By Marissa Willman
Quick, pop quiz! Which desert do we live in?
If your answer was “the 760” or “the hot one,” it’s probably time to book a Desert Adventures tour and learn a little about the history and ecology of the Arizona-Sonoran desert (there’s your pop quiz answer).
If you’ve lived in the desert for more than a few months, there’s little doubt that you’ve spotted the iconic red jeeps that have become a staple of the Coachella Valley. Those red jeeps are the vehicle of choice for Desert Adventures, a local eco-tour company that provides tours of the desert’s natural landmarks.
I was recently invited to join Desert Adventure’s Night Watch Jeep Tour, a three-hour adventure into the San Andreas Fault followed by stargazing from the depths of the fault line. My guide, Teri, was an absolute wealth of factoids on the Coachella Valley. From the moment I climbed aboard the jeep, I was being treated to a swift education in everything from the names of our mountain ranges and where our water comes from to the names of plants and their traditional uses.
As we drove into Metate Ranch, an 840-acre property on the fault line that grants Desert Adventures exclusive access, we were greeted by jack rabbits, cotton tails and an unobstructed view of the Coachella Valley. Teri guided us into a palm oasis where our tour group snacked on a plant dubbed the desert’s potato chip and found cool running water in the heart of the desert. We weren’t lucky enough to spot Andreas, the tour’s resident snake, or the great-horned owl who lives in the tops of the palm trees. We did, however, spot a much safer sight: a flock of quail running through a wash.
Wildlife sightings aside, the Desert Adventures tour also focuses on educating sightseers on desert ecology and how the native people used different plants.
Here’s your second pop quiz question: What is the name of the Coachella Valley’s native people?
That would be the Cahuilla Indians, and Teri guided us through a recreated Cahuilla village where we saw how the original inhabitants of the Coachella Valley lived in the desert.
Our next stop was into the belly of the beast, as Teri called it, and soon our jeep was navigating the narrow and rocky passage through Fossil Canyon. The pale canyon with its 45-degree striations looked remarkably reminiscent of the desert planet Tatooine from “Star Wars,” and I wouldn’t have been too surprised to see Sandpeople peaking through the canyon walls.
As it turns out, these aren’t just the thoughts of a crazed fangirl. The scenes for George Lucas’ desert planet were actually filmed just a few miles from Fossil Canyon in Painted Canyon and Mecca Hills. Tatooine isn’t in a galaxy far, far away, after all and Desert Adventures even offers a Painted Canyon and Mecca Hills tour, if you’re looking to make a “Star Wars” pilgrimage.
With no Sandpeople in sight, our guide led us up a narrow hike into the depths of a slot canyon, a spectacular formation of rocks smoothed by the force of rushing water. The absolute silence of the slot canyons and the fault line itself is almost deafening, as the acoustics in the fault line prevent echoes in what becomes a sound vacuum of sorts.
The vertical lifts of the mountains are a spectacular sight and as night fell on the fault line, our jeep was off to Carbon Canyon, an area that seemed to have a distinctly supernatural feel to it. Teri explained that the tremendous amount of force in the area creates a positive energy vortex, which some believe is a powerfully spiritual place. We were also treated to viewing a rock formation that looked like an alien skull and another that looked like a crashed UFO.
After our drive into Carbon Canyon, we headed to a recreated mining camp, where Teri gave us a tour of the night sky with her trusty SkyScout. Similar in appearance to a camcorder, the SkyScout is a device that uses GPS technology to locate and identify over 6,000 planets, stars and constellations. Once our guide locked onto a star with the SkyScout, the device began playing a short recording about the star. After taking the Night Watch tour, I’m convinced there’s no better place to stargaze than from within the fault line.
With plenty of space at Metate Ranch, Desert Adventures hosts weddings, parties and corporate retreats. They’re not just limited to the fault line, either. Desert Adventures is ready for just about any adventure you’d want to have in the desert and can whisk you away to Joshua Tree or the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs. They can also provide one of their knowledgeable guides for a personal sightseeing or hiking tour.
To learn more about Desert Adventures’ many tours and packages or to make a reservation, go to www.red-jeep.com.