Joshua Tree NP hike, Spring 2006

"…during the entire hike, I didn't see one other hiker." 

Joshua Tree hike, Apr. 28-30. 2006 (click on any photo for the largest version)

I had done a hike in 2005 in the Pinto Basin in Joshua Tree National Park; that hike had inspired me to do another, longer one. My 2005 hike was in January; this one was originally planned for late March, then early April, then finally late April. Other things kept intruding, other more necessary things: work schedules, college tours, home duties. But finally I was off to the desert, for what I hoped would be four days of hiking across the Pinto Basin to the base of the Coxcomb Mountains and back.

My backpacking ensemble for a trip of this length is typically about 25 to 30 pounds, but the desert in late April is not a good place to find water. Even though I did not carry items I'd usually bring (rain pants, pack cover, gaiters, and bear can) my pack weight with food & water was still 44 pounds: 6 pounds of food, 22 pounds of water (a bit over 9 liters.) The Park Service web site said that water was unavailable; I did not entirely believe them. Silly me.

I was wearing boots, to fend off thorns, spines, and the slight possibility of blundering into range of a rattlesnake, unlike normal mountain hiking where I wear running shoes. I also had along my GPS unit and my cell phone, though I expected (and found) no cell coverage.

At the Turkey Flats backcountry roadhead

Apr. 28 - Started from one of the designated backcountry parking and registration areas. The National Park Service is apparently putting their limited funds into other things than these registration areas, as there were no permit forms and nowhere to place them even if there had been any. A previous hiker had scribbled an approximation of the "required" info on a scrap of paper and placed it in the ammo can attached to the registration pylon; I used the back of their scrap for my similar approximation gesture. I had of course briefed Jane on where I was going.

I took off around noon and began hiking to the north towards the base of Pinto Mountain, about 2.3 miles from the car. The temperature felt pleasant, 91 degrees F. measured in the shade.

Pinto Mountain from south

The flowers and green blush of spring growth were mostly gone, but there were still things blooming here and there, most notably the creosote. And showier flowers could still be found scattered about:

Once I reached the base of the mountains, I headed east. Large stretches were rather similar: creosote, burrow, tuft of dry grass, creosote, gravel, lizard scurrying, creosote, sand, burrow, sand, creosote...

The dry washes were much more interesting, with many different types of plants and in some areas, quite a lot of birds. The most frequent birds were quail and doves. I hadn't expected to see so many quail; I must have seen & heard a hundred.

I was drinking water regularly and, I thought, in appropriate amounts. The sun was at my back and I didn't feel very hot. It was quite pleasant. About the only non-routine thing was that I never had to pee. I should have paid more attention to that.

As the sun got lower, I was approaching the general area of Mission Mill, some abandoned mining structures listed on the map about eight miles from the car. Walking along, I realized I was starting to feel a bit weak and tired, so decided to choose a spot to camp. A really nice spot soon appeared, complete with mysterious metal hoops a couple of feet in diameter and a scattering of other old rusty cans. I set up my tent and started to prepare my supper, noticing that my legs were a bit crampy.

The "stylish" hiker, with three-pound solo tent and Acorn slippers. Coxcomb Mountains in distance.

Journal entry: 8:25 PM About a mile and a half southwest from Mission Well, sitting on a rock after dinner. Temp. is 78 degrees, wind about 15 MPH but I'm in the lee of a big boulder so am sheltered. 6.85 miles from the car, though probably walked about 10 or 11 miles. Sky is quite dark; can see about six aircraft passing overhead. Walk was very good, though once I stopped I got strong leg cramps, whether from lack of food, dehydration, or just not having been walking very much recently I don't know, though I suspect the latter. [I bet I was mistaken: I now think it was dehydration.]

Saw quite a bit of wildlife today: a roadrunner, Antelope ground squirrels, black-tailed jackrabbits, doves, quite a lot of quail (always by Mesquite or Smoke trees), a few butterflies, some small birds, and many lizards. One type of lizard was intruiging, with a black-white striped tail which lay flat on the ground until it would move, at which time it would raise its tail above the ground in a 360 degree upright circle!

Pretty night, lots of stars. New moon was yesterday, so it'll stay dark all night.

Saturday April 29th

Journal entry: 62 degrees just before dawn. Clear and windless. Have decided I don't have enough water, so unless I can get some at the upcoming wells I should turn back today. [I was still thinking the wells might have water.]

Found about six latex balloons yesterday, all quite crumbly, two with ribbons which were quite undegraded (the ribbons went in my trash, the balloons were crumbled further and left behind) Found shreds of two mylar balloons, too. Speaking of trash, there are several iron barrel hoops and an assortment of old cans and wire here at my campsite. Would the barrel hoops have been from water barrels?

"Boomf, boomf" off to the north today; the 29 Palms range must be active.

Off I hiked towards what was marked as "Mission Mill" on the map. The sun was bright, the air was calm and expectant. An occasional lizard scurried off at my approach.

Arriving at the site of the old ore mill, the dominant items (beside creosote bushes) became various rusting cans and scraps of metal. There really were quite a lot of cans, big and small.

The Mill site itself didn't have much to recommend it unless you were a big fan of concrete foundations or large rusting storage tanks. Near one of the saddle-like concrete forms seen in the middle photo immediately above was the date "2-15-56", which explains the relatively boring and businesslike nature of the remains of the mill.

Back to the south, the map promised the first of three wells. After looking around for a little bit, I found Mission Well on the east site of the Old Dale dirt road (the map showed it on the west side.) Nothing functional, no water.

The map showed another well to the east about a quarter of a mile named Spirit Well and there I found the same story. The well casing itself only had a little wire fence around it and a movable metal plate over the top. A rock dropped down the well took a long time to ricochet down, but there was no discernable water sound at the end.

I continued further east to Gold Rose Well marked on the map as being about a mile away, intercepting an old road. Came to an old gate, which delineated a boundary of some sort:

There were a couple of fenceposts and a strand of cable to either side of the gate, but otherwise no sign of a fence. The gate itself was chained shut, but the chain was just looped over a rusty nail. I opened the gate and left it open.

I soon decided the gate marked the boundary of Joshua Tree National Park and must have been the entrance to Old Rusty Pile of Junk National Park. There was quite an array of Old Rusty Junk.

I could almost hear the swearing: "Damn it. I TOLD you I'm gonna put that car back together once I get around to it!"

And the bitter reply: "Well, you got all the parts there but where's the body?! It's prob'ly down half-buried in the wash!"

You may think there's the body of a car, but that's not just a car: it's a Cadillac. (Remember, clicking on a photo gives you the largest version.)

South of the well and the homestead area seemed to be the dumping ground for quite a few car and truck bodies. Not sure if they had some sort of anti-erosional purpose or what.

Kudos to whomever figures out the parentage of this old truck; the serial plate was on the inside of the glove compartment door. I think it's a Ford.

Nearby to the north a couple of hundred yards were the remains of the business side of the enterprise, complete with a big pile of ore. There were many different rock types and colors within the ore:

Around the pile of ore were many crumbling concrete foundations and more Old Rusty Junk. But the one thing I would have hoped was there, a supplemental source of water, was lacking.

I went back over to the homestead area and had lunch under the metal roof remnant by the now-defunct well. I dropped a couple of big chunks of glass down the well casing,which ricochetted down for fifteen seconds or so and then made a distant plashing sound. There was water down there, but to get at it would have taken a big wrench & prybar to get the remains of the well head off the top of the casing, and then a LONG rope and tiny bucket. Inscribed into the concrete by the well was "1948", underneath where I'm sitting in the next photo.

It's worth noticing that I'm about as red as my backpack, a sign of my body trying to reject excess heat. With hat and sunscreen, I didn't get sunburned or even noticably tanned after the hike. I was drinking what I thought was a lot of water, but also eating a fair amount as I figured I wanted to keep my energy level up. The food was probably mostly making me more dehydrated...

My GPS said it was about eleven miles back to the car. I had a bit over 1 1/2 gallons of water. What seemed like a fairly easy stroll became a bit of a trudge. I felt a bit nauseated when I started off; that feeling intensified. My supposition was that my system was failing to both take up all the water I was drinking as well as digest the food I was eating. It was unpleasant. The temperature at Gold Rose Well in the shade was about 92 degrees; it felt hotter out on the flats as I was walking. Trudge, trudge; not all that much fun.

Shade was a rare commodity, This creosote bush was a bit larger than most; I changed my socks once again, let the sweat evaporate off my back where the pack rode while I was walking, took the temperature (still 92 degrees F.) and continued on, turning on the GPS occasionally to verify my bearing back to the car.

I skirted around the east end of the sand dune area, or what was marked as dunes on the map. They were mostly overgrown with creosote and other plants. Looking back along my route, I could see by my shadow that the day was drawing to a close. I had been getting about 10 Miles Per Gallon (gallon of water.) Working it out in my head, I realized that meant I would have had to carry 40 to 50 pounds of water if I would have gone the distance I originally planned. Of course, the heavier one's pack, the slower one goes, so I'm not sure even 50 pounds of water would have been enough!

Since the Park regulations specified that you can wilderness camp most anywhere as long as you're a mile from any paved road, I walked until I was a bit more than a mile from Turkey Flats according to the GPS unit and then pitched camp. I just set up the tent and crashed, no dinner desired or prepared, as I was still nauseated. Spent a restless night drinking most of my remaining water.

Sunday April 30th

My original plan was to stay in the Park until Monday, but when I broke camp my only thought was to walk back to the car, drink yet more water, and go driving to find a big cheeseburger and fries with extra salt. As I was walking towards the car, I saw this cute little horned lizard ("horny toad" was what we called them in my youth):

I got to the car and found one other vehicle parked there, a sleeping bag draped on the top and a person sleeping inside in a sprawl. Nothing I did woke him up, even when I drove off to find that double-double with fries and shake.

I had learned that there was a big difference between hiking in the desert when it's in the 70s versus when it's in the 90s. I discovered that drinking even a LOT of water may not be quite enough; web research when I returned home told me that in some temperature and exertion combinations, one's body can't uptake enough water. I had seen a lot of nice country and had a good time, but had also learned that the desert is not easily adapted to or casually crossed. Perhaps that explains why during the entire hike, I didn't see one other hiker.