New year, new horizons

Hiker has a silent moment overlooking Mecca. Courtesy Photo

As comes the new year of 2017, so too do the winds of change breeze through the Imperial Valley Desert Museum. Since 2016 was the last year of our current five-year plan, we spent the latter part of the year asking the community through various mediums what it wants to see from us. We had “idea walls” placed at the museum in Ocotillo, at the Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta, and a couple of places around El Centro. People were invited to put their ideas up on the wall. Others were invited to comment and vote on all the ideas generated. We really wanted to move into the new year asking what our local community wanted from us.

The community responded, and an overwhelming number of them were interested in seeing a greater emphasis on desert hikes at the museum. Favorites included staff-led hikes, more support for hikers (information, equipment, etc.) and more outdoor exhibits on the museum grounds. As such, we are declaring 2017 as our Year of the Outdoors.

It is a fantastic coincidence that this push for the outdoors begins as we have been bringing on new educational staff. As we have been developing hike leaders for field trips at the museum, staff have also become heavily involved in most of our other outdoor projects this year. More information on upcoming projects will be out soon.

This past month, we have been very busy at the museum, but there has still been time to hike somewhere a little unfamiliar to our new staff: Painted Canyon in the Mecca Hills near the Salton Sea.

There, staff did the Mecca Hills Ladder Hike, which, as the name suggests, is a hike through a rough slot canyon with ladders in several parts of the hike where climbing gear would normally be needed to proceed. Our previous hiking experiences centered around areas near the IVDM’s location in Ocotillo, so the landscape of Mecca Hills, despite being part of the same valley, seemed totally alien.

The dull gray stone that forms the walls of the canyon was not one found around Ocotillo, and neither were the large pink tinged quartz nodes that occasionally jutted up from the canyon floor. The mountains were shaped differently as well. The desert varnish was of the darker variety, indicating more manganese present than iron. Those were the few differences in geology that were very obvious.

The hike began about 15 minutes east of the community of Mecca. A winding dirt road that passed through colorful mountains and incredible geologic formations led to the trailhead. The trailhead parking lot was pretty full; it seemed that everyone in the Imperial and Coachella valleys was trying to take advantage of the great weather. We entered the canyon and began to walk.

We almost discovered the ladders on accident. A few of the younger hikers disappeared into a small, nondescript side canyon while everyone else was taking a quick water break. They emerged five minutes later saying they had run into the ladders!

We began our ascent carefully at first, but by the last ladder, we were a lot less careful and proceeded a lot faster. While the ladders don’t inspire much confidence at a glance, we quickly learned that whoever first set them down knew what they were doing. After becoming more confident about the ladders we, perhaps a little foolishly, picked up the pace. This also coincided with the portion of the hike where there is the most elevation gain, so by the end of the hike all of the hikers were exhausted. Younger staff had an easier time on the hike, but all love the experience of nature, and exploring places in the Valley new to us. Once reaching the highest point of the hike, we sat down for 15 minutes taking in the view of the Mecca farming community and the Salton Sea, crowned by the Santa Rosa Mountains behind it. Everyone was silent for these 15 minutes.

The moment that we had on that hill top overlooking the north of Imperial Valley felt like the same moment we have had several times in the Coyote foothills overlooking the entire southern Imperial Valley. The whole Valley is just an amazing place. Moments like that ensnare the mind with the splendor of nature. It’s hard to go back from there.

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