Mojave (Shallow Thoughts)

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

Fri, 01 Apr 2005


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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[ 09:26 Apr 01, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

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