Adventure 2019: Joshua Tree 2 (March 9)

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Twelve hours of sleep is a wonderful thing. I woke up feeling alive, healthy, and thankful. I also woke up cold. My tent was covered with frost, inside and out, and my water bottles had a good half-inch of ice on the tops of each one. One of the defining characteristics of this trip was the cold. It never got warm enough to hike with shorts, a first for me on a desert trip.

The hike started out really nice, weaving through granite spires and piles. This part of Joshua Tree goes by the whimsical name of the Wonderland of Rocks. We quickly discovered that we had, in fact, made it to the plateau that was our goal for yesterday. While uncomfortable, my hangover hadn’t resulted in changing trip plans, and I was grateful for that.

Our Route, Part One
Our Route, Part One

The Wonderland ended soon after, and we gradually broke out into open country. With that, or maybe with the time of day, we felt a transition back into civilization. There was a large increase in the number of hikers and rock climbers. Fit hikers wearing the latest outdoor fashions, novice hikers with jeans, one hiker, two hikers, red hikers, blue hikers… you get the idea. We even came across two sets of people with dogs. Dogs aren’t allowed anywhere in National Park backcountry areas, and they are especially unwelcome in an area frequented by desert bighorn like this one.

We made good time to the road crossing and found our cache of water. I managed to drop a 2-liter brand-new water bag from one foot above the ground. It landed directly onto a yucca spike, puncturing immediately. I was able to transfer the water to one of my now-empty containers, but it was frustrating. There was a garbage can at the road crossing, so I least I didn’t have the additional indignity of carrying a broken piece of gear for two days.

Baby Joshua Tree Sprout
Baby Joshua Tree Sprout

This was the end of official trails for a while. The Trails Illustrated map of Joshua Tree is pretty terrible when it comes to showing trails. Most of the trails on their map were abandoned years or decades ago. In some cases they are still followable on the ground, but in others no traces remain. There are also occasional dirt roads that don’t appear on the map. Add in the near-total inability to distinguish the difference between a sandy wash and a trail that goes down a sandy wash, and the general confusion of Joshua Tree terrain, and the map becomes an unreliable crapshoot at best.

In this case, I was familiar with the terrain, and knew ahead of time not to waste time looking for a trail. We hiked about a mile to the next picnic area down the road. We got far enough away from the road to make the trek quite pleasant. If you don’t mind weaving around past fallen Joshua trees and clumps of cacti, off-trail hiking in the park is quite easy.

From the picnic area, we picked up the Quail Springs road trail. This is an actual trail, although it lacks actual trail signs or trail markers. The walk was flat but scenic. It helped that it was warm but not hot. We rounded the corner and saw a newly installed sign for the Bigfoot trail- another trail that is shown on the map, but may or may not exist on the ground.

Our Route, Part Two.  We traveled from top right to center left.
Our Route, Part Two. We traveled from top right to center left.

One interesting aspect of the day was a steady breeze. Now wind in Joshua Tree is far from unique, but this particular zephyr brought with it a steady stream of yellow butterflies. The golden insects streamed past us constantly for hours at a time, millions of butterflies blowing for parts unknown.

The butterflies must have been a distraction, because we missed the turn-off for Johnny Lang canyon. I figured it out soon enough, and we visited the strange old shack with the water pump. I’ve come across this shack on previous trips, and I’m still not sure if this is a remnant of the past, or something still in use. From there I knew where I was, so we angled across and quickly found the trail into the canyon.

Johnny Lang was an old miner who lived in the Joshua Tree area for many years. He found and developed the Lost Horse gold mine at the end of the 19th century. He sold off a share of the mine, but continued to work the night shift. When the gold output at night was consistently less than the day output, he was confronted by the other owner. Caught red-handed with pockets full of gold, he sold off the rest of his share to avoid prosecution. Afterwards, we wandered into this canyon that still bears his name. He built a cabin and another small mine, which contained little if any gold. He eventually died in the canyon and is supposed to be buried nearby.

Our Route, Part Three.  Ending in Johnny Lang Canyon.
Our Route, Part Three. Ending in Johnny Lang Canyon.

Now the trail leads up to the ruins of his old cabin on the banks of the stream. The site is an extensive collection of copper-colored rusted metal cans, bedsprings, stove parts, and other metal scraps. Not to mention a world-class jumble of broken glass. I was a bit concerned about tent sites, but we found plenty of sites downstream of the ruins, on the opposite stream bank. (While preparing the maps for this post, it looks like Johnny’s old road actually crosses to this opposite bank. The would explain the wide flat stretch along the river where we camped).

This thing I call a stream, and think of it as a stream, is not a stream of water, but a stream of sand. In our exploring around, I came across an old Cottonwood tree growing on the bank. Apparently there is water here sometimes, or at least used to be decades ago, when there was more rainfall in the area- the old tree was barely holding onto life, with only a handful of leaves left. I talked to a ranger after the trip, who told me Cottonwoods are not native to the park, but were often planted by homesteaders in the region. Since it was across the stream from Johny’s cabin, I’m giving him credit.

Once we were set up, I had a chance to do some exploring, photographing, meditation, and writing. There was also an unfamiliar bird that I finally identified as a Phainopepla. We had hiked over 10 miles today, and had earned our rest and our appetites. I’m sure not having a gut filled with tequila and gin helped in this respect…

It was another cold night, and as we waited for our freeze-dried dinners to cook, I drank a few cups of hot water to help stay warm. As we ate, I saw my first Kangaroo Rat hopping around our campsite desert floor. It was a fun little exclamation point to end our day in Joshua Tree.