Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 10, 2017

Welcome. Xie Xie!

I value all my readers. You come from innumerable countries around the world. You represent a rich array of cultures, points of view and expertise in a vast range of subjects. I’ll never see all the places you live, and certainly not the endless variety of interesting locations you write about. Thank you for visiting.

It’s interesting to see visitors from a previously unrepresented country appear in my blog statistics. While the largest percentages of visitors come from countries with large populations of native English speakers — the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India — you’re from everywhere around the globe. The counter looked like this on a recent day:

UWS blog stats page

One of the pleasures of writing this blog is to have visitors from countries with which the United States has not always had open communications. I also note that many of you are citizens of nations that didn’t exist until quite recently, and I have a lot to learn about your countries.

This has been a particularly gratifying week for me on the blog.

It’s due to a small matter: one single hit to a blog post. It’s from a country I visited on a video assignment some years ago. While I spent the bulk of my time in offices and conference rooms, or in transit between shoots, I had a small amount of free time, and tried to make the most of it. (To see the photos below full size and read captions, click on them.)

There were everyday street scenes that resembled nowhere I’d ever been:

There were some memorable meals with my crew, eating food I’m not accustomed to …

… and familiar fast food outlets with a distinctively local character.

KFC Beijing Brad Nixon 0691 (640x480)

No, I did not eat there.

I toured a vast, ancient palace in the midst of one of the world’s largest cities.

Summer Palace Brad Nixon 71 (640x471)

In the world’s largest city (24 million people), I watched practitioners of an ancient art as the sun rose.

And I had a brief visit to the most recognizable monument of that country, and perhaps in all the world:

Until last week, not one of the 60,000 visits to Under Western Skies had come from the People’s Republic of China, despite the fact that nearly 1.4 billion people live there.

There are some obstacles. Language is one. I write only in English, and not everyone in China reads it. Culture may be another hindering factor; my subjects may not interest the citizens of an astoundingly rich and varied country with thousands of years of history and vast regions of endlessly interesting places of their own to explore.

There are some infrastructure limitations, too, instituted by governments that limit access to the world wide web. I’ll let that issue go without commenting other than to say that I had concluded it was simply impossible to access Under Western Skies from China.

Then, last week: one click. An icon of a red flag, a large gold star and an arc of 4 smaller stars appeared in the list indicating the origin of visits for that day. A visitor from China.

UWS blog stats with China 2

It won’t alter the course of history or make life on our planet significantly different, but it does matter that people connect with one another.

Just as I’m pleased to have visitors from Albania, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Libya, Russia, Slovenia, and dozens of other nations with which it hasn’t always been easy to correspond, or which are relatively new, I welcome the China contingent.

The best moment of that trip I made to China — one of the greatest travel experiences of my life — was one of making connections. On the day off that had started with the trip to the Great Wall, my producer and I were at the Summer Palace in Beijing, which was thronged with visitors enjoying one of the Golden Holidays. It’s a remarkable place, and has a building with what remains my favorite name of all the world’s structures. The Hall of Listening to Orioles’ Song, below:

Hall of Listening to Orioles Song Brad Nixon 77 (640x583)

At the time, China — especially Beijing — was preparing to host the Summer Olympics. Everyone was eager to practice their English, and innumerable people would walk up to me and say something like, “Hello. Are you an American?” and happily extend the conversation as long as vocabulary and time permitted. Smiles all around.

A crowd of schoolchildren were entering the Summer Palace at the same time I was.

Nix and kids Shannon Wickliffe 48 (640x473)

Somehow, they identified me as an American (!) One after another, they tried out their English:

“Hello!” “How are you? “Where are you from? “Are you American?”

I got into a rhythm of answering and asking them questions in return: “How are YOU?” “Yes, I’m from America.” “Where are you from?”

Each time one would answer, “I am from China,” I’d slap my head in amazement, “You’re from CHINA! Wow!”

That got a good laugh. Wonderful laughter from children as we shared a moment of pure, human communication — and a silly joke.

I can read only a limited amount of a few of the languages you readers speak. I regret I don’t know more. I know only one phrase in Mandarin, so let it stand for all:

Xie xie. Thank you.

Many things divide us. Talking to one another can bridge some of the distance.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Photos of me in China by Shannon Wickliffe, used by kind permission.


This weekend I saw an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

I enjoy art museums, but they’re difficult to report here for a number of reasons, one of them being the inadequacy of words to represent primarily visual experiences, combined with the fact that one is often prohibited from photographing the works of art. I’ve shot plenty of pictures in museums where photos are permitted, but you don’t need to see my rendition of any great work of art. You can find professional photos in books and online. Besides, I’d rather spend my time in the gallery looking, not thinking about working the camera.

When I left the exhibit, I finally took the opportunity to investigate an outdoor installation that’s been at LACMA since 2012, but I’d never seen. Not only can one photograph it, the installation is on a monumental scale and practically cries out to be photographed.

What is it?

It’s a rock.

A big rock.

IMG_7026 (640x460)

If it were simply a rock — even one 21-1/2 feet tall — it almost certainly wouldn’t be “art.”

One factor that puts it in the realm of art is that there are — intentionally — a number of ways to look at it. I’m afraid I have to use the well-worn phrase, “experience it.”

“Experiencing it” includes walking around it.

Or, in this case, under it.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7010 (480x640)

The name of the installation is Levitated Mass.

The artist, Michael Heizer, had been working on the idea for a number of years until he found the right rock, and got LACMA and lot of contributors to come up with the significant funds to build the installation and move the rock from about 60 miles inland to the museum on Wilshire Boulevard, west of downtown Los Angeles.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7011 (640x468)

The boulder weighs 340 tons. The concrete trench is 456 feet long and reaches a depth of 15 feet beneath the rock.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7013 (480x640)

There is certainly something thought-provoking about looking up at an object that weighs more than 2 houses … especially in a place prone to earthquakes.

Getting There: Half the Fun

In a city obsessed with “getting there,” traffic-challenged Los Angeles was the perfect venue for the spectacle of transporting the boulder to the site.

A specially-designed articulated transporter 296 feet long with 196 wheels carried the boulder, traveling only at night to minimize traffic snarls. LACMA reaped enormous publicity as the trip — requiring 106 circuitous miles around obstacles — needed 11 nights and attracted throngs of people along the route while television news stations deployed reporters and helicopters to cover each night’s progress.

The video below provides a look at the rock on its transporter:

Here is the Levitated Mass entry on LACMA’s website.

There’s not a rush to see it. Heizer said he designed the work to last 3,500 years.

Art That Challenges?

For well over a century — since at least Manet — a common question has been, “Is it art?”

One of the important museums of the world says Levitated Mass is art, because LACMA has dedicated 2-1/2 acres of prime civic space to an installation that’s going to be there for a long time: not insignificant. Perhaps asking the question is, itself, the very essence of art, at least in the 21st Century.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7009 (640x474)

I can think of a lot of ways to try to get at what Levitated Mass signifies (if it signifies anything). One angle is to consider the builders of Stonehenge, Carnac, the Pyramids, the Aztec Temple of the Moon or Borobudur in Indonesia. What were those monumental builders up to, and what were they saying? Levitated Mass certainly challenges us to consider the notion of putting an object in a specific spot with the intention that it remain there for — essentially — all time, not to mention what it means to strive for such permanence in a city famed for its penchant for remaking itself every decade or so.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7014 (480x640)

I’m interested in your reaction. Please leave a comment.

Visiting LACMA

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90036. You can visit and walk all around and under Levitated Mass without paying museum admission. The installation is on the north side of the museum complex along 6th Street, which parallels Wilshire Blvd. Museum parking is not free, and parking in the area is at a bit of a premium. This LACMA link provides more information about access, public transportation, parking, etc. LACMA is an exceptionally large museum complex, the La Brea Tar Pits are literally next door, and the Petersen Automotive Museum is a block away.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Levitated Mass is the work of Michael Heizer and is the property of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.



Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 3, 2017

Leave It to Beavers

For all the time I’ve spent hiking in the countryside, I don’t have many sightings — not to mention photographs — of wild animals. I wrote recently about a few beasts I spotted in the Anza-Borrego Desert, but two of the three species were lizards, not that unusual to see.

I’m not complaining. I’ve been fortunate, overall, especially on a memorable day in Denali National Park when I saw — and photographed —grizzlies, moose, bighorn sheep and a pack of wolves(!).

Denali NP Wolf Pack Brad Nixon 021_1A (640x463)

I may have seen a caribou, too, but it was so distant that I had to take the guide’s word for it.

I have photos of golden eagles, orcas, puffins, cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits and once, in North Cascades National Park, the rabbits’ partner in the order lagomorpha, the elusive pika. I have a number of less-than-satisfactory photos of the backs of gray whales spotted here in southern California, too. They don’t stop swimming just to have their photo taken. Bison, elk, black bears and a few other animals and birds, but not exactly an overwhelming portfolio of wildlife sightings. Here’s a grizzly feasting on berries.

Denali NP grizzly Brad Nixon 018_7

A mammal that’s eluded me once ranged across much of North America in numbers estimated to be 60 million. It’s the planet’s second-largest rodent, Castor canadensis, the North American Beaver. Reduced by intensive hunting and trapping to their current population of 6-12 million, they’re no longer common, especially in the U.S. There are more in Canada, where it’s designated as the national animal.

Not only scarce, beavers are primarily nocturnal, putting them out of my normal hiking window.

On a trip through Colorado, Dad and I were making our way southwesterly from Rocky Mountain National Park toward the Colorado River valley. There, I had my one and only brush with beaverdom: a beaver dam and lodge. Here’s the dam from the upstream side:

beaver dam Brad Nixon 9505 (640x475)

Long a symbol for industriousness, if beavers need a body of water in which to situate their distinctive lodges with underwater entrances, they build dams by inserting vertical wooden poles in a line across the stream, lay horizontal branches between them and daub mud and weeds into that framework so that it impounds water.

beaver dam Brad Nixon 9503 (640x480)

Voila! The lodge occupies its custom-made enclosing moat.

beaver lodge Brad Nixon 9511 (640x480)

The labor required, not to mention the instinctual engineering acumen, is impressive. I didn’t have to look far from the edge of the beaver pond to find evidence of the work of the beavers’ powerful front teeth on surrounding saplings and brush.

beaver cuttings Brad Nixon 9508 (640x448)

It’s always interesting to find traces of a wild animal’s presence — tracks, nests, scat or even fur, feathers or snakeskin — but the beavers may be nature’s most ostentatious builders. I hope they manage it without looking enviously over at the neighbors’ lodge, thinking it’s time to put on an addition.

I’ll keep looking. How’s your luck with beaver spotting? Tips? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 1, 2017

The California Super-Bloom in My Neighborhood

I’ve traveled several hundred miles this Spring to see my previously drought-stricken state draped in green, full of colorful blooms, courtesy of a record-setting rainy season.

Santiago Oaks Brad Nixon 6571 (640x480)

I saw spectacular scenery in recent weeks in Santiago Oaks Canyon, above, as well as Joshua Tree National Park and, below, the normally arid and harsh Anza-Borrego Desert:

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6610 (640x478)

One of the central tenets of Under Western Skies is that one needn’t travel far or confine the search for interest and adventure to exotic locales. Over the years, I’ve written more than a few blog posts about “travel” to places a few blocks or no more than a few miles from home.

I’m fortunate to have some eye-catching scenery just a few miles from my front door:

Point Vicente Brad Nixon 2179 20100102 (640x472)

That’s the Point Vicente lighthouse on the Palos Verdes bluffs, about 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, photographed in January 2010. Palos Verdes boasts large tracts of nature preserves along the coast, not exactly wild land, but some of the most extensive open areas in greater Los Angeles outside the national forests in the nearby mountains.

The Counselor and I hike the bluffs often, and headed there this weekend to see what effect California’s “Super-Bloom” had on the local landscape. While the coast gets its share of fog and moisture from the Pacific, for the past few years the area has mostly been covered by dry, brown, brushy chaparral, as in this November 2011 photo of The Counselor on a favorite trail.

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 8026 201111 (640x475)

It’s a lovely scene, but you can see the dry state of the vegetation. That’s been a normal condition for a number of years.

Here’s a shot of the same trail taken 7 months ago, in September 2016 before the rains came, looking the way we’ve been accustomed to seeing it during the long drought:

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 5055 201609 (640x480)

Now, 7 months and many inches of rain later, here is what we encountered this weekend:

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 6961 (480x640)

And this …

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 6955 (480x640)

And this shot, in which The Counselor’s hat (circled) barely shows above the astounding profusion of green that reached more than 8 feet high in many places.

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 6959 (640x480)

For direct comparison with the 2011 shot of the bluffs above, here is the same cliff face now, photographed from a lower point on the trail:

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 6966 (640x445)

A super bloom, indeed, as seen in this scene of the ravine that ends at those cliffs:

Palos Verdes Trail Brad Nixon 6960 (640x480)

That pale yellow-green bloom is primarily wild mustard, which has exploded into life across southern California hillsides and valleys. Nearly everything, though, is either in bloom or some shade of green.

Palos Verdes bloom Brad Nixon 7592 (640x480)

It won’t last. The rain has almost certainly ended for some months, which is our normal weather pattern. The hillsides will get drier and browner as the heat and sun of a California summer prevail. When October or November come, cold, damp air may move down from the northern Pacific, bringing more rain. If not, the drought will resume.

We certainly enjoy the spectacle now, as do the insects, birds and animals that eat them and live among them.

They say it never rains in California. For once, they’re wrong. Lucky us.

© Brad Nixon 2017


Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 29, 2017

Stinking Badges!

Do you wear a badge? I do when I attend meetings of some groups I belong to:

badges Brad Nixon 6939 (640x480)

At one group, we got new badges last week (superior badge fastening technology with a magnet on the back instead of pins or clips).

Naturally, one of the members said it: “We don’t need no stinking badges.”

I have something to say about that classic movie line a little later.

I’ve worn a lot of badges over the years, probably starting with Cub Scouts, then in various clubs, not to mention scores (or hundreds) of stick-on “Hello, My Name Is” things at meetings and conferences.

name badge Brad Nixon 6942 (640x440)

Once I joined the corporate world, put on a suit and reported for work in an office building, the badge thing got more serious, with multiple employee and contractor badges at the companies and agencies I’ve worked for.

In 16 years at my last employer of record (prior to my current employer, me) I had not only several successive company badges, but an untold number of temporary badges issued to me at facilities around the world where I worked on assignment.

The badge technology ranged from write-on paper badges, engraved metal ones to plastic with electronic tracking technology embedded in them. For one day, I wore a NASA badge when I was shooting a video about one of my company’s teams supporting the Hubble Space Telescope. Cool! I had to give it back, though.

Top Secret

Perhaps my most memorable badge-related experience occurred at one of the offices where my company supported another U.S. federal government agency, one dealing with extremely proprietary, sensitive information. I was there to conduct some video interviews and was given a badge printed on some heavy paper. The paper and ink were sensitive to body heat, and after a few hours the ink would fade out, rendering the badge useless, even if one absconded with it!

Waiting for the crew to finish setting up, I’d taken off the suit jacket to which my badge was clipped. I blithely stepped into the hall to get a drink of water or something, sans badge. Here’s some advice: Do not wander around a highly secure government office without your badge. Immediately, the first person I encountered — not a security guard, simply one of the staff — asked me who in the heck I was and where was my badge. I retreated to my assigned room. It was serious business. I needed a stinking badge, or there would, indeed, be security personnel on hand in a flash.

Stinking Badges Onscreen

In all probability, you know that line, “We don’t need no stinking badges” from Mel Brooks’ 1974 movie, “Blazing Saddles.” You may be aware, though, that Brooks was parodying a line from the 1948 John Huston film, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Confronted by bandits who identify themselves as the police, Humphrey Bogart asks, “If you are the police, where are your badges?”

The bandit replies, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

It never occurred to me to reply that way to the gentleman who challenged me in that hallway some ten years ago. If I had, I might be getting out of federal prison just about now.

But Wait, There’s More

In the process of fact-checking this post, I found two things I didn’t know about that line, courtesy of the website This Day in Quotes.

The lines originated not in Huston’s film but in the 1927 novel on which it was based, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by a fascinating, elusive writer known as B. Traven. The Day in Quotes website link above provides the book’s original lines, which are similar to the film version, but with language I avoid using in Under Western Skies blog posts.

Even more interesting, though, is the fact that another bit of filmed entertainment mimicked the lines, seven years before Mel Brooks did. It was a television show, not a film: none other than the rollicking, madcap adventures of The Monkees. Thanks to This Day in Quotes, I now know something else I missed in not watching every episode of that timeless series.

Now you have a choice. The next time you invoke some version of that “We don’t need no stinking ______,” you might be imitating a novel, a dramatic film classic, taking off on the humor of Mel Brooks, or channeling your inner Mickey Dolenz.

I leave it up to you. Do you wear a badge? High tech or low tech? Leave a comment.

Please refer to This Day in Quotes for links to the films and more details.

© Brad Nixon 2017. I gratefully acknowledge the information provided by “This Day in Quotes” cited above.

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.

Slot Canyon road Brad Nixon 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.

Some images available on CLICK HERE to view Brad’s image portfolio.

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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 (480x640)

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.

Some of Brad’s photographs are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

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.

Mariposa lilies Brad Nixon 6559 (640x480)

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 (640x470)

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 (640x480)

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 (640x461)

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.

Bristlecone pines Willard Nixon 0322 (640x480)

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.

Bristlecone pines Willard Nixon 0319 (640x480)

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 (480x640)

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. Click here for Ocotillo bloom photo on Click here for the image on

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 (640x480)

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.

DeNaZin Brad Nixon 4356 (640x494)

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 (640x480)

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 (480x640)

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 7333 (640x480)Fortunately, 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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 (640x480)

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 7453 (640x480)

Borrego Marcy Vincent 7454 (640x480)

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 (480x640)

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. Click here to access Marcy’s photo of the Borrego lamb on Click here to access it on

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 (640x473)

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 (640x480)

… this barrel cactus

Barrel cactus Brad Nixon 6656 (589x640)

… 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 (640x480)

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 (640x572)

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 (640x532)

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.

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