Monday, May 12, 2008

Joshua Tree

On our way into Joshua Tree, we stopped at Twenty-Nine Palms, one of the park’s gateway towns, in hopes of finding the grocery store that we’d failed to find in Primm, Nevada. We did manage to find a small grocery store and do a little bit of shopping and then headed into the park. Brian had decided he wanted to sleep in the backcountry for his birthday, so we inquired at the visitor center about camping along the Boy Scout Trail. We found out that we could camp anywhere to the west of the trail, as long as we were at least a mile from the trailhead and 500 feet off the trail. We didn’t even need to register at the visitor center – we just had to fill out a little form at the trailhead. Easy!

So we drove out to the trailhead, filled up our backpacks with gear and six liters of water, and headed out on the trail. The trail was very scenic. The Joshua trees weren’t as densely packed as on the trail that we’d hiked in Mojave, but the wildflowers were the best we’d seen.

Just past a mile in, we wandered off the trail to the west through the wildflowers and found a spot where we could pitch our tent with minimal damage to the vegetation and set up camp. Brian pulled out the extra-large can of birthday beer that he’d carried in and enjoyed it while we made dinner. The sunset light was really pretty on the surrounding rocks and trees. We could even see some mountains off in the distance.

The next morning Brian woke up early and got some nice sunrise photos of our surroundings while Sarah slept.

After Sarah got out of bed, we made breakfast and hung out in camp for a while, relaxing and reading.

The wildflowers all around our campsite were amazing. We especially liked this yellow one, with its red center:

As if the wildflowers weren’t enough, there were white butterflies, flying all around us! It was quite an idyllic scene. We just sat for hours enjoying it.

Eventually, we got up the energy to head out on a day hike to Willow Hole, a natural spring in the Wonderland of Rocks, a prime rock-climbing area just east of the trail. Since our campsite was pretty far off the trail and reasonably well-hidden, we made careful mental notes on how to get back. We also stored some waypoints in our GPS, so between our mental notes and the GPS, we figured we could probably find our tent again. Then we headed off.

The rocks were very cool – these huge boulders sticking out of the ground, cracked and split.

Every so often we’d see a lone brilliant orange flower like this one:

This spiny lizard blended in really well with the trail. Brian passed right by, almost stepping on it, and never saw it. But Sarah stopped and got a picture:

These huge red-thorned cacti were a pretty common site. They’re appropriately named barrel cacti:

Finally, we made it to the spring – you can just see the pool in the foreground of this picture:

The pool was pretty dirty and smelly. We were glad that we had carried all of our water in – our filter wouldn’t have done a very good job with that water.

As we hiked back, we took a few more photos. It may not be the densest Joshua tree forest in the world, but it has to be pretty close.

We found our way back to our campsite without incident – without even resorting to the GPS! Then we packed up and headed out. We needed more water, and surprisingly enough, the central area of Joshua Tree National Park doesn’t have any running water, so we had to drive out of the park. As long as we were doing that, we decided to drive a few extra miles to the town of Joshua Tree to see if we could find a wi-fi connection.

The town was pretty small, but we happened upon the Joshua Tree Saloon, which prominently advertised the availability of wi-fi:

Sarah found some interesting artwork on the side of the saloon:

We went in and sauntered up to the bar, ordered a Bass and inquired about the wi-fi. Two pints later, we had caught up on email, news, and assorted online business, so we headed back into the park. We set up camp in the Ryan campground, one of many scenic car campgrounds located around areas of rocks in the park.

Since we’d been in the backcountry the previous night, Sarah hadn’t made a cake for Brian’s birthday, but tonight she did. Baking in our Coleman oven is always an adventure, and this time, while the cake tasted great and didn’t seem undercooked, it didn’t hold together well enough to be frosted. Oh well, Sarah stuck some candles in and after several tries, managed to get them all lit at once before the wind could blow them out. Brian only needed one puff to get them all out, but does he get his wish if the extinguishing of the candle was wind-assisted? Time will tell, I guess.

The next day, we hiked up Ryan Mountain, which afforded a nice view of distant mountains.

On the way down, another couple of hikers pointed out a bighorn sheep, chilling out in a bit of shade:

And just a few minutes later, we passed by a lizard with very bright coloring:

Finally, we took yet another picture of a beautiful beavertail cactus in bloom, before we finished the hike.

Next up was a ranger-led tour of the Keys Ranch, alternately called the Desert Queen Ranch. It was billed as a chance to see what life was like in the area a century ago, when the area was just being pioneered. As it turned out, the tour was all about Bill Keys, an apparently amazingly skilled and resourceful man who successfully settled the area where many had failed. He built a dam so that he’d have a reliable source of water. When his back was sore, he built a contraption that would stretch it out – he’d lie down, tie a rope to his feet, and someone else would crank the rope taut.

He made building bricks by breaking large rocks apart. First he’d chisel holes into the rock. Then he’d fill the holes with wet wood, which would expand and break the rock apart.

Here’s his house:

After he managed to convince a woman to move out to the desert with him and they had children, he decided to build a catwalk from the second floor of the house toward the outhouse, so that his daughters could more easily and safely go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He also built this refrigerator:

It’s nothing more than a set of shelves, screened in, with cloth all around. They’d soak the cloth, and the ever-present wind would keep the inside cool. They could apparently keep milk and butter for several days before it went bad, even in the triple-digit heat of summer!

Bill was a jack of all trades, but as much as anything else, he was a scavenger and pack rat. Many other families tried to settle the area and lacked either Bill’s skills, Bill’s reliable water source, or both, so most others wound up going elsewhere. Sometimes they were in a hurry and would leave things behind. Bill had collected many, many beds, for instance, and used the metal in the springs for all sorts of purposes.

He turned this tractor into a saw:

He also had lots of vehicles, which ran with varying degrees of reliability:

Bill made some money mining, but he also supported his family by serving travelers. There wasn’t an auto service center in the area, so Bill would help fix cars. If you were a miner, you could bring him your ore and he’d separate out the gold for you – for only five dollars per ton of ore, he’d touch mercury with his bare hands (because that’s how it was done in those days – mercury apparently binds to gold). There also was no Wal-Mart or Sears in the area, so Bill ran his own store, which had a hardware department, plumbing, and even ovens:

Later in life, Bill had a run-in with a guy who had been hired by some cattle ranchers to torment Bill – they apparently wanted his water source for their cattle. Bill wound up shooting and killing the guy in self-defense and going to jail for 4.5 years. At the end of the tour, we learned that the ranger who had led the tour was actually Bill’s granddaughter, and she had visited the ranch many times as a child. A neat twist.

After the ranch, we headed to Barker Dam, which wasn’t the dam that Bill built, but rather another dam on some property that he later acquired. The water level was clearly down from its high point, but the dam still held back a pretty significant lake.

It was significant enough that a half dozen ducks were frolicking in it, right in the middle of the desert! It seemed to be mating season – the male duck was chasing the females and getting them upset.

This female was shaking her feathers:

And this one was talking:

A happy couple went diving together:

Just below the dam was this trough for watering pack animals, now surrounded by bright yellow flowers:

As we looped back around toward the trailhead, we saw plenty more flowers worth photographing:

Many of the Joshua trees were in bloom. This tree had one branch just getting ready to bloom and one already in bloom:

This guy was enjoying the sunshine. Since lizards are cold-blooded, they apparently bake themselves in the sun every day until they’re blood gets up to 95 degrees.

Toward the end of the hike, there was a very short side trail to some petroglyhps. Petroglyphs are rock carvings, while pictographs are rock paintings. Since these were colored, we were initially a bit confused as to why they were petrohlyphs. It turns out that the color is vandalism – they were originally rock carvings, but someone came along much later and painted over the carvings.

We stayed one more night in the Ryan campground. It had been calm the night before, but tonight was very windy, so we sat in the car for a while and read, protected by the wind. The next morning, we started heading west toward Los Angeles!


Rake said...

Great write up.

Wonderful pictures.

Thanks for sharing.

Lisa said...

I like your new tent!!!