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Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness

This month a friend and I sat bathed in moonlight on the fringes of a desert wilderness, enjoying a hundred-mile view. Eastward we saw towering thunderheads, illuminated from within by frequent and gigantic lightning flashes as they released their catastrophic rains upon the Grand Canyon. The storm was far enough away that we heard no thunder: just the calls of nearby coyotes and owls. When we awoke the air was clear, and the surrounding mountains — where we could see them through the thick Joshua tree forest — seemed close enough almost to touch.

Southern Nevada’s Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness does offer great views. At just 6,050 acres, though, the long views are outside the wilderness’ boundaries. Wee Thump isn’t a classic rock and ice wilderness in the style of Ansel Adams. But it is stunningly beautiful, a rare piece of relatively intact Mojave biome in a surprisingly accessible location.

Designated as wilderness in 2002, Wee Thump — the name means “The Ancient Ones” in the local Paiute language, a reference to the land’s aged Joshua trees — is a gently sloping alluvial fan in a roughly triangular valley between the McCullough and Highland ranges and the north shoulder of the New York Mountains, just west of Searchlight, NV. Though the wilderness contains only one designated trail, an old miner’s wagon track that stays frustratingly close to route 164, the constantly changing washes offer abundant opportunities for hiking into the heart of the wilderness.

And that wilderness has some heart. The Joshua trees are there in abundance, along with their cousins the Mojave and banana yuccas. (Wee Thump is in fact part of that narrow strip of desert in which the ranges of the latter two yuccas overlap.) The cactus family is well represented here, with red-spined barrel cacti surprisingly abundant, along with a healthy diversity of chollas and a number of other common (and less-common) Mojave species. Here and there throughout the wilderness the hiker can find incongruous single-needle piñons, growing well away from their usual mountain haunts at elevations as low as 4,500 feet. Junipers and a wealth of broadleaved shrub species, blackbrush and sage in the higher parts of the wilderness and creosote downslope, fill out the desert floor. The washes hold a staggering display of annual flowers in season.

With that diverse a flora, it’s no surprise the Wee Thump fauna is also rather diverse. You can’t hike for long down a Wee Thump wash without finding evidence of desert tortoise burrows, coyote and deer and (if you’re lucky) bighorn tracks in the sand, a ridiculous number of Audubon’s cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, and antelope ground squirrels, k-rats and packrats. There are at least four different lizard species here, five if my local informant’s report of banded Gila monster is to be believed. Those sinuous tracks in the wash sand may well have been made by rattlers, though there are plenty of red coachwhips here as well. And the birds dominate the landscape, or at least the aural landscape. Cactus wrens seem to call from every Joshua tree on summer days, giving the Scott’s orioles some competition. Sage and black-chinned sparrows flit from shrub to shrub. Seeing golden eagles here is not at all uncommon.

Sadly, the Wee Thump soundscape may have a new addition before long: Clark Country is attempting to build a major commercial airport in the neighboring Ivanpah Valley near Primm, and flight paths designed to avoid the nearby Mojave National Preserve will almost certainly send planes over this little wilderness. Hearing the daytime iambic call of a Scott’s oriole, or the romantic serenade of a coyote family, may soon be quite a bit more difficult. You can watch this space for more on the Ivanpah Valley airport project and how you can work to stop it.

But in the meantime, Wee Thump still waits quietly for your visit.

The Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness is on Nevada Route 164 — designated the Joshua Tree Parkway — between Searchlight and Nipton, California. From Southern California take Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas, leave the freeway at the Nipton Road exit about ten miles before the State Line, and turn right on Nipton Road, California Route 164.

Set your trip meter as you cross the railroad tracks in Nipton. In about two miles you’ll cross into Nevada. The route number stays the same on the other side of the line as the road winds up Big Tiger Canyon through a thickening Joshua tree forest. On the other side of a low pass, at around ten miles from Nipton, a poorly-marked parking lot offers trailhead access to the Wilderness. Don’t fret if you miss the turn. Just past 13 miles from the Nipton crossing, a well-graded dirt road will run into the forest to your left. A few miles off the pavement this road is definitely of the high-clearance-only variety, but even a low-slung rental car will find easy passage to a parking area near a windmill not far from the pavement. Get out and walk around, on the wilderness’ perimeter road or through some of the above-mentioned washes. Route-finding skills are important here, as the washes meander a bit confusingly and it’s easy to lose your bearings. (This is a good place for you to practice your GPS skills, in other words.) There’s primitive camping in spots along the south side of the access road, or you can take advantage of limited lodging and supplies in Nipton, or somewhat greater options in Searchlight, which is about seven miles farther east on 164.

photo by Chris Clarke

Welcome to DesertBlog, Chris. Great post! Equal parts natural history, travel guide and advocacy. Looking forward to more!

Wee Thump sounds really neat. I love the Nipton area. Will have to keep this in mind for future visits.

Thanks for commenting, Florian, and welcome to DesertBlog!

I’ve driven through Wee Thump (my friend Susanne Rowe, BLM archaeologist in Las Vegas, reports that according to a Pai Ute elder she spoke to, it is “Wee Tump,” but that’s just what she’s told me – any word on that possibility?) many times, en route to and from sailing and camping trips on Lake Mojave, on the back road from Nipton and Searchlight. I’ve often stopped and absorbed and given thanks for the beauty of Joshua forest and expansive, pristine views. It reminds me so much of how the high desert of Mojave felt to me as a kid, when my father first moved us up there from the “inland empire,” how the vast Mojave stretched into perma-sky from Cajon Pass into eternity, a big spiritual shot in the arm for me at 13, and the instant moment of “in-love-affair” with the California desert that perseveres till today. Thank you for the wilderness, thank you Chris for hiking in and writing of this magical landscape with such poignancy.

Beautiful comment, Ruth! Great description of the vastness that makes the desert a special place. Welcome to the blog!

Thanks, Larry, Ruth and Florian!
Incidentally, I’ve concatenated and compressed some of the bewildering profusion of documents for the Draft Alternatives Working Paper for the Ivanpah Airport, and you can find links to same here.