Shallow Thoughts : : mojave

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 18 Nov 2009

Of Cima, Sand and Melons

Summary:

Morningstar Mine: Cadillac-smooth down low, but take it slowly higher up.
Not many buildings or mine shafts, but lots of miner trash.

Jackass Canyon:

Too much deep sand for us -- we gave up and turned around.

Aiken Mine Road:

A lovely beginner 4WD road: scenic and weird, from slightly challenging rocky basalt to deep (but not dangerously so) sand.

Morningstar Mine

Our first goal of the morning was Morningstar Mine, a set of abandoned mines in the northern part of the preserve.

Two wide, smooth dirt roads leave paved Morningstar Mine Rd to climb the alluvial fan, but the quality of the roads gradually deteriorate over the short distance to the mines.

Morningstar Mine turns out to be a private, going concern, fenced off with NO TRESSPASSING signs. But there are plenty of older, abandoned mines nearby. Very few buildings or mine shafts, but lots of rusting cans and other trash. Really, not much to see, and Dave was in a hurry to move on, so we did.

The Contentious Memorial

Down on Cima Road near the Teutonia Peak trailhead, I wanted to see the famous WWII monument, about which a Supreme Court case is currently raging. (The monument is a cross, a religous symbol, which federal law says should not be supported by government funds or stand on government land.)

I couldn't find anything on the web that gave the location of the monument, so we had to look for it. It turns out that it's easily spotted from the road, atop one of the granite outcrops on the north side of the road, just east of the Teutonia Peak trailhead. (Or see the GPS waypoint file linked at the end of this article.)

In fact, we'd almost certainly seen it before, and shrugged it off as another of those weird inexplicable things you see in the Mojave. The upper part of the cross is currently covered with a box, so it looks like a small sign that says nothing. Several people have put up small flags nearby.

Jackass Canyon -- not to be

The next goal was Jackass Canyon, down in the south part of the preserve west of Kelso.

For quite a while the road is in great shape, hard packed and not badly washboarded. There are lots of curious red anthill-like formations right in the road that turned out to be built not of sand but of some sort of dried plant matter. (Did I mention the curious things you see in the Mojave?)

But then the road descends into a wash full of deep sand with occasional buried rocks. After smacking our undercarriage a couple of times on hidden obstacles while fishtailing around in the sand, we decided retreat was the better part of valor. We'll try Jackass Canyon from the south some time -- maybe it's easier from that direction.

Mojave Rd from 17-Mile Pt to Aiken Mine Rd

Returning to Kelbaker Road, we proceeded a few miles west to 17-Mile Point, where we'd exited the Mojave Road a few days ago, and turned north to complete a section of the Mojave Rd. we hadn't done yet. From Kelbaker to Aiken Mine, the road is quite sandy, with lots of fishtailing, but not a problem for the Rav.

Aiken Mine Rd

[Aiken Mine]

This was our second time on Aiken Mine Rd, one of our favorite routes in the preserve.

The lower section of Aiken Mine, from the paved road to the lava tube, is brutally washboarded, like most park dirt roads that get a lot of 2WD traffic.

We didn't stop at the lava tube today, since we'd explored it fairly thoroughly the last time (it's lovely, and provided several of my favorite desktop wallpaper images) but continued straight past it into the basalt.

The ascent from the lower lava fields up to Aiken Mine is weird and wonderful. The road is entirely basalt cinders (Aiken mine is a cinder mine located on a large cinder cone), a mixture of black and red and a little white sand here and there. It's like driving on Mars. The ascent is steep and slightly slippery, but it looks scarier than it is -- there's really no danger here for anything with reasonable clearance, and although 4WD is probably helpful I doubt it's required. The mine, an active cinder mine, is at the top, along with some hiking trails up one of the cinder cones.

Past Aiken, the road descends into the Joshua tree forest on the side of Cima Dome, supposedly the densest Joshua tree forest in the world. ("In the world" should be viewed in light of the fact that Joshua trees don't really exist anywhere outside the Mojave desert of California and Nevada.) More fishtailing in deep sand with a high center groove. The Rav4 never bottomed, but this is definitely not a road to take a 2WD street car of normal ride height.

The melon patch


[Coyote melons]

At some point, the road forks and the left fork seems to be the main one -- but it's a sham. The left fork is actually a power line maintenance road that cuts across to I-15. (We knew this because we'd gotten caught by it the last time, followed the power lines then eventually figured it out and cut back to the more interesting Aiken Mine Rd.)

A few miles afer the powerline fork the road passes a water tank and corral, goes back into sandy Joshua tree forest for a while, then comes out at a strange clearing. What's strange about it? It's a patch of coyote melons. These delicious looking, softball-sized melons apparently grow wild in the Mojave -- but I've never seen them anywhere but this spot. They're apparently all but inedible by humans ... but something eats them, because you can see broken, emptied and dessicated melon rinds lying everywhere.

Did I mention "strange things you see in the Mojave"? Coming on a melon patch in the middle of the desert is one of the things I love about this place.

Alas, the melon patch is almost at the end of the road. Not long after it,, there's a house (I hear one of the rangers lives there) and an intersection, and the road suddenly turns posh for its last mile or two to paved Cima Road.

Photos and GPS Logs

Photos Track log, Waypoints

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[ 09:34 Nov 18, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 14 Nov 2009

Castle Peaks and Hart: California's Ozymandius

Summary:

Castle Peaks hiking corridor: A rocky road with a couple of tricky sandy gulches takes you to a hike along a wash leading to gorgeous views of basalt and breccia and eventually the Castle Peaks, ragged spires that look like volcanic necks.

Hart Mine: A smooth, easy road takes you to an abandoned town site and a collossal open-pit mine.

Castle Peaks hiking corridor

[Castle Peaks, Mojave]

Our goal on Tuesday was the "Castle Peaks Hiking Corridor". The Trails Illustrated map showed a side road leading northwest from Walking Box Ranch Rd and eventually petering out to become a hiking trail that went, if not actually to Castle Peaks, at least close enough to get a good look.

Castle Peaks are the rugged spikes you see from I-15 between Mountain Pass and Primm, jutting into the skyline and giving the New York Mountains their appearance of skyscrapers which must be the reason for the range's name. They're eroded fins of eroded Miocene volcanics, surrounded by Precambian metamorphic rocks.

Walking Box Ranch Rd is easy to find off Nipton Rd -- not only is it a prominent, wide dirt road but there's even a road sign, a few miles after the eastern end of the Wee Thump Joshua Tree wilderness (on the north side of Nipton Rd). I'd like to explore Wee Thump and its impressive Joshua trees some day.

The road is good, open and well graded, notwithstanding the humorous "Road not maintained" sign you encounter a few miles in. The side roads follow the map well enough, so it wasn't too difficult to identify the Castle Peaks turn-off. It's a 4-way intersection, not 3-way as shown on the map.

The Castle Peaks road is much narrower and alternates between sandy stretches and dirt. Mostly it's nothing difficult, but the rocky sections are slow going (first gear), there's a high center rut and you cross a couple of washes that make you stop and think about the right line. There are also a couple of sections where the road splits and the higher fork leads to a washed-out chasm, so proceed with due caution.

Eventually the road deteriorated and we parked and continued on foot, along the road and eventually through the gate that marks the Wilderness area boundary. After that the trail crosses through an area of basalt breccia -- the northwestern limit of the "malpais" lava area concentrated around Malpais Springs.

The icy wind dissuaded us from trying to go all the way to Castle Peaks (the trail doesn't go there anyway) but we did get a good view of them as well as nice views of Joshua trees and the malpais.

After our hike, we retraced our steps and crossed over along smooth, good roads to the deserted Hart townsite.

Hart Site: Ozymandius in the Mojave

[Ghost town: Hart townsite] Hart was a mining town established in 1907. At its peak it had five hotels, 8 saloons, a newspaper and about 400 residents. And today, what you can see of the town is ... a lot of rusted cans.

That's all. No buildings. No walls. But I guess when Hart's residents departed, they left their trash behind, and scattered among the yucca and creosote you can find collections of rusted cans and a few glass bottles darkening in the desert sun.

It's sobering. What happened to all the buildings? Where are those hotels and saloons and hundreds of houses? Apparently if you search long enough, you can find a few tiny segments of walls -- but mostly, this boom town has crumbled into nothingness. And trash.

It reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandius:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

There's no shattered visage -- just a plaque giving the history of the town, the expansive pit mine nearby, and the garbage quietly rusting away in the lone and level sands.

[Panorama of Hart Mine]

Photos and GPS log:

Photos
Track log
Waypoints

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[ 13:03 Nov 14, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 06 Nov 2009

Probing the Limits of a Rav4 on Clark Mountain

[Clark Mountain]

Summary:

Clark Mountain, Yates Well to Colosseum Gorge: Lovely, scenic roads with a few slow sections.

Clark Mountain, West: Punishing, rocky, technical roads: a first-gear crawl with lots of stopping to plan routes and move rocks around.

The plan

Just west of Primm and north of Yates Well lies a small, disconnected piece of Mojave National Preserve called Clark Mountain.

A year or two ago, Dave and I tried to explore Clark Mountain. Exiting I-15 at Cima Road, we headed northwest and looked for a small unmarked road heading east into the park. But we missed the right road and ended up on a rocky, tedious power-line road. Eventually we took a side road heading toward the mountain and ended up in a maze of unmarked roads, eventually coming to a four-way intersection with a sign:

GREEN'S WELL ROAD
Public by-pass route

Unfortunately, one of the three roads dead-ended in a "Private property: KEEP OUT" sign while the other two looked too technical to attempt so late in the afternoon. So we slunk back to the powerline road and turned right, toward Primm.

This year, we attacked Clark Mountain from the other side.

Old Ivanpah

[ruins at old Ivanpah] [Dave inspects the mysterious Ivanpah hole] We started from Yates Well Rd, the first I-15 exit south of Primm. Right toward the golf course, then first left toward the mountain. Our first project was to find old Ivanpah.

Ivanpah is an abandoned town over in the main part of Mojave Preserve -- but historical records show that it was moved there from an earlier location over on the slopes of Clark.

Just inside the NPS boundary, there's a network of small dirt roads forking off to the left. We parked and walked around, and eventually found the Ivanpah site: a few standing rock walls, a watering trough, a mysterious hole in the ground with a fence around it ("Private property, KEEP OUT") and a collection of ancient rusted and flattened iron cans as well as more modern shotgun shells.

Colosseum Gorge

[Colosseum mine] [Pyrite?]

Beyond Old Ivanpah, the road threads its way up along Colosseum Gorge, named after the spectacular open-pit mine near the top of the pass. The mine's steeply terraced walls do put one in mind of a vast spectator arena; but the only show today was the quiet pool at the bottom, the only spectators the two of us and a trio of ravens.

There's a network of interesting looking roads below the mine. Some lead up to Clark while others explore the grassy meadow below. A couple in a Landrover (the only other vehicle we saw all day) was crawling along one of the mountain roads.

[confusing Greens Well Rd sign]

Continuing on from the mine, we found the road occasionally rocky, but easy. At the bottom was an intersection with a sign aimed westward:

GREEN'S WELL ROAD
Public by-pass route
We'd made the connection! We'd been so close on our previous trip -- if only we'd known.

Clark Mountain, West

The rest of the journey would be easy! Just turn left at the right place and head south along the west face of Clark to the paved road, avoiding that awful rocky powerline road which had so sapped our energy and our time on the previous trip.

[Turn-off, with desert willow]

The turn-off (shown at left) is easy to miss: a fork to the left, up a steep incline, then an immediate right (fortunately shown on our Trails Illustrated map). We drove right past the left at first thinking it couldn't be the one, but as we saw our route bending right and down toward the powerline now visible in the distance, we knew we'd missed it and went back.

We climbed out of desert willow into a Joshua tree forest with a beautiful view of the valley to the north. And then the road got rocky. Just as rocky as it had been on the powerline road -- but this time it hummocked up over hills and down into washes, so the going was much more technical.

[Rav4 on rocky Clark Mtn West road] [Rav4 on rocky Clark Mtn West road]

It turned out to be by far the most technical road we'd done, involving frequent stops to get out and plan routes and sometimes build ramps so the Rav wouldn't bottom out. On the tricky sections, one person got out and "spotted" while the other drove.

In the end we made it across to paved Kingston Rd with no damage to the Rav. That section only took about two and a half hours, but it felt like five. I guess it was a learning experience, certainly the most technical road we've done -- but in future we'll stay off the west side of Clark Mountain.
(At right: View of Primm and Ivanpah dry lake.) [Primm and Ivanpah Dry Lake]

GPS log:

Track log, Waypoints

Photos:

Photos

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[ 13:44 Nov 06, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 31 Oct 2009

Crossing Soda Lake on the Mojave Rd

Summary:

Mojave Rd from Basin to Zzyzyx: Deep sand, confusing navigation.

Mojave Rd from Zzyzyx to 17-Mile Point: Easy and fun (in dry fall weather). Don't count on getting from Mojave to Zzyzyx.

Basin to Zzyzyx

The goal for the first day of this trip involved a slight detour on the way to our hotel: a section of the Mojave Road entering Mojave National Preserve from the south.

[Sign marking Mojave Rd] On most maps, the Mojave Road enters the preserve at Soda Lake, a bit east of Zzyzyx (pronounced Zye-zix, we're told, not Zizzix.) We'd been warned in the past that any hint of rain turns Soda Lake into a slippery, muddy truck-eating quagmire, so it's important to inquire first about conditions before attempting it.

But some study of Google Earth had convinced Dave that there's a road not shown on the maps going from Mojave Rd. across to Zzyzyx. All we had to do was take the Basin Rd. exit off I-15, turn onto Mojave Rd at the big metal signpost, and head north until we hit Soda Lake. If the lake surface looked bad, Zzyzyx would be an easy out.

This section of Mojave Road, it turns out, is a complex braid of dry washes of sand so deep that turning the steering wheel is more a suggestion than a control. That's great fun, as long as you're getting enough traction and not bottoming out. Occasional rock cairns tell you you're on the right track.

... Until you stop seeing cairns. At some point I took the road less braided and ended up driving across sand dunes before the route finally rejoined the Mojave Rd. Fortunately the Rav4 handled the sand very competently, without ever needing its magic center-differential-lock button.

(The GPS with its OpenStreetMap-derived file was no help here -- it didn't show the Mojave Road at all. It is in the OSM database, I found out later, rendered as a red dotted line -- apparently not major enough to make it into the Garmin maps. The nice thing about OSM is that I can fix it!)

Eventually we got back on something resembling a main road, which had turned into whoop-de-doos -- endless irritating hummocks that took patience but no great driving skill as the road skirts along the southern edge of a Wilderness area: no vehicular access. Rasor Rd comes in from I-15 somewhere around here, and the area is popular with ATVers: we saw quite a few groups camping.

Zzyzyx to 17-Mile Point

[Mojave Rd crossing Soda Lake]

Finally we got to Soda Lake. The sandy road turned to smooth hardpack as it entered the lake bed -- by far the best road we'd seen since leaving I-15, and we drove out with no hesitation. We could see deep tracks off to either side of the road -- obviously lots of people experiment, and just as obviously the surface isn't quite as good if you get off the road, but we had no trouble on this dry October day. Before long we saw Zzyzyx off in the distance on our left -- and no road going there. But if the road across the dry lake was this good, why would we want to turn off to Zzyzyx at all?

(Good thing we didn't want to, since we couldn't!)

At the far side of the lake are a couple of steep rises in deep sand -- but nothing too tricky, and much easier than the sandy sections south of the lakebed.

The rest of the trip was just normal dirt-road driving, between the more-scenic-than-their-names-suggest Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mountains, through a small basalt flow (evidence of some nice big bubbles visible in the walls), and finally back onto pavement at Kelbaker Road and north to Primm.

GPS log: Track log, Waypoints

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[ 11:56 Oct 31, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 03 Apr 2005

Rainbow Basin: the Barstow Syncline

We started the day at Zzyzx, south of Baker. I'd been told that there were lots of geologically interesting things to see there.

If so, we couldn't find them. There's a little cluster of buildings marking the Desert Research Center, but it doesn't seem to be open to casual visitors; rather, they do classes and tours by appointment. Zzyzx abuts the southwest end of Soda Dry Lake, so you can get good views of the dry lakebed (with a little water on it here and there, thanks to the very wet winter) and across it to Mojave Rd and the Kelso Dunes. Worth the 5 mile detour off the freeway? Well, no, not really. But Dave was happy to find a relatively windless place where we could fly model airplanes for a few minutes.

Fortunately, Zzyxz wasn't the target of the day; that honor fell to Rainbow Basin, a few miles north of Barstow on the road to Fort Irwin. We'd actually tried to go to Rainbow Basin once before while passing through Barstow, but got lost. This time we had a more detailed map, since Rainbow Basin occupies a whole chapter in Geology Underfoot, Southern California.

Except it turned out that map wasn't any better than the wide-scale auto club map. The problem is that when you're coming in from the northeast, there's an exit off I-15 for "Fort Irwin Rd", even though no such exit shows on any of the maps. Fort Irwin Rd. is the road all the maps show as leading to Rainbow Basin. So that's the road to take, right?

Well, it turns out that Fort Irwin Rd and the more westward Irwin Rd angle together to meet at a point well north of the Rainbow Basin turnoff, which is on Irwin Rd. Irwin Rd. is the road all the maps label as Fort Irwin Rd, while Fort Irwin Rd. doesn't exist on the maps at all. Confused yet?

Here's the secret: if you exit I-15 at Fort Irwin Rd, make a left when you get to Irwin Rd. and angle back toward Barstow. Drive for longer than you think you should, and Look for a dirt road going off to the right called Fossil Beds Rd, which has no signs whatsoever related to Rainbow Basin even though supposedly there's a sign for it if you're coming in the other direction. Once you find Fossil Beds Rd, you're on track, and there are signs for the rest of the way.

Is it worth bothering with all this? Absolutely! Geology Underfoot rightly recommends starting with the "scenic loop drive", a short, one lane, one way dirt road that looks a little rough but really shouldn't be a problem for any car (at least when dry). It winds down through narrow canyons composed of colorful highly tilted layers of mudstone and tuff, then up a little hill to a parking area which offers a panoramic view of the Barstow Syncline, where the rock layers have been warped by fault compression into a striking U-shaped depression in an action mimicking the larger scale raising of the Transverse Ranges north of the Los Angeles basin by the San Andreas fault.

Curiously, on an intensely crowded weekend, Rainbow Basin was almost deserted. At the Syncline parking area we joined one other vehicle, a white van belonging to the "Loma Linda Department of Natural Sciences (Geology and Biology)". We never did spot the Loma Lindans; presumably they were down in the syncline measuring strike and dip. I hope my class field trips turn out to be this interesting.

Geology Underfoot recommends following the scenic drive with a hike of Owl Canyon, from Rainbow Basin's camping area, so we did so. The Owl Canyon trail offers a chance to walk through the axis of the syncline, up a mostly-dry creekbed to a dry waterfall. The colors aren't as impressive as the layers visible from the scenic loop, but the more subtle colors are interesting: the book mentions the green mudstone all along the wash (green from weathering of volcanic ash, not from copper) but doesn't mention the strikingly colorful granites washed down into the canyon, reds and bright greens as well as greys and blacks.

Along the way, there's a short cave in the side of the canyon marking a tributary which runs in wet weather. The book recommends bringing flashlights if one wishes to explore the cave. Since we had only bought the book a day earlier, we weren't well prepared for that; fortunately, I had my little blue LED keychain flashlight clipped to my water bottle, which turned out to be fine since the cave was so short.

Rainbow Basin was an excellent conclusion to our Mojave desert trip. This well hidden pocket park is well worth a side trip if you're anywhere near Barstow and have any interest in geology, or just in a short scenic drive among colorful desert rocks. Assuming, of course, that you can find the road in.

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[ 21:31 Apr 03, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 01 Apr 2005

Mojave

The East Mojave National Reserve is the nation's newest member of the national park system, signed into law as one of President Clinton's final acts. Growing up in LA, I'd driven through various parts of the Mojave desert since I was old enough to drive, but I hadn't been there since the park was created, and I didn't have much idea what specific interesting places might be there, except for Kelso Dunes, distantly visible from the interstate near Baker and always intriguing on our previous trips.

But where to go? I had no information about what was where, just an auto club road map and the topographic map collection I've been using to work on my pytopo program. The road map had ranger hat symbols at the town of Baker, at Mitchell Caverns down at the south end of the preserve, and at an obscure intersection of two minor roads in the south-central part of the reserve.

Dave didn't want to go to Baker -- it's a tacky little town whose two claims to fame are the World's Tallest Thermometer and a restaurant called the Bun Boy, though I have fond memories of our stay at Baker on the first night of our first trip together. Mitchell Caverns was too far and likely to be too crowded during spring break week. So we decided on the third option, which followed a road that led toward Kelso Dunes. Even if we didn't find a ranger station, at least we'd see the dunes; and there was an intriguing place somewhere along the road called "Hole in the Wall" which sounded worth checking out.

Roads in the preserve are mostly dirt, but are well graded and very well signed, and finding our way was no problem. Wonder of wonders, Hole in the Wall is the ranger station and campground marked on the auto club roadmap, and they have a very nice visitor's center and bookshop. Although they didn't have any books on the geology of the area (not their fault: no one has written one and they wish someone would!) they did have another in the "Geology Underfoot" series which covered, among other places, Rainbow Basin, tomorrow's target.

Newly armed with books and maps, we headed down the Rings Trail, Hole in the Wall's showpiece. It's short (though it connects to several much longer trails), fun and interesting: you scramble down over blocks of the colorful local tuff until you get to a steep slot, where metal rings have been bolted into the rock to provide handholds. Two such ring ladders and a bit more rock scrambling get you to the bottom of the slot canyon, where you can admire the fabulous colorful tuff towers above you, inspect the interesting tuff and volcanic breccia comprising the rocks, with their inclusions of hornblende, obsidian and other interesting minerals, and walk out to where the canyon emerges into normal Mojave desert with a view of the Providence Mountains and Mid Hills.

A very rewarding stop, and a fascinating place.

One curiosity about the Hole in the Wall Ring Trail: the sign at the trailhead makes a big deal about how strenuous the hike is. It's not really all that strenuous (the two ring climbs are short) but it could be unnerving for someone with poor balance or a fear of heights, too narrow for very overweight people, and of course it's not at all wheelchair accessible. But what they don't mention: if you drive south a few hundred feet on the road and turn west onto Wild Horse Canyon loop, in a very short distance you're more or less at the bottom of the Ring Trail. It's not as fun as climbing down the ring ladders, but would be well worthwhile for someone who couldn't see the canyon any other way.

With time left in the day, we took another route to Kelso Dunes, going back the way we came but by way of Wild Horse Canyon Rd, which the ranger recommended. I'm not sure why; there wasn't much on that road which we hadn't already seen from other roads. But taking the seemingly more direct route to Kelso, it turned out, involved quite a lot of slow jeep trail and probably would have taken quite a bit longer, so no harm done.

The highest of the Kelso Dunes rises to 600 feet, dwarfing the 140 foot rise of the famous Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley. Since I'd missed yet another chance to explore and photograph the Mesquite dunes a few days earlier, I was happy to be at Kelso.

The parking area was packed, but there's plenty of room on the sand: it wasn't crowded away from the parking lot. Getting to the dunes involves fighting for some portion of a mile along a deep sandy trail, then scrabbling your way up the side of the dunes.

The dunes are covered with wind ripples and tracks of all sorts of animals (mostly lizards, insects, hikers, and their dogs and children) and plants (the dune grass bends in the wind, and the tips of each blade make an arc in the sand.)

Near the top, you start feeling like an Everest trekker: you eye the cornice of sand along the ridge to the north, and watch the turbulent eddies of sand blowing off the tip of the peak above you as the wind howls past and threatens to blow you off the mountain. Well, okay, admittedly it's a bit warmer and you don't need oxygen tanks.

We went as high as the Hillary Step, but Dave's eyes were protesting from too much sand under his contact lenses, and the wind got worse with every foot ascended, so we stopped there. Our sherpas had long since deserted us.

Descending is much quicker than ascending. For one thing, you can take giant moon leaps, or "ski" down the sides of steep slopes, if you don't mind getting your shoes full of sand. Alas, the long level slog from the base of the dunes back to the parking lot is no easier in the return direction.

We drove out via Kelbaker Rd, past perhaps the most perfect collection of cinder cones I've ever seen together in one area. The map says they have a lava tube there, too. We'll have to come back and check it out some time.

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[ 08:26 Apr 01, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 31 Mar 2005

Fires of the Aztecs, Fires of the Earth

Valley of Fire State Park, in Nevada, is in the Lake Mead National Recreational Area near the northeast end of Lake Mead.

It's an auspicious location, because the Valley of Fire exit from interstate 15 is at the trading post run by our favorite local Indian tribe, the Moapa. In addition to not-completely-unreasonable gas prices and a huge assortment of fireworks, they sometimes have a trailer outside the store from which they sell "Really Good Beef Jerky" (it says so right on the sign). It really is "really good", the best I've had anywhere, even though it turns out to be imported from Wyoming and not made locally by the Moapa. Dave and I always look for the jerky trailer when we're passing through.

We had some idea what to expect from the Valley of Fire, because on a recent trip we stumbled upon an excellent little rest area north of Lake Mead called "Redstone", which included well made interpretive signs explaining that the deep red rock was Aztec Sandstone.

Indeed, the Valley of Fire is Aztec Sandstone, whose fiery color inspires the name; but the park turned out to be sizeable and varied, full of color changes and scenic vistas, excellent petroglyphs, and, oh, yes, a wildflower assortment that puts Death Valley's celebrated wildflowers to shame.

We expected a quick drive-through, but had no trouble whiling away the entire day in the park, including three short hikes and a lot of happy scrambling over rocks. It's comparable to the excellent Arches national park near Moab, in size, variety, and character. The Aztec even forms arches like the Entrada above Moab, though it tends toward lots of small arches rather than the big sweeping spans of the Entrada.

Unlike Arches, though, it isn't terribly informative (Arches being surprising good about explanations compared to most national parks). The Valley of Fire's signs and visitor's center are rather light on details. Why is the sandstone so deeply red in some places (well, iron, sure, but why so much more iron than other places?) and white or bright yellow in others? Why is it called Aztec? What makes the seams/dikes which are so prominent in the white formations near White Domes area? Is it just coincidence that Aztec and Entrada sandstone, both so intensely red compared to most sandstone, also share the unusual property of forming arches?

The visitor's center has a decent geology timeline with stratigraphic columns and a diagram of the fault as a fixed exhibit, plus kiosks with photos of common flora and fauna, but nothing you can take away with you, and they sell no books beyond lightweight coffee table fluff. "Sorry -- we keep telling them they should make something like that," apologized the lady at the gift shop counter.

We had just enough light left after leaving the park to make a quick trip down a dirt road to a ledge overlooking the north end of Lake Mead. The lake level was quite low; the ingress of the lake was far downstream of the location given on the map. Last summer, the LA Times reported that Mead was at record low levels, and the lost town of St. Thomas, submerged since the reservoir was first filled, had reappeared, delighting archaeologists and historians. I'd assumed that this was long past, after this year's unusually wet winter, but the lake level was still quite low: and at the St. Thomas overlook, several objects looking like the tops of buildings peeked out from beneath the water's surface. Further research will be required to find out whether we actually spotted St. Thomas.

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[ 08:55 Mar 31, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 30 Mar 2005

A Mosaic of Flowers

Passing through Death Valley wasn't the point of our Mojave trip, but it seemed like a nice bonus. Everyone's been talking about how due to the unprecedented southern California rains, this spring is a record year for wildflowers in Death Valley.

Of course, what that really meant was that everyone in the western half of the US decided to spend their spring break week there. Stovepipe Wells was a zoo.

But I wanted to see Mosaic Canyon, rumored to be a good slot canyon, and favored in "Geology Underfoot: Owens Valley and Death Valley" for breccia containing fragments of the precambrian Noonday dolomite.

It's a fabulous canyon. The book got so involved in talking about the breccia and stream undercutting that it didn't mention the gorgeous, smooth, veined, water-cut dolomite comprising a long and narrow slot canyon for the first half mile or so of the hike. Farther upcanyon, warping caused by the Mosaic Canyon fault creates impressive exposures in the walls.

After reluctantly leaving Mosaic Canyon, our route led us down the Badwater road, where the fabled wildflowers were impressive in number, if not in color (almost all yellow, with a few small whites and pale purples). The photographers, too, were impressive in number if not in intelligence, tending to back into the roadway in front of traffic at unpredictable times. The fields were full of people looking for just the perfect flower for their shot.

I'd heard rumours that Badwater was flooded, to the point where people were kayaking there. Not true: the water wasn't deep enough for kayaking, but the shallows were full of families and couples wading barefoot in the brine. We didn't wade, just walked to the water's edge and admired the new incarnation of ancient Lake Manly, the huge lake which once filled all of Death Valley, sparkling in the sun.

South of Badwater the flowers were a little denser, but didn't change very much in character until we left the park, where yellow coreopsis gave way to bushes covered with bright orange dodder, a parasitic plant that I think of as "silly string plant" because it covers other plants with a thin, bright orange string that looks like "silly string" sprayed out of cans.

Our last stop was just a few miles east of the town of Shoshone: a roadcut highly recommended by the Geology Underfoot book, which devoted a whole chapter to it. Rightly so! A strikingly weird black stripe which appears to be a coal seam is clearly, upon closer inspection, a layer of obsidian sandwiched between red rhyolite layers with interesting inclusions. Both the obsidian and the rhyolite includes bits of quartz. A little farther up the roadcut, past the obsidian, are two striking vertical faults. Quite amazing, and I'm glad we made a point of taking that route.

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[ 22:30 Mar 30, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]