Located at the southern end of the Inyo Mountains, and claiming over 31,906 acres of land in California, Malpais Mesa Wilderness is a place of diversity and natural beauty.
Perhaps the biggest and the most fascinating attraction of this wilderness is the long north-south oval-shaped Malpais Mesa, rising grandly in the center of this wilderness area. However, the entirety of Malpais Mesa Wilderness is just as mesmerizing, with deep canyons, rugged and often well-hidden valleys, mountain ranges, and a number of smaller mesas. One can enjoy stunning views of the great bajada stretching out from Death Valley National Park in the east and rising to meet the mesa’s summit.
The foliage is just as diverse in this wilderness as its landscape with low desert shrubs, creosote, and grasses in the lower part of the wilderness. Joshua trees are scattered about at mid-level elevation, whereas on the higher elevations, as you make your summits, you’ll see piñon pines and junipers all around you.
As part of a non-wilderness corridor, visitors can explore the old Santa Rosa Mines near the foot of the mesa. The mine is located in a very bleak and isolated stretch of land. In fact, the area is named Malpais for its Spanish meaning referring to “bad country”.
This region really does evoke a sense of the wild west, and is the perfect outdoor destination for those seeking solitude and adventure outside of California’s popular cities and districts.
The easiest and most convenient route to this wilderness is via State Highway 190, which heads east to the town of Olancha, in Inyo County. Drive down to Santa Rosa Road, and the wilderness region can be seen right alongside it.
Part of the Mojave Desert, Malpais Mesa Wilderness has useful markers to help visitors find their bearings. The Inyo Mountains are located to the northwest of the wilderness and Death Valley National Park lies east and northeast. Peeking from the south of the wilderness is the lower Centennial flat and Owens Lake to the west.
Once you enter the wilderness region, there are no well-maintained roads, just dirt roads and jeep trails. Drive carefully for as long as your vehicle allows and park at the nearest opportunity. Hiking is the best way to explore Malpais Mesa Wilderness.
Like most BLM wilderness campgrounds, Malpais Mesa Wilderness also extends the same luxury of pure primitive camping. Visitors are allowed to camp for 14 days and no more.
If you hadn't had your fill of the mesmerizing mesa, you can relocate to another campsite that is at least 25 miles further away from your old one. Make sure only to use previously disturbed campsites and strictly follow the seven-standard Leave No Trace policies. You can pick wood for a campfire but only dead and down wood; it is illegal to pick live wood here. Pets are allowed in the wilderness region.
After days of primitive camping, if you feel like you need a more luxurious camping experience, you can head to the nearest public campground of Furnace Creek, which is nearly two hours' drive away. Furnace Creek is one of the many campgrounds of Death Valley National Park with a total of 136 campsites. Eighteen of these offer full hookup services including electric, water, and sewage, while 46 of them are reserved for tents only. Five of these are group campsites, while the remaining are no-hookup RV campsites. Amenities include washrooms with flush toilets, potable water, dump station, picnic tables, campfire, grill, and fire pits. Some sites are open, others are fairly shaded by a thick canopy of trees.
Campsites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Campers also get easy access to bike paths, hiking trails, and an abandoned borax mine nearby.
Campers and explorers who are also U2 fans would especially love the Malpais Mesa Wilderness, because U2’s Fallen Joshua Tree stands right here in this scenic wilderness. For those who are unaware, it refers to the location where the photos were taken for the cover of U2’s 1987 album “The Joshua Tree”
There’s a market at the spot where the pictured Joshua Tree used to be, and you’ll find all kinds of gifts fans have left there to pay homage to their favorite band.
A large number of visitors in the Wilderness come for the sole purpose of climbing the Malpais Mesa Highpoint, also known as Rosa Peak. The highpoint is at an elevation of 7,731 feet, and the climb itself is 7.29 miles.
The climb to the top is totally worth it as the view from above cannot be described in words. On your way down, you’ll spot many small Joshua trees. Also, keep your eyes open because there are many glyphs along the climb. Exploring and finding them is lots of fun, as not many people know of their existence.
With such thick foliage of the forests that reside in this wilderness, birds are bound to be around. Birdwatchers especially love this area for spotting golden eagles perched on high trees, as the entire forest is their nesting habitat.
Some of the other bird species that live here are the threatened western snowy plover, black swift, Le Conte’s thrasher, and mountain plover.
With diverse landscapes comes a diverse wildlife habitat. The combination of mountains, rugged lands, Joshua forests, pinon forest, and juniper forests offer refuge to mule deer, the threatened Mohave ground squirrel, spotted bat, pallid bat, western small-footed myotis, and Townsend’s big-eared bat.
Photographers frequent this wilderness as much as any camper and adventurer, especially during the spring season. They come to capture multicolored blooming wildflowers and views from the top of the mesa when it is at its finest. The faraway mountains covered in mist, imposing and mysterious, and the nearby wildflowers surrounding the mesa, propose a contrasting image and offer divine opportunities for some frame-worthy snaps.
Another fun recreation activity in this wilderness is that of rockhounding. You’ll find many rock hounds in the wilderness collecting fossils and hunting for ammonites, shark’s teeth, and pelecypods. If you should ever encounter a rockhounding enthusiast during your hike, talk to them and see if they will be nice enough to show you their stash. You will likely be amazed at all the things they have come across and uncovered during their expedition.