By Kathleen M. Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center is a premier site for studying the Sonoran Desert. It sprawls across two major drainages and the crest of a mountain range, enabling the study of species ranging from bighorn sheep to barrel cactus.
The reserve began hosting field scientists even before it joined the nascent UC Natural Reserve System in 1965. Yet its roster of visitors has included surprisingly few classes and other groups, despite being within five miles of several Coachella Valley cities.
A major deterrent has been a lack of group facilities. “We’ve had places for researchers to stay, like small dorm rooms next to a lab with running water and internet. But we’ve never had indoor space for classes or workshops to gather,” says reserve director Chris Tracy.
In the extreme environment of the desert, indoor space isn’t merely a luxury. Daytime temperatures in the area can soar to 120 degrees in summer, and winds often scour reserve lands at 40-60 mph in spring.
“There’s a brief chunk of the year when the weather’s okay outside, and you can sit outside and chat in the shade. But there are also times when a class wants to get together in the middle of the day and talk about what they just looked at out in the field. Or workshops that want to meet during the day and show PowerPoint slides,” Tracy says.
Bond funds for building
A lack of funds for capital improvements meant Deep Canyon’s need for a classroom went unaddressed for decades. Then in 2006, the people of California passed Proposition 84. The bond measure provided the UC Natural Reserve System with up to $20 million to improve facilities or purchase land. The stipulation was that reserves had to provide an equivalent amount of funding for all requested funds.
The reserve director at the time, Allan Muth, swung into action. Together with colleagues at UC Riverside, the reserve’s managing campus, Muth planned projects that could address Deep Canyon’s most pressing needs. At the top of the list was a classroom. Next would be a second campground to provide additional overnight accommodations for classes. Any remaining funds would be used to repave the reserve’s crumbling 4-mile-long access road.
After more than a dozen years of repeated planning delays, Muth retired as the project went to bid. Tracy took up the cause when he assumed the directorship in 2017.
From storage space to classroom
Groundbreaking for the classroom began in the spring of 2019. To minimize the amount of desert habitat disturbed for the project, the new building was built atop the footprint of a former storage building known as The Cottage.
The Cottage originally belonged to Philip Boyd, the UC Regent who had gifted Deep Canyon lands to the University and is the reserve’s namesake.
“It was the tack room on his ranch in Palm Desert,” Tracy says.
Boyd intended the structure to serve as a combination residence and office for reserve staff.
“But it was a tiny little building, and the director at the time said, no way,” Tracy says. In truth, The Cottage wasn’t suitable for habitation. “It was not rodent proof, it was not snake-proof, it had lead paint and asbestos tiles on the outside—all the things that existed on buildings before the 1950s.”
Blending into the desert
Today, the Tevis Education Center occupies the space between the reserve offices and the Mayhew dorm building. The 908-square-foot multipurpose room includes a kitchenette, two restrooms, and storage. Three sets of double doors across its front open to a 420-square-foot covered patio. The exterior is clad in weathered steel, which oxidizes to a handsome rusty brown.
The building is named for Deep Canyon’s first resident director, Lloyd Tevis. Donations from his family helped provide matching funds for the reserve’s Prop. 84 projects.
“He was also an avid photographer who took large-format black-and-white images. We plan to decorate the walls with large prints of photos he took when he was here on site,” Tracy says.
The pavers used for the center’s patio, which once formed the patio of The Cottage, offer an additional link to reserve history. The custom at Philip Boyd’s Coachella Valley ranch was for visitors to scrawl their initials into a square of wet concrete square. Some bear the names of luminaries such as Robert Gordon Sproul, first president of the University of California system; Herman Spieth, first chancellor of UC Riverside; and major UC donors. Originally installed at Boyd’s ranch, the pavers moved to Deep Canyon along with The Cottage.
Building contractors handed Tracy the keys to the completed Tevis Education Center in July 2020. Between the pandemic and triple-digit temperatures, “It was probably the worst possible time to open a classroom,” Tracy says.
Almost designed for COVID
A wilderness first aid class became the first group to use the center in April 2021. The design of the building proved ideal for teaching during the pandemic. The wall of doors enabled the class to shift seamlessly between outdoor demonstrations and indoor class work.
“There’s so much ventilation in the room that it’s practically outside. With all the doors and windows open, it’s more like a shade structure than a walled building,” Tracy says.
As built, the center does not include the offices and small meeting rooms included in the original concept. Muth had hoped the building could replace the double-wide trailer that has served as office space for the reserve since the 1960s. However, building costs rose substantially in the 16 years between the project’s initial design and final date of construction, leaving the replacement of the existing office trailer to a future funding opportunity.
A step up from basic camping
The second of Deep Canyon’s three-pronged Prop. 84 project was construction of a second reserve campground. As with the Tevis Center, the campground is expected to substantially increase the reserve’s capacity to accommodate classes.
“One of the quirks of our reserve is we typically have a short season when people want to be here: about a month in the spring and a month in the fall. We’ve had situations where multiple classes wanted to come out and camp at the same time. We didn’t have the ability to deal with that before,” Tracy says.
While the old campground is truly primitive—a few shade structures over picnic tables and a pit toilet—the new campground will be more palatable to those unaccustomed to roughing it in the desert.
“Before I was director here I took my own class to the old campground at Deep Canyon. So I can vouch for the fact that it comes as a shock to students who haven’t done much camping before.”
The new site not only has cleared spaces for tents, but also two well-insulated, 300-square-foot dorm cabins. Each cabin is packed with four sets of bunkbeds, adding 16 beds to the reserve’s indoor accommodations. Thoughtfully placed to block the wind for tent campers, the buildings are wired for lighting and charging stations but at present lack photovoltaic panels.
“The buildings should extend the useful range of the campground by a few weeks into the hotter or windier parts of the year,” Tracy says.
The cabins have already come in handy during COVID. The reserve’s Mayhew dorm building recirculates air in two pools of three rooms each, reducing its typical capacity to house 14 people. The campground cabins enabled the reserve to host two more researchers, one per cabin.
“If you put one person in each building they’re totally isolated, and it’s pandemic appropriate,” Tracy says.
In addition, campers will have the option to borrow cots to sleep in comfort outside. “We’re hoping people will take advantage of that to sleep out amongst the stars. It’s pretty nice and a lot cooler,” Tracy says.
Outside, a large shade structure covers a decomposed granite pad outfitted with picnic tables and a steel barbecue. A vault toilet (“any national park would be envious of it,” Tracy says,) plus accessible parking and walkways complete the site.
Like the new classroom, the cabins and the shade structure are covered in weathered steel. This metal skin requires no maintenance and helps the facilities blend into the desert environment.
The third and last portion of the Prop. 84 project involved repairing the access road to Deep Canyon. The asphalt along the 4.2-mile route, which stretches from an exclusive Palm Desert enclave to the headquarters buildings, dated to the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. Decades of wear and tear, plus 18 months of daily traffic from heavy construction vehicles, had left it pitted and rough.
The original plan had been to pave the entire stretch. In the end, the segment of the road between the reserve boundary and halfway to the reserve buildings was completely repaved, while the worst of the rest received patches. The road work took just two weeks.
“We’ve had golf carts driving up and down. So it’s in pretty good shape,” Tracy says.
Altogether, the entire Prop. 84 project cost $1.182 million. The $457,000 in required match came from a combination of donor funds, an NSF cyberinfrastructure grant, campus-contributed furnishings, and reserve staff time devoted to project planning and oversight.
The new facilities promise to revolutionize Deep Canyon’s ability to host future users, Tracy says. “We’ve never had the capacity to bring larger classes out. We’re hoping that the combination of having a couple of beds in the nice new campground, combined with the new Tevis building where classes can go over what they experienced out in the field, will be an enticement for new groups and classes to come visit.”