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Believe It or Not, Ripley's Desert Is Full of Wildlife

May 02, 1999|JOHN McKINNEY | John McKinney is coauthor, with Cheri Rae, of the just-published "Mojave National Preserve: A Visitor's Guide" (Olympus Press, $12.95)

Ripley Desert Woodland State Preserve hosts one of the last virgin Joshua tree forests in the Antelope Valley.

With its thriving Joshuas and junipers, accompanied by a thick undergrowth of buckwheat, beaver tail cactus, sage and Mormon tea, the preserve is a reminder of how most of the Antelope Valley may have appeared to early travelers, such as explorer John C. Fremont in 1848.

Located in far northern Los Angeles County, about three miles as the raven flies from the Kern County line, Ripley Preserve has yet to be plotted on most maps and is all but unknown to most desert travelers.

The Tehachapi Range, which separates the Antelope Valley from the San Joaquin Valley, forms the reserve's impressive mountain backdrop to the north. Mile-high Sawmill Mountain in the nearby Angeles National Forest rises dramatically to the south.

Poppy lovers sometimes happen upon Ripley because it's located just seven miles down the road from the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. (It's a bad wildflower year at the reserve; the hillsides look like burnt toast.)

Since the primary purpose of a state preserve is to protect nature, not host visitors, the State Department of Parks and Recreation seems content to leave well enough alone at Ripley. A single roadside sign (blink and you'll miss it) identifies the preserve, where the only visitor amenity is a rustic--though scenically situated--outhouse.

The preserve is habitat for abundant Antelope Valley wildlife (except for the long-gone antelope, of course). Quail, roadrunners, king snakes, rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, coyotes and ground squirrels are commonly sighted within the park's boundaries. Lots of black-tailed rabbits and the occasional cottontail hop down the preserve's numerous bunny trails.

The preserve's Joshuas are smaller than most; these yucca brevifolia belong to the smaller-than-average subspecies Herbertii. Struggling for nutrients in the sandy soil, these Joshuas rarely exceed 14 feet in height.

Joshuas have a well-deserved reputation for assuming grotesque shapes, and the trees at the preserve are no exception; in fact, their twisted limbs and torsos appear all the more weird because of their bordering-on-dwarf stature.

Farmer Arthur Ripley (1901 to 1988) willed 560 acres of his property to the state. He and many other farmers and developers cleared hundreds of thousands of acres in the western Antelope Valley for crops and subdivisions. Ripley, however, cared enough about this particular pristine desert woodland to protect it for future generations.

The reserve's spring wildflowers, in a good year, include fiddleneck, scarlet bugler, coreopsis, gold fields, chia, blue dicks and filaree.

Ripley's bigger plants are generally more dependable bloomers. In spring, the beaver tail cactus produces attention-getting magenta-hued flowers, while golden bush puts forth yellow daisy-like blooms. Greeting hikers is the fragrant blue sage, which raises long, spiked arms covered with blue flowers. Star of the spring show, though, is the Joshua tree, with creamy white blossoms festooning its uplifted arms.

A 12-stop interpretive trail, keyed to a pamphlet available from the state parks visitor center in Lancaster, leads past some of the preserve's featured flora. (A brochure is by no means necessary to enjoy the trail.)

Ripley's other rambles are of the do-it-yourself variety. Wander at will among the juniper and Joshua trees, inhale the sage-scented fresh air, and rejoice at the beauty of this wooded island on the land.

Access: From Interstate 5, about six miles south of Gorman and 27 miles north of Valencia, exit on California Highway 138 and head east 15 miles to Lancaster Road. Turn right (south). Follow Lancaster Road, which soon bends east, a bit more than four miles to the signed Ripley Desert Woodland Preserve on the left (north) side of the road. Park carefully along the road.

If you're traveling from the Antelope Valley, you'll exit the Antelope Valley Freeway (California 14) in Lancaster on Highway 138 (Avenue D) and travel about 19 miles west to 210th Street. Turn south a mile to Lancaster Road.

From the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, continue another seven miles west on Lancaster Road to Ripley Preserve.

The Mojave Desert State Parks Visitor Center, located in a small shopping center in Lancaster, has desert information and a small bookstore. From the Antelope Valley Freeway (14), take the Avenue K exit and follow the signs.


Ripley Nature Trail

WHERE: Ripley Desert Woodland State Preserve

DISTANCE: 0.5 mile interpretive trail plus a few miles of free form walking.

TERRAIN: Juniper and Joshua tree woodland.

HIGHLIGHTS: Nearly pristine parcel of the Antelope Valley.


FOR MORE INFORMATION: Mojave Desert State Parks Visitor Center, 43779 15th St. West, Lancaster, CA 93534; Tel. (805) 942-0662.

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