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Trip of the Week

Animals Make Desert Their Home

September 18, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms are free-lance writers/photographers living in Laguna Beach.

PALM DESERT — The Living Desert has come back to life . . . with visitors.

The 1,200-acre wildlife preserve is the year-round home for all sorts of animals and plants, but the staff figures that the place is too hot for people to enjoy in summer. They close the gates from mid-June through August.

Now the Living Desert has reopened for another season, and visitors to the Coachella Valley have the opportunity for a close look at desert flora and fauna. In addition to 1,500 plant species you'll find 60 species of animal life, everything from tiny pupfish to bighorn sheep.

At the After Sundown exhibit you can observe nocturnal animals. In this exhibit electric lights reverse the daily life cycles of leaf-nose bats, deer mice, screech owls and other creatures of the night so they are active during daytime when the reserve is open to visitors.

Other glass display cases house a tarantula, black widow spider, desert hairy scorpion, and sidewinder, Western diamondback and other snakes. You'll also see antelope ground squirrels and chuckwallas.

Outdoor cages give visitors a look at desert birds of prey, including hawks, vultures, ravens and the Mexican caracara. Other birds, including quail and hummingbirds, live in a walk-through aviary.

The Living Desert's botanical garden has trees, shrubs, cacti and succulents grouped as you would find them in various North American desert regions. Especially intriguing is the Indian Garden with plants that the Cahuilla tribe used for food, medicine and building materials.

Six miles of nature trails introduce you to more desert vegetation and geological features of this protected area at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains about 15 miles southeast of Palm Springs. The Living Desert is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Get there from Los Angeles by driving east on Interstate 10 to the California 111 exit for Palm Springs. That highway follows the western side of the Coachella Valley to Palm Desert, where you turn right on Portola Avenue and go 1 1/2 miles to the reserve entrance.

Adult admission is $5; children 6 through 15 pay $2. Parking is free. Call (619) 346-5694.

The nonprofit Living Desert was established in 1970 to protect a portion of the natural desert environment from development. It's part of the Colorado Desert, a division of the great Sonora Desert that reaches north from Mexico through Arizona and Southern California.

Exploring the Reserve

You can explore the reserve with a self-guiding map or join one of the twice-daily tours that take about one hour.

First visit the live desert animals, including the nocturnal creatures, on display in McManus Center, where you pay admission. Just opposite, go into McCallum Hall to see a slide show about the desert and a geology exhibit.

Outside in the main courtyard at various times during the day, children get a chance to see and pet desert critters such as tortoises and snakes.

As you continue to the botanical gardens, stop at the new H. Earl Hoover Education Center, funded by the vacuum cleaner family and opened earlier this year. Its Discovery Room is a favorite of kids, who put their hands into "feel-and-guess" compartments and try to identify desert objects by touch.

They can also make bird puzzles and create a cactus with pieces of cloth. Informative shows with live desert birds are presented, too. The Discovery Room is open weekends and during holiday seasons.

Wander the short loop trails through the botanical sections to view wildlife exhibits as well as the plants. Look for desert pupfish in a pond in the Indian Garden and for desert tortoise in the Mojave Garden.

Howling Coyotes

Near the end of the paved main trail you may hear the howls of coyotes before you see them in the grotto in which they live. Nearby is the nursery and recovery center for desert animals and birds that are injured or orphaned.

Back near the main entrance are hiking trails that lead into the pristine desert landscape. Pick up a Living Desert trail guide that describes 60 points of interest indicated along the route by numbered stakes in the ground.

Follow the short trail to the rocky hillside that's the fenced-in home of a family of desert bighorn sheep. Scientists are studying the environmental needs of this rare breed to prevent its extinction. Look carefully for the sheep, which blend well with the chalk-colored rock.

Also stroll to a nearby enclosure to see the Arabian oryx and three types of gazelles native to Africa's Sahara Desert. These endangered species are extinct in the wild and live only in captivity.

Exhibits along the same trail introduce visitors to three other endangered animals from Africa--sand cats, mongoose-like meerkats and the fennec fox. You'll also see a North American sand-dune dweller, the kit fox.

Along the trail, which circles back to the reserve entrance, are tables for picnicking. Bring your own refreshments because none are available in the reserve except soft drinks. Water fountains are plentiful in the exhibit areas of the Living Desert, but carry a canteen if you venture onto the hiking trails.

For a scenic alternate route home, go back on California 111 a few blocks to California 74, the Pines-to-Palms Highway, which climbs over the mountains through San Bernardino National Forest to meet Interstate 15 north at Lake Elsinore.

At Lake Elsinore you may choose to continue west on California 74 through Cleveland National Forest to join Interstate 5 outside San Juan Capistrano.

Round trip from Los Angeles to the Living Desert in the Coachella Valley is 234 miles.

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