Desert Rat's Delight In Arizona

The East Cactus Plain Wilderness brims with life and solitude. Just don't forget the water.
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The East Cactus Plain Wilderness brims with life and solitude. Just don't forget the water.

As sand fills my hiking boots and wind pastes my teeth with grit, Ed Abbey, desert rat extraordinaire, comes to mind. I don't know if the late philosopher/author visited this place, but he would have reveled in the harsh beauty of the Cactus Plain.

Although wind, sand, and sun rule in this remote corner of western Arizona, the Cactus Plain isn't your average dune field. Instead of a barren, Saharan landscape, you're greeted with steep-sided sandhills draped in ocotillo, cholla, dune grass, white bursage, creosote, palo verde, and an occasional saguaro. It's a combination of desert plants that make this dune field different from any in the world.

Every square yard of sandy ground is pocked with baseball-sized holes, testimony to the amazing number of wildlife species adapted to the arid environment. The Cactus Plain is the domain of reptiles like the fringe-toed lizard and sidewinder rattlesnake, but mule deer, coyotes, jack rabbits, foxes, and all manner of rodents and raptors make a go of it as well. As you would image, the nightlife really hops here.

In the summer, this would be a deadly place for warm-blooded, two-legged types, but in winter and spring it enchants. My husband and I visit in January to take advantage of the comfortable temperatures. (Any time of year you must pack in all water; there are no water sources of any kind.) Map and compass in hand and not another human in sight, we trek across the rolling hills of sand toward a distant, solitary butte. We move slowly, partly due to our feet being sucked into the pink sand, but mostly because there's so much to look at. In the glow of golden afternoon light, the view from the tops of the steep, 120-foot rises is spectacular-like looking out on a giant beach where no ocean exists.

On our hike out the next morning, we make plans to return in March when the ocotillo and wildflowers are in bloom. I think I'll pack a copy of Desert Solitaire. If Abbey never had the good fortune to visit the Cactus Plain, at least he can be here in spirit.

QUICK TAKE: East Cactus Plain Wilderness, Arizona

DRIVE TIME: The East Cactus Plain Wilderness and the Cactus Plain Wilderness Study Area are located in western Arizona near the California border approximately 145 miles (21/2 hours) west of Phoenix and 200 miles (31/2 hours) east of Los Angeles.

THE WAY: Follow AZ 72 to the town of Bouse. Turn right on Main Street (heading north), and then left on Rayder Road, which becomes a graded dirt road called Swansea Road. Continue north on Swansea Road for 5.3 miles to the Central Arizona Project canal. Just on the other side of the canal is a parking lot and bulletin board, marking the entrance to the wilderness.

TRAILS: There are no trails in the 14,630-acre East Cactus Plain Wilderness Area or the adjoining 59,100-acre wilderness study area. If you're versed in traveling by map and compass, the options for cross-country travel are infinite. There is no surface water, so pack what you need.

ELEVATION: The highest point in the East Cactus Plain is 1,654 feet; the lowest is 1,250 feet. Dunes range in height from about 30 to 120 feet.

CAN'T MISS: If you've never spent the night surrounded by a pack of coyotes singing their hearts out, then you're in for a treat.

CROWD CONTROL: Because of its remote location, the Cactus Plain receives few visitors. The best times to visit are November through April, when daytime temperatures reach into the upper 70s to low 80s and nighttime lows dip into the 50s.

PIT STOP: After a few days in the dunes, stop by the County Seat restaurant in Parker for a steak sandwich and fries.

WALK SOFTLY: Groups of three or more should hike spread out to lessen impact. Avoid stepping on delicate cryptobiotic soil (black, crusty, moss-like ground cover).

MAPS: For East Cactus Plain, get USGS 7.5-minute topo Powerline Well. For Cactus Plain Wilderness Study Area, get Black Peak, Bobs Well, Bouse, Bouse NW, Bouse Hills West, Cross Roads or Powerline Well. Order maps over the Internet at: http://www.usgs.gov.

MORE INFORMATION: Lake Havasu Field Office, Bureau of Land Management, 2610 Sweetwater Ave., Lake Havasu City, AZ 86406; (520) 505-1200.