Thursday, April 30, 2020

Handprints Cave

This has to rate up there in my "top 5" favorite all time desert hikes. What are my favorite hike criteria? 
1. Challenging: One of those hikes that I question whether or not I can do it successfully.
2. Natural beauty: Always more fun to hike in an area with great rock formations, Joshua Tree forests, etc.
3. Significant discovery: Discovering something new (arch, rock art, etc.) really makes a hike memorable.
4. Desert solitude: I love hiking in remote areas.

Handprints Cave checks all the boxes. I had GPS coordinates for the approximate location, but I didn't know how to get there. It's deep in the Wonderland of Rocks, and it requires good navigational skills over a boulder-strewn landscape with no trail to follow. I was using Google Earth to plot a route, and it was highly questionable if the route would be passable. I took you to Garretts Arch last week, and Handprints Cave is twice as far as Garrett's arch through some very challenging terrain. I won't be sharing the location of Handprints Cave.
As I set off, my mindset was I would be very lucky to actually find Handprints Cave. I had recently hiked to Garrett's Arch, so I had recent photos of much of the first half of the hike. It wasn't until I saw the red obelisk (above) that I took my camera out of my backpack.

I stopped only long enough for a quick photo and a swig of water as I passed by Garrett's Arch. From this point on, I would be covering ground I had never hiked before.

Interesting rock formation.

It wasn't long before I reached a dense manzanita "jungle". Getting past the thick growth of manzanita was a challenge, and I remember thinking that, if I ever do this hike again, I need to find a way around this area. The manzanita had these beautiful red-orange berries that were the same color as the branches.

Looking back, I spotted this rock formation that reminded me of an old man taking a snooze!

I came to an area I thought was finally a clearing, but it turned out to be a large dead area. I was surprised to see a huge pile of debris in the middle of the dead manzanita. I'm pretty sure it was a very large pack rat nest: About 8-9' in diameter and approximately 5' tall. I've never seen one even close to this large.

Allow me to take you on a little detour. Surprisingly, pack rat dens are of scientific value. It turns out the nests are divided into various chambers, including one where all the garbage is stored. It's called a midden, and they are of great interest. Middens in desert areas with rock outcroppings are the most highly valued. Funny, I've seen these middens out in east Joshua Tree many, many times, but I just didn't know what they were! Anyway, protected from the elements in a rocky crevice or cavity, large masses of pack rat debris can accumulate. The material is cemented together with highly-concentrated pack rat urine to form a hard, durable amber-like material called amberat. The pack rats refuse pile or midden may remain undisturbed for thousands of years, growing larger with each generation of residents. Amberat is invaluable because it contains a record kept by all pack rates that ever lived in the den. Plant fragments are well preserved in amberat, and can be identified even after many thousands of years. Middens are a major source of evidence for reconstructing past vegetation and environments, from the Pleistocene through the Holocene. Some middens have been found dating to at least 40,000 years before present.

In the photo above, I'm guessing that if you were to dig through that large pile of pack rat debris, you would find a huge amberat. The stories it could tell us would be fascinating!

Detour over, and back to the hike...
Finally out of the manzanita jungle, I came across this interesting flat rock formation. Sometimes it's possible to find bedrock mortars or other signs of habitation in areas like this, but nothing obvious jumped out at me.

As I continued to follow the wash, I came across petroglyphs on this large boulder. The closer I got, the more petroglyphs I saw. What a nice surprise!

Perfect balance!!

Finally, after miles of bushwhacking, boulder climbing, and rock-hopping (with a little bit of hiking sprinkled in), I found Handprints Cave. It's hard to appreciate scale in this photo, so I'll resort to a scientific description: The boulder is humongous!!!!! I only had to stoop slightly when entering the cave. It's one of the largest shelters I've ever seen. But like so many things in Joshua Tree, if you weren't looking for it (or even if you were, but just not paying close attention) you could easily walk right by it and never know it was there. I felt a sense of relief and satisfaction wash over me. I had found the cave and I felt confident that I had the energy and ability to make my way back. Now lets take a look inside...
As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I was blown away by this huge grinding surface with the mano sitting on top of it. I've come across a few well defined grinding surfaces before, but never the mano that was used in the grinding process. This was a real treat!

Another photo of the grinding slick and mono- this one looking from inside the cave toward the entrance.

Close up of mano and grinding slick. You can clearly see the smooth indentation in the rock surface where the mono has been used for grinding and crushing.

This mano was a big sucker! I'm guessing this guy weighed in the neighborhood of 8-10 lbs. Difficult to pick up with one hand, this site was probably used to grind larger nuts or seeds. Likely this mano was rolled rather than lifted.

As I turned my attention toward the cave walls, I could see some faint petroglyphs.
This photo gives a good feel for the size of Handprints Cave. I'm about half-way in the cave, shooting toward the cave entrance. It turns our there is a large back opening to the cave, which makes it feel even more roomy and comfortable. Plenty of fresh air in this shelter! The pictographs are overhead right. I saw little or no rock art on the left side of the cave.

One of the first pictos I noticed in Handprints Cave was this beautiful crosshatching. I've seen similar to this in other areas of the Park. I'm certain it has meaning, but I have no idea what that meaning might be.

A slightly different angle shows additional pictos below the crosshatching. I should mention I used DStretch on all the picto photos to enhance their visibility.

Next to the crosshatching is a beautiful wagon wheel motif picto. Or maybe that's a sunburst?

Backing away a little, there are clearly two wagon wheels, with something in the center between them. It looks like multiple parallel lines going different directions.

That completes our tour of the front half of Handprints Cave. On my next post, we will look at the back half of the site. It's spectacular. I'll give you a less than subtle hint about what you will be seeing: It has to do with why they call it Handprints Cave!

Until then, stay safe and stay healthy.
Thanks for stopping by!!
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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Garrett's Arch

Garrett's Arch... said to be the largest arch in Joshua Tree National Park. Also said to be located at the highest elevation of any significant arch in the Park. I'm an arch lover and yet had never taken the time to hike to it. That's assuming I can find it. I was long overdue! 

There are a lot of photos with this post, so pull up a chair, grab your favorite beverage, get comfortable, and enjoy!

Photo credit:  Thanks, Elliot!
The Wonderland of Rocks is a huge conglomerate of rocks and boulders sticking up out of the ground like... well, like a bunch of rocks. It's not like the rest of the Park doesn't have lots of rocks and boulders. But the Wonderland just has more. Much more.

Sitting near the center of the Wonderland, Garrett's Arch is not the easiest place to get to. On the other hand, the location isn't "secret" like so many of the other spots I visit or stumble upon. The challenge is to make your way up, around, and across various washes and a seemingly endless landscape of huge boulders and crazy rock formations. An early landmark as we start our hike is the Wonderland Ranch, which I recently posted about here.

The going may be slow at times, but the scenery is magnificent. Occasionally there is a trail to follow, but often the trail disappears, or splinters into many trails. It's best to study the terrain thoroughly before you go and mark waypoints on your GPS device. It's very easy to get disoriented in the rocky terrain.

You will hike by the hidden cave that contains a bighorn sheep skeleton. I think I may be one of the few people who know about it. I happened upon it when hiking with my friend Patrick Tillett a couple years back. At the time, I reported it to the Park Service and gave them the coordinates. They said it was very likely a mountain lion kill. On this hike, I wanted to see if it was where we left it. Yep, still there, although it appears the Park Service has tried to hide it by covering it with Nolina leaves. I uncovered the head, took this photo, and then covered it back up the way I found it before heading on my way.

Keep your eyes open for this interesting rock. He goes by various names, including "The Creature" and "The Walrus". If you see him, you will know you are going in the correct direction (north). When viewed from the other direction, he looks like a giant wave.
Just goes to show you... rocks and arches look completely different when viewed from different directions. On your return hike, after visiting Garrett's Arch, you will see "The Wave" but not "The Creature"!

Somewhere past "The Creature", Wonderland Wash will start to open up. This makes it a little easier to get lost or turned around. A good landmark in this area is to continue in the general direction of "Punk Rock". See the rock formation in the upper center of the photo with the spiky rocks sticking up?

See the rock face? (center right)

Close up of Punk Rock
For my money, you just can't beat the Wonderland of Rocks area for it's rugged beauty. You likely won't have the place all to yourself and you will see LOTS of footprints, so a very different experience than what I am used to out in the east Joshua Tree Wilderness Area. But an overall wonderful experience in a beautiful setting.

The Freak Brothers rock formation

The three Freak Brothers in B&W
Somewhere in a hidden location in this general area is a large rocky surface with a profusion of Native American rock art. It's definitely worth visiting and it's more or less on your way to Garrett's Arch. The pictographs and petroglyphs are nothing short of amazing. 

If you are relying solely on rock formations to guide you to Garrett's Arch (which I don't recommend), things can get a little weird. You should have hiked past "The Creature" and have been using Punk Rock to guide you north. Take the second right after the Freak Brothers, which means you will be heading east. Very soon, you should see "Weenie Rock" on your right (I didn't make that one up) and the Red Obelisk. You should also see Fat Freddie's Cat and Peabrain rock formations in this area. See what I mean about things getting weird??

Weenie Rock in the foreground.

Heart rock... or perhaps butt rock??

Close up of the Weenie

The Red Obelisk. You can't miss it!
The Red Obelisk, as seen from the back side.

Dinosaur Rock (I made that one up)
And finally...
Garrett's Arch. It's sooooooo much more impressive in person. It's difficult to get any scale on the photo, so you can't appreciate how big it really is.



Closest! (glad I had my telephoto lens with me)
Here are a couple photos to help give you some perspective. I didn't take them.
Photo credit:
I made the decision (probably one of my few smart decisions) to not hike up to the arch. I was hiking alone, the rocks looked steep and slick, and my legs were already tired. But I like this photo because it helps you appreciate the size of Garrett's Arch.

Photo credit:
Another perspective photo. I don't know these intrepid hikers, but they made it up to the arch, so I give them lots of credit. Congratulations!

At some point on the hike back, not far from the arch, things got cloudy, the light went flat, and these desert shrubs really came alive. The yellows and reds were everywhere. It was a magical moment that didn't last long. When the sun came back out, the colors blended in with the background and all but disappeared. Amazing!

Profile shot of the three Freak Brothers. So long, friends, until my next visit!

Wave rock. Almost home!!

Linking with Skywatch Friday.
Thanks for stopping by!!

Please stay safe and healthy. I just read a notice on my phone that CA recorded it's deadliest day yet, with 115 deaths in the last 24 hours from COVID-19.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Clark's Pass- The Hike Back

So last week I took you on a hike to "Hidden Dune" in the Clark's Pass area north of Joshua Tree National Park (since the Park is closed). We came across a 100-year-old whiskey bottle and other interesting finds. Today, we need to make our way back to the car. I'm hoping to follow the wash back for a bit, then detour into a smaller wash west, then up and over a dune area. It's in the low '80s on this particular day, and my pack is heavy because I'm carrying my big telephoto lens and extra water. Fingers crossed!
I'm not sure you can call Hidden Dune a true sand dune, but the sandy soil really stands out compared to the rocks that surround it. I can also tell you it's a pain in the butt to climb! Steeper than I anticipated, and climbing in soft sand it tough.

One thing I had been hoping for on this hike was to come across some desert flower blooms. There are a number of desert plants that prefer, or require, sandy soil, and their blooms can be fantastic in a good year. The elusive Desert Lily is one of those plants. But so far, the blooms had been mediocre at best. So I was surprised and pleased to see some purple color up on Hidden Dune as I started my climb.
 I think this is called Desert Lupine, and it created a purple strip of color that could be seen from a distance. Very pretty! I also spotted a couple Desert Lily plants, but they weren't blooming yet. 

From here, we continue down the wash, keeping an eye out for the little side wash that will take us west up to the dunes. It doesn't take me long to find it, but the hike up is much steeper than anticipated. Another example of how things turn out to be much different than how they look at home on satellite view!

I decide to take the direct approach straight up the dunes. That turns out to be a mistake. The sand is extremely soft. It seems like for ever foot in altitude I gain, I slide back in the sand two feet! I get about half way up the dunes and have to stop, exhausted, for a rest. But a great time to take some dune photos and try to capture the interesting patterns.

The dunes are absolutely pristine! No human footprints. Just natures artwork.

Nature's artwork in the sand includes some little critter prints mixed in with lines caused by wind blowing long, thin leaves across the sand.
Hmmm... snake track, perhaps??

As we hike south, we come to the end of the dune area. The car is at the base of those mountains in the distance, left of center. We will follow a gently sloping bajada back down to the wash.

This is the view over my right shoulder. It gives you a sense of the downward slope we are following. The sun is low on the horizon and the shadows are getting long. My absolute favorite time of day!

Lost in thought and the natural beauty of my surroundings, something on my periphery catches my attention. The elusive Desert Lily! Two beautiful blooms, and I can only imagine what it will look like in full bloom.

As the sun sets, the view west along Highway 62 is beautiful. You may have to enlarge the photo, but you can see the highway heading off in the afternoon haze even in the upper part of the shot.

Hoping this post finds you safe and healthy.
Linking with Skywatch Friday.
Thanks for hiking with me!!