Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Joshua Tree National Park - Keys Point, Inspiration Peak & Lost Horse Mine Loop

Joshua Tree National Park – Day One – 3/19/13 – 8.5 Miles

A long drive from Ventura to 29 Palms, CA, a short night at a funky motel, a heart-attack breakfast at Denny’s (Jeff recommends the sausage/bacon/ham/cheese sandwich), and we were ready for Joshua Tree National Park. 

First, we stopped ever so briefly at the Visitor Center just in case they actually know something we don’t.  Indeed, we learned that this is the most popular week of the year and we might want to snag a first-come-first-served campsite ASAP.  Also, the Joshua trees are experiencing an “unprecedented” year of larger and more prolific blooms than in recent memory.  A connection to climate change?  Again, our good luck (and Jeff’s good timing) brought us to the right place at the right time.

We found an available campsite at Ryan Campground, a flat place in the flat desert.  Instead of trees, it is designated by huge rock piles that look like drip sandcastles the kids used to make at the beach.  They say Joshua Tree NP is a rock climber’s paradise and I could see why.  Even I, who have no desire for the sport, wanted to climb on the rocks here. 

The wind was blowing fiercely and I felt a quell of apprehension – was this a taste of the next five days?   (No.)  Jeff wrestled his tent to the ground, and David and I had to combine efforts to get each of ours nailed down.  I had no faith in my little tent stakes, so I put big rocks inside my tent, one in each corner and one along each side, to hold it down, and staked the front vestibule out with guy lines tied to even bigger rocks. 

Is David trying to move the rock?

How to begin our exploration of Joshua Tree National Park?  Keys View is a must-do, kind of like that first look at the Grand Canyon.  At the parking area we hopped out of the car in shorts and tee shirts, walked up to the view of the San Bernardino Mountains, took a quick photo and ran back to the car for more clothes.  The wind was still blasting and quite cold! 

First look at Joshua Tree Land 

Next, a short hike to Inspiration Peak, originating from the same parking area.  Rather than looking for the trail, Jeff just started walking straight up the open mountainside, and I thought to myself, oh, no, we can’t start out the week like this with me scrambling along behind.  Soon we intersected with the trail and continued the steep climb. 

Past the first false summit, we descended to a saddle and then up a second peak

Next we did a little boulder scrambling, maybe 30 yards, and I climbed up on top of the pile to take a photo.  Jeff and David kept going down to the next saddle and beyond to the next peak.  (According to my guidebook, I was at Inspiration Peak, but Jeff had different information.)  I reached for my camera…which was no longer attached to my belt strap. 

Well, I had it 30 yards ago to take the photo of David, so I retraced my steps back over the boulders.  No camera.  It could be anywhere, fallen into innumerable cracks and crevices in the rocks.  I crawled on all fours, peering into dark spaces, praying no snakes would bite my nose.  I was not brave enough to reach into places that I could not see.  I paced back and forth half a dozen times between the two points, where I last knew I had the camera and where I discovered I no longer had it.  It was a goner. 

Meanwhile, Jeff and David were distant specks on the next peak. I waited for their return.

On their return, we all searched for the camera, going over and over the same steps.   I finally called it quits – at least I had my phone so I could still take photos – when David said, “Is this it?”  He pulled my camera out of a deep crack beyond the point where I thought it would be.  When it came loose from my pack belt it must have made quite a bounce!  My hero! 

And the fun was just beginning.  Next hike:  Lost Horse Mine Loop.

Joshua Tree NP has a rich history of colorful characters and tough mining endeavors.  The desert is chock-full of abandoned mines and the Park Service cannot secure every one to protect the public, so hikers are at their own risk.  Some mines are marked on the trail map, some are just holes in the ground off-trail.  Lost Horse Mine is the largest mostly intact historic mining site in the Park.  There are several buildings still standing.  The largest mine shaft, 500 feet deep, is covered but there are smaller, unsecured ones around the hillside. 

This mining site, first discovered by a German miner named Frank Diebold, was one of the most profitable in the park.  Diebold’s strike was bought out by a prospector named Johnny Lang, who came across it in 1893 while searching for a lost horse, thus the name.  Don’t you love simplicity?

But first, a detour for Jeff:  near the beginning of our hike we parted ways so he could bag this peak, lovingly known as Point 5196.  (Every day Jeff had extra peaks on his agenda.  It is a sickness, I say.)

Knowing that Jeff would catch up to us soon, David and I continued up the wide trail that wound up and around the mountains to Lost Horse Mine. 

Remaining foundation of one of the mine buildings

Wooden stamp mill

We found the short, steep trail above the stamp mill to the summit of Lost Horse Point for a magnificent view of Malapai Hill (center middle).

Jeff reunited with us at the stamp mill and we continued another half mile on the loop trail, only to have him disappear again to summit another unnamed peak.   David and I kept moving on and did not see Jeff again until the end of the trail – he got ahead of us when we took a detour of our own.

David descending

So many rocks to climb!

Peaking down into an old mine shaft

My trail guide alluded to the need for backcountry navigation skills but we found the trail to be quite clear, rolling up and down, with sparse Joshua Trees and lots of low-growing desert vegetation.  We passed right by an old homestead with a chimney standing sentinel.

Chunks of rock and broken glass placed in the cracks of the chimney stone

Someone protected a tiny cactus growing on the trail

Feeling confident of our desert skills, David and I found a side trail described in the guide book that led to the remains of a house built from Joshua tree logs.  (Basically, we followed a sandy wash filled with footprints.)  The destination was a bit disappointing and the detour took us about 45 minutes out of our way. 

We reasoned that Jeff had passed us and we needed to hustle back onto the main trail.  The last three miles were very flat walking in deep sand, but we had the opportunity to check out the personalities of the Joshua trees.

Looks like this one is reaching out to grab David

Don’t ask

A Joshua tree had fallen over but was still blooming. 

That means a good opportunity to photograph a bloom straight on

Jeff was on the hillside near the car, looking for us.  We decided to scratch the last hike on the day’s itinerary and drove into 29 Palms for pizza – yum!  On the way back to camp we stopped at the Visitor Center to fill all our water containers (no water at any campgrounds).  It was nice to have a reliable water source so close (20 miles), not like our visit to Death Valley where water was harder to find.

We got back to camp after dark, no wind at all, cool but not cold.  We walked around the campground loop without head lamps, enjoying the clear sky and identifying stars and constellations.  Jeff knows many of them and David had an iPhone app to identify what we were seeing in real time.  Even though we had hiked a lot, it was a relaxing way to wind down. 

The campground was filled up and a little bit noisy, but I had my Tylenol PM and my ear plugs to drown it all out.  At 9:30 it was lights out for me.  Do I hear someone’s dog barking is that a coyote?

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”   ~John Burroughs


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Santa Cruz Backpack - Day 2 - Prisoner's Harbor

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands NP – 3/18/13 – 3.5 Miles

David was up and moving around early this morning when the curious fox visited again.  The campers next to us had accidentally left a packet of something yummy out and Mr. Fox enjoyed it very much.  David had lots to do, what with cooking his breakfast and enjoying hot chocolate – Jeff and I, not so much.

To protect against windy conditions, a clever setup for cooking with backpacking stoves.

Our tents were covered with dew (the down side of no wind) and we thought we’d wait around for the sun to dry them before packing up, since our hike to our pickup point was very short.  After about 30 minutes of that sitting-around stuff we were crazy bored, so we packed up wet and moved out. 

The walk down to Prisoner’s Harbor included some short but significant ups and downs.

Yesterday’s intense blue sky was replaced by a light gray but rain did not seem imminent.  At our one quick stop for a break (not because we were tired but because a picnic table had been placed at a scenic spot) we caught another fox napping.  He eventually moved along.

First look at our destination, Prisoner’s Harbor.

We had a long wait for our ferry to arrive at 3:00 p.m. and plenty of time for exploring.   After spreading out our tents to dry, Jeff and David wandered off to parts unknown (I didn’t want to follow because I guessed that miles would be logged).  I chose to enjoy the solitude of the cove. 

The prevailing story of Prisoner’s Harbor is here.  In summary, a group of Mexican convicts were delivered here from Santa Barbara in 1830 with the promise of work developing a cattle ranch and living the good life.  Didn’t work out that way.

The beach is all rocks, hard to walk on even in hiking boots, but mesmerizing to sit and watch the small waves wash up and back.  The rush of water back into the ocean sounded like a busy creek flowing by.  Barely visible to my aging eyes, a group of sea lions barked and cavorted out in the water beyond the dock. 

Resident seagulls hangin’ out

I wandered back to my now-dry tent, packed it up and emptied out my extra water (hey, I didn’t run out!) and sat at a picnic table to jot down some notes about our overnight experience.  Another fearless fox strolled by as I captured my thoughts. 

Jeff and David returned from their wanderings and we boarded our near-empty ferry – not empty for long, as the next stop was back at Scorpion Anchorage to retrieve the daytrippers.  Riding along the coastline, gazing up at the huge cliffs of volcanic rock, watching cormorants and seagulls floating on the water amidst long strands of kelp, and marveling at teasing glimpses of two humpback whales, I was overcome with the awesome power and presence of nature.  Imagine what it is like without us humans making an imprint!

At Scorpion we endured a long wait for 60+ people to board and stow their gear, camping equipment and kayaks.  Finally we headed back to the mainland.  Anacapa Island looked small as we passed by.  I was glad we had visited it first. 


Gilligan:  Hiya, Professor.  What are you doing?
The Professor:  I'm making notes for a book. It's to be a chronicle of our adventures on the island... I think it's a book people will want to buy, don't you?
Gilligan:  Sure, I'll buy one. I'm dying to find out what happens to us.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Santa Cruz Backpack - Day 1

Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands NP – 3/17/13 – 12.5 Miles

St. Patrick’s Day – no green beer, but a very green island in the Pacific Ocean!

Another ferry ride, this time our destination being Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands.  Our plan was an overnight backpacking trip from Scorpion Anchorage to Prisoners Harbor.  Sounds like a very inviting place, doesn’t it?  Lots of history goin’ on at Santa Cruz.  For starters, the website tells us:  “According to legend, Santa Cruz Island was named for a priest's staff accidentally left on the island during the Portola expedition of 1769. A Chumash Indian found the cross-tipped stave and returned it to the priest. The Spaniards were so impressed that they called this island of friendly people "La Isla de Santa Cruz," the Island of the Sacred Cross. Today the protection and preservation of Santa Cruz Island is divided between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the western 76 percent of the island, while the eastern 24 percent is owned and managed by the National Park Service.”  Access to the Nature Conservancy is restricted (unless they catch you) so our backpack plan was legit on the NPS portion. 

This ferry was based at a different harbor than yesterday’s Anacapa Island ferry and we had to be at the dock at 8:00 a.m. to load up backpacks and then wait an hour for departure.  The place was buzzing with day trippers and front country campers.  (Scorpion Ranch Campground is a flat half-mile walk from Scorpion Anchorage, has 31 sites,  reservations only, and campers must haul all their stuff.)  All backpacks and heavy gear gets stowed below deck to make room for all the people above.  This boat was faster and we were dressed more appropriately for the chill.  When the crew slowed down to look for whales, I’ll admit feeling impatient to get on to the island.  Fortunately (?) no whales today.

It’s a habit of mine to keep one eye on a cloudy sky, looking for that sliver of blue, and…look, there it is!  As we crossed the Channel, we left the fog behind and saw that today was indeed going to be a spectacular day.

Scorpion Anchorage – it’s a little hard to see the dock on the right

Three fearless backpackers ready for an adventure

Scorpion Ranch was established in the 1850’s as a sheep ranching operation as the island passed from the Mexican government into private hands.  Ranching prospered at several ranches around the island until 1984. Some buildings perished to fire, some survived, and in 2009 the ranch house was rebuilt as the Visitor Center to serve as an interpretive center.  I am sorry to say that we walked past it all without stopping because it was after 11:00 a.m. and we figured we had 15 miles to go to our campsite.

At the Scorpion Ranch frontcountry camp we filled all our available containers with water.  This is the only place to get potable water on Santa Cruz Island, meaning we had to carry water for two days of hiking, plus cooking, plus some extra in case the ferry was delayed due to weather.  There is no water available at our pick-up point at Prisoners Harbor some 18 miles away.  Of course, we knew all this ahead of time and had planned accordingly.  I was still not happy about carrying the weight of six liters of water when I normally carry a maximum of two, but it was what it was.

If I have the opportunity to go to Santa Cruz again (I can easily be talked into this) I would base camp at Scorpion and dayhike all over the place, plus try out a kayak in the harbor.  Plenty to do there for a few days.

And away we go up Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail, and I do mean UP.  After a brief honeymoon strolling in the valley, the trail turned left and began a serious climb.  Soon we were looking down at all the greenness we had been looking up at.  We went from gentle Irish countryside to Switzerland steepness quickly (minus the Alps).  No laid back island ease here, the mountains are like all others with the exception of no tall trees and 100% long distance views.  After the chilly boat ride it felt great to be in shorts and short sleeves.  Wish I had remembered the sunscreen, though. 

Looking east out across the Santa Barbara Channel to the mountains on the mainland

Jeff steered us to the high point of the NPS section of the island, El Montanon, a 1.5-mile roundtrip off our main trail. 

View south from the summit – now the clouds are low over the Santa Barbara Channel

A different view

Jeff found the “register” to sign, a scrap of paper.  The communication towers at the summit are ugly but great for pinpointing from far away.

David was ready to move on.  He led the way most of the time, with me in the middle and Jeff in the back, frequently disappearing to take pictures.  You always need to watch what you’re doing with Jeff behind you…you may turn up in pictures on Facebook.  

After our side trip, the main trail took a steep dive and I slipped twice, landing on my rear end.  Loose scree and me do not agree.

Soft, fuzzy plant

The terrain alternated between lush green and arid desert, all of it beautiful

Soon after the trail switched to old roads, still climbing a lot but with soft grass to walk on.  Mileage was a bit fuzzy.  According to Jeff’s research, we would have to take a roundabout way to our campsite because the trail on our map was unmaintained and a challenge to navigated.  But…when we found the sign, we took a chance and it was just the opposite, a very good trail. 

So we were cutting off a few miles and my body was grateful.  My feet were hurting and my knees and thighs were tired of the downhills.  Why was this hard at only 12 or so miles?  All that extra water added up to about 8 extra pounds and mentally I wasn’t accepting it.  But with one foot in front of the other and a little self-talk that a physical challenge is good for me and I was in a place that no one else I know has ever been, I got myself to Del Norte Campground. 

Del Norte is the only backcountry campsite on Santa Cruz, just four small sites under a couple of ancient oak trees with a view of the coastline.  Two of the sites were already occupied and no one showed up after us.  Windy conditions are very common and we were prepared with extra guy lines for our tents, but the wind was minimal, not a factor at all, really, and we had a very peaceful night.

But before bedtime was settling-in time and suppertime.  Jeff and I opted to leave stoves and fuel and dehydrated meals at home to avoid carrying even more water.  I didn’t even carry a cup or a spoon.  I think I had a peanut butter sandwich to eat and Jeff maybe had a sausage and cheese sandwich.  David, made of tougher stuff, carried cooking equipment which he fired up for hot tea and a gourmet dinner.  I was okay with my food but felt a glimmer of regret for that cup of tea…

The critter to hide food from on Channel Islands is foxes.  Sure enough, one fellow visited soon after we arrived.  

As the sun went down, so did the temperature, and I added layers of clothing as we sat around the picnic table.  Before it was fully dark I was stretched out in my tent, thinking I would write some notes and read a little, but that definitely did not happen. 

Sunset on Santa Cruz – taken from the privy, best seat available.