California’s Forgotten Corner? It’s a Naturalist’s Paradise

Ever put much thought into the most southeast corner of California? Most people when thinking about California think about the towering redwood forests of Northern CA or think of the dynamic beaches and cliffs of the central coast. Perhaps you’re thinking of the mighty Sierra mountains, the vast expanses of the central valley, or the open beaches of Southern California. Well for anyone interested in exploring an area of endless beauty, wind-open spaces, and narrow canyons with the feel of America’s desert and Sahara dunes desert then it’s time to get to the southeast corner of California.

In the middle of March Trevor and I hightailed it down south from our current spot in San Luis Obispo to escape the effects of one of the many atmospheric rivers that have come through California in the ’22-’23 winter.

Quick Trip Log:

We left Thursday night from San Luis Obispo, too tired to make it all the way we stayed one night (aka 5 hours) in a motel in Temecula. Friday and Saturday were spent mostly in the Borrego Springs/Shelter Valley area. Saturday evening we drove to El Centro to charge up the car and camped in a BLM near Indian Pass Wilderness. Sunday we walked about 20 miles through a portion of the wilderness. On Monday we walked around the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area in two separate spots, then drove north along the eastern part of the Salton Sea, stopping three more times to observe some rare plants. We eventually got home to SLO around 1:30 am Monday night/Tuesday morning.

iNaturalist Points:

These screenshots of our iNaturalist points show where we went, through the bottom photo it’s harder to see the points.

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on where we went on Monday and Sunday, Indian Pass Wilderness, and North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area, some of California’s most southeast portions. The Borrego Springs area and Shelter Valley are much more “popular” and better explored, and written about, from my and others’ perspectives. For the last two years, we’ve spent many weekends in that area but never gone southeast of the Salton Sea area, until now. If interested, check out these blog posts: cacti, desert flowers, living in Fernbrook, and spurge plants.

Indian Pass Wilderness

The Indian Pass Wilderness is under the management of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and spans over 32,000 acres. Within the wilderness is the Chocolate Mountains, which we camped next to Sunday night. Also within the wilderness is Julian Wash, perhaps the most popular wash, which we walked through; it runs easterly towards the Colorado River.

The Colorado River, which is the border between California and Arizona in this area, and proximity to the Arizona desert contribute to the introduction of plant and wildlife species not found in other areas of California. These include the “Colorado River toad, Great Plains toad” as well as brush and tree lizards” ( Other wildlife that can be found are desert tortoises, mountain lions, Yuma king snakes, mule deer, wild mules (burros), and desert bighorn sheep. Some of the plants include: “cholla and beavertail cactuses, ocotillos, palo verdes, acacias, ironwood trees and others” (

Indian Pass Wilderness iNaturalist Check List

This area of California is “an important part of the traditional homeland of the Quechan tribe, and the wilderness and proposed additions contain ancient trails, intaglios, rock alignments, sleeping circles, lithic scatter, and other evidence of the tribe’s long history in the area” ( Within the area are culturally significant sites, which would have been very neat to see and appreciate, but to us and others we sadly unknowingly pass by. It would be awesome if there were signage, or a virtual field trip so those interested could learn about the land at a deeper level.

Quechan (pronounced Kwuh-tsan), also known as the Yuma people, are a Native American tribe that currently resides in the area of the fertile lower Colorado River. Pre-contact in the late 1700s, the Quechan “lived in riverside hamlets, and among the structures they built were houses consisting of log frameworks covered with sand, brush, or wattle and daub” (Britannica). For sustenance, “the Quechan cultivated pumpkins, melons, and beans, as well as grasses. In addition to their plentiful harvests, they gathered seeds and fruits, hunted small game, and fished” (Britannica). Today the Quechan primarily reside near Yuma, Arizona.

North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area

Wow, wow, WOWZA. I was blown away by the short time we explored these dunes. We parked at this small lot shortly after sunrise on Monday and headed westward towards the dunes along a shallow wash. As a babe aka novice tracker, I was overwhelmed by the number of tracks on the dunes.

Also managed by BLM, this wilderness area is almost 26,000 acres. These acres are stretched out in an area that’s generally eight miles wide but 40 miles long. This long and skinny wilderness is divided into two zones and intersected by state highway 78 dividing a north and south section. The north section is designated Wilderness, while the south section is where OHV folks tear up the dunes. The two sections are the west dunes, which are the primary ones–the larger taller dunes made of coarse sand, and the east side hosts secondary dunes–dunes with areas of finer sands with flat spots and basins which host a few species of trees.

Most people would assume an area that looks like a mini Sahara desert doesn’t host a plethora of wildlife and plants. WRONG! Trees include “mesquite, smoke tree, ironwood, paloverde, and desert willows”. For creatures “flat-tailed horned lizard, desert tortoises, and the Colorado fringe-toed lizard” (Wilderness Connect). Life abounds!

Wildlife, Insects, Plants, and Wildlife we observed

So what. . . or who did we observe living out in the dunes and Indian Pass wilderness? Take a look!

These two goofy insects really sparked my fascination. If we were to return in warmer months I’m sure we could find a whole other set of insets. We did record at least 47 species of insects and arachnids during the days spent in Indian Pass and the Algodone dunes.

The treehopper, Genus Spissistilus (what a name) was found after Trevor swept from Condalia globosa (Bitter Snakewood) or Olneya tesota (Desert Ironwood) while in the Indian Pass Wilderness. Treehoppers are quite neat-looking insects, and this one is no different. That large head/shoulder hump above their face is the pronotum, which is overly large in treehoppers when compared to other insects. It’s also called a ‘helmet.’ The pronotum helps in camouflage and mimicry because it helps them blend in or resemble the thorns of their host plants.

Even without full confirmation, the fly on the right is the Kelso Dunes Robber Fly, Proctacanthus coquillettii, a total stunner. Just by the photo, it’s practically impossible to understand its size. Well. . . it’s MASSIVE! By fly standards, that is. If I remember, and can estimate semi-accurately I’d say it was upwards of three inches long (~7cm). HUGE! Generally, robbers are 0.12 in/3mm) to 2.0 in/5cm in length. As we walked the North Algodones Dunes this one robber seemed to follow us, we guessed it was predating upon the insects we were disrupting as we walked. What an awesome insect, and interaction. If interested in reading more about robber flies, in this NatureSpeak article I wrote.

Even though the walk-through of Indian Pass was quite dry, and had way fewer blooming plants than the Borrego area, there were some big highlights of the day. We reconnected with old friends and made new ones. Our new best friend or biggest highlight of the day was the two top photos, of the fabulous Pink Fairy-Duster Calliandra eriophylla. Does it not scream Dr. Suess or something Disney-esc? Yes, indeed the moon is in the background of the first photo, as those photos were taken at 5:51 am. We started hiking that day quite early, and this was basically the first plant we observed that day, a total surprise, as it was one of the top “must-see” plants on the agenda.

You too can wander over its fantastically fluffy flowers in the “deserts and arid grasslands in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico” (iNat). It grows on naturally alkaline soils that are dry and gravel-y. The genus Calliandra means “beautiful-stamens” apparently, so showy flowers are literally in the name. The stamens are those thin projections, they are the male parts of the flower and bearer of pollen. Who would be visiting this plant and potentially gathering pollen? That would be a variety of “bees, flies, butterflies, and hummingbirds” who are attracted to the abnormally sweet nectar (iNat).

We parked at the turn-off of the Hugh T. Osborne Lookout Park (within the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area), crossed the road, and explored the dunes there, which was awesome! We picked up about four new plant species to us within 10 minutes! That’s where we picked up the flowering Dune Milkvetch, Algodones Dunes Sunflower, Wiggins’ Croton, Silky Panicgrass, and Longleaf Ephedra.

Well, we did pretty well in spotting some wildlife during this trip. The two snakes were spotted in Shelter Valley, but the Sidewinder tracks were spotted in the dunes, along with the Fringe-toed lizard. Trevor had a reeeeeeal close run-in with the Red Diamond Rattlesnake. I spotted this smaller individual when going up a wash in Indian Gorge, Trevor totally missed it, even though it was right on the trail. On our way back down the same wash, but on the opposite side we encountered the same individual again. While chit-chatting, not thinking about the snake’s whereabouts Trevor stepped off a rock and his left foot landed near some shrubbery. Well, Mr. Snake was chilling under the low-lying branches of the shrub, and when disturbed by a giant footfall, he rattled, scaring the bejesus out of Trevor.

While it would have been lovely to observe a living tortoise, we weren’t really focused on them. The shell was in the middle of the wash we walked near our turn-around spot. It still had, what I believe to be pelvis bones inside, there wasn’t much else besides sand. I did not know that “the Mojave population of the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) includes all tortoises north and west of the Colorado River in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California (USFW).” Although their range may extend over many state borders “these tortoises are impacted by ongoing threats, including loss, degradation, and fragmentation of habitat due to development. They are also impacted by increased wildfire due to non-native invasive vegetation, disease, road mortality, and predation of their eggs and hatchlings (USFW).”

Borrego Springs, Shelter Valley & Salton Sea Area

If interested in seeing what we saw in the Borrego Springs area and Shelter Valley over two days, take a look at these photos.

One of our side trips was to get up on top the mesa that leads to the Diablo drop off, and Fish Creek Wash.

Now onto plants and insects!

We explored the same places in the Borrego/Shelter Valley we’ve visited in the past two years, but now was full of flowers, and life! It was incredible to see! Knowing what a bit of rain does is beyond fascinating and incredible to witness. In previous years we’d see one or a few individuals of a species, but this year those same plants were abundant!

We recorded about 56 species of plants on iNat during these two days, we didn’t by any means “BioBlitz” it, aka recording one of each species we saw. Since our focus was finding plants we missed in previous years, our main focus was those species. Highlights include Annual Rock-Nettle (Eucnide rupestris), Fortuna Range Suncup (Chylismia arenaria), Carrizo Creek Globemallow (Sphaeralcea orcutii), Orocopia Sage (Salvia greatae), and many others. We picked up 33 new-to-us species of plants over the four days.

We observed about 76 species of insects and arachnids while in the greater Borrego desert area.

The bee in the top left is Conanthalictus mentzeliae, a member of the Subfamily Shortface Bees and Allies. These images, which were uploaded to iNaturalist are potentially the only photos of this species alive. That’s according to Keng-Lou James Hung, assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, who is the head of the pollinator lab in the Oklahoma Biological Survey and the Oklahoma Natural Heritage Inventory. Many thanks to the other contributors to the identification on the iNat post. There are no images on iNat or BugGuide. Prettttyyy cooool!

If you have any questions about traveling to this area, I’d be happy to share my insights. Leave a comment below!




4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fabulous finds in the desert! Great write up as always.


    1. Thank you! Always appreciate the support 🙂


  2. Kirsten says:

    Well Done Chloe and Trevor with this blog. Thank you for introducing me to more pretty flowers and crazy looking insects. xxxoo


    1. Of course! Anytime! The next blog will be also full of pretty flowers!


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