J-Tree Feb. 2-4, 2007

"It's like a desert out there." 

Hadn't been on a hike in a while; decided to follow up on an area I'd gone to last year, the Pinto Basin in Joshua Tree National Park. This time I went to the far-eastern edge of the park just north of a place called Desert Center. Here's what the area looks like from on high: Above Pinto Wells, Joshua Tree NP

The forecast temperatures were for highs in the 70's and lows in the high 30's. For the 2 1/2 days of hiking, I carried 22.5 pounds of water (two Platypus bags, two two-liter soda bottles, one tall liter bottle) and 5.5 pounds of hydrated food (not much sense packing dehydrated stuff out here.) My pack weight minus food and water was 14 pounds, which included just under two pounds of camera, GPS, and Treo phone-PDA. (Click on any picture for the largest version.)

Journal entry: At roadhead about 2 PM. Cell signal present, two bars, but won't connect. Called Jane and left a message just after I got off the freeway at Desert Center (which the freeway signs said had "No services" but which had a 24-hour gas station and shop, and just down the road is Lake Tamarisk with fancy homes and a golf course.) Very little development here in the park other than a small sign at the gate which threatened a prison sentence of up to 10 years for anyone who defaces it; someone had nailed it with shotgun pellets...

I walked north up the old road, noticing that though it was closed to vehicles, most of the tracks were from wheeled vehicles (ATVs.) But even with the ATV tracks, there was little evidence of use, with very little trash and only one set of footprints other than the ones I was leaving.

The road led to Pinto Wells, marked on the map with an enticing blue dot suggesting water. But there was no water:

just a lot of junk left over from an earlier time when several pumps were active. Now it's only corrosion, cut wires, and guano.

I walked further north into the desert. A bit further on, there were three metal stakes with a concrete parking-lot wart proclaiming:

Given its location, I have to think that somebody forgot that it's out there, or the budget for removing such cruft dried up. Here's the larger context:

I walked further into the desert. Found some fragments of a tortoise shell,

saw a few cholla,

but mostly it was lots and lots and lots of creosote bush.

The sun dwindled off to the west and I set up camp. It wasn't too hard finding a bare level spot...

Journal entry: 7:15 PM - In tent after having had a satisfying meal (TJ Indian food packet, tuna, tortillas, hot cocoa.) Am 5.2 miles from the gate where the Subaru is parked. The moon is very bright, one day past full. Temperature inside the tent is 48 degrees.

Saturday February 3rd

Journal entry: Went down to 39 degrees last night, then a bit after midnight the wind started to blow 10-20 like it is now and the temperature went up a bit to 42 degrees. Was glad I had my long underwear, started out w/ the top and added the bottoms during the night. Clear today with none of the wispy high clouds of yesterday. Tent performed very well, no noise in wind.

The tent I was packing on this trip was a new acquisition, a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo e which I ordered during their Christmas sale. My previous solo tent (seen in previous trip reports from 2006) was just too cramped for my height. Also, the Lunar Solo e promised to lower my pack weight by 1.5 pounds and definitely took up less space in my pack, too.

My plan for the day was to walk over a saddle at the western end of the Coxcomb Mountains and then at that point decide on where to go next. The next photograph shows where I was heading:

As I got to the base of the mountains, there was more vegetation and even a couple of bushes that were flowering.

The flowers had attracted several hummingbirds, the males being a vivid green. I witnessed/heard a remarkable display where one bird was flying overhead in a circle at high speed and making a "bzzzzrww!" sound. The air would be silent for about 5 seconds and then the sound would come overhead again, dopplering from left to right. Marvelous! It took about ten overflights before I even saw the bird, which was banking hard and going fast. I guess you could say it was really hummin'...

I continued up the wash towards the saddle. It was slow going, with lots of rocks and boulders. I was also being a bit cautious to not surprise a snake, though I didn't see any. I did see several tracks of a larger cleft-hoof animal, almost undoubtedly Ovis canadensis, which as one guidebook says "...inhabit rocky, precipitous desert mountain ranges...". This place certainly qualifies:

I got to the top of the saddle and started down on the other side. It was still pretty rocky, but not quite so much as the southern approach. I broke for lunch just before the final descent into the south-trending wash along the northern base of the mountains and pondered my route.

I decided to head around the western tip of the Coxcombs and then go due south back across the basin towards the Eagle Mountains about eight miles to the south. Certainly made for easy navigation:

The plants were mostly more of the same, though I did come across a particularly spiny pencil cholla:

Settling into an almost dreamlike rhythm, I ambled through the desert in the afternoon's slowly waning light. Crossed the main wash which drains east towards Pinto Wells and continued south, discovering the reason why the Eagle Mountains had looked black in the distance: they were covered with a lot of black basalt. This rock was a nice example of vesicular basalt, frothy with bubbles.

With the sun lowering in the west, camping on top of basalt seemed...not so nice, so I turned around and headed back down to the wash. It's never wise to camp in washes unless you're sure there won't be any rain; I set up my tent in the wash with no qualms whatsoever. I did have to look around for a bit to find a spot where the soil was compacted enough for the tent stakes to hold well.


Journal entry: Eight pounds of water remaining, and most food is eaten. Continued to be able to get "bars" on the phone, able to get a connection but unable to call or send text. Down here in the wash the phone does not have a connection at all. Feel good physically; it was about 75 degrees at the warmest, which was fine. Definitely feel that much warmer than 75 would have been unpleasant. Used up the 3-liter bladder walking, peeing occasionally so was well-hydrated. With the absence of flowers or greenery the surroundings are quite monotonous. The mountains are very rough and jumbled piles of rock, quite forbidding up close. Life hangs on but does not flourish here. Temperature is about 50 sitting inside the tent. Somewhere there's the buzz of an insect like a cicada in the wash. So far the winds are light.

Sunday February 4th

Journal entry: Down to 36 degrees last night. Sky is clear, though there was a fair amount of high cirrus around midnight.

Walking back to the car along the wash I studied critter tracks while pondering if this area could be better used. Certainly seems like a lot of area just to entertain a very few hikers like myself. The trees in the wash looked pretty healthy and unstressed.

If you're not fit, you're not going to be able to see this place. Yet imagine for a moment a solar-recharged electric powered ATV cruising silently down the wash. Would that be so wrong? Yeah, you'd have to make sure the operator didn't decide to go wild and tear across fragile areas. But the bottom of a desert wash is already wrecked as far as the flora and fauna is concerned. And used wisely, a wheeled vehicle is less destructive than a hoofed one, if you can design out the fumes and noise. An eco-friendly Green ATV? I think we ought to stay open to the possibilities.

There's a big green swath on the map leading south of Pinto Wells which I had imagined indicated a seasonal stream. Wrong. It's not riparian habitat but rather a somewhat higher concentration of Palo Verde trees. There IS a bunch of water in the Colorado river aqueduct just south of the park gate, though you'd have to climb the fence and "fish" with a pot on a cord to get any.

Got to the car right at noon. All was OK (I always dread the possibility that some idjit will decide my vehicle would be fun to vandalize.) Was able to call Jane at the intersection of the aqueduct road w/ Kaiser road. Bopped along the Interstate to the the Chiriaco Summit Fosters Freeze where I sat and sipped a chocolate shake and ate a burger. I take along a little bar of deodorant for post-hike application and always hope I'm not imposing too much in the olfactory way when going into a fast-food place after a hike. And I definitely choose a table or place to sit that's out of the main flow of folks. No bad looks or complaints so far... though Jane is seldom so circumspect when I get home. "Ewww, take a shower!"

Ended up the trip still carrying about six pounds of water. May sound like a lot of weight, but even at the temperatures I saw on this trip that's only good for ten or maybe fifteen miles of walking. The moral: don't lose your way, and keep something in reserve. 'Cause ya know, it's like a desert out there.

 Looking west towards the Pinto Mountains

All photos taken with a Canon A510 digital camera; most are downsampled to 33% of original resolution.

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