A jackrabbit eating grass in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

As we drove through the desert of Nevada on April 21, past sage brush, cacti and twisted Joshua trees, a jackrabbit darted across the road ahead. Jagged brown mountains bordered the flat, dry landscape on both sides. And a group of donkeys clustered around a sun-bleached sign on the side of the road.

“Beatty Days Celebration,” the sign read. There would be a chili cook-off, poker run and antique car road, it promised.

I was more interested in the donkeys.

I pleaded with my husband, Derek, to turn around our rental car. And after some grumbling, he reluctantly pulled a U-turn and slowed so I could photograph the donkeys from the passenger seat. Exhausted from our three-flight trip to the Southwest from Maine, Derek was, understandably, not in the best of moods. Getting off the plane that morning, I had been in an even worse mood … until we had escaped the city of Las Vegas and entered the vast wilderness. I’d never seen the desert before. I’d never seen anything like it.

Me standing by a large Joshua tree growing beside the road.

We were there for Derek’s cousin’s wedding, and our original flight had been delayed, then canceled. We’d slept in the Philadelphia International Airport, huddled under fleece blankets I’d purchased in an airport store, $20 for two. In the corner of a chilly terminal, we laid on the carpeted floor, blew up complimentary pillows and tried to drift off to the lullaby of industrial vacuums.

But we’d finally made it to Nevada, and from there we were headed across the border to quaint town of Big Pine, California. In the shadow of the white-capped Sierra Mountains, the town reminded me somewhat of Maine, though the scenery was dramatically different. Like many rural Maine towns, Big Pine seemed to take life at a fairly slow pace. People who lived there enjoyed farming, though in Big Pine, it was called ranching. Or they ran the small businesses, catering to tourists in a manner that was welcoming, but not overly friendly.

A ranch in Big Pine, California, with the Sierras in the background

Because the Southwest is such a long haul from Maine, my husband and I agreed that simply staying for the wedding would be a shame, so we decided to make a little vacation out of it. While staying in Big Pine, we drove south to Lone Pine and visited the Alabama Hills, where I got my first true taste of hiking in the desert — lizards, cacti and all.

A lizard in the Alabama Hills in California.

We then drove further south to stay on the shores of Isabella Lake, where we bathed in hot springs beside the swift-flowing Kern River.

Calves we passed on the way to Isabella Lake, roaming the sage flats of Olancha, California.

From there, we headed Northeast to the scorching desert of Death Valley National Park, where we walked over sand dunes and through canyons to the lowest point of elevation (of dry land) in the United States: salt flats known as Badwater Basin that bottom out at 282 feet below sea level. And all the while, I photographed animals and plants — especially flowering cacti.

Flowering cacti at the edge of Death Valley.

Every time I go on vacation, it’s inevitable that I’ll be fascinated and possibly sidetracked by the plants and animals I find, regardless of where I travel and regardless of the types of animals. My interest in the natural world extends far beyond my work for the BDN Outdoors. Photographing and learning about flowers, insects, birds and furry critters is simply something I enjoy doing.

A lizard in the sand dunes of Death Valley.
Derek on the sand dunes where we found the lizard.

For example, while touring Washington D.C. last year, I was intrigued by the sheer number of gray squirrels living in the midst of the city, among the trees and grass of the famous Mall. The squirrels were also exceptionally large, and bold — a fact I learned when one scampered up to me and took a granola bar right out of my hand… then firmly grasped onto my finger with its little hand, perhaps asking for just one more nut. I jumped back, worried it would bite me (I know.. I should have been worried about that sooner), and decided not to feed the city animals any more.

So I’m sure you can understand why the Southwest, with its vast tracts of conserved wilderness and scenic ranches, was such a playground for me.

A lizard we found outside our hotel on Isabella Lake.

After Death Valley, we made our way back to Las Vegas, stopping several times along the way to explore various attractions, including sage flats, a historic saloon, a ghost town and an abandoned mine. And before catching our flight on April 26, we rushed out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, where I finally photographed a jackrabbit, as well as a few birds.

A jackrabbit eating grass in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Some sort of flycatcher?

By the end of our six-day vacation, my collection of photos was a task to sort and edit, but I wanted to share some of the photos with you, especially of the wildlife, in hopes that you’ll find this strange and wonderful world as interesting as I did. Perhaps my photos will encourage you to take a trip yourself, explore a somewhere entirely new to you, then return to Maine with fresh eyes and a renewed appreciation for home.

American Coot in a park pond in Bishop, California.

A few more photos (and I have many, many more): 

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...