Some kids don’t mind the heat. But mine, when the sun beats down just right on their porcelain little foreheads (we’re the descendants of peoples that dealt mainly with dark Brittonic clouds that nay bent to the sun’s relenting power), melt into cranky, lifeless puddles. This is what keeps us on the Westside. So why do I bring them to the desert? For one, they’re 4 and 2, and have no memories. When they see a cool photo complete with cacti, snakes and piles of limestone a la “The Flintstones,” they get excited and demand to drive three hours to the desert. I oblige because I actually love the desert (high or low). And when it comes to barren wastelands, Southern California has a lot to offer.
We were lucky this winter. We were rewarded with plenty of rain and snow, which resulted in windflowers in the desert. Tons of them. Hills that were once stale gray mounds of sand became green with grass, yellow and blue with windflowers or bright orange with the California poppy super bloom. The Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, just west of Lancaster, is one of the finest examples. I drove my boys out there and they were awed by the luminous orange color of the hills. They were also awed by the panoramic vistas of snow-capped Tehachapi and Los Padres mountains. Hank turned to me and asked: “Dad, is this still California?”
“It could only be,” I said.
There are easy, kid-friendly hikes throughout the preserve. Just try and keep your curious toddlers from picking the poppies. They won’t be able to help themselves, and I think it’s a misdemeanor. Lucky for me and the boys, the Antelope Valley is high desert. This means it’s chilly in the spring, so I brought them winter coats to combat the cold winds. This atmosphere makes the scene ethereal and memorable. I recall when I visited the poppies as a kid. It was cold, maybe even snowing. Those memories are acute and lasting. It was good to be back and revive my senses.
If you want to dull your senses, the low desert might be more your speed. You’ll get more of the spa scene: cocktails, massages, tanning by the pool … fun for Mom and Dad, but maybe not for the kiddos. And oftentimes, in the Palm Springs area, the family outing is busted by teams of youngsters, hipsters or the opposite: retired people. It is also 20 or so degrees hotter than the high desert. Hank just wanted to grab his date shake and go. However, he was curious about the desert oasis phenomenon. You might find an oasis in Indian Canyons. I brought Hank on a little trek on their palm-laced trails. He spotted a bighorn sheep, about a hundred lizards and, yes, a rattlesnake. There were even some horses drinking from the desert pools. We made it a good mile before I had to carry him back.
Like I said, Hank and heat don’t mix. But if you want to find an elephant to shower you with sand to cool you off, you have to go farther down the valley. There, Hank and Leo found their latest favorite place in California: the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert. This unique zoo offers two of Hank’s and Leo’s favorite things: animals and trains. Located centrally in the park is a grand collection of motorized model trains. Instead of running straight to the animals, the boys parked at the trains and looked no further. The Living Desert delivers the natural world better than most zoos. Desert hares, lizards and snakes roam freely throughout the place. The desert’s ecosystem is impervious to any fence or wall you’d try to create to tame it, and so you walk through the zoo as you would hike through the hills that surround it. Bonus: Hank and Leo got to ride a camel and feed some giraffes.
On the way out of the desert, we stopped by the Cabazon Dinosaurs. The view of this odd roadside attraction from the Interstate 10 is now a little more obscured than it was when I was a lad. The two giant T. rex and apatosaurus statues still capture the attention of my boys. I used to always make my parents stop to visit the dinosaurs. As a parent now, I realize why they were always reluctant. The statues are undeniably odd and the entrance into the big apatosaurus is strange, too. And yet, Hank and Leo were inspired. After traversing the bleak, wonderful, sprawling desert canyons and valleys, something big and bold like these oddly shaped dinosaur statues truly captures the attention and makes it a fitting end as we head back to the sprawl of L.A. “Were these real dinosaurs, Dad?” Hank asked.
“Not these,” I said, “but the desert is full of possibilities.”
Isaac Parfrey is a writer, composer and L.A. native who enjoys roaming Southern California with his wife, Kate, and sons, Hank and Leo. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacParfrey