Thursday, August 26, 2021

Mystery "Oasis" in the Desert

 I'm keeping the location of this hike a secret. If there are any intrepid desert explorers out there who recognize the location, please don't share it. It's a controversial location because the direct way in is definitely off limits ("administratively closed" to use Park Service jargon). But if you are crazy enough to hike over/under/around rocks and boulders, you can get to this oasis legally. Then the question becomes: Once you reach the oasis, how much can you explore? There are no fences or signs posted to tell you what is off limits. So a while back, I took the initiative to reach out to a Park Ranger that I know and asked him. I still have his answer in a written email: I am welcome to explore and photograph the perimeter of the oasis. The water "footprint" of the oasis is off limits. So this is exactly what my friend and I did.

We spotted this beautiful arch on the hike in. A good omen?

I discover what looks like a small shelter under this large boulder. Let's go check it out!
The boulder is hollowed out and surprisingly roomy. I'm surprised to find what looks like an ancient pile of firewood. There's a very slight indication of soot on the rocky ceiling above the firewood. Try as I might, I see no rock art anywhere in the shelter.
This rock is intriguing to me. If I ever go back, I would like to look again more closely. The shape is very unusual, and the center area seems to be much smoother that the two arms protruding out. A possible grinding stone or sharpening stone?
The view from inside the shelter, looking out.

I found this stone on the opposite side of the shelter from the wood. The top looks to be much smoother than the sides. Another grinding stone, perhaps? This little shelter turns out to be a really interesting find!
I found this old can under a ledge, and was hoping it might be a soldered can from mining days. But look closely... Campbells soup! Probably a modern day hiker who backpacked into the area and spent the night here. I returned the can to where I found it and moved on.
Circular erosion.

Our first sighting of the oasis. By the way, this is not a true oasis, but calling it that helps me keep it anonymous. This photo was taken in late June. It's been a super-dry year, and I'm not expecting to see any water here (even Barker Dam was just a mud puddle when this photo was taken). But the splash of green in the middle of the dry desert makes an impression, and tells you there must be water nearby.
Wow, just amazing to see all this green! And I'm extremely surprised to see what looks like water up ahead. During wet times, this entire area would be covered by water, so I would consider this to be part of the "footprint". Rather than walk across it, we work our way around the back to cross over to the other side.
Another interesting find: A very old rock ring. Whether this ring was put here by miners and cattlemen, or perhaps older and built by Native Americans, is impossible to say. All I know is that it is quite large and looks to be very old!
Looking back at the canyon we have just hiked through. A tough hike, and my legs are aching and totally spent. Fingers crossed they will be strong enough to get me back to the car! The cloud cover is a real luxury. June hikes in Joshua Tree are usually sweltering, but today has been pretty nice. Even a few isolated rain drops!

As I said earlier, I wasn't expecting any water. This is amazing! It's like being transported out of Joshua Tree National Park desert and dropped next to a mountain pond. Absolute stillness... not another human being around for miles. Look closely at the rocks for water marks showing how high the water gets in wet years.

Not your typical desert view! See the raindrop rings on the water surface?

This has been an incredible hike. It's one of the very few places in JTNP that likely has year round water. We hiked back out leaving everything exactly as we found it, leaving only footprints and taking only pictures.
Linking with Skywatch Friday.
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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Bighorn Sheep!

 It's estimated that only 100 - 200 desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) live in Joshua Tree National Park. That's a really tiny population when you realize that JTNP is approximately 800,000 acres! They prefer steep, rocky, and inaccessible terrain, and they blend in perfectly with their background. If you hike in JTNP, it's very unlikely you will see one. I've done hundreds of hike in the park, but my one and only sighting was in 2016. A big male (they are called rams) jumped across the trail right in front of me just as it was getting dark and scared the heck out of me! I posted about it here. So you can imagine my surprise and shock when my friend and I rounded a rocky outcropping on a recent hike and came face to face with a female bighorn (called a ewe).
She didn't seem too upset by our presence. I think we were more surprised than she was! After I got over my initial shock, I decided to take a chance and, quietly as possible, open my backpack and change lenses. I had a wide angle lens on my camera, which makes everything look smaller and further away. Exactly the wrong lens for wildlife photography. But the risk was she might be long gone by the time I changes lenses.
This was my lucky day. She stood still, patiently waiting for me to change lenses, and posed politely on the rocks. How cool is that! Even luckier, a bighorn ram stood about 15 yards behind her, a little further back on the rocks.
A big, handsome ram. But look at his right horn (or where his right horn should be). Other than a nub, it appears to be totally missing!
I checked with a friend of mine, who's something of an expert on bighorn sheep. He said it's pretty common for rams to break off small pieces from their horn, but he had never seen anything like this. By the time a ram is 7-8 years old, their horns can weigh as much as 30 pounds, and they can actually weigh more than all the other bones in their body combined. So this poor guy is seriously out of balance, with 15 lbs on the left side of his head and nothing on the right. And yet he looks big and healthy. Talk about overcoming adversity!! I think we could all learn a little something from this guy.
When they don't move, they can be tough to see!
She must not have been too upset by our presence because she decided to have a bite to eat!

Did I mention that they are world-class climbers??
This sighting occurred in the early part of our hike, so we have pretty much our entire hike in front of us. But I was totally elated having spotted and photographed these bighorn sheep! And to think, I very nearly left my telephoto lens at home. I never would have forgiven myself!! I'll share the main hike at another time, but let's fast forward about 5-6 hours to the end of the hike.
As we followed this desert road back to our car, I spotted what looked like three people way up on the rocks. I took out my telephoto lens, and guess what? MORE BIGHORN SHEEP!
It looks like two ewes on either side of a lamb. And even at a great distance (this was taken through a 300mm lens), all three appear to be looking right at us!
A big crop shows them looking right at us and holding perfectly still. Probably trying to evaluate if we are a threat. I like the floppy ears of the little one in the middle!
After hiking a little further down the road, I scanned the rocks and could only see one sheep. I wonder where the other two went??
Another big crop... ahh, there they are!!

Wow, this turned out to be an epic hike, and one I will never forget! It's been over 5 years, and many many hikes, since my last bighorn sheep sighting. To see 5 in one day is amazing!! 
Linking with Skywatch Friday.
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Stay safe and stay healthy!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Summer Hike

 It's no secret that summer hikes in the desert are challenging, to say the least. Daytime highs almost always exceed 100 degrees F. Just too dang hot to hike, and it can be downright dangerous. Heat stroke is a very real threat. But my friend Mitch had an area he wanted to show me that's accessed via Keys View Road. If you take this road all the way to Keys View, you are over 5000' in elevation.

We didn't go all the way to Keys View, and as we started our hike, we were below 5000', but not by too much. Higher elevations in Joshua Tree National Park are not only cooler, but also get a little more moisture. You see Joshua Trees and boulders, but also Pinion Pines and the occasional oak.

One of the highlights of this hike was finding this ridge with a really gorgeous view. It's very similar to what you would see from Keys View (see below).

Above is a screen shot taken from the historic Mission Inn Museum video collection. It's not dated, but what is now called Keys View used to be called inspiration point. It's striking how similar the view is, compared to the view from our unnamed ridge (previous two photos).

Here's Mitch taking a little break and re-hydrating. I pivoted 180 degrees for this photo. The previous photos (view shots) were looking roughly south, and this one more or less north.

And Mitch took this one of me, looking south again, with the view behind me. I like the b&w version a little better.

We started our hike with just a few low clouds on the horizon, but as the day progressed, high clouds moved in and it turned out to be a beautiful sky day!

A nice overview of the terrain covered during our hike.

Finding ways around boulders and scrub was occasionally challenging!

And here's a big bonus: Near the end of our hike, I noticed the moon rising through the cloudy mist! I had my telephoto lens with me, so I made a quick lens change for this shot.

This turned out to be a great hike. Hot, but not nearly as hot as lower elevations, wonderful views, and pretty skies. Shortly after taking the above photo, we were treating to a lightning storm off on the horizon (too far away to hear the thunder), which I posted about here.

Linking with Skywatch Friday.
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