In April and May throughout the Southwest, desert tortoises leave the deep burrows where they spent the winter and sally forth to munch on the spring wildflowers and grasses that dot the terrain. Probably the largest concentration of these descendants of prehistoric tortoises inhabit a protected habitat outside California City--about a two-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles.
Spring is the best time of the year to see them, and with tortoise populations of up to 200 per square mile, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area near Mojave is the place to do it.
Encompassing 38 square miles, the Natural Area is indeed a wilderness. Four sandy trails--from a quarter-mile long to a mile and three-quarters--are marked with white stakes and numbered markers, which are coordinated with mimeographed trail guides. Stay on the trails, because once you lose sight of the visitors kiosk, you could become disoriented.
The silence is awesome, and if you let your imagination soar you can step back in time to an era predating the bustle and noise of the 20th Century.
Fred Coe, visitor information specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Ridgecrest, said: "The best way to spot a tortoise is to gaze in the distance and look for a rock that seems to be moving. Check in the shade of bushes and look into burrows."
Patty MacLean, area manager of the bureau, said: "Temperature is a key factor in whether you will see them. When it has been hot for several days, they tend to stay in their burrows. It is a good idea to check the weather reports for Lancaster or Mojave and pick a day when the temperatures range from the mid-70s to the mid-80s."
According to MacLean, the tortoises are more active on cloudy days. The best times for viewing them are early morning and late afternoon. You may also have better luck if you walk a distance from the visitors kiosk.
Wear appropriate clothing. Jeans, sturdy shoes or boots, a hat to protect you from the desert sun, and a sweater or Windbreaker are recommended. Watch your step. This is also rattlesnake country. Keep children with you, and leave your dog at home. It won't be allowed into the protected area, and on a hot day it will not be safe to leave pets in the car.
Coe also recommends that visitors to the desert bring a gallon of water per person per day. You are welcome to picnic in the parking area, but be sure to bring a trash bag to carry out your refuse. Bathrooms are in the parking lot.
The shaded visitors kiosk provides information about the desert tortoises and other creatures in the habitat. However, the Desert Tortoise Natural Area is not staffed on a regular basis. Groups of more than 25 people are asked to register with the Ridgecrest area manager before visiting the area. Call (619) 375-7125.
Although tortoises are not officially listed as endangered, their numbers are diminishing due to the encroachment of civilization. To preserve the delicate balance of nature, don't release pet tortoises in the area, as they may carry diseases that are fatal to wild tortoises. Don't approach the tortoises too closely, and never attempt to touch them or pick them up.
When a tortoise is frightened, Coe said, it may lose water from its bladder, water that could otherwise have been reabsorbed into its system. Excessive dehydration in these leathery creatures can be fatal.
The Desert Tortoise Natural Area is about five miles outside California City. From Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 north to Highway 14. Go through Mojave, continuing on Highway 14 several miles to California City Boulevard. Turn right to California City. Go through town to the second four-way stop sign. Turn left on Randsburg-Mojave Road.
When you reach the cemetery, turn left again. There will be a small sign saying "Randsburg Mojave Road." The road becomes a hard-pack two-lane dirt road at this point. The Desert Tortoise Natural Area is on the left side of the road and is marked with signs pointing to the parking area.