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Mojave Desert - part I
April 2023

Desert NWR, NV
    Joshua Tree NP, CA
    Amboy Crater, CA
    Mojave NP, CA

After the wet and cold spring Southern California suffered through, we knew we had to take advantage of the oncoming wildflowers that would soon follow.

We flew out from Paine Field in Everett. The small clean airport is so enjoyable and convenient. The flight was pleasant, made even more so with my new besties: noise canceling earbuds. When the surrounding bachelorette party started talking about their eyelash extensions, I just popped them in and the rest of the flight was so relaxing

Once in Las Vegas, we waited with the crowd to be shuttled to the car rental place (where thankfully National had no line, while all the others had long lines). We got a large Ram truck, not really giving thought to if it would have 4WD (all trucks that big must have it right? - that would haunt us later). We trucked over the city to REI for stove fuel and stopped at Albertsons for provisions. One positive from the pandemic is the ability to pre-order groceries online to be picked up. It cut down on the amount of time we spent in the store - although we noticed not everything in the store is easily available online. Soon after picking up our supplies, we took the highway north out of town, eager to put the city behind us. Over the years, Vegas has continued to sprawl out - no sooner had we left the "city," were we pulling into Desert National Wildlife Refuge - our first destination on the trip.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

We had camped in the refuge a couple of times previously, but never for any length of time. So we were keen to give the place more time to explore. We drove past the visitor center, which was closed Wednesdays, and up Alamo Road. Pretty quickly we noticed intensely purple patches on hillsides. The road eventually crossed into carpets of Fremont Phacelia and we stopped to admire the purple flora carpet, which was also dotted with orange globemallow, yellow desert poppy, and white pepperweed. As we continued north to higher elevations on Alamo Road, Joshua Trees were in full bloom among the yucca, blackbrush, and grizzlybear cactus. Passing the spur roads and skirting the military zone, we continued up toward the dry lake bed where we knew not to travel least we get stuck in "desert powder." We read that 4WD or not, cars can easily get stuck there during the dry time of year. We turned off Alamo Road onto Cabin Creek Road, which took us through dense creosote brush before bringing us back to the Joshua trees, Mormon tea, and sagebrush. The road crossed a few narrow, deep washes that could easily strand a regular passenger car. It was during one of these crossings that I really wondered if this truck was equipped with 4WD. There was no indication that it was, so we proceeded with caution and still entrusting the large truck to have enough power to keep us out of trouble.

The last 3 miles of road began to climb towards the mountain range, where the road grew narrower and overgrown. It was clear that not many people drove this far. After entering a canyon, we shortly came to the end of the road - a gravel turnaround in the wide canyon floor. Junipers grew on the hillsides, and the steep canyon walls jutted up to the darkening sky. In the attempt to set up camp for the night at the end of the road, I tried back into the side of the turnaround. However, when reversing, the heavy truck dug deep into the soft gravel. The slight slant of the road did not help the situation. The 2WD truck was too heavy and powerful to maneuver. Thankfully I was still able to at least turn the truck around and back to a small knoll we had passed on the way in. There we set up camp in the quickly waning light of dusk. In the windswept distance, I could hear a Common Poorwill calling over the desert.

The morning was quiet, pierced only by a few singing Black-throated Sparrows. Interested in the canyon, we decided to hike to the end of the road. Joshua trees were in full bloom, but the bird activity was low and mainly limited to the wash. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitted in the scrub, and Scott’s Oriole tasted the Joshua tree blossoms. In the canyon, junipers and large barrel cacti flecked the steep hillsides. The trills and whistles of Green-tailed Towhee, Black-chinned Sparrows, and Ash-throated Flycatchers filled the warm air. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds displayed and buzzed by on loud wings. We continued past the end of the road to the footprint of an old homestead. From there it was not easy to walk up the narrow brushy wash, so we turned around shortly after. At this end of the refuge, military black helicopters and fighter jets regularly flew over in the morning. A loud deep boom resonated from the nearby military range.

After returning to the truck, we headed back out on the narrow bumpy road to Alamo Road. Where we headed back south to Deadhorse Road. The road was recently graded with deep pockets of gravel. Knowing how lousy the truck performs in gravel, I was immediately on edge. If it weren't for the recent grading, I'm sure we would have gotten stuck immediately. The road wound through soft gravel taking us up onto solid ground with sage and Joshua trees. Soon it dropped into an even deeper wash that wound through a narrow black canyon. I became very nervous about getting stuck, but there were no safe turnarounds and reversing in the truck on loose gravel wasn’t an option. Eventually, the canyon opened up and we got back onto solid ground. The road led us to a meadow/trailhead parking lot. Snow patches clung to Hayden Peak to the south. And Sheep Mountain Range, where we had spent the previous night, was to the east. We ended up in a beautiful site that felt like the middle of nowhere. After a harrowing drive up the road, we camped in the parking lot, which was clearly not visited or used very often. In the evening, we walked down the smaller road that continued past the parking lot. The jeep trail ended at a small campsite next to a wash. The setting sun bathed Sheep Range hues of gold, red, and orange. Then eventually the sky darkened and engulfed the evening in a deep bruised blue. The stars began to twinkle into view, but the lights from Vegas prevented the night sky from fully revealing the colors of the Milky Way. The winds died down as the quiet of night set in.

Only the calls of a Bewick’s Wren woke us in the morning. In the morning chill from the previous night, we hiked up the trail through juniper forest, which became interspersed with pinyon pine. The dwarf forest was very quiet except for the occasional call of gnatcatchers and bushtits. The trail climbed up a ridge, which revealed sweeping views of Sheep Valley to the north and the surrounding snow-patched mountains. The trail dropped down into a large wash that we followed for a little ways, before the trail turned up the hill to an old mining site. We hiked past the old mine and continued up the wash. Eventually we encountered patches of melting snow and large ponderosa pines. It seemed the birds were up at the higher elevation. Gray Flycatchers, Mountain Chickadee, and Black-throated Gray Warblers sang from the needled branches. We turned around after hiking up the wash a ways through the warm air scented with ponderosa pine.

As we descended the trail, the sounds and sights of birds gave way to short junipers and the occasional Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. A single deer and an antelope squirrel bounded away on our approach. Side-blotched and Sagebrush Lizards basked on the warm rocks, while the booms and screeches emanated from the military drills over the refuge sky.

Back at camp, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the desert wind and sun. The wind picked up in the evening when we decided to walk back down the road through the deep wash of the black lava canyon. The gravel, although deep in a few places, didn't seem as intimidating when on foot. There were still a few questionable places - especially where the grader went up the wrong way or had a difficult time leveling a rough spot. As we approached the narrow black canyon, a Great Horned Owl flushed and perched on the canyon wall to survey us before heading farther down the canyon. A rock squirrel scurried among the dark rocks and a large troop of Pinyon Jays called above the rim of the canyon. The jays paused in small numbers to watch their comrades fly on before alighting themselves over the canyon as well.

At dusk, a black-tailed jackrabbit bounded through the prickly scrub during our evening walk. A light cloud cover moved in and sealed in the day's warmth. Common Poorwills called from the black canyon as night settled in. The clouds thicketed and carpeted the night sky. As we tucked into our sleeping bags in the bed of the truck, a bat fluttered low over our heads. The bat and/or its companions continued to circle low above us, once swooping so low we could feel wing beats flutter within inches of our heads. During the night, the clouds moved off and cooled the air.

In the morning, we drove back down Dead Horse Road. Somehow after passing through the narrow black canyon, the road didn't seem as daunting as when we entered. We stopped along Alamo Road to take in the rising sun over the desert scrub and sprinkles of wildflowers. Brewer's Sparrows belted out their lovely trill and a pair of Ladder-backed Woodpeckers checked out the blooming Joshua trees. Continuing our morning journey, we drove up Hidden Forest Road, which dead ended at the trailhead. Several cars were already parked there and a couple more followed us into the parking lot. This was the most people we'd see in the past couple of days.

The hike began at the mouth of a canyon that spilled into an open wash below. We slogged up the soft gravel wash, and the short canyon walls parted quickly leaving us walking along the wide bottom. Further up, the trail dropped in and out of deep trenches in the canyon floor. The trenches were waist to shoulder high at times, leaving us scrambling up and down the dusty banks as we thought about the power of the water that carved out these channels. The canyon walls rose up higher, at times looking like cathedral walls of granite and limestone with the occasional juniper and white pines growing in precarious perches. The birds were pretty scarce, but we did catch a glimpse of Lucy's and Black-throated Gray Warblers and heard the everpresent Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Eventually we hit the snow line (what was left of it) and the ponderosa pines. After a brief rest to soak in the desert air and sunshine, we returned back to the trailhead in the relative silence of a warming day.

Heading back south on Alamo Road, we stopped in the dense fields of Fremont Phacelia to enjoy this colorful super bloom. It was amazing to see such vibrant colors among all the dull desert gravel. Turning onto Cow Camp Road, we stopped to admire the impressive blooms of a Mojave yucca. Along the road were more blooming phacelia, globemallow, and antelope brush. We set up camp at the old corral, which was tucked next to the rocky mountain side at the end of the road. It was noticeably warmer at this lower elevation. Costa's Hummingbird buzzed the flowering shrubs. White-crowned and Chipping Sparrows flushed from the gravel wash. A Woodhouse's Scrub Jay called loudly from a Joshua tree. And the hoots of an unseen Great Horned Owl echoed from the rocky cliff side. As we walked along the roads in the evening, Tufted Primroses began to open. Bats fluttered above the desert and crickets began to chirp loudly as night set in.

In the morning, we stopped at the Corn Creek visitor center to bird the trails and stop in the gift shop. The trails grew surprisingly busy later in the morning. Earlier, photographers and birders prowled the trails, but as the morning wore on there were more "regular" tourists. Most likely they were tourists leaving Las Vegas and stopping along the way.

On the trails, Common Raven were nesting atop a dense cottonwood tree. We watched one of the ravens tear apart and devore a zebra-tailed lizard. Its sharp beak and power jaws made quick work of the relatively large lizard as it pulled it to shreds. It stashed half of the lizard and flew off only to return shortly with its partner, who finished the remaining morsels. Black-chinned Hummingbirds buzzed the feeders at the residential area, and a Black Phoebe sallied for insects in the orchard. A large flock of Great-tailed Grackles flew over the visitor center, while the ravens gave chase when they got too close to their nest. Tiny Pygmy Blue butterflies fluttered around the sagebrush.

When we drove back through Las Vegas, we returned to REI to replace a failed Therma-rest. It was disappointing because we had just bought it only a year ago. We also stopped at the grocery store for more provisions and water. It seemed to take longer to get through the sprawl of Las Vegas than it did to accomplish these seemingly simple tasks. Once we got back onto the highway, we were hindered by Sunday traffic leaving Las Vegas, road construction, and the merging of traffic at the California border where they recently built a checkpoint.

After plodding through traffic, we gratefully turned off the highway and into the Mojave National Preserve. We were only driving through for the moment, but it was still enjoyable and exciting to be back in this enchanting place. Amongst the desert scrub, we could see fields of desert dandelions and purple phacelia blooming. Along the roadside were bright pink flowers of prickly pear cactus and large white blooms of the sacred datura. After passing through the preserve, we drove through "filler" desert: desert that seemed to lack interesting flora or features.

We drove into the town of Forty-night Palms. Past fast food restaurants, diners, and gas stations to a dead end entrance to our home for the next few days and one of Joshua Tree National Park's campground: Indian Cove.

Joshua Tree National Park
Competition for any national park campsite is pretty tough. So we were lucky to reserve one of the few remaining campsites at Indian Cove a couple of months before arriving. The campground is located on the north end of the park, but doesn't actually go into the park. I think most of the people who stay at this campground are only passing through 49 Palms and not really staying to enjoy the national park itself. As a result there's a lot of turnover in the park (people only stay for 1 night), which is both a blessing and a curse. It means if there's an annoying neighbor, it's highly likely they'll be gone the next day. However, it also increases the chance of having a different annoying person each night.

We arrived at our reserved site in the early evening. We chose our site because it was at the end of a small loop of campsites and a large boulder separated us from our nearest neighbor. After having only just begun to get settled into our site, the neighboring mom and her two kids march through our campsite (after acknowledging that they were aware of our campsite) to try climbing the large boulders. Apparently public lands means you can go wherever the heck you please, personal boundaries be damned. After 4 nights of desert solitude, the Indian Cove campground was a shock to the system. I shouldn't complain too much, because our site was relatively sheltered away from neighbors when compared to the other campsites, which are packed up against each other with little to no privacy along the boulder walls.

In the evening, we walked to the short nature trail in the campground. Black-throated Sparrows and Phainopeplas posed nicely for us on the yucca. A Prairie Falcon and White-throated Swifts carened over the large boulders. Bladderpod, Wallace's woolly daisy, chia, and California tickseed bloomed in the washes. The evening was much warmer than our nights at Desert NWR.

The next morning we awoke before dawn and headed into the northwest Joshua Tree entrance. Before reaching the entrance to the park, people's yards were a blinding wash of bright yellow desert dandelions. In the park, we stopped at Quail Springs for breakfast and chanced upon a superbloom while meandering out along a social trail. Amongst the tall Joshua Trees, dry grass, and occasional primrose, we watched a Black-tailed Jackrabbit hop across our path. We wandered up a sandy berm and were in awe at the diversity and density of blossoms covering the hillsides. Yellow desert dandelions, pink desert verbena, the diminutive chia, desert pincushion, wooly bluestar, star gilia, and primrose bloomed in great numbers in the sand. As beautiful as it was, it was also difficult to capture in our photos, which didn't do the super bloom justice.

We continued our morning by hiking the Baker Dam trail through a beautiful small canyon. The dam held back plenty of water and there was a large quantity below the dam as well. Nashville, Wilson's, and Yellow-rumped Warblers bounced in and out of the green bushes overhanging the water. Along the adjacent Wall Street Mill trail, Yellow-backed Spiny and Great Basin Whiptails scattered at our approach. A Long-nosed Leopard Lizard obligingly posed for us. At the Wall Street Mill site were a few old slowly degrading cars and the remnants of an old processing mill.

In the heat of the day, we drove to Pine City trailhead to hike through the desert to (another) old mining site. Either the site was inaccurately named or the pines were taken by wildfire and never repopulated. Along the trail were a few juniper trees, but not many pines. Still the trail took us to a red bouldered canyon festone with barrel and hedgehog cactus. A Horned Lizard darted across the trail, and a Loggerhead Shrike kept a watchful eye from a tall yucca.

For the remainder of the hot day, we drove to other pull outs and road side exhibits throughout the north end of the park. We stopped at the Skull Cap nature trail to briefly stretch our legs along the paved path. In the late afternoon, we returned to Quail Springs to see the flowers that had opened for the day. Still, our photos didn't seem to do it justice.

Back at camp, we managed to shower up and feel human again. The warm evening air was filled with the chorus of crickets. Although our neighbors this evening were blissfully thoughtful and quiet, there were still the murmurs of conversation, clank of pots, slam of car doors, and other ever present reminders that humans weren't far away.

In the morning we stopped at the Oasis of Mara, an exiled pocket of the park and now a literal oasis surrounded on all sides by the town sprawl (instead of desert). What remains today were a grove of palms and mesquite among the infringements of human sprawl. The water table below the oasis was long ago screwed up by human intervention (cattle, mining, etc). Now the oasis is plumbed to keep it looking natural and alive. There were a series of short paved loops around the palms and mesquite thickets. Gambel's Quail, Wilson's Warblers, Phainopepla and Northern Mockingbirds popped in and out of the dense mesquite. It was more than a little disappointing that this was all that remained of the oasis. It felt like a token of what was left of a magical place.

After our visit to the oasis, we entered the park through the northeast entrance. This entrance was lower in elevation compared to the northwest entrance. There were still a few Joshua trees, but not nearly as large and impressive. We stopped at Arch Rock trailhead and walked the short trail to the White Rock campground to arch rock, which was located among the other smooth boulder formations.

Afterward we started the drive south to Cottonwood. On the way we stopped to chase a basking rattlesnake off the road. Farther down the road, a desert tortoise looked a little stunned in the middle of the road. We also made stops to walk the teddy bear cholla garden and the ocotillo patch. Both gardens displayed splendid blossoms amongst spines and needles.

At Cottonwood Springs, we hiked the Mastodon mine trail in the heat of the afternoon. Surprisingly despite the heat, the palms at the beginning of the trail were a riot in bird life - Wilson’s Warblers, Bullock’s Oriole, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Cactus Wren were busy claiming their territories. Up the trail, bright colors of phacelia, blazing stars, and pincushions peppered the desert floor. High up on the rocky walls Chuckwallas peered down without thought to the lumbering mammals below. We must have seen about 15 Chuckwallas during this hike, some alone and some in pairs. Most of the chuckwallas were basking in the sun, but a few grazed on the desert vegetation. Side-blotched and Spiny lizards were also numerous on the trail. The washes were thick with desert blooms of purple mat, chia, and bluebells. A couple of well camouflaged Zebra-tail Lizards scurried away from us with raised striped tails.

We drove to Baja loop trail, which was literally dead. Many of the shrubs along the nature trail that had signs were dead. The surrounding landscape was equally bleak if not more so. It was clear that this side of the park has suffered badly from years of drought.

Driving back north through the park, we stopped at the Oak Tree picnic area for dinner. On our car camping trips, we don't eat gourmet meals, but we at least try to make some attempt at variety and palatability. Meals are designed more for convenience and necessity than enjoyment, but there is still a line between what we would and wouldn’t eat. I guess that would still include what we had that evening: Pasta A Roni prepared pasta in a pouch, which is easily the worst meal we’ve had while car camping. It felt and tasted like eating Elmer’s glue (not that I know the taste, but it’s how I imagine it to be texturally and taste). Not even the bacon we added could save it. Bacon should make EVERYTHING taste better! We swallowed down the food (?) not really wanting to waste it, but never again will we be making that choice again.

After the very unsatisfying dinner, we briefly stopped at the Oasis of Mara again, which was still fairly quiet (except for the traffic) in the waning light.

Back at camp, our new batch of neighbors flew a drone over camp, flew a flag what was weirdly both pro-gun and sexist, blasted their country music, and talked loudly until midnight. I was looking forward to the hopefully solitude of the Mojave Preserve.

Our last morning at Joshua Tree, we walked the circular paved paths around the Oasis of Mara. Still the birds were quite apt at hiding in the thickets of mesquite so we failed to see or hear anything new.

On the way to the Mojave National Preserve, we stopped at the Amboy Crater, a newly protected area. We didn’t travel much farther than the parking lot, but we saw several chuckwallas and desert iguanas up close. They seemed unbothered by our presence as we watched them graze on the creosote blossoms and bask on the dark lava rock.

continue onto part II


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