Great Basin Love

Current Location: Lee Vining, CA cloudy and 67 degrees F

Snake Creek-39In crazy love.  Remember that feeling? Somehow that crazy feeling of youth has been replaced with a crazy ecstasy at what the Earth can do. I have spent the last few days catching my breath in wonder at the view around the bend, the next flower I never knew before this week. 

1-Snake Creek developed copies

I am completely enamored, entranced, and fascinated with the Great Basin, the entire thing.  Although describing the “entire thing” takes a bit of learning. At the moment, I think I am most in love with the brilliant scarlet firecracker penstemon that lines the roads along Snake Creek in the Great Basin NP. This flower was completely new to me on this trip, as well as the incredibly fragrant pale pink scented penstemon.

Snake Creek-16Traveling is so great, there is always something new out there, and the Great Basin visitor center in Baker finally showed with elegant visual displays what the term “Great Basin” actually meant. I had an idea, but the boundaries were sketchy in my mind.  I learned why.

Snake Creek-17The term was first coined by John C Fremont in the mid 1800’s for the vast sink of the American West between the Sierra Nevada Range of California to the west, the Wasatch Range of Utah to the east, the Mojave Desert to the south, and the Snake River Plain of Idaho to the north.

Great BasinGreat Basin-47 I know it is hard to see in these photos I took of maps in the visitor center, but in person, these maps and descriptions helped me to at last understood the Great Basin that I knew from John McPhee’s great book, “Basin and Range”.

I learned that this vague thing called the Great Basin, has a few different boundaries, depending on which aspect of the landscape one is viewing. 

There is the hydrographic view, based on water, and the boundary where all water within the basin stays in the basin, with none escaping to any ocean.  The rivers grow and die quietly in the desert, in the giant sink.

There is the Great Basin as defined by the plant and animal communities, being the largest of the four great American Deserts. Bounded on the south by the Mojave, the Great Basin desert has been called “the sagebrush ocean”.Snake Creek drive

This last definition of the Great Basin is based on the geomorphology and landscape itself, defined by the folding and faulting that created between 150 to 300 mountain ranges (depending on how you define a separate mountain range) that lie within the great sink, high above the desert basins below. Great Basin-49

If you look closely at this map, you will see that my home in Klamath Falls, at Rocky Point, is at the western and northern edge of this great basin of the west.  This close up view also shows the northeast/southwest alignment of the great ranges, like stretch marks in the skin of the earth, created from the extension of continental plates.

Snake Creek driveNo matter how it is defined, no matter where you might draw an arbitrary boundary, the Great Basin is a great American treasure.  More than 2,000 individual species of flowering plants occur within this often dry and barren landscape, and the elevation includes some of the highest peaks in the country, rivaled only by the “fourteener’s” in Colorado and California on the eastern and western edges of the basin.

Snake Creek driveI don’t believe there is another part of our country that is as isolated, as empty, as vast. At first glance, it seems so empty, so daunting.  But a few days in one of the magnificent island arc mountain ranges high above the desert changes everything.  I love the vistas, the ups and the downs, the mountains and the desert, and the way you can see one from the other.

Snake Creek driveThe geology of the place alone is enough to create endless searches into what exactly happened here?  Great seas of sediments converted to limestone, uplifted and folded, and then covered with every form of volcanic activity, and a few meteor craters thrown in for interest.  Then there are the hot creeks, the hot springs, the cold springs, the rivers that flow underground and emerge somewhere else. 

There are two ways to view this land, it goes forever, it can be daunting to cross the hundreds of miles between towns and civilization. The better way is to take the time to delve into its secrets, to explore the hidden places, to go slowly enough to find the treasures.  We didn’t really go as slow as I might have liked, but then we can always go back for more.  I am sure that we will.

Next:  Lehman Caves and a Full Moon Hike to Stella Lake

 

1-10-2014 Big Bend part 1

Current location: Corpus Christi NAS with 53 degrees F and 18 mph winds at 4am

back to camp after a long day in Big BendI am sitting here this morning, listening to the winds buffeting the MoHo.  At 3, we were wakened by the gas alarm going off indicating our power was down.  I stepped outside to check, and everything seemed fine, with dim park lights here and there.  I discovered that the wind had blown the power cord right out of the receptacle.  Fixed it with a bungie and came back to bed after turning the power back to “store”. 

Of course, the moon is almost full and reflecting off the water of Corpus Christi Bay, a rather amazing sight.  There are also 8 to 10 foot fountains of sea spray that are illuminated by the moonlight.  I felt the spray blowing this way when I went outside. We were warned about the sea spray and winds when we took this site on the edge of the park near the water.  It is worth it for the view and the open spaciousness of the site.

map to big bend 197 milesMo and I looked at each other in amazement as we ate our supper last night.  It is rather incredible to go from the wild hot dry angular desert to the flat water filled landscape around us here west of Corpus Christi.  Just one day of driving, and here we are. 

But that isn’t supposed to be the subject of this post.  I need to write about Big Bend, and let myself slip back from this moonlit sea spray filled morning to the warmth of the desert we left behind.  I couldn’t sleep after the wind woke me up, and it was as much from the weight of the Big Bend writing waiting in my head as it was from the sound of the wind. So let’s slip back a bit to a few days ago when we first entered the amazing world of the Big Bend of the Rio Grande.

The sun was brilliant and the temperatures perfect when we left Davis Mountains State Park.  In the cool of the morning, I wanted to get a few more photos of “downtown” Fort Davis, and in the process ran into a delightful gentleman, Jim, who was working for the county at the lovely courthouse, pruning some trees.  We engaged in some conversation, and he told me more about the horrible fire that blew through here in 2011.  He also told me that I shouldn’t go to Big Bend through Alpine as we had planned, but should go south on highway 67 to Presidio and travel the River Road east through Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Highway 170 the River RoadMBZ had warned us that Presidio was a bit dicey, and I asked Jim about this, and he said, just don’t go into Mexico and don’t stop anywhere.  Ok then.  Trouble is, once we got to Presidio, the phone thought I was in Mexico and decided to stop sending me data for the maps.  I had a paper map, but it was a bit worthless for actually seeing the proper turns, and suddenly the big entry into Mexico loomed up ahead, and I hollered, “Turn around NOW!” For some reason, I had completely forgotten the Garmin tucked under the seat.  Duh.  When the phones don’t work and the paper maps are too small in scale, the Garmin is quite helpful.  Trucker Deanna always says, “Mom, we use all three all the time, phones, paper maps and GPS”. Of course. We managed to avoid getting in the entry line and turned around to find our proper turn east on Texas Farm Road 170.

Highway 170 the River RoadFarm Road 170 meanders along the Rio Grande through another wild and untamed gem of this part of Texas, Big Bend Ranch State Park.  We had no time to hang around here, but definitely enjoyed the dramatic views along the route, especially the deep canyons of the Rio Grande near the one rather serious “Big Hill”.  The hill isn’t marked except for a sign about 15 miles west of it that says, “warning 15 percent grade 15 miles ahead”.

ready for the 15 percent downhill on Highway 170 the River RoadFollowing the river for miles and miles, it is easy to see that the international boundary is often just a mental concept.  Here there are no fences and we didn’t see much evidence of Border Patrol in this area.  The road winds and meanders, but wasn’t difficult for our rig, although the big hill was just a little bit hair raising, and thankfully quite short.  The rock formations at the Hoodoos were beautiful, and the geology was fascinating.

We drove east into the town of Terlingua, later wishing that we had taken more time to explore it a bit, but we were intent on getting to our campsite on the far side of the park. We missed a four star attraction listed in our guidebook, the historic Starlight Theater at Terlingua, restored as a restaurant.  We won’t make the same mistake again. MBZ had warned us about this, suggesting that we spend time on BOTH sides of the park, and next time we will definitely do that.  And yes, there WILL be a next time.

the Chisos MountainsOnce we entered the park, the beautiful range of the Chisos Mountains dominated the landscape, but the route is mainly through the desert.  Unlike the Sonoran deserts around Arizona, the Chihuahuan desert seems to have a lot more vegetation, with thick grasses between the prickly pear and creosote.  The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in the Americas, extending almost to Mexico City.  Creosote and agave are the main indicator plants and there are several species of prickly pear and yucca.  I saw not a sign of a saguaro, so common in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson.  Most of the moisture comes as summer rains, with a bit more precipitation than in the Sonoran as well.Chihuahuan-Desert-map

Panther Junction (at the intersection of the main park road 118 and road 395 east to Marathon) is about 20 miles west of Rio Grande Village, and is the location of an excellent visitor center.  As always, we stopped at the visitor center for maps, orientation, and information about the park.  There are some excellent displays, a good selection of natural history books and park guides to help us begin to understand this beautiful, remote area.  My favorite, the 3D landscape map, was big and very helpful with orientation.  I find that these maps are a bit less needed in the days of google earth, however, since I now can cruise an area in 3D on the internet and the imagery is a bit more detailed.  Still, I love that the parks have these big map models.

Rio Grande Village RV Park with full hookupsWe arrived at our campground early enough in the afternoon that we had time to do a bit of exploring around this far eastern edge of the park.  As we knew, there are no dogs allowed anywhere except on pavement or dirt roads that can accommodate a car.  Still, it was hard to realize that we couldn’t leave Abby behind in the rig, or leave her in the car while we hiked.  Just wouldn’t do.  Instead, we planned our explorations around unpaved road trips and a few short hikes.

There are two campgrounds at Rio Grand Village, with the national park campground with campsites without hookups, potable water at the entrance and a dump station.  There is a large no generator zone, and a nice area with sites big enough for large rigs and where generators are allowed at certain hours. 

Rio Grande Village in Big Bend NPBecause we had no idea of the weather conditions for this trip, we opted instead for the Rio Grande Village RV park, basically a pavement parking lot with full hookups and WiFi from the small store and laundry.  Gasoline and diesel are also available, and we were surprised at the reasonable cost for regular at only 3.65 per gallon. We have been in national parks where the prices are two bucks or more higher than the going local rate, so this was nice. We had no need to fill the rig since we had fueled up enough to take us through the park and back out, but we definitely needed gas for the baby car to fuel our off highway adventures.

Our first little trip took us just a few miles from the campground to Boquillas Canyon where there was a rest room at the parking lot and a sign marking the trailhead.  It is just a little over a mile to the canyon, but the trail is “easy” if you ignore the rather steep and rocky ups and downs on the first part of the trail.  I was glad for boots instead of Oofos, and those Keen Targha waterproof hiking shoes are a godsend. Boquillas Canyon trail

Mo generously  decided to wait in the parking lot with Abby while I did the hike, a decision she made a few more times while we were in Big Bend.  Next time we come to this place, if our animals are still with us, we will board them in Alpine, the closest center where there is a pet boarding facility.

leave your dollars and support the schools of Boquillas?

The Boquillas Crossing used to be a port of entry from Mexico, but after 9/11 the DHS closed it, along with all other small ports of entry in the park.  You can see the little town across the river, and at the river overlook we found displays of beaded trinkets with cans requesting $6. per item for little scorpions and for painted walking sticks.  Wherever we found the signs, the request was for money to support Boquillas schools.  We chose not to buy, and yet I did think about it, even though the park insists this is completely illegal and they will arrest you if you buy and confiscate your contraband. 

Below us, across the river, there were boats tied up and some horses resting under the trees, and someone called up to me as we stood there but I couldn’t understand him.  His voice sounded friendly, though, and I am sure he was entreating me to buy something.waiting for cover of night to come and get their money?:

As I hiked up the trail, I found a few more of these little stashes, and at the entrance to the canyon, I saw a canoe hidden in the rocks on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande.  Higher on the trail, looking down below to the river, I saw a man on a horse, and the trail, steep and rocky as it was, actually had horse prints and horse poop on it.  Why do horses get to poop on trails and dogs are not even allowed to go there on a leash with a loyal pooper scooper in tow? I’ll bet anything that guy was from Mexico and had managed to cross the river somewhere to check his little can stashes.

The entrance to Boquillas Canyon was dim, hard to photograph in the late afternoon light, but it was silent and beautiful, with walls rising more than 1,200 feet above me.  I love tall, tight canyons, love how they feel, and found out later that this canyon is one on a list of possible river runs that I would love to do someday.  Probably not in my own kayak, however, since there are some rocky rapids that need a good river guide to navigate.  Still, it is on the bucket list along with Santa Elena Canyon.  That is tomorrow’s story, however. Boquillas Canyon trail

When I got back to the car, Mo and Abby were contented enough, and we did figure out that we should have a book or two in the car for Mo while I wandered about.  Mo and Abby go their exercise by doing six laps around the parking lot. One of the greatest little treasures that we found at the visitor center was a small book called “The Big Bend Guide” by Allan Kimball.  We loved this little book, a great find for first time visitors, with down to earth explanations of the local routes, and what to do if you have only one day or three days or a week in the park.  I highly recommend this book if you have never visited Big Bend.

vWe drove back to the main road, and then again turned off on a dirt high clearance road to find the Hot Springs.  The road is only about a mile and a half to the parking area, and we had hoped that maybe there wasn’t anyone around so we could possibly explore with Abby.  Instead, this was a very popular spot and there were several cars parked and lots of folks heading to and from the springs.

The area was once a large hot springs resort, with a bath house, motel rooms, and even a store and post office.  The abandoned buildings and old palms only hinted at what a delightful place this might have been at one time.  The sun was down, and the evening was cool in the twilight, so Mo decided to leave Abby for a short time while we walked the short distance to the springs.

hot springs at Big BendThe springs are 105 degrees F, in a small rock pool built along the Rio Grande, and look quite nice.  However, when we arrived, they were filled with a couple of families, kids all happily playing and moms floating au naturel in the hot water.  I really didn’t want to jump in with them, so I decided to wait for another time for a dip in the springs. 

We ran into this multiple family again a couple of times, with Alaska plates on their RV.  There were a LOT of people in that rig, but when we talked to them we found out that they were from Austin and had rented the RV.  They were having great fun together, although a motorhome with 4 adults and 4 little kids might be a bit much.  Whew!

rock art at the hot springsWe were happy to get back to our rig and eat the good supper of leftovers from our previous dinner.  So nice not to have to cook when it is dark and we have had a very long day! With no telephone, but at least enough Wi-Fi to get some mail, we settled in and read all the literature we had about what we might want to do on our next full day in the park. 

Big Bend is an International Night Sky park, with a commitment to keeping things dark and unpolluted with light.  There are lots of references to seeing the Milky Way here, but our moon was already too bright and while the stars were wonderful, that gorgeous view of the Milky Way eluded me.  I even got up in the middle of the night to check out the sky.  Maybe it was because the elevation at the Rio Grande is about 1,800 feet and perhaps those great Milky Way views are at the much higher Chisos Basin.hot springs at Big Bend

Still, even in our small parking lot camp, the skies were dark and the night was silent except for some low voiced owls here and there.  Loved it.

Tomorrow we travel the Scenic Route and find the magnificent Santa Elena Canyon

 

1-1-2014 New Year Boondock

South of Joshua Tree NP currently 61F going to 74 and gorgeous sunshine

Mo, Sue, and Abby on our evening walk in the desertHow could I have been so dumb?!  Somehow it never occurred to me that a national park would be completely filled to overflowing during the Christmas break.  Duh!  What was I thinking??  Mo and I were in Joshua Tree last year just two weeks later than this and it was very nearly empty.  We thought, great, lets boondock in Joshua Tree before we head to Desert Hot Springs. Here is the link to last year’s entry about our wonderful visit to Joshua Tree.  Seasoned RV travelers would probably laugh out loud at my assumptions. 

After picking two bags of sweet oranges at Orange Grove RV park, we got on 58 east early enough to get to Joshua Tree by 1pm, early enough we thought to get a first come first served site in one of the campgrounds.  Right.  For the first time since we have been coming here, we had to wait in line to get to the entrance station, and then there were people everywhere.  Every single Exhibit parking area was jammed and every single campground was full to bursting.  Again…what in the world was I thinking??

back toward the desert on 58 eastIn a way, it was an incredible blessing.  We knew from Mo’s memory of her trip through this area, and from other bloggers that there was a great boondock site between the southern park entrance and Interstate 10, so we just ambled along enjoying the beautiful scenery knowing there was a place for us to land before evening.  Although, somehow in the middle of high, bright winter light and a lot of people, the park had a bit less charm than we felt on our wonderful visit early in 2013. 

When we passed the park entrance toward the freeway, almost immediately we saw the wide rather smooth dirt  road leading west into the desert.  There were three other rigs parked in the vicinity, but before very much distance we found a perfect site, level, and a bit elevated above the road, and protected by a man made dike from desert surface flooding.

sunset on New Years Eve 2013It is a great spot.  I can see RV Sue or Nina or Al and Kelly settling into this place very easily. I am also fairly certain that Rick wouldn’t think that much of it.  Some love boondocking, some hate it.  Some are fully prepared, and others like Mo and I just hang out for a few days here and there to enjoy the silence and privacy.  We went to Quartzite once, and have no need to go back.  That is a completely different world of RV fun.   I am pretty certain that RVSue wrote about this place and that is why I remembered it was here, tucked away in my blog reading memory, along with Mo’s trip memories.

We had planned for boondocking, since even in the park it is a dry camp, so we had water and empty tanks and all we needed.  Except for one little minor thing required for boondocking without solar panels.  Fuel.  Now I can hear all of you laughing uproariously again at my stupidity.  I told Mo, “Let’s just wait to fuel up at Costco on our way out of DHS.  We have a quarter tank and that will be plenty to get us there”. 

Orange Grove to Joshua Tree and south-018Oops.  Generator stops working at 1/4 tank.  We were really hungry, so I decided to bypass the WeberQ potato in favor of the microwave while I cooked the steak for our New Year Eve supper.  Suddenly the microwave shut down when the generator shut down and I looked at Mo with that sheepish expression that says “oops”.

thank you, Deborah.  Perfect present for a couple of RVrsSo instead we turned everything off, I cooked some great fried potatoes on the stove top to go with our steak and Caesar salad and we opened the great bottle of Troon Vineyard Cabernet that Deb gave us for Christmas.  The air was balmy and the sunset was simple but lovely.  We got a kick out of using the new RV wine glasses that Deb also gave us for Christmas.  They just stick into the ground by our chairs and aren’t as susceptible to spilling as they are on the little plastic table we use when we are out.

With temperatures only going as low as 55 degrees last night, we slept without any need for extra heat.  Unlike other years, we had no television to watch the ball fall and with darkness thick with stars by 7pm I think I barely made it to 8 before putting my book away.  Funny thing happened, though.  At just a couple of minutes past midnight a gust of wind blew our single solar panel over, and it woke both of us up.  In time to say “Happy New Year” and think of all my kids who usually call me at midnight. 

last sunset of 2013 in the desertI thought I would be without phone and internet for a few days, but in spite of our quiet boondocking status, we have several bars both on the Verizon MiFi and the Verizon iPad as well as the ATT iPhone.  All bases covered for the time being.  Oh yes, except for that fuel part and running the generator.

After breakfast this morning, Mo took the MoHo just 6 miles or so toward the closest gas station at Chiriaco Summit, and put in 20 gallons at 3.89 PG.  Which is why I can now write and post and read emails and do all those things that might require a bit of generator power. We haven’t had to start it up yet, with plenty of charge on the batteries and the little panel keeping things at least charged enough to use the inverter and the Fantastic Fan.  Nice.

Jeremy is a little concerned about the MoHo being goneWhile she was gone, Abby and Jeremy and I sat in the sunshine, although Jeremy was really concerned that the MoHo was not here.  He sat on the rug by where the entrance of the MoHo should have been, patiently waiting for it to appear.  Funny, the one time that I left him with Deborah over at the cottage, he did the same thing, sitting in the spot where the door had been, waiting for us to come home.  I think Jeremy thinks he is a dog.

Our beautiful, warm, sunny New Years Day is slipping by with such grace and silence.  The breezes are light, and it’s warm in the sun and cool in the rig with the windows open.  I am enjoying reading all the “year end reviews” that fellow bloggers are posting. We enjoyed a great bike ride on the reasonably level road that wanders beyond our site into the desert toward the west. Later toward sunset we walked along the man made dike that separates the BLM land from the National Park land.  Nice bit of elevation that allowed us to see in all directions. I know it is a trite saying, but I feel it so strongly at this moment:  “Life IS Good”!

A Day at Hart Mountain

Currently we are in Summer Lake Oregon Cloudy High 64 low 32 currently 48 We are heading back to Rocky Point this afternoon

Saturday May 25 Mostly Sunny High 58 Low 37

interesting cabin near plushWhen the animal alarms went off at 5:30 this morning I looked outside to see crystal clear skies and a sun already nearly over the eastern face of the mountain.  The magic hour, morning light.  Rather than dawdle around, we got up and dressed, had our morning coffee and breakfast and were on the road east to Hart Mountain by 7am. 

waterfowl on Hart LakeThe road to Hart Mountain follows a track east from Plush, past old homesteads and hay ground, through the Warner Wetlands and along the northern edge of Hart Lake before turning to gravel.  I am a sign junkie, so was tickled to find the wetland interpretive sign I had seen somewhere in a brochure.  I didn’t realize that the Visitor Information Center was simply a series of kiosks and some shade shelters with signs.

Area of Critical Concern Warner WetlandsI discovered once again why I need a fast! and much better telephoto for my Nikon 5100 than the cheapie one that I have.  Those birds just refuse to come into proper focus no matter how many shots I try.  No tripod probably doesn’t help, but I think it has something to do with the autofocus as well.  When I manual focus it isn’t any better.  Ah well, an Erin I will never be.  Still, I included some of the photos just for fun to remember who was hanging around the wetlands.

Mom, Dad, and the teenagers on Hart LakeWe continued north along the road, coming to the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge entrance sign, with a small campground just inside the boundary called Camp Hart Mountain.  Surprisingly, this nice little camp is just a step up from boondocking, and still free. 

free! camping at Campt Hart Mountain  boondocking with benefitsThe host couple told us that the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t figure out what to charge, so they left it free.  There is potable water at the main shelter with picnic tables inside, very large open sites, and as I mentioned, a camp host.  Nice for those long days when you leave your rig to go exploring on roads you might not want to take the big shiny RV.

Flagstaff Lake from the road to Hart MountainContinuing up the road as it passes along the east side of the Warner Wetlands, we saw a few other boondocking opportunities on some BLM land along the lakes, but the east side of the road is all refuge and not open to parking.  As we started up the steep hill east into the refuge, we saw a small sign, “Warner Overlook”.  Perfect place for a short hike to the viewpoint on a gorgeous morning.

Abby checking out the Warner Valley OverlookThe desert stretches to the west, and the complexity of the Warner Wetlands follows the base of the ridge as far north as we could see.  An interesting phenomena was the “bathtub ring” left along Poker Jim Ridge left behind when the huge Miocene lake receded as the climate went from moist tropical to dry desert over a few million years. There were lots of flowers blooming on the ridge, mostly varieties of Indian Paintbrush and buckwheats.  It was a delightful walk.

Warner Valley Overlook trail flowersContinuing east into the refuge, the road is still gravel, but very steep until it tops over the uplifted ridge and the eastern desert stretches to the distant Steens.  The Scenic Backway continues along this gravel and dirt road for many miles, all the way to French Glen at the base of the Steens.  It  is a beautiful drive.  I have a friend from Rocky Point who said she and her husband towed their fifth wheel all the way to French Glen across this road, nearly 100 miles,  but they would probably never do it again.  I have no desire to ever take the MoHo even as far as the Refuge Headquarters just 20 miles or so from the valley!

The Steens from Hart Mountain Blue Sky Road Lookout PointWe decided to drive the Blue Sky road along the eastern edge of the refuge early in the day in order to see more wildlife and catch the early light.  We hoped that this time we would be able to continue all the way around and connect up with the Hot Springs Campground in a full loop.  We were a bit too early for many of the side roads which were still gated closed, including Skyline Drive, Black Canyon Road, and Old Military Road. 

the pronghorn are fawning, so most moms are hiddenIt was on the southernmost edge of our drive that we saw the most wildlife.  Pronghorn are not technically an antelope, although the refuge is actually called an antelope refuge.  This time of year the herds are fawning and so are more dispersed than usual when hundreds of individuals can be seen racing across the hills.  Pronghorn actually developed their incredible speed during a time when there were two species of cats similar to cheetahs that were their main predators. They can run up to 45 miles per hour. Combined with keen vision and speed, they are usually only subject to predation when very young or ill.

and two months too early to make the full loop back to Hot Springs CampgroundThe other wildlife species that is especially important on this refuge are the sage grouse, with a drumming chest and elaborate spring strut that is a renowned spectacle in the high desert springtime.  We were a bit late for the courtship rituals, which occur in March and April.  We didn’t see any sage grouse, but what we did see was gorgeous desert habitat thick with abundant grasses, healthy because no livestock grazing has been allowed in this refuge since 1994. We also saw areas that had been burned, as part of the habitat management to encourage more grasses and to stop sage from encroaching on the lush meadows, so important for the pronghorn.

the ancient bathtub ring on Poker Jim Ridge at the edge of the Warner ValleyContinuing west toward the base of Hart Mountain’s east slope, we saw only 2 other people, a couple of guys on 4 wheelers.  There are stern rules about not going off road, and it appeared that these guys were obeying the rules.  The rest of the morning we had to ourselves.  Keep in mind that this was Memorial Day Weekend, and people were few and far between.  The last time we camped at this refuge was Labor Day in 2004, and back then it was just as quiet, with just a few campers in the Hot Springs campground.

Hot Springs Campground at Hart Mountain Antelope RefugeAt the turn to what is called Blue Sky Camp and the road to Warner Peak, we were again stopped by road closed signs, and most disappointing of all, the road to Hot Springs was closed as well.  Seems as though the only time of year to make this loop in a vehicle would be after August and before the fall snows.  We had hiked the road from the campground end when we were here before, but this was just a day trip, and that hike wasn’t on the agenda for us.

We returned the way we had come, stopping to try out another side road that was open and on the map appeared to continue across the ridge.  Instead it stopped at a small rather nondescript little meadow at a place called Robinson Draw Day Use Area.  Ok then.  We used the day use area to have our snacks in the car and then drove back out to the main road and headed back toward the turn to Hot Springs Campground.

developed hot springs at the campgroundThe road into the campground was as we remembered, more decently maintained gravel for a few miles before you rise over a ridge and see the campground and meadow hot springs spread out beautifully below the snowy mountain above.  I was excited about the hot springs, with wonderful memories of the white sandy bottom of the natural spring out in the meadow.

We drove around the campground a bit, checking out the camp sites, including the one we used so many years ago.  With the recent burning of sagebrush, it didn’t look very appealing, and another area had been opened up along another draw that seems a bit claustrophobic along the brushy creek.

see the bubbles on the left?Finally we parked at the beautiful hot spring, surrounded by a stone wall erected many years ago by the Order of the Antelope.  The spring itself is about a 8 x 10 foot rocky hole in the ground and the water is only about 97 degrees F at this time of year.  It didn’t look particularly inviting at the moment, although I do remember great soaks there when we were here before.  Instead, I wanted to wander out into the meadow to find my favorite little spring.  There is was, a bit bigger than it used to be and a lot siltier.  I ran back to the car to get a suit on and by the time I got back to the spring there was a bather already settled into the little pool.

natural hot spring at Hart Mountain Refuge near Hot Springs CampgroundHot Spring culture is often dominated by natural sorts of folks who really like to soak sans clothing and this was no exception. The nice guy floated in the water and was very friendly and conversational with me while his parts floated conveniently just below the surface.  I wasn’t too anxious to jump in with him, but I sat on the edge of the grass and dangled my legs while we talked for some time about the springs and he pointed out the next small spring up the meadow.

103 degrees F but only 2.5 feet deepI wandered off to check out the spring, but it was incredibly small, with three different streams entering of different temperatures, and the only hot clean spot was about 2 feet wide and surrounded by saturated deep grass.  Nah, maybe not.  Then, as I turned around to walk back, I saw that the single bather at the first pool was leaving.  Mo had been walking around with Abby, (she isn’t much of a hot springer), and I called her to bring the camera.  I was getting in that pool and wanted the photo to prove it!  Sure enough, it was warm, about 103 or 104, and while the silt on the bottom made it seem a bit murky, just under the silt was that nice hard sand I remembered.

UhOh.  Jumped in and can't get back out.  she did finally make it with a little extra pull on her collarAbby decided that the pool was a little bit strange, with all that warm water, and I got her in, but not for long. It was wonderful to be in the hot water, with great minerals and no smell at all.  There wasn’t a sign of sulfur in the water. and after it settled a bit, the water was crystal clear.  My friendly bather had stirred up all the silt, I guess just to get a mud bath or something, but by the time I finished soaking the water had cleared beautifully.  ahhh.

view from the developed springWe drove back out of the campground road, stopped at the refuge headquarters to talk about antelope and weather, and found that it had been 11 degrees F the morning before.  Sure am glad we didn’t try to camp there then!  It can be cold in these deserts!  I picked up some brochures about the local birds and wildlife, and found a nice little brochure that lists 12 different day hikes that are available.  There are also more than 200 bird species that have been recorded in the refuge and another brochure has a handy bird checklist.

up a very steep side road we find Warner PondWe decided to take the road north to Petroglyph Lake with a short 4 mile hike that leads to petroglyphs on the basalt walls on the north side of the lake.  Instead, we found that the rough basalt rocks in the road were too much to try to do with a patched spare tire, and with several cars parked just beyond where we could drive, we decided that it wasn’t worth it.  There were a bunch of hikers getting ready to do the trip with packs and walking sticks and it wasn’t exciting enough for us to deal with the people.  I guess we are getting spoiled with all this alone time and space and people seem like a jarring intrusion somehow.

reflections at Warner PondWe drove back down the steep gravel road with the gorgeous vistas of the Warner Wetlands and the desert, overlooking the distant sunstone digging area where we were yesterday, the white trailers just tiny dots on the horizon.  On the way down, we saw a little sign to Warner Pond Day Use Area, and flipped a quick turn to follow a steep dirt road back up the face of the mountain slope.  This road was really steep, and even in 4 wheel drive, the little Tracker did a bit of slipping and sliding.  At the end of the road, however, was a precious jewel of a tiny fishing pond, even with a dock to launch a boat!  We wondered just how anyone would haul a boat up that road unless it was on the top of their pickup.

road down from Warner PondOur hiking on this trip has been limited for reasons not mentioned until now.  When cleaning house before we left, I was rushing around the kitchen and slipped on the wet floor and slammed my foot into something or other, who knows.  Mo was gone, I laid on the floor for a few minutes feeling sorry for myself, and my foot turned blue half way up the midstep.  I think I broke my big toe.  Not particularly fun, and not particularly conducive to any kind of lengthy hiking trips.  At least I can still walk, but thought I might mention why we haven’t been doing much hiking on this trip.

mapWe traveled back home along the same route to our lovely boondock site, still empty and quiet and cool enough for Jeremy.  The weather had cooled quite a bit and it looked like rain, so we settled in to relax, read, and nap till dinnertime.  It would be Jeremy’s last day of desert freedom since our next stop will be in Summer Lake at an RV park, not likely a place where we can just let Jeremy out to play so easily.  By late afternoon a few pickups and 4 wheelers drove past our campsite, waving to us, but no one attempted to infringe on our nice open boondock site.  The site is big enough to easily accommodate several rigs, so I am glad no one decided to bother us.

Back Roads

Desert Hot Springs Sunny Clear no wind Hi 72 F Lo 48 F

There are long captions on these maps so remember to hover your mouse over the image to see them.

Berdoo Canyon starts at B, we made it to C before turning around, then back to A, E, F, and then made it to D.  Next time we will go all the way over Berdoo Canyon to the Geology Road. H to I was our drive to the Pinto Mountains where we were stopped by steep rocky rutted road. G is the south entrance to the park off I-10Nothing like a good back road to spice up a visit to the desert!  Once again we decided to try out some of the roads in Joshua Tree NP designated four-wheel drive only .  On this trip I am traveling with a nice laptop with a decent screen but I also have an iPad, and the difference between the resolution of google maps on the two devices is dramatic.  I scoped out some roads leading into the park from the south on the iPad and could barely find them on the laptop later when we returned to the MoHo. These screen shots are from the laptop, since getting iPad screen shots to the laptop is time consuming, and if you are looking at the imagery on your own device, you probably wouldn’t see any difference anyway.

From B to C is about 6 miles, we stopped at C, went all the way around to the north side of the park, and then stopped at D.  We know now that we could have made it through and will next time. It’s also helpful that the battery life on the pad is reasonably long, much longer than on the iPhone even when Google maps is up and running.  The other very helpful detail is that if I open the map and load the imagery while I have a good connection, later when the iPad says “No Service”, I can still see the maps and still see that magical little blue dot moving along the landscape letting me know exactly where we are.

Now, of course I can read a paper map.  Of course I can find myself on the ground with a paper map.  I used paper maps and USGS quadrangles and old fashioned aerial photos to map soils in rugged, often wilderness areas.  That doesn’t keep me from loving GPS and Google Maps any less.  That moving blue dot is magic!  I have used all sorts of GPS units in the last ten years to document data points, but I still love that moving blue dot on my iPad.  Love it!

how much clearance do we have in the Tracker?We found Berdoo Canyon road leading north from Dillon Road east of Desert Hot Springs.  We could see that the road meandered up the washes and squirreled around some tight turns in the depths of the canyon before emerging on the bajada and continuing to an intersection with the Geology Tour Road in the park. The first few miles the old paved road parallels a wash that is usually a better option than the caved in pavement.  At the lower reaches of the canyon, we saw people shooting and evidence that this is a pretty popular place for target practice.

squeezing through the boulders in berdoo canyonWe had a great time for the first few miles, negotiating a couple of tight turns around boulders, and a few nasty big rocks in the roadway, and continued following the washes east.  Before long we encountered a big Hummer full of people who had probably paid good money for the Hummer Desert Tours, and then a few minutes later we found another big Hummer full of people.  They were all bundled up in their big coats and hats, enjoying the wait while their tour guides fixed a big Hummer flat tire.  We wondered what they thought of two women in a little Tracker going up their expensive tour road, but we just waved and kept going.

Mt San Jacinto looking west down Berdoo CanyonAfter about 6 miles and a good 90 minutes, we came to a bad rough patch of rocky road that would have been a serious challenge to the clearance of the Tracker.  We walked it, and were pretty sure we could do it, but had no idea what was ahead of us.  I could see on the iPad (remember I had No Service!) that we were almost to the end of the difficult part of the canyon, but we also had no clue what was ahead on the big alluvial fan leading north.  It could have been completely washed out for all we knew.  Sigh. I can’t believe I didn’t take any photos of this part of the road, either.  They were big rocks!  Honest!

I loved this boulder sticking out of the smaller alluvium in Berdoo CanyonRather than taking a chance, we decided to give it up and back track out of the canyon.  On our previous day in the park, we had planned to drive the Geology Tour Road, so we made a beeline back to Desert Hot Springs, up through the Moregno Valley to Yucca Valley and the western entrance to the park.  By this time it was about 3 in the afternoon and the estimated time to drive the Geology Road is two hours, but we really wanted to see just how far we could get and how close we could come to our stopping point. We stopped at the visitor center for a geology tour map and when I talked to the ranger about Berdoo Canyon Road he pulled out some photos of how hard the road was.  Darn it if he didn’t show us a photo of the part we almost went through as the worst part of the canyon.  We could have made it!

geology road in JTNPThe tour road was interesting, and sure enough the Berdoo Canyon Road took off south across the fan.  We were excited, but the sun was against us and by the time we started up the bajada toward the canyon the sun was setting.  Sigh again.  We were within a couple of miles of our previous end point, but we both knew that we could have made it if we hadn’t chickened out. Neither of us had any desire to crawl into that canyon and try to get back through it in the dark.

As we drove back north toward Yucca Valley, I commented that in spite of the late clouds there wasn’t much of a sunset, nothing good enough to stop the car for a photo.  But then, about half an hour after the sun went down, the sky lit up with rose and purple and pink and we were treated to some breathtaking moments. You can bet I stopped the car to get the last light of the day silhouetting the fantastical shapes of the old Joshua trees.back roads_030DSC_0030

Another day in the desert, another road that we will have to come back and try again.  The night was clear and the moon was just less than full to accompany another swim in the hot springs pool this morning.  Only a couple more days and we will be heading back north.