Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Joshua Tree National Park (Sniffing Boulders and Climbing Wildflowers)

On Thursday, Tori and I towed our travel trailer up to Joshua Tree for a long weekend with our friends, Kenny and Kirstin. I was visiting the National Park for the first time and it was beautiful! We camped at Joshua Tree Lake RV Resort outside the park so we could have electrical and water hookups. (The Joshua Tree Music Festival is held at this campground twice a year in May and October.) When we arrived after dark and hooked up the hose, I noticed water spilling onto the ground. I disconnected the hose and the next morning Kenny helped me figure out that the trailer had a bad check valve. Luckily, Kenny had a spare in his RV and we were able to hook it up and restore our water before going into the park to explore.

Our first stop on Friday morning was Hidden Valley, a small valley encircled by rock walls that once served as a hideout for cattle rustlers in the 1800s. In 1936, rancher Bill Keys dynamited an opening into the hidden valley to improve access for his cattle herds. Despite the thousands of Joshua Trees we spotted driving through the park, there were only a few in Hidden Valley due to its unique micro-habitat. It does have a wider range of plants that are not found together in other parts of the park.

Walking along the one mile loop trail, we diverted to climb up on the boulders for a higher view of the small valley. While pretty, this was probably the most crowded of all the trails we hiked in Joshua Tree. I want to come back and spend more time bouldering.

A short drive away was the Barker Dam Trail, a 1.1 mile loop that passes the desert reservoir within the Wonderland of Rocks. After an unusually wet winter, the watering hole used by migrating birds was almost full. The dam was built by ranchers in 1900 to collect the limited rain water for their cattle. Below the dam was an old concrete horse trough built into the stream.

Just past the damn, we had a great view of the snowy peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains from the trail. Entering a valley between the rocks, we found a field of Joshua Trees, most of them sprouting giant flowers that resembled a soft white pine cone. The trees don’t bloom every year since they require enough rainfall at the proper time. The flowers are only pollinated by the Yucca Moth.

After lunch back at our campground, Kenny joined us for our hike on the Wall Street Mill Trail. The trailhead for this 2.4 mile out-and-back trail is located at the same crowded parking lot as Barker Dam but the hike itself was not as crowded. The trail is flat but runs along the sandy Wonderland Wash so it is a workout for the calves. On the way out, we stopped at the rusty windmill that once operated a well pump for the local miners. Kenny climbed inside the old water tank sitting next to it. Luckily, there was no rattlesnakes inside.

Further along the trail, we came to the replica of the Worth Bagley Stone. It was the location of a 1943 shootout between neighbors, Worth Bagley and William Keys, regarding a property dispute. The inscription carved on the original headstone said, “Here is Where Worth Bagly Bit the Dust at tHe HAND OF W.F. KEYS MAY 11 1943”. William Keys made the stone himself after his release from San Quentin Prison in 1948. The original stone was removed for safekeeping after being vandalized.

At the end of the trail, we found two early-19th century vehicles with rusty frames and rotting tires abandoned by the miners. We had fun bouldering on the surrounding rock piles that border the edge of the Wonderland of Rocks.

On a small hill at the base of the rocks is the actual Wall Street Mill itself, a 1891 stamping mill that operated from 1930 to 1966 to crush gold ore. The original gold mine at this location named Wall Street failed quickly but William Keys took over the claim and brought in a Baker Iron Works crusher. He charged $5 a ton to crush ore from the surrounding mines. Carts full of ore were rolled up the tracks and dumped into the top.

After our hike, we drove up to the Keys View overlook in the Little San Bernardino Mountains with sweeping views down into the Coachella Valley. From the Salton Sea to Palm Springs, the panorama revealed the San Andreas Fault running through the valley that powers the local hot springs. We found a little sheltered spot out of the wind to watch the sun setting in the Gorgonio Pass between Mount San Jacinto (10,834 feet) and Mount Gorgonio (11,502 feet). On our drive out of the park, we made a brief stop at Cap Rock where a rock slab sits balanced atop an outcrop of boulders. I wanted to walk the short half mile nature trail during the beautiful light of golden hour but we had to get back to let the dogs out of the air-conditioned trailer.

On Saturday, we all climbed into Kirstin's Jeep Wrangler to drive down the Geology Tour Road. The dirt road is restricted to 4x4s and finally re-opened after the recent rainy weather. It was pretty flat with lots of noisy washboards in Queen Valley but it then turned into soft sand and deep ruts. At least one AWD car got stuck while we were on the loop. After passing the ridgeline of rocky outcrops near Malapai Hill, we stopped to check out the views down into Pleasant Valley bordered by the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the West.

Before entering the one-way loop inside Pleasant Valley, we made our second stop at Squaw Tank. The name is based on the natural tanks in the rocks that held pools of rain water utilized by the Native Americans in the area. Cattleman later added a small concrete dam to increase the amount of collected rain for their herds. The most distinctive rock formation at Squaw Tank is Hear the World, a large boulder outcrop with a giant stone ear on the side.

The pitted surface of the Hear the World formation was an excellent example of Cavernous Weathering. Water catches in the irregularities in the rock's surface and chemically changes it into clay which then holds more water and the hollows grows slowly bigger over time. The rock mound also had several examples of Dikes, bands cutting through the granite that were formed by molten lava being pushed through the joints in the rock before cooling.

Squaw Tank was filled desert wildflowers and I almost sat on a cactus 🌵 while taking a picture of them. One of my favorite photos from the trip is a small Jumping Cholla Cactus sitting among yellow flowers. Another is one that Tori took of Kenny and I lying out on the rocks like a couple of sun-loving lizards 🦎.

At the far end of the loop in Pleasant Valley, we made our third stop at the site of a former gold mine from the late 1800's / early 1900's. All we could find were two rusty water tanks and a concrete trough above an old cutting. The mine sits at the base of Hexie Mountains that were raised by the Blue Cut earthquake fault and produced the metals the miners were searching for. This spot is also the trailhead for the Fried Liver Wash Trail, the best named trail in the park. As we finished driving the loop around the valley floor, we had great views of the exposed rocky ridge descending from the Hexie Mountains into Squaw Tank with the younger black basalt peaks of Malapai Hill sitting across from it.

After lunch and a nap back at camp, Tori and I decided to hike Rattlesnake Canyon. The canyon is near the Indian Cove campground which has it's own separate park entrance on the northern edge of the Wonderland of Rocks, ten square miles of huge boulders and cliffs. Parked right up front, my truck looked like it was starring in a TV commercial.

There is no marked trail within Rattlesnake Canyon, instead you make your own path as you scramble up into the boulder-choked ravine. You won’t get lost if follow the small stream bed flowing down the center. Near the entrance, we climbed a large boulder outcrop that provided excellent views of the entire canyon. One climbing section near the top of the outcrop was the scariest of my entire weekend since it was easy to get up, but much harder to get back down with a serious drop off to the side. I had to scoot very slowly on my butt to get my feet into the proper depressions in the rock face.

There was lots of swarming gnats along the stream as we followed it up into the canyon. About three-quarters of the way up, we reached the small pools formed out of the monzonite granite by the flowing water. We crawled under the boulders to see the tiny underground waterfall cascading down the rocks. Climbing a little higher to a fairly flat boulder, we had fun trying a little AcroYoga, but we were in the shadows so the lighting was a little tough to shoot. The Willow Hole Trail can be accessed near this spot in the ravine but we didn't see it.

Rattlesnake Canyon was much steeper near the top, so Tori stayed behind as I tried to cross over to the other side to get a little higher for a picture out of the shade. I made it to a nice sunny spot under a tree growing out of the boulders, but I couldn't get any higher so we turned around and started hiking our way back out. This was my favorite hike of the entire trip. I am glad we didn't step on any rattlesnakes.

While Kenny and Kirstin had to drive home Sunday, Tori and I headed back into the park by the Twentynine Palms entrance. While it lacks the prominent forest of Joshua Trees near the other main entrance, this route made up for it with desert wild flowers lining the roadside and coloring the surrounding hillsides.

Since it was still early, we headed straight to the Skull Rock Trail to beat the crowds. The trail is a short 1.7 mile nature trail loop. We only hiked out-and-back on the half mile section between Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rocks Campground since we didn’t know about the rest of the loop on the other side of the highway. The namesake Skull Rock is right at the beginning of the trail. The sunlight was harsh, but I think the picture came out pretty good.

This nature trail had lots of signs describing the fauna and flora to be found among the rock formations. Exploring the undulating moon-like surface, we found the Grand Canyon of Skull Rock Trail. At least it looked like it up close and from the proper angle. Ha! I got a nice action shot of Tori leaping the tiny canyon like a modern-day Evel Knievel.

We didn't plan to visit Split Rock, but we saw the road sign and decided to pull into the dirt parking lot. The eponymous boulder at the head of Split Rock Trail was more impressive than I was expecting, with a perfect vertical crack curving down its entire length. Behind Split Rock, I set up my camera and we practiced a little AcroYoga among the boulders. It was not the best camera angle since it was not apparent from the photos that we were posing on a narrow ledge with Tori peering over the edge of a twenty foot drop. It would have been more dramatic if I could have managed to place the camera tripod on the rocks below.

On a tall outcrop near the Split Rock Trailhead, we could see climbers practicing the Top-Rope Belay technique as I followed Tori on the 2 mile loop trail through the Jumbo Rocks Area. As we left the boulder field behind, most of the first mile was crossing an open desert valley and then climbing southeast along the sloping Eagle Cliff Hills. We found a nice flat rock among a small boulder field near the top so naturally Tori had to jump up into a Shoulderstand.

Just before the mile mark, we climbed a rocky ridge and passing through a narrow gap, we descended into a beautiful green valley filled with Joshua Trees and surrounded by rock walls. One of the most distinctive rock piles in the valley is called The Tulip, but I thought it looked like an Olympic Torch 🔥. Along the far boulder wall, we could see a tiny rock climber waving his arms from the summit.

Before exiting the valley, Tori climbed into a little boulder hole that fit her perfectly. Circling the outskirts of the valley, we skipped the short spur trail to Face Rock and passed the biggest tree we saw in Joshua Tree, a tall Pinyon Pine providing the best shade along the trail. We spotted the tiny climber again as we made it back around to the other side of the large rock outcrop and reentered the small green valley from the South. The rest of the trail passed through washes and rolling hills before ending back at the parking lot. Tori took the cool picture of the flowering yucca below as we waited for our turn at the vault toilet. Pretty views everywhere!

Driving down Pinto Basin Road, we left the high Mojave desert behind to visit the low Colorado desert on the South side of the park. On the way, we descended through Wilson Canyon filled with Desert Wild Flowers coloring the hills. I had to pull over and walk among the yellow flower fields sprouting in the dry wash along the road.

Leaving Wilson Canyon behind, we could see the giant Pinto Basin spread out before us. Instead of Joshua Trees, the 200 square-mile desert floor surrounded by five mountain ranges is filled with Smoke Trees, Ocotillo and Cholla. The Cholla Cactus Garden is a concentrated patch of the jumping cactus. You have to be very careful where you step on the quarter-mile nature trail since loose balls of sharp spines lie scattered on the ground. I had avoided the sharp spines the entire trip, but I got several in my foot soon after leaving the truck. Even though it hurt like hell, my trail shoes had thick soles and absorbed most of the spines length so they didn't pierce very deep into my foot.

After admiring the Cholla Cactus Garden, we left the national park for the last time and went back to our campground for lunch before going over to visit the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum that had been recommended by a friend. While the museum was only 12 minutes away, the empty dirt roads that Google Maps wanted us to take looked a little too sketchy for my two-wheel drive vehicle. At first I planned to take the long way around via the main highway but I finally found a side street that was paved. Well, the pavement ended about half-way to our destination but I decided to keep going since the dirt road looked pretty decent. Tori kept her fingers crossed during some rough stretches but we made it without getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.

The Untitled Welcome Sign (1998) stands at the entrance to the outdoor museum, 10 acres filled with over 100 assemblage sculptures created by the artist, Noah Purifoy, out of collected junk. Before moving out to Joshua Tree in 1989, he lived in Los Angeles and was most known for his sculptures created out of the charred debris produced during the 1965 Watts Riots. There was no staff on-site that we could see, just a donation box and small stand with map pamphlets listing the names of the more well-known pieces. Except for the fenced-off trenches dug into the unstable ground for Earth Piece (1999), we were free to wander around the property and admire all the creative structures Noah built before his death in 2004. No touching or climbing! Ode to Frank Gehry (2000) and the serpentine 65 Aluminum Trays (2002) were two of my favorites pieces.

While allowing the harsh desert conditions to naturally weather the assemblage sculptures was intended by Noah Purifoy, guy-wires have been added by the Foundation's preservationists to keep the pieces from being prematurely destroyed during strong wind storms. At first, the artist was against the idea of a foundation but after it helped him fight the city who wanted to bulldoze the property, he changed his mind. When repairing damaged sculptures, the preservationists try to use raw materials from the "Palettes", or junk piles left behind by Noah. In the collage piece, Sage At Sage (1996-97), they ended up having to use toilets from Home Depot to reconstruct the u-shaped structure after it collapsed in 2016.

After leaving the desert museum, we drove over to Pioneertown in the hills behind Yucca Valley This small town was built in 1946 by Hollywood investors as an Old West movie set from the 1880's. More than fifty films and TV shows were shot here in the 40's and 50's. We walked along Mane Street, enjoying the western facades that contain active shops within. Two weeks earlier, we had called to get dinner reservations at Pappy and Harriet's but they book out way early. Plan ahead!

On Monday morning after Tori made Breakfast Burritos, we hooked up our trailer and drove home. We made it back by noon, but I struggled to back up the trailer into our parking spot. I guess I am out of practice because it took me about five tries. Ha!

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