1,000 feet — most of the delicate wildflowers were finished, although the cacti and Ocotillo were still showing off.

Ocotillo Brad Nixon 6626

The Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) exemplifies the response of desert plants to rainfall. When it’s dry, during most of the year, they look like this:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 457 (640x480)

That Ocotillo is alive. It’s waiting. When it rains, those stick-like trunks are wreathed in green leaves, tipped with brilliant red flowers:

Ocotillo bloom Marcy Vincent 7361

One didn’t have to hike far or look too carefully this season to see floral displays more brilliant than I’ve seen in nearly 30 years of visiting Anza-Borrego (click images for full view):

Nor did one have to venture into near-wilderness to enjoy the spectacle. City and county parks, oceanside bluffs and ordinary vacant patches of land were replete with greenery and flowers, as here at Santiago Oaks Canyon, just minutes from the suburbs of Orange County.

Shooting photos demonstrated the significance of the bloom as well as its beauty. In several days of photographing hundreds of flowers, I rarely framed a closeup that didn’t reveal insects — bees, beetles, butterflies and scores of other species — feasting on the bounty (click to enlarge and see the bugs).

Obviously, the increased supply of water is critically important to all of us living things, and the deep snowpack (there’ll be skiing until July in the Sierras), fuller reservoirs and increased groundwater matter to humans, animals and birds as well as plants and insects.

Enough narration. Here’s a gallery of blooms from the super-bloom of ’17. Click to see full views and captions:

One final note. The California biosphere includes trees called Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva), some of the most ancient living things on the planet, often thousands of years old.


One of them is the single-oldest living organism on earth; estimated age: 5,000 years.

There aren’t many of these ancient trees, located in western mountains between 5,600 and 11,200 ft. elevation.


Pictured above is a grove of Bristlecones in the White Mountains of California, east of the Sierra Nevada, just north of Death Valley near the Nevada border. The town of Bishop, in the valley below, is the nearest rainfall station maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Between October 2016 and now, Bishop has received 8.81″ of rain. Not much? In the previous year, it received 2.92″ in the same period: 68% of the “normal” 4.26″. That is a drought. For the current season, Bishop is at 207% of normal.

In 5,000 years, an old Bristlecone must have endured many hardships: not just drought but heat, cold, lighting, fire — even earthquakes. Its time will come, as it must for us all. Perhaps not yet. It may not have the resplendent, glowing image of a gloriously blooming flower that comes to mind for the “super-bloom,” but it’s powerful in a way that is difficult to comprehend. 5,000 years. Before there was Stonehenge, the pyramids or the first written legal codes, before Gilgamesh ruled in Uruk, a tree rooted on a mountainside, and it’s waited for snow and rain to fall for all the time since.

Bristlecone pine Willard Nixon 0340

Check NOAA’s precipitation chart here for a statistical look at the remarkable season the California-Nevada region has experienced.

A tip of the cap to blogger Nature Inspired Mom, whose recent blog post reminded me about Santiago Oaks Regional Park. I was happy to see it blooming, rather than in the middle of a drought-stricken summer, as on my previous visit.

If you can identify any of the flowers I have not, please leave a comment.

I have more to show from the Anza-Borrego Desert, including more flowers, unexpected desert plants, a dramatic canyon and even … flowing water. Stay tuned.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Bristlecone photos © Willard Nixon 2017. Ocotillo bloom © Marcy Vincent 2017, all used by kind permission.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 19, 2017

Beasts of the Anza-Borrego Desert

The desert is full of life. Most of what you see is plant life, because it’s standing still and it’s there 24 hours a day.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6636

There are hundreds or thousands of living creatures walking, running, flying and burrowing around you, but they’re difficult to find, nor do they want you to see them. They have no particular reason to like people. Chalk it up to innate good judgment. As soon as they see, hear or smell you, they’re gone. Like this mule deer I surprised when I turned a corner in a wash in the De-Na-Zin Wilderness last summer.


It had been lying in some shade by the trail, jumped up and covered 100 yards in a flash, leaping over rocks and brush in a display of power and grace no human could begin to imitate. Then it stopped and looked back at me as if to say, “Let’s see you do that, clumsy 2-legged animal.” My opportunity to take its picture before it moved on to find another spot to continue its siesta on a 100+-degree day.

To see coyotes, rabbits, bobcats, ground squirrels and deer, not to mention any of the varieties of snakes, lizards, beetles and other desert residents takes a lot of time, patience and either a fair amount of luck or a great deal of preparation. Many, especially the mammals, are nocturnal, and are asleep or resting while you hike past their nests and burrows. It helps to get up early and start looking as soon as there’s enough light to see by, or wait ’til the end of the day, cooler temperatures and low light. Some, you’ll simply never see.

Professional wildlife photographers invest enormous time and effort in identifying the likeliest seasons, places and times of day to find and photograph their subjects. Then they wait.

I enjoy taking photos, and do the best I can, although that’s not my primary purpose when I hike. I’m there for the experience, and I enjoy writing about what I’ve observed. Photos help illustrate scenes that are difficult to convey in words, like the look of the dry wash we were following in the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California recently:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6660

Landscapes are easier to photograph than animals in at least one regard: They stay in one place. You can walk around, choose your angle, get the light the way you want it and compose a nice shot — even take time to consider how it might look reduced to black-and-white.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6671 BW

I do relish the opportunity to see wildlife, and I’m always on the lookout. Our recent trip to Anza-Borrego provided a few chances. We hiked through the middle of two sunny, hot days, so we didn’t have a lot of wildlife-spotting expectations. We had some pleasant surprises.

Anza-Borrego has more than 50 species of reptiles. A relatively large lizard is the Desert Iguana:

Desert iguana Brad Nixon 7333Fortunately, I spotted that one before it moved into some shade at our approach. As you can tell, if it had been sitting still in that dappled light, we’d almost certainly have walked past without seeing it. It’s almost perfectly camouflaged, about 14-16″ long.

Later, a few miles away, we saw another slightly smaller one:

Desert iguana Brad Nixon 6748

The next day we encountered a lizard that’s common in the area, although I’d never seen one: the Western Zebra Tailed lizard

Zebra tail Brad Nixon 7520

That one is 8-10″ long. It’s impressively quick, capable of running about 18 miles per hour. If you could cover distance at the same rate relative to your body size, you’d be traveling about 150 mph. Usain Bolt, officially the fastest human, manages 28 mph over 100 meters.

I saw one jackrabbit, but it was moving away from me, quickly. The ability of animals to cover broken terrain at terrific speeds never fails to impress me.

Sometimes you simply get lucky. Anza-Borrego gets half its name from the Spanish word for the Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni): “Borrego.” They’re the classic mountain sheep, living up in the rugged, rocky terrain of the park, like this:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6799

We pulled into the trailhead parking area for the most popular trail in the park, Borrego Palms Canyon. There’s a pool of water there. Drinking from the pool was a group of 6 or 8 Borregos, including several lambs.

Borregos Marcy Vincent 7453Borrego Marcy Vincent 7454

A ranger explained that it’s common for the animals to come down to drink at the pool, although not every day. The nearest surface water is more than a mile up the canyon:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6837

I’ll write about the hike up the canyon in a later post. Simply seeing the elusive bighorns is enough for now. Hours later, returning from our hike, we encountered two rangers with a spotting scope. They were watching the same group of sheep on the mountain, and it was a treat to see the ease with which the animals moved among and over the rocks, sure-footed and serene. That’s why I hike: not for the photos — just to see.

Interestingly, that pool from which the Borregos were drinking contains an extraordinarily rare creature: the Desert Pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius). Once common, descendants of fish that inhabited inland seas thousands of years ago, they’re now endangered and survive in only a handful of locations in the Sonora Desert. They’re less than 3″ long, and although I saw them, I don’t have an acceptable photograph for you.

One point worth making: It’s a matter of respect and mutual self-interest not to crowd too close to animals. They’re wild creatures, not exhibits. All these photos were shot in telephoto mode, the Borregos from about 40 yards. Safety is a concern. That ewe will defend her lamb if she feels it’s threatened. You do not want to provoke a 100-pound animal equipped with horns, twice your foot speed and motivated by maternal rage.

I try to bear in mind that I’m invading the animals’ home. I’m only a visitor.

What’s your best-ever wildlife spotting? Where? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Borrego photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Special thanks to the rangers and volunteers of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 17, 2017

Thorn in My Side

We’ve just returned from two excellent days in the Anza-Borrego Desert of southern California. There’s a lot to tell, but I have to sort through photos and notes first. To kick things off, I’ll simply convey a lesson I learned. It’s one I already thought I knew. I even mentioned this useful bit of information recently in a blog post. I should’ve taken my own advice.

Practice, Practice Practice

Your mother taught you not to run with scissors, to look both ways before you cross the the street, put on clean underwear and so forth. Do you invariably, unfailingly practice those life lessons? I didn’t think so. This is one of those sorts of things.

The scene

We were hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, due south of Palm Springs, northeast of San Diego. It’s a big place: 600,000 acres (green areas).

Anza Borrego Mine Wash Map Google

The Pacific Ocean is about 90 miles east. The Salton Sea is in the upper right corner. The red flag marks where we were: a dirt track leading up through Mine Wash, which climbs from Route 78 into some mountains to the south. Here’s the terrain:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6630

Sere, lovely, hot: 95 degrees on that mid-April day, about 11% humidity. As you can see, the desert was still blooming from the enormous amount of rain southern California received this winter. That’s what drew us there, as if we need an excuse to indulge our love of the desert. We spent hours hiking, photographing details like this blooming mammalaria cactus …

Cactus flower Brad Nixon 6625

… this barrel cactus

Barrel cactus Brad Nixon 6656

… and this cholla cactus, already familiar to regular readers from the blog I wrote about a visit to the Cholla Garden in Joshua Tree National Park at the link above.

Cholla flower Brad Nixon 6621

It’s that attractive little Teddy Bear Cholla cactus that is the source of today’s lesson. It’s precisely what I warned about in the article I wrote. I said, “Those spines are extremely sharp and will easily pierce your clothing and then your skin with extreme prejudice.”

There I was, veteran of a hundred desert hikes. I know not to put my hand over a rock when I’m climbing a steep trail, because there might be a snake there. I know to watch where I step, and keep an eye on where I’m going, because there are all sorts of unfriendly things in wild places.

But, absorbed in getting an extremely close-up shot of a tiny desert flower blooming amidst the gravel of the wash, I folded one leg under me, turning one foot to the side to lower myself into a squat.


I rolled my shoe over a tiny cholla. Here’s the result:

Cactus spines Brad Nixon 6647

With my full weight on my foot, those spines pierced the leather of the shoe and then the foot inside the shoe. My foot.

The problem wasn’t simply pain (although I noticed pain). The challenge was finding a way to pull the darned thing out without filling my hand with cholla spines, too. There’s nothing to grasp except more spines.

Removing spines Marcy Vincent 7347

It’s embarrassing to give advice and then get injured when ignoring it. Well, at least I listened to one piece of Mom’s advice: I was wearing clean socks.

I eventually just yanked the shoe off, which removed the spines from my foot, and folded up a page from a handy little pocket notebook all writers carry (The Counselor, in this case) to use as a “glove” and extracted the spines from the leather upper, one at a time. You’d be impressed by how far they penetrated.

Lesson Learned (?)

So, hikers, take a tip from the canny ol’ veteran of desert places. Watch where the heck you’re putting your body parts out there. Things that grow in harsh lands have ingenious and effective ways of defending themselves.

Oh, the picture I was shooting? Um, not worth it. I was distracted by something.

I’ll be back with more Anza-Borrego landscapes, flora (and fauna) in less painful circumstances as the week progresses. At least I don’t have any rattlesnake bites to report.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Shot of Brad © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Map © Google.

This is the third and final entry in this year’s Under Western Skies celebration of National Library Week.

All three of the libraries I’ve featured this week are in smaller towns or cities. They’ve all been in operation for more than 100 years, and occupy buildings funded by the Carnegie Foundation early in the 20th Century.

Depending on which source you consult, there are between 40 and 50 towns and cities in the U.S. named Lebanon. I grew up in one in Ohio. There’s one next door in Indiana, northwest of Indianapolis.

Lebanon IN map Google

The county seat of Boone County, Indiana, Lebanon has about 16,000 people. Employment has been good in recent years, spurred by distribution and manufacturing operations attracted by Lebanon’s location along Interstate 65, which connects in Indianapolis with 4 other interstates radiating in all directions, evident on the map.

Royal Center, site of the first post this week, is about 60 miles due north of Lebanon.

“Let’s Build a Library”

In 1903, the town already had nearly 5,000 people. As the county seat, it would have been an important administrative, cultural and social center. A group of citizens from Lebanon secured a grant of $15,000 from the Carnegie Foundation for a library. They arranged for the land on Washington Street, and the new library, built of (what else?) Indiana limestone opened in 1904. (If you intend to build a noteworthy structure in Indiana using some other material, seek counseling.)

Lebanon IN Library 004

That $15,000 represents approximately $400,000 in today’s currency. It paid for an impressive structure, but the library provided books and furniture, as well as staff and maintenance.

Lebanon IN Library 013

This is how the children’s section looked in 1923:

Lebanon IN Library 1923 001

The hand-lettered sign indicates they’re featuring “Grades 5 6 7 8,” beside copies of Robinson Crusoe and Lorna Doone, among others. Below is a series, “The True Story of …” with books about U.S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Lafayette.

I dated the photo by the copy of “Boys’ Life” in the rack at the right. Here’s how it looked:

Boys Life 192303

Thirty years later in 1953, the children’s section looked different:

Lebanon IN Library 1053 016

The decorations on the wall suggest it’s Halloween. I like the boy seated to far left with his face pressed into a magazine. Here’s what he’s reading:

Mechanix Illustrated 195311

Cool! A “Jet-Powered Air-Sea Liner.” Beats Lorna Doone any day, as far as I’m concerned.

BUT! Look at the chairs the all-so-prim little girls are sitting in. Now look at the chair in the 1923 photo above. Same chairs in 1953, still in use.

The Library Today

When you visit the Lebanon Public Library today, things inside will look different. Outside, a portion of the library is much the same.

Lebanon IN John Nixon 3

I say a portion, because the people of Lebanon and its surrounding area obviously still value libraries. Beginning in 1991, they expanded the library by nearly 400%, and it looks like this today, incorporating the original building.

Lebanon IN John Nixon 2

I spoke with the library’s director, Beau Cunnyngham, about how people in a small Indiana city use their library. He listed four primary needs it meets: books; children’s reading, activities and services; DVD rentals; and, interestingly, local history research in the Heritage Center, which occupies the original Carnegie building:

Lebanon Library Heritage Ctr


Many libraries have a local history section with maps, genealogies, newspaper archives and so on. Lebanon’s holds genealogical and historical resources related to Boone County and Indiana, and it’s an excellent application for a historic building. Mr. Cunnyngham says it receives a lot of traffic from researchers near and far. He says some of the details were changed as part of the library’s renovation, but it retains its original floor and other aspects. I see at least the mantel over a fireplace and an old glass transom above the doorway in the center.

The Future Library

Like librarians everywhere, Mr. Cunnyngham and his staff are focused not on the past, but the future. His approach is one that I’m certain will resonate with librarians and lovers of libraries everywhere. The task is not to house books, DVDs or whatever new technologies for data storage evolve. Instead, he said, the library’s goal is to be a center for exchange, learning, and a place where expert staff are available to assist library users, whether they’re beginning readers, researchers delving into history or those who need access to a resource they’d never find on their own.

As the Pacific Paratrooper commented on the previous post, “Libraries are so much more to a community than just books. Too bad more don’t realize that.”

I know my readers are aware of that. Clearly, the people of Lebanon, Indiana know it, too. Look at the library they’ve built and support. The same is true of the other libraries I’ve covered this week in Beaumont, California, Royal Center, Indiana, and libraries everywhere.

One Last Look Back

I can’t resist posting one more photo the Lebanon Library staff sent. Here’s what’s keeping the kids away from the Malt Shoppe on Friday nights …

Lebanon IN Library 017

They’re at the library. Oh, man. Those SHOES.

I see a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky just to the left of the standing young woman. It’s the original Winston edition with cover art by Alex Schomburg, 1952. It’s possible that photo was shot at the same time as the scene in the children’s section, above: late 1953.

The Lebanon Public Library website is My appreciation to Beau Cunnyngham, Director, for speaking with me and to his staff for providing the photos. The library is located at 104 East Washington, Lebanon, Indiana 46052.

National Library Week is nearing its end. Will your library be around in a year to observe the next one? Not without some support. Happy reading!

© Brad Nixon 2017. Contemporary exterior photos © John Nixon 2017. Archival photos courtesy of Lebanon Public Library, Lebanon, Indiana, used with generous permission, all rights reserved. Map © Google.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 12, 2017

National Library Week, Beaumont, California

This is the second article in the annual Under Western Skies observance of National Library Week.

In the 1850s, surveying parties were scouring the mountain ranges of southern California for the best route for rail lines to connect to the Pacific Ocean from the eastern part of the country.

The discovery of the San Gorgonio Pass in 1853 proved to be the key. The pass has an elevation of less than half a mile, passing between 10,834 foot San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain, 11,503 feet. Here’s the pass viewed from Joshua Tree National Park to the east.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6339

You can plainly see the low-lying pass between San Jacinto on the left and San Gorgonio on the right.

By the early 1860s, the Southern Pacific Railroad had run tracks through the pass into the Los Angeles area, 80 miles to the west. The area was sparsely settled at first, but proved to be well-suited for agriculture, especially apple orchards, which thrived on the lower slopes of San Gorgonio. A small station in the area attracted more settlers to the area and a town, called Beaumont, began to develop. In 1912, Beaumont, California incorporated with about 800 residents.

Here comes the good part.

What do you do to improve life in a tiny speck of a place in near-wilderness on the edge of the Mojave Desert? In 1909, the Beaumont Women’s Club held an event with attendees dressed as characters from books, collected 81 books and raised $71.00. They started a library.

By 1911, the yet-to-be-incorporated town established a library district, leading to the opening of the town library in two rooms of a bank building. They didn’t stop there.

In 1913, the library’s board secured a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation to build a library at the corner of 8th and California. It opened in June of 1914.


The library, expanded by additions in 1966 and 1981, is still there, still in operation, looking very much the same.

Beaumont CA Carnegie Brad Nixon 6356

The upper part of the original structure, now no longer able to bear the weight of bookshelves and used as instructional and meeting space, retains some of its decorative detail (click on images for full view).

The bulk of the active collection is now housed in the large 1966 addition behind the 1914 structure.

Beaumont Carnegie Brad Nixon 6027

It looks a bit crowded, doesn’t it? Now serving approximately 70,000 people in Beaumont and the surrounding area, and with rapid growth estimated to swell the population to 120,000, they need even more books, services, space and staff.

Continuing a Legacy

The Beaumont Women’s Club of 1909 would’ve done something about that situation. The original library board took action and built the library. Today’s Beaumont Library District is responding, too. When we visited the library, the director, Clara DiFelice, enthusiastically showed us site plans, a scale model and renderings for an ambitious addition and renovation to the complex.


Libraries are changing in response to new technology, lifestyles and needs, and Beaumont’s is no exception. There are computers, online research services, a mobile library van and even more ambitious plans for further outreach across the district.

Andrew Carnegie knew that a library isn’t just a building. He left it to the communities to decide what went in the buildings and how they were staffed and maintained (and he required that they have a plan to accomplish those things before they got money for a building).

The Vision Thing

As I wrote in the first article from this year’s observance of National Library Week, the reason that a library like Beaumont’s is still operating after nearly 110 years is a tribute to the vision of its founders and the will of their successors to continue realizing that vision. The need for vision continues, too. Rather than wait for technology or society to roll past them and leave an underused building behind, they — and thousands of other libraries — are adapting, growing.

A Word About Library Districts

As Ms. DiFelice explained to The Counselor and me when we dropped in unannounced to see the library, Beaumont is a “special library district.” The library district is a separate financial entity from the city or county (although there are some overlaps), and goes to voters to secure its operating funds or, in the present case, the means to expand. What that says to me is that the people of the Beaumont area are to be congratulated for understanding the value of a library. In turn, the staff of the library are to be commended for making it so.

Sam and Ray Go to the Library

This article isn’t just about Beaumont Library. It’s about libraries everywhere and their importance. Take two young men, Sam and Ray. In the 1840s, Sam left school in the 5th grade, but continued his education in public libraries. Another young man, Ray, born 10 years after Sam died, stayed in school, but credits public libraries in Tucson, Arizona; Waukegan, Illinois and Los Angeles as the places where he truly learned things that fired his fertile imagination. You know Sam Clemens better as Mark Twain and Ray as Ray Bradbury.

You never know who might need the library next, or what they’ll do with what they find there.

Visiting Beaumont

Beaumont (red circle)  is on Interstate 10, 80 miles east of Los Angeles and 30 miles west of Palm Springs (black circle).

Beaumont CA map Google

It’s still famous for its apple orchards and other produce. The downtown has a small-town vibe, and the library is located along shady, residential 8th Street. It’s a good place to stop before you hit the freeways of L.A. heading west, or to refuel before you dive into Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park, about an hour east and north. If you like antique shops, plan on spending a couple of hours. You’ll enjoy the sight of San Jacinto looming to the southeast.

San Jacinto Brad Nixon 6001

More information is available at the Beaumont Library website:

Special thanks to Ms. DiFelice and the library staff for their time, and for telling us far more than I can relate here about the library’s 110-year history and plans for the future.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google. Historic photo and architectural rendering courtesy Beaumont Library District.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 10, 2017

National Library Week in a Small Indiana Town

Is there a human institution any more important than libraries? Perhaps. But some essence of civilization involves collecting knowledge in an organized fashion and making it available. Archives of some kind have been important since we first learned how to record things.

In this year’s observance of National Library Week, I’ll look at three libraries in the United States. They all serve relatively small communities. I think the role they play in those towns highlights the critical mission of libraries.

There’s a point to be made about the vision and foresight communities have demonstrated in establishing and maintaining them. In all three cases, they’re more than 100 years old, still providing important services to the people in those towns. Not many companies are 100 years old; the mission of companies plays out, their products become obsolete, things change. These libraries’ continued existence says something significant about what matters — what we value.

Near the Banks of the Wabash

Royal Center, Indiana is a town of 861 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census (a 2016 figure places the number at just over 900).

In the map below, the red flag marks Royal Center in north central Indiana.

Royal Center IN map Google

The land there is flat glacial plain of the sort that covers northern Ohio, Indiana and much of Illinois. It’s farm country, and if you drive Interstate 70 the entire 500 miles from eastern Ohio to St. Louis, you’ll encounter few hills, passing fields of corn, wheat and soybeans.

In 1846, as rail lines were reshaping the American landscape, the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (later the Pennsylvania RR) crossed northern Indiana and Royal Center came into existence, probably as a stop for loading corn and grain: There are still grain elevators standing near the now-abandoned line in Royal Center.

Building a Library

Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, the town was growing, home to 900 people (with more in outlying areas). Some group of citizens — I regret that I don’t have the details — determined to build a library. Like more than 2,000 other towns and cities worldwide, they applied to the Carnegie Foundation for the money to build one. The grant would be contingent on their finding the land, stocking it with books and paying for its operation. They did it. In 1914, they received $10,000 to build a library. The value in 2017 dollars is approximately $240,000.

Here’s the thing. Not only did those people early in the last century have a vision, their library still stands.

Royal Center IN John Nixon 0521

It’s now the Royal Center – Boone Township Library. The collection includes 24,057 items, serving a population of 1,484 residents in the area. The library offers free wi-fi, a scanner and — I like this — a home delivery service. It provides access to ebooks, other digital resources and online research.

Enlighten, Enable, Contribute

A library is more than a building full of books, and the Royal Center Library is no exception. It’s the meeting place for a number of community programs and clubs, it hosts informative and educational presentations and gatherings.

The library’s motto is “Enlighten, Enable, Contribute.” I think that’s an excellent summary of a library’s place in a community.

For more than 100 years, a small town on the plains of Indiana has seen fit to keep a library as a core part of its daily life. Andrew Carnegie had lots of money, and he did a fair bit of good with it. But some people in Royal Center had something better: a vision and the energy and zeal to realize it. For all the years since, the citizens have provided for its continuation. Yes, they have families, schools, churches, civic organizations and clubs. They have television and access to the World Wide Web. But, few as they are, they also keep a library going. That’s how they do things in Royal Center, and in places like it around the world. They know when a legacy is worth preserving.

Royal Center Library’s website is Click over to see a couple of photos of the interior of the 1914 building. Give ’em a like while you’re there.

Getting There

Drive U.S. Route 35 north from Indianapolis through Kokomo, across the Wabash at Logansport and drive into Royal Center. The library’s on the right. If you’re continuing on to Michigan City on the shore of Lake Michigan, you can visit the Indiana Dunes. Walkers and bicyclists, though, might want to take advantage of the 21-mile Panhandle Pathway that follows the former line of the Pennsylvania RR from the Wabash, through Royal Center to Winamac. That’s a use for abandoned rights-of-way across the U.S. that’s growing in popularity.

Alert: Note that some online maps may not show the accurate location of the library. Some copies of Google Maps show 203 North Chicago Street, Royal Center, IN 46978 a couple of blocks to the southeast of the library’s actual location along Chicago St. 

Do you know a small community being ably served by its library? This is the week to recognize them. Please leave a comment.

A Followup to a Recent Call to Action

In my introduction to Library Week 2017, I included a call for U.S. citizens to contact their Congresspeople to encourage them to sign letters in support of federal support to libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) reports that citizen efforts resulted in 1/3 of all members of Congress — of both parties — signing the letters, a large increase over previous support. The next step will be in the Senate. Click here to follow the actions suggested by the ALA. I’ll provide further details at the end of Library Week. Well done!

You can find more of my library articles under Architecture, Libraries in Categories in the right-hand column.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Library photo © John Nixon 2017, used by kind permission. Map © Google.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 7, 2017

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

If you’re going to name a place, “Garden of the Gods,” it had better be good. The one in Colorado Springs, Colorado delivers.

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 121

Colorado Springs sits at the very eastern base of the Rocky Mountains. To the east, plains and prairie stretch almost continuously more than 800 miles to the Mississippi River. At Colorado Springs, the Rockies spring straight up, capped by 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, directly above Colorado Springs.

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 1470

The mountains adjacent to Colorado Springs are replete with a wealth of spectacular scenery, but the 1,367-acre Garden of the Gods is a city park right within the municipal boundaries.

Garden of the Gods Willard Nixon 3991

The formations are sedimentary rocks uplifted and tilted by the forces that formed the Rockies, and further shaped by erosion.

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 130

I’ve spent a lot of time in Colorado Springs on business trips. I’ve hiked in the mountains, explored Colorado Springs and the surrounding towns and even gone fly fishing far up in the Rockies. I’ve rarely passed up an opportunity to revisit the Garden, introducing coworkers and family to the site when I could.

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 0065

The Garden of the Gods is easy to visit by car or on foot. A loop drive with numerous parking areas extends through a large part of the park, and 15 miles of trails provide access to most of it.

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 1478

The trail in the photo above is a portion of more than a mile of pathway paved and accessible for visitors of all abilities.

That trail leads to one of the park’s landmark formations: the Three Graces:

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 120

Another popular spot, right by the park road, is Balanced Rock.

Garden of the Gods Marcy Vincent 001

Yes, climbers, you’re welcome there, too (look closely for the blue shirt).

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Climbers need a permit, available at this link on the city’s website. If you visit the park on any day it’s not raining or icy, you’ll probably see climbers.

Garden of the Gods Brad Nixon 1473

As with most geological wonders, the site is best photographed in early morning or late afternoon light, when shadows highlight the relief. Those are also better opportunities to spot deer, rabbits and other wildlife on the trails away from the road.

Colorado Springs is about 2 hours due south of Denver on Interstate 25. It’s also about 2 hours from Denver International Airport, and has an airport of its own.

“The Springs” has a lot to see: the U.S. Olympic Training Center, the nearby, picturesque towns of of Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City and a historic downtown of its own. The mountains beckon with hiking, fishing, Pikes Peak, Native American ruins, and nearby is the Air Force Academy and its iconic Cadet Chapel, which I wrote about here.

But while you’re there, don’t fail to visit the Garden of the Gods, if only for a couple of hours. There’s much more to see than I’ve shown you. Here is the website with more information. Note: It can get crowded on weekends in pleasant weather (which The Springs has a lot of).

© Brad Nixon 2017. Additional photos © Willard Nixon 2017 and © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.


It’s incumbent on the impressively wealthy to build big. Even the summer place, to be occupied only a few weeks a year during “the season,” should have an unmistakable presence. In the U.S., one thinks of Newport, Rhode Island, onetime summer resort of Vanderbilts and Astors; The Hamptons on Long Island, still the weekend and summer getaway for the monied (and would-be) of New York; and other venues ranging from the Biltmore Estate* in North Carolina to the mountains of Colorado and the California coast.

One can travel the length of Florida’s Atlantic coast and scarcely cover a mile without encountering some enclave of the well-to-do. The ur-palace of Floridian wealth may be this place in Palm Beach:

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 067

That’s “Whitehall,” built by the co-founder of Standard Oil, Henry Morrison Flagler, also known as “The Father of Miami” and “The Father of Palm Beach,” towns he respectively founded and brought to prominence in the 1880s and 1890s.

Flagler made one immense fortune building Standard Oil into an oil refining monopoly with his partner, John D. Rockefeller, then set out building railroads to Florida and promoting the area as a destination for both development and recreation. He succeeded on a grand scale.

His name may not be as familiar to you as other successful tycoons of his era — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Astor — but the south and east of Florida today owes much of its popularity to tracks he — literally — laid to pave the way for the state’s rampant growth and prosperity as the 20th Century began. Streets, bridges and colleges all bear the name “Flagler.”

Whitehall, which Flagler built in 1902, was, by design, a showplace of the Gilded Age.

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 114 Grand Hall

He intended Whitehall not only to tout his wealth and prominence, but to demonstrate that the barely-developed, backward swampland on which it sat was a city of the future. It boasted electric lighting, telephones and central heating in 75 rooms, including 22 bathrooms in 60,000 square feet of interior space.

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 068 Grand Hall

Today, it’s open to the public as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum after having been saved from demolition in the 1960s. 55 of the rooms are restored, furnished and on display. It is clearly not a place in which many of us could imagine living in any particular comfort. It’s meant for show. For example, few of our dwellings possess a Grand Ballroom:

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 078 Grand Ballroom

Flagler was no stranger to construction on a grand scale; he was an ambitious builder of spectacular structures. As he extended his railroad and his development activities south from where he began in St. Augustine, he threw up some of the country’s most iconic hotels: Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach (demolished in 1901) and the Royal Palm in Miami. As his vision for Palm Beach as the focus for his efforts grew, he constructed The Breakers (originally the Palm Beach Inn, 1896, which burned) on the Atlantic coast.

The Breakers Brad Nixon 126

I’ve stayed at The Breakers. It’s worth a look inside when you’re in Palm Beach, to get a glimpse of travel from another era, still extant.

The Breakers Brad Nixon Lobby

On the “sound” side of the barrier island, just over half a mile to the west of The Breakers (black circle), Flagler built Whitehall (red rectangle).

Palm Beach Flagler Museum map Google

When one owns the railroad, one travels by private railroad car. Flagler’s personal car, #91, is on display in a pavilion on the grounds. It’s open to tour, pending any special events in the pavilion.

Flagler Museum Brad Nixon 091 Railcar exterior

Here is a rapid-fire tour from a series of photographs I shot during an abbreviated inspection of the museum in 2010. Click on the images for full view and captions. Don’t miss the bodacious custom-cased Steinway Model B in the music room:

The Flagler Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays and 3 major holidays. Check the website here for exact times, admission prices and full details. The museum is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, as is The Breakers.

In the interest of local context, it bears stating that 20 years after Flagler built Whitehall, the wealthiest woman in the U.S., Marjorie Merriweather Post (General Foods), built a 126-room, 110,000 square foot mansion, Mar-a-Lago, about 2-1/2 miles south of The Breakers. At her death, it was bequeathed to the United States for use by presidents. Expensive and unwanted, it was returned to the Post estate. It was subsequently sold to another wealthy American, who operates it as a combination hotel and private golf club, as well as a personal residence when he’s not at the White House.

Have a favorite grand residence: Versailles, Beijing’s Summer Palace, Schönbrunn Palace? Leave a comment.

*Biltmore House remains the largest privately-owned residence in the U.S., still held by George Vanderbilt’s descendants: 135,280 square feet of living space, 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms. Open for visits.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google

Years ago, I wrote descriptions of 2 famous Florida hotels from the 1950s located about an hour south in Miami Beach. Respectively, they are the 2nd and 6th most-viewed posts in the history of Under Western Skies:

Hotel Eden Roc

Hotel Fontainebleau


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