Thursday, July 21, 2016

Cow Camp, Joshua Tree National Park

Let's call this post "Part 3, the Final Installment", with Part 1 being Desert Bighorn Sheep and Part 2 being Keys Family Graveyard. Yes, I'm getting a lot of mileage out of this hike, but it was pretty spectacular!

Here's a cut & paste from Wikipedia. Cow Camp sounds like something right out of a Rawhide episode! To get fully in the right frame of mind, here's the recommended music score: Rawhide Theme Song. Now sit back and relax, this is a long post!
Cow Camp, located in Joshua Tree National Park, was associated with cattle rustling in the 1880s and 1890s. It was then later used as a line camp for cattle ranching. A stone chimney, two small dams, watering troughs and a well remain.[2] One dam was built by local rancher and character William F. Keys.
The camp was first established by the "McHaney Gang" in the late 1880s. Cattle rustlers used the camp into the 1890s. Jim McHaney reputedly murdered the discoverer of the Desert Queen Mine before losing it to a bank, then sold Cow Camp in 1894 to George Myers. McHaney eventually was convicted of counterfeiting $20 gold pieces in gold-plated lead and was sentenced to seventeen years in jail. In the 1920s Bill Keys, who had inherited McHaney's holdings, took over Cow Camp as part of his ranching operation.[3]
To get to Cow Camp and the Cow Camp Dam (legally, without passing beyond "no trespassing" signs or climbing over fences) is extremely difficult and requires cross-desert, back country boulder hopping. If you Google Cow Camp, you won't find much (vs. thousands of hits for nearby Barker Dam or Keys Ranch). Cow Camp is a seldom seen area of Joshua Tree National Park.
I took the photo (above) about half-way through my hike, taking off my 20lb pack to drink some water and change camera lenses. I think it was at about this point I realized... my legs had turned to noodles and I needed to either turn around and call it quits or continue and hope to find an easier way back to my car (I crossed my fingers and chose the latter).

Finally, I could see green ahead... desert willows and cottonwoods, a clear sign that there must be water nearby and I must be close to the dam.
Another sign of probable water nearby... fresh bighorn sheep droppings.
Looks like at one time, this area (or parts of it) were fenced off.
Another sign of water, lots of water, are the water-line stains on the side of the rocks.
Almost makes you forget you are in the middle of the desert!!
What's this contraption?  I wonder if it's a way for the Park Service to monitor bighorn sheep (and other large critter) movement in the area? If so, they have my mugshot on their device!
It's pretty clear this area is covered with water for at least part of the year.
I had buzzards overhead continually during this part of my hike. I hope they're not coming after me!!
Finally... a clear view of Cow Camp Dam, but unfortunately, no water in sight during my hike in early June.
Photo credit:  Forest Cowley
Above is what it looks like after a rain. Beautiful, don't you think? I definitely want to visit again after a nice, heavy rain.
A closer look at the backside of Cow Camp Dam. The top of the dam is at least 15' above the ground. There was a small amount of standing water at the base of the dam. Certainly not water I would ever want to drink, but I guess any water in the desert is better than nothing. See that big boulder in the middle of the dam? Kind of cool how they built the dam around it. By the way, for me to finish my hike and get back to my car, I'm going to have to find a way over that damn dam!
Here's what got me interested in hiking to this location to begin with. This is the Google Earth view of Cow Camp Dam (asterisk) and all the water behind it. Interestingly, it appears to create a much bigger "lake" than Barker Dam. Of course, one needs to take into account when Google took the photo. I found out the hard way that there is no lake behind the dam, at least when I visited.
Literally standing on top of the dam when I took this shot!
A good view of the dam. Notice how it was constructed around that big boulder?
Weird desert thistles in the area of the dam. I haven't noticed these anywhere else.
Front side of the dam. I don't know how the rustlers, and later, cattlemen, got around this dam, or how they got the cattle back to water. I saw no sign of trials, and certainly no easy access.
The Cow Camp Dam quickly disappears as you hike away from it. If you know what you're looking for, you can get just a little peek of it in the photo above. For the most part, you would walk right by and never know it was there!
This very strange rock caught my eye. About 3 1/2' high. Perhaps the McHaney Gang buried their loot under this rock? Or more likely I've been out in the sun too long!?
An old chimney, the only thing left of what was probably some old rustler's cabin. If you look really closely, you can just make out part of an old bed frame under the bush on the bottom right.

Hope you enjoyed this post about a very rarely seen area of Joshua Tree National Park.
Happy trails... until we meet again!

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  1. oh, sigh. I really miss my days as a kid hiking the desert. I really want to get out your way. (You have a comfy couch for a couple nights?)

  2. That looks like rugged country.Thanks for sharing this adventure.

  3. Great pictures and fantastic colours! How beautiful the dam looks after some rain. I would enjoy that walk a lot.

  4. Wonderful post! Fabulous captures and so informative.
    Enjoyed every inch of it!

  5. What a great explore to find that dam something most people would not bother with. I like your stile

  6. Wonderfull posting. Like to see it and read the story. Hope you do a lot more of these discoveries.

  7. Excelente trabalho e belas fotografias.
    Um abraço e bom fim de semana.

  8. Beautiful pictures & great narration of your journey

  9. Love all the beautiful desert scenes. The buzzard shot is wonderful too.

  10. Epic hiking in an environment that is so beautiful but you can sense its mercilessness too! Glad you made it back safely to share these great shots!

  11. wow!love that old chimney shot

  12. Wow, those are some gorgeous photos. What a place. Glad you pressed on with your noodle legs and didn't let the buzzard discourage you. ;-)

  13. Interesting post and great captures! As I'm writing, it's a heavy shower outside my summer cabin. This is Norway, for sure. No deserts around here *lol*. So I love to visit Joshua Tree National Park some time.

    Happy weekend!


  14. Intrepid hiker rewarded with great shots! Kudos..

  15. Joshua Tree is certainly a magical place, isn't it?

  16. Beautiful shots of the place. There is so much to see here.

  17. I would love to visit Joshua Tree one day. Your photos are amazing. How cool is that dam??!!

  18. I really enjoyed this post. These are the types of hikes I enjoy doing.

  19. You photograph the desert beautifully. Are you planning on putting some of your photos on cards?

    Worth a Thousand Words

  20. Thank you for taking me along this interesting hike. Some great rock formation.

  21. That was a risky but exciting walk. I'd hate to be there in a flash flood!

  22. yeah, a flash flood would not end well, there. the rocks are amazing! neat place. glad you made it. :)

  23. So much history in the wild wild west!! That was a reat hike and you were brave to soldier on on your noodly legs -- Thanks for showing us a part of our favorite National Park that we'll never be able to see (Nowadays we'd probably not even be able to manage some of the tamer hikes in more well-known areas -- I'm just glad we did at least those when we could.)

  24. What a fabulous post! The rock formations are amazing and the reflections on the water are lovely. A great series of images.

  25. I think the chimney shot is my favourite, I love the scenery you live in and I have to say if it was me doing all that climbing my knees would've turned to jelly too, but good on you for doing it in the first place :-)

  26. such an incredible place. We missed it last spring but hopefully we can soon come and see it ourselves..

  27. This is truly an awesome post. I respect your hiking and navigating ability getting out there and back. I love stuff like this. It is always amazing to me how the chimneys are the last thing standing in so many places.

  28. I love these captures! Especially the buzzard flying overhead :)

  29. What an amazing place! The rock formations are lovely. Superb post!

  30. Really nice photos! It's been about 40 years since I've been to cow camp. I tried it a couple of years ago, but was intercepted by a Ranger. Next time, I'll go the way you did.

  31. went to cow camp dam all the time back in the early 1990s, if you park about a mile from the gate entering Barker Ranch, yes there are wide spots in the road for easy parking, go over or thru the rock pile mountain, its about 200 meters off the road, its very easy to go over or thur ,you will see a big open field, on, the far side of that field you can see the dam, walk about 300 meters across the field , and you are there !

    1. I meant Keys ranch not Barker ranch