Colorado & Mojave Deserts Trip - Part I
Joshua Tree National Park
Salton Sea Recreation Area & Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge
Anza Borrego State Park
Coachella Valley Preserve
Big Morongo Canyon Nature Preserve
Mojave National Preserve
Wednesday April 8th: to Joshua Tree National Park
After three months of flying back and forth between the San Francisco Bay area for work, I was ready for a nice long trip away from it all - leaving work, people, and work behind. We arrived in Las Vegas one hour late due to mechanical problems, but I was glad to be there. After picking up our supplies and provisions at the REI (I was so thankful they opened one up here and didn’t have to repeat our previous fiasco of driving all over Vegas looking for fuel, only to resort to buy a propane Colman stove at Wal-mart) and Albertsons, we were on our way to Joshua Tree National Park.
Our destination for the night was the southern part of the park - Cottonwood Springs. The southeastern part of the park is the Colorado Desert (as subset of the Sonoran Desert), while the northwestern part of the park is the higher elevation Mojave Desert, where the Joshua trees are found. By the time we arrived at the campground in the early evening, most of the campsites were taken, but we managed to get a site that wasn't sandwiched on all sides by people.
Still having enough daylight, we took the path down to the nearby trailhead. Along the path, we saw our first California Fan Palm. It turned out to be a very unimpressive puny palm in comparison to the other palms we would be seeing, but we were still impressed by our first encounter. At dusk, we reached the parking lot for the trailhead, continued down the trail, and were in immediate awe of the palm grove that towered above us. A Lesser Nighthawk silently circled the palms searching for food and a pair of Common Ravens croaked from the depths of the palm grove.
We returned to our campsite and settled in for the night. An occasional breeze kept temperatures down.
Thursday April 9th: Joshua Tree NP
We awoke early to hike out to the Lost Palm Canyon, which started from the trailhead we had visited the previous night. The three mile long trail meandered up and down through washes and across the desert. Flowers sprinkled the desert landscape with color. The ocotillo, silver cholla, calico cactus, brittlebush and beavertail cactus were all in bloom. Smaller wildflowers like the pincushions, poppies, dandelions, eriophyllum, and daisies added subtle color to the sandy desert floor. Near the rocky hills and washes there was greater bird activity. Small flocks of White-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows sang and hopped around the bushes. A few Bell’s and Warbling Vireos, Black-throated Gray, and Orange-crowned Warblers also gleaned the creosote bushes in the washes. Many Costa’s and Anna’s hummingbirds were busy working all the blooming flowers.
Just when we were climbing out of another deep wash and wondering where the palm canyon was, we spotted the fan palms tucked in the hillside canyon. Upon reaching the viewpoint, we could see the more palms stretched below us in a canyon. We hiked down the steep canyon wall into the palms. There were small pools of water along the sandy canyon floor. We stopped for a snack and watched Lesser Goldfinches stop in for a drink and listened to Hooded Orioles sing from the canyon walls.
After poking around the palms for a bit, we headed back. The day had heated up considerably since we set out, so each breeze was enjoyed under the hot sun. I haven't quite figured out which is the bigger factor when birding during the heat of the day - either me withering under the sun and therefore lacking the energy to search and find birds or the birds withering under the sun and therefore lacking the energy to move around to be seen. I'm thinking it's a little of both, but the bigger contributing factor being the earlier.
Once back at the campgrounds, we packed up and went to the visitor center nearby to look for another campground within the park. The majority of the campgrounds are found in the Mojave part of the park, with many of those campgrounds used by rock climbers. However, due to our poor timing, it was spring break so all of the campgrounds except for Cottonwood Springs were full. So we stayed at Cottonwood Springsfor one more night; we'd have to be surrounded by the large number of families and young college students.
After resettling into a campsite, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening traveling via car up to the Mojave part of Joshua Tree to see... well the Joshua trees. We stopped at the White Tank campground to walk the interpretive trail. The campground was packed and all sense of personal space seemed to be at a loss. We continued up to Keys Views, which offered a view of Coachella valley below. My perspective of the view might have been tainted by the hordes of people I've encountered throughout the afternoon, but all I could see was that valley was filled with Palm Springs, other sprawling towns, and agricultural lands. The surrounding mountains didn't seem to leave much of an impression on me.
On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at one of the pullouts to walk through the Joshua trees and to get a closer look. The trees were impressively large - much taller and bigger than the ones I've see at the Mojave Preserve. After causing a minor pile up of looky-lous (people who stop because another person stopped), we continued on to Queen's Valley and the Barker Dam loop trail.
By late afternoon the parking lot was fairly full, but a lot of people were returning to their cars at this point. We hiked the loop trail, apparently the wrong way, because we took a wrong turn and skipped the petroglyphs along the loop. We backtracked and were greatly disappointed to see that someone has graffitied over the petroglyphs - either painting in the petroglyphs or creating new ones. Continuing on toward to dam, I knew we were close by the number of birds, including Lesser Goldfinches, Brewer’s Sparrows, and House Finches, that were flitting in and out of the area. The water behind the dam was considerable low, as indicated by a no swimming sign and the fact that there wasn't any water within sight of the sign. By the time we reached the parking lot, it was mostly vacant expect for a couple whom I presume were climbing rocks in the area.
The sun was quickly setting so we headed back down to the Colorado Desert to Cottonwood Springs. Before we got there, we stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden - an area with a large number of Teddy Bear Cholla. For once we enjoyed the park in peace, as we were the last ones to walk the short interpretive loop for the day. It was close enough to dusk that we even saw two wood rats come out to start their search for food.
Back at the campground, we ate our dinner and went to bed trying to ignore the throngs of people around us. We were un/fortunate enough to have two "musicians" on either side of us - one with a harmonica and the other a guitar. I managed to find sleep eventually only to be awoken in the middle of the night by what sounded like people either trying to level their RV or repairing their car - it was a lot of shouting and engine starting. I was hoping to finding that desert solitude I was so looking forward to.
Friday April 10th: Salton Sea and Anza Borrego
We packed up our site early morning and stopped to have breakfast at the palm grove at the trailhead. It was a fairly peaceful morning of watching the orioles, finches, and many hummingbirds buzzing around the palms. We left Joshua Tree NP and headed toward our next destination: Anza Borrego State Park. Despite it still being spring break for a lot of kids in the area, we were still hoping to find a little peace and quiet in the large state park, which allows camping along any of the roads.
On the way to Anza Borrego, we made several stops at the Salton Sea Recreation Area and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. The "sea" was quite a sight. The shore was made up entirely of barnacle shells and old fish bones. And the birds were everywhere. Many shorebirds probed along the water's edge, while the terns and gulls stood in masses along the shore. American White Pelicans paddled along the surface of the water. And Eared Grebes dotted the water as far as the eye could see. I was hoping to see Black Skimmers or a Yellow-footed Gull, but it was too early in the year to see them. I did however see two other lifebirds - Eurasian Collared-Dove and Gull-billed Tern. The first bird wasn't as impressive since it is an introduced species. However the tern was a treat - as we stood atop the Obsidian Butte, I noticed an odd tern swooping and diving over the ground below. On closer inspection I realized it wasn't one of the numerous Caspian Terns, but a Gull-billed Tern hawking for insects. It was an odd sight watching a tern hunt over ground, but it's probably easier than competing with the larger and more aggressive Caspians.
Away from the sea, the large numbers of birds continued in the agricultural fields. Large gatherings of Whimbrels, Long-billed Curlews, and Black-bellied Plovers searched the soften dirt for food. Along one of the roads through the fields, we spotted two Burrowing Owls standing post outside of their burrow. We watched them preen on the fence post for a while, when suddenly the male owl (I'm assuming it was the male) took off down the fence line. He swooped down to the ground and began hopping around. We realized that he was trying to ward off a gopher snake that had made its way a little too close for the owls' comfort.
We made our way around the Salton Sea and after a border patrol check (we were experts now at going through those) continued on toward the Anza Borrego visitor center, which is located in Borrego Springs (a resort/agriculture town located in the middle of the park). We got advice from the volunteer there to try the Rockhouse Canyon road past the Clark dry lakebed for solitude. So we headed up the canyon hoping that she was right. The road started out pretty well grated and maintained, however after the split toward Rockhouse Canyon the road got a little bumpy. When the rocks got a little too large for comfort, we found a pullout not too far after the split in the road. It turned out to be a great campsite tucked next to a hill with a good view of Clark Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains.
We took a stroll around the hillside, set up camp, and enjoyed the rest of the evening (albeit it was a little chilly due to the wind) with only the desert animals as our closest neighbors.
Saturday April 11th: Anza Borrego State Park – Rockhouse Canyon
The next morning we hiked up to the end of the road into Rockhouse Canyon. We quickly realized we did the right thing by stopping where we did. The road, which traveled the rest of the way through a wash, contained many large rocks that could have easily taken out a muffler. The only cars that could drive the roads (without inflicting great damage on itself) would have to have a good amount of clearance.
At the end of the road, an unseen Roadrunner called from above us on the canyon wall. Several White-tailed Antelope Squirrels darted between bushes upon our approach. After the end of the road, we continued up the canyon wash. The canyon narrowed slightly as we hiked on. We passed Hidden Springs, which was very small, but very popular among the House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, and Morning Doves. At one section of our ascended into the canyon, the walls were large slabs of granite and the dry wash ended at a 10 ft wall of granite, which was smoothed down over many years of seasonal rains. We climbed around the dry waterfall and continued our journey until the canyon walls opened up and we could see the mountains rising up over the canyon walls. We turned back and made our way back to camp.
While hiking on the road to camp, a Jeep passed us bouncing up the wash toward the end of the road. It eventually passed us again as it headed back down the road. We saw the Jeep again parked next to another car off the road. It was a family setting up camp for the night. Just as we were walking past the cars, their ferocious little rat dog came running out, barking, and bearing its teeth. It nipped persistently at Tor's ankles. If it weren't so small it would have loved to sink its teeth into Tor's legs. The owners obviously had no control of this dog and fought to pick it up. After the owner picked up the dog, there was no apology or recognition that this was annoying to us. I was disappointed that the owner made no acknowledgment - probably because this was standard behavior for this ratdog and therefore excusable. The family was only camped less than half a mile away from us, but thankfully we didn't see them or their dog for the rest of our stay.
When we returned to camp we took advantage of our solar shower and cleaned up a bit, trying not to get too chilled by the frequent gusts of wind. Two other cars drove up the road past our camp. They both turned back. I was wondering what they were looking for exactly or if they had hit the point where there's no turning back until the road ended. We took at evening stroll along the road and watched the many sphinx moths enjoy the blooming ocotillo. Other than the family up the road and the two lost cars, we had the valley and the desert night to ourselves.
Sunday April 12th: Anza Borrego St Park – Mountain Palm Springs
Hoping that the end of spring break would clear out the majority of the campers, we headed out to one of the designated campgrounds on the southern part of the park. We stopped at Tamarisk Grove campground to hike the Yaqui Well and the Cactus Loop trail. In spite of arrive at the campground mid-morning, the tamarisk trees were abuzz with bird life: Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Scott's Oriole, Costa's Hummingbirds, and Black-headed Grosbeak were all there to name a few. It's strange the park celebrates a non-native invasive plant by establishing and naming a campground after it. Of course the birds didn't seem to mind in the least bit.
We hiked out to the well first. It was a nice short and easy hike through ocotillo, blooming brittlebush, and many types of cactus. The cactus loop trail was uphill. We tried in vain to look for any Big Horn Sheep on the mountains above us, but no luck. With the pamphlet guide in hand we learned about the cacti and other fauna that grew along the rocky hillside. Barrel, beavertail, calico, and fishhook cacti were in bloom adding contrast to the red dry rocky surroundings.
After completing the loop trail, we headed down toward the Mountain Palm Springs area. We stopped at the primitive campground first and decided to check out the Bow Willow campground just a few miles down the road. The campgrounds are connected by trails so we'd be able to have a good hike through the area. Though there's a fee for Bow Willow, we decided we'd like the luxury of a ramada and paid the $7 to stay. There were only two other groups at the campground when we picked out our site well away from the other campers.
Not wanting to hike in the heat of the day, we hung out in the shade of the ramada before setting out to hike out to the Mountain Palm Springs. The trail between Bow Willow and the palm groves forms a figure eight, so we set out on the loop, which has a side trail to the Torote Bowl. The trail climbed some rocky hills, but wasn't too strenuous, just hot under the afternoon sun. Along the trail we saw a young collared lizard sunning itself on the rocks and we came across a fishhook cactus with bright red fruits. We each tried one of the berries - they were so sweet and reminiscent of strawberries - such a delightful dessert of the desert!
We took the side trail, which lead farther up the rocky hillside, to the Torote bowl. When we reached the crest and gazed upon the bowl... we wondered what was so special about it. Then we saw the elephant trees. There were several good-sized elephant trees growing around the rim and in the bowl. These odd trees have fat twisted trunks and are fairly rare. A nice treat after a somewhat hard climb in the heat. It was definitely worth the effort.
Continuing back to the trail to the palm groves, we made our way down the hillside and into the Southwest grove. The Southwest grove had been in a fire as evident by the blacken tree trunks. Yet most of the palms survived the fire and their green fans swayed in the desert breezes. We stopped for a snack on a rock when we spotted movement on the hillside above. Something with a long tail, thick body, and short legs walked along the hillside and disappeared behind the rocks. Although neither of us got great looks at it. I can only guess it was a chubby ring-tailed cat.
We continued on the trail, which looped the canyons to several palm groves. As we hiked down the wash to another palm grove, we spotted a speckled rattlesnake, which moved away from us and froze in place. It did not rattle its tail or show any aggression toward us. A little farther along the trail was saw an electric orange long-nosed leopard lizard. It was too warmed up and fast to get a good picture, but it was a treat to see her brilliant coloring.
The trail continued down the wash through the Dwarf Grove and to the trail parking lot. We continued to loop up the second wash towards the palm groves. The trail passed through Surprise Grove then crawled up the hills back toward Southwest Grove. We completed the loop through the Mountain Palm Springs and headed back on the more level trail toward Bow Willow. Along the trail we passed a group of three people. The two women in front gave us a fleeting look like we were something that crawled out from beneath a rock. The man in back actually made eye contact and returned a polite "hello." I entertained a brief thought about how it would be funny if we returned to our camp and someone was set up right next to us in an empty campground. Well must have been a jinx, because that was exactly the situation when we got back to camp. There were 4 groups (including us) camping at the campground that night. Of the 26 sites, a group had to set up right next to us. Somehow the random chances of having two groups camp next to each other is pretty slim. So I chalked it up to human stupidity. To make matters worse, they (it was the three people we passed on the trail) had a Colman lantern, which drowned out the clear night sky.
I will admit that we did use their light to take a shower at night. It provided enough light to soap up, towel off, and dress. The best part is, even though we were only 100 ft away from them, we didn't have to worry about them seeing us, because we knew they were blinded to anything 10 ft away from their fiercely glowing lantern. Still I could have done with out the artificial light because there's nothing like the sensation of Leo, Capella, Ursa Major and the other constellation twinkle down on bare skin during a warm desert night.
Monday April 13th: Anza Borrego St Park – Coyote Canyon
We packed up early morning and left our neighbors to find another group of campers to cozy up to. We drove back up toward the visitor center, this time passing through the highest road in the park. We stopped at the Pena Springs trail to see if there was any difference in the environment at the higher elevation. The trail to Pena Springs was poorly marked (well not marked at all), so we unintentionally took the desert riding and hiking trail, which climbed up the hills. Even though it was not the intended plan, we enjoyed the walk up and the view from above. We turned around at some point, and walked down the wash instead. We almost missed the springs again, had we not returned to an arrow made out of rocks pointing the way to the springs. The spring was a grassy bog with a wooden trough collecting the water. It probably would be more interesting when the bog plants are in bloom.
Near the springs, there was a fair amount of bird activity. We caught brief glimpse of what likely was a California Thrasher. It was definitely a thrasher, but it was very uncooperative and hid behind the bushes.
From Pena Springs, we loaded into the car and drove down to the visitor center. The road down was fairly windy with a steep drop off on one side. On the way, I spotted a rattlesnake foolishly about to make its way across the road. Thankfully there was a wide shoulder, so we were able to safely pull off the road. Tor hopped out to chase the snake to the side of the road. It was another speckled rattlesnake, so when it saw Tor advance it retreated, but didn't go farther than a rock besides the shoulder. That's the problem with these rattlesnakes - the have the tendency to hold their ground when cornered. We did our best to persuade it to turn the other direction, but it wasn't going anywhere. During this bit of snake drama, we caused another backup of too curious looky-lous. I'm pretty sure they couldn't see the snake, but they weren't too smart about trying to see what we were up to and caused quite a slow down. We had to leave before these people caused an accident.
After a brief stop at the visitor center, we went to the local post office in Borrego Springs to mail postcards. You'd think for a tourist/resort town they'd have postcard stamps, but I guess that's too much to ask for in a rinky-dink town.
Further trying our luck of getting away from people (so far we were pretty unlucky), we traveled up to Coyote Canyon, thinking we'd reach the Sheep Canyon campground. We bumped along the road and made it through the first creek crossing. Then I got the two front tires of the truck stuck between a rock and well another rock. After a little finessing, we were free in no time, but a little more wary of what lay ahead. We went no farther at the next creek crossing. As we drove up the road a truck with 4 wheel drive and higher clearance than us was turning around. We parked the car and had a look at the creek crossing. It was fairly rocky and pretty intimidating, so we pulled the car off the road (next to two other parked cars) and decided we'd hall in our gear to set up camp on the side of the creek. We found a suitable spot just on the other side and set up camp a little ways off the road.
In the heat of the day, we decided to find shade along the Lower Willow trail, which started near our camp, and to explore the area. The Lower Willow trail was a popular horse trail, meaning it was extremely dusty and the sand was soft and deep - making it hard to walk on. We trudged up along side the creek, sinking in the soft dry sand as we went along. It was difficult to see the actual creek as it was deeply buried behind the thickets of willows. We found some relief when the trail crossed the creek. We sat in the shade of the dense willows and listened to the singing Cassin's Vireos around us. There were numerous tadpoles - both red-spotted toads and California treefrogs - in the creek and masses of baby water striders danced on the surface.
We continued up the trail. It got a little easier to walk in some places and muddy and slick in others. Eventually the trail left the willows and we found ourselves trudging up another horse-trodden sandy wash. Honeybees hummed loudly in the dense forest of blooming honey mesquite. Somewhere the hive was quickly filling with fresh honey. The trail cut over to the road again, but we stopped in the palm grove to take a break. The Bullock's Orioles, Lesser Goldfinches, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were present as always - busy finding grubs, building nests, or just having a general hay-day among the palms. Several spiny lizards basked in the large willow tree.
Back on the road, we decided to try to walk to Sheep Canyon. However, I underestimated how far we walked up the creek and continued up the road instead of heading back down the road. Since there were two roads leading into Sheep Canyon, we didn't miss the turn off, we just took a longer route. As a result we were pretty worn out and sun beat by the time we realized our mistake. Instead of continuing on we cut back to the road and headed back to our campground. Along the way, Tor practically stepped on a glossy snake that was sunning itself in the road. It was lightly patterned, blending in well with the ground.
The roads we were walking since we left the Lower Willow trail were smooth without so much as a pebble in the road. However, when we climbed up the hill and looked down we could tell why not many people traveled beyond the hill. To say the road up the hill was rocky is an understatement. I would have liked to see a car go up the hill, just to see if it could make it without losing the muffler ordoing major damage to the undercarriage. Seems like with one small mistake someone could break their axle in half.
When we reached the bottom of the hill and our campsite, I shouldn't have been surprised to see a truck parked no more than 50 ft away from our tent. A young "hillbilly cowboy/hippie" came out to the desert get away from people as well so he said when I said we came out here to get away from people. Hmmm... trying to get away from people so you choose to camp right next to them in a desert that is huge and has miles of empty roads with endless camping possibilities. He could have easily camped on the other side of the creek, where it was empty. There was nothing that was going to get through to this guy so what were we supposed to do - move ourselves? We stayed hoping the guy would stay true to his word that he wasn't going to light up a Colman lantern or sing (if he wanted to sing, he was going to head up one of the mountains - so he said). So we ignored him.
At dusk, we had dinner on a small ridge overlooking the creek below. A Common Nighthawk flew over the creek as the White-crowned Sparrows and House Finches looked for a good bush to spend the night. Soon we heard a croak from below joined by another and another. The chorus began to fill the ending day when the trill of the red-spotted toad added to mix.
When the sun had completely set, we went down to the creek to watch the activity. The calls of the California treefrogs, the red-spotted toads, and a katydid or cicada filled our ears. The treefrogs and toads littered the sides of the stream. As I was watching the frogs call, I looked down and saw a legless lizard writhing on the road’s hard rocky ground. I called for Tor and we watched it try to escape to soil it could actually burrow in. I picked it up and carried it over a side channel pond that covered the road to sandier ground. Of course it peed all over my hands, but at least it wouldn’t be struggling on the road.
After watching and listening to the
amphibians a little longer, we returned to our tent (passing
hippy-kay-yay-cowboy on the way). Just as I settled into my sleeping
bag and Tor had passed out into a deep sleep, I heard, yep, Mr. Cowboy
strum his guitar. Of course what followed was an hour of singing and
guitar playing not more than 50 ft away from us in the mostly empty
Coyote Canyon, except where it seemed to be most densely populated,
which was centered around us.