Cactus Flats begins with a turnout on California Highway 18 northeast of Big Bear Lake. Roughly half way between Lucerne Valley down in the Mojave Desert and the high alpine country of the San Bernardino Mountains, the plateau features Joshua Trees, sandstone boulders, yucca and chaparral and sweeping views of this transition terrain along with panoramas to the east of the vast California deserts. It’s my favorite place in Southern California to explore and photograph.
From the turnout a dirt road leads southeast across flat ground with plenty of places to park and explore. There aren’t any marked trails but I’m familiar with the territory so I head towards a slope of rock and juniper with only my camera and hiking poles. At six thousand feet the sky is deep blue with patches of puffy white clouds rolling across the sky. The Flats gets few hikers and I’ve only seen a few further south along the dirt road. This edge of the plateau is lightly traveled and I’m alone on this mountainous precipice that will begin the slow tumble into desert in another mile.
A low ridge leads across the northern portion of the flats, its rocky crags cutting a torn edge across the blue. Scrambling up the slope isn’t too tough but I watch my footing, jabbing the poles into the sandy earth and stepping over rocks and avoiding cactus and light underbrush that pulls at my Levis.
When I get to the ridge there’s another slope dipping into a ravine and beyond more ridges creasing earth’s crust until the Mojave unfurls in the distance. My breathing slows as I ease down and sit on the ground to get a shot of a solo rock tall on the ridge. It’s all mine this plateau of half desert and half mountain. In all the days of wandering this ridge and searching for angles, positions, views from which to photograph and capture the high desert drama I’ve never seen anyone else in this spot. Four wheel vehicles rumble along Smarts Ranch Road, the official name of the county road leading from Highway 18 but rarely do they stop. Bits of shattered glass from parties and a few black rocks form circles for fire but nothing is fresh enough to suggest anybody has been up here for some time. Two hours from my home, this is my Grand Canyon, my Death Valley, my Canyonlands. Not the grandeur and scale of those magnificent National Parks but perhaps more intimate, more accessible with none of the crowds and prohibitions, no parking problems. Take a few steps from your vehicle and you enter an ancient geological era still at work today reconciling the brutal desert forces with the evergreen forest of the higher alpine regions.
This middle ground is a glimpse into a stormy marriage of fire and rock, hot and cold, into earth’s ability to super-heat the Mojave tempered with frigid zones hovering high in the San Bernardinos. It’s a special place for me, where I can see and feel mighty forces of nature sculpting and shaping magnificent ridges and plateaus overlooking the hot flats of the Mojave.