Monday, October 15, 2018

Oases, grotto await on Mecca Hills trail

The Grotto cave runs several yards through a slot canyon.
Hidden Springs Trail topo map.
The following article originally appeared at the Uken Report.

Day hikers can do a little spelunking in the Coachella Valley via the Hidden Spring Trail.

While the Coachella Valley doesn’t have the limestone rock formations that allows for massive underground rooms like Mammoth Cave or Carlsbad Caverns, it does have the next best thing: grottos. You can find them in the Mecca Hills Wilderness that sits north of the Salton Sea.

The 5.1-mile round trip hike to The Grotto takes you through two oasis and past several impressive painted rock canyons. Because of the desert heat, the trail is best done in October through May. Never enter the box canyons if rain is forecast or for a couple of days after rain has fallen.

To reach the trailhead, take Calif. Hwy. 111 south to Mecca. Turn left/northeast onto Fourth Street and at the roundabout go right/southeast onto Hammond Road. The street naturally curves east and becomes 66th Avenue. East of town at Garfield Avenue, it becomes Box Canyon Road and curves northeast. The road then crosses the Coachella Canal and enters a broad sandy wash and finally Box Canyon.

While the road is paved, you’ll need to drive slower in Box Canyon. Turns can be tight, and a thin layer of sand often covers part of the asphalt.

Sheep Hole Oasis
A single wood post lets you known you’ve reached the parking area – which is just a sandy wash – for the trail to Sheep Hole Oasis. It’s roughly five miles from the canal. The trailhead on the road’s east side is marked by rocks placed in the ground across the canyon’s mouth.

Follow the canyon east. In about 350 feet, the trail climbs atop a ridge and curls south. You’ve entered a region of barren hillsides banded in earth tones, reminiscent of South Dakota’s Badlands.

In about a quarter mile, a small clump of fan palms appear in the canyon below. This is Sheep Hole Oasis, an important watering ground for bighorn sheep.

The trail descends to the oasis and then follows the canyon south. As the trail’s sandy surface suggests, water cuts out the canyons in these hills. The sandstone easily erodes when flashfloods rush through and with the wind constantly striking their walls.

Hidden Spring
In a little more than a third of a mile, watch for a trail cutting through a side canyon to the east. Take this up over a small ridge and then down into Spring Canyon.

Upon entering the wide wash, go east and follow it as it turns northeast. When reaching another split, about a third of a mile up the wash, go right/northeast. The canyon here narrows.

Geographically, the Mecca Hills mark the Coachella Valley’s eastern edge. They formed as the Pacific Plate to the west of the San Andreas Fault slid past and under the North American plate. This lifted and folded the North American plate here. Water and wind then carved the sandstone into a series of clefts and gorges.

In another third of a mile is a small slot canyon heading north. Enter it.

The trail winds around and scrambles over boulders, leaving you at Hidden Spring, another oasis. As with Sheep Hole, this is an important water source for local wildlife. Hidden Spring appears a but more lush than Sheep Hole if only because this canyon is smaller.

Return to Spring Canyon and go left/east. (You’ve technically left the Hidden Spring Trail.) In about 500 feet, turn left/northeast into another slot canyon. The canyon walls here mainly consist of small stones stuck in sandstone.

The Grotto
In 0.75 miles, the trail reaches The Grotto. A grotto is a small cave that usually floods during rainfalls. Erosion in this steep mud and slot canyon created the cave-like formation.

Feel free to climb into The Grotto. It’ll be pitch black inside, so first break out a flashlight. The other end comes out just a bit farther north in the same slot canyon. Once you’ve reached the other side, head back through The Grotto and retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

There are other grottos in the Mecca Hills, and some hikers have fashioned loop trails out of the many connecting paths to see all of them in a single walk. That adventure requires hiking several miles, though.

Most of the trail is exposed to the sun, so you’ll definitely need to don sunhat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Bring plenty of water. Because of the cave and boulders to it, you may want to carry gloves as well.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Trail heads to desert oasis at Joshua Tree

Miners decades ago planted fan palms to mark the location of a desert spring.
Fortynine Palms Oasis topo map
The following article originally was written for and published by the Uken Report.

Day hikers can head to a secluded oasis on the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.

The 2.8-mile round trip trail offers a number of panoramic views and the chance to see desert plants and wildlife. It sports a 350-foot elevation gain.

To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley, take Calif. Hwy. 62 north. In Twentynone Palms, turn right/south onto Canyon Road. As the street curves east, it becomes Fortynine Palms Canyon Road. This is an access road into the north end of the national park with no ranger station. (Theoretically, you don’t have to pay park admission to hike this trail...but your vehicle can be cited for not having a park pass should a ranger come by.) The road ends at a parking lot with the trailhead leaving from the southeast corner.

A single track of sand and gravel heads uphill through the often barren and rocky landscape. Stone stairs along the way help your ascend and descend the ridgelines. Sections of the trail are an old Native American path that led from the desert to the oasis spring.

Red Barrel cacti be seen alongside the trail. The most common of the cylindrical cacti, their color ranges from deep red to white and yellow with all shades in-between. Older red barrel cacti tend to lean toward the southwest.

Brittlebrush clusters also thrive trailside. They can grow to almost five feet high. Their leaves are quite fragrant, and early Spanish missions in this part of the world used to burn their sap as incense.

During spring, you can enjoy a lot of cacti and wildflower blossoms, especially after a rainfall. Both the red barrel cactus and the brittlebush bloom in a brilliant yellow.

There are no Joshua trees, the park's namesake, on this trail, though. The elevation in this part of the park is a bit too high for them.

You’ll also spot a number of small, harmless lizards scurrying about and sunbathing near the trail. The Western side-blotched lizard likes open ground exposed to the sun, especially where there’s rocks and loose soil. The Great Basin collared lizard usually sticks to rocky slopes.

Quails also can be seen, though they are rarer. The plump Gambel's quail is about the size of a soccer ball and well-camouflaged. Males, however, have a cream-colored belly with black patch. Their calls are a common sound in Southwestern deserts. In spring, males make a kaa sound to signal they’re seeking a mate. When quails notice you, they’ll probably chirp chip-chip-chip, which tells the rest of their covey that something suspicious is nearby.

Desert tortoises are rarer still. If you spot a hole next to a creosote bush, the national park’s lone species of tortoise might be nearby. Only able to move a mere 0.2 miles per hour – or about as fast as traffic on Hwy. 111 during peak tourism season – tortoises construct up to 30 feet of dens underground. They are a threatened species, so should you see one, stay clear; if frightened, they will void their bladder, which diminishes their chances of retaining enough water to survive the desert’s dryness.

At 0.75 miles, the trail descends toward the oasis. Along the way, you’ll be treated to scenic views looking across Fortynine Palms Canyon.

About 0.8 miles in marks the trail's highest point. Keep walking, and like a desert mirage, the oasis seemingly pops out on the horizon.

California fan palms rise between boulders that shade a trickling spring and its pool (which sometimes goes dry). Songbirds flock here, especially orange and black orioles who feed on the ripe berry-like fruit of the palm tree.

Three different orioles are common in the national park – the hooded oriole, Bullock's oriole, and Scott’s oriole. The skull cap and breast of the male hooded oriole is a bright orange while the Bullock’s oriole is a mix of black and orange. The Scott’s oriole has a black head and yellow breast. All are migrants through the park.

Bring a picnic lunch as well to enjoy under the palm canopy.

The oasis (and trail) is closed at night so local wildlife can access the spring. Both sheep and coyotes come here, and the following day you may see their tracks on the sand around the palms.

A spring exists at Fortynine Palms because fault lines force underground water to the surface. Miners planted the palms to mark the spring's location.

The trail is best avoided during summer heat, so limit its use to October through June. There’s no shade except at the oasis. Regardless the time of the year, bring plenty of water.

Notes: The trail can be slick after a rain. Dogs are not allowed on the trail.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Trail heads through slot canyon via ladders

Hikers must climb ladders to traverse  Ladder Canyon in California.
Satellite map of Ladder Canyon-Big Painted Canyon Loop.
Day hikers can explore a beautiful slot canyon while traversing a series of ladders at steep spots in the Mecca Hills Wilderness.

The Ladder Canyon-Big Painted Canyon Loop is a 6-mile lollipop trail with an elevation gain of 450 feet. Located on BLM land in California’s Coachella Valley, a local hiking club provides the ladders and large arrows of collected rocks to keep you going the right way.

To reach the trailhead, take Hwy. 111 to Mecca. Turn left/northeast onto Fourth Street then at the roundabout go right/southeast onto Hammond Road. After a couple of blocks, go left/east onto 66th Avenue. As the street curves northeast, it naturally becomes Box Canyon Road. After crossing the canal, in a little more than a half-mile turn left/northwest onto the gravel Painted Canyon Road. The road winds through some scenic canyons; when it loops back upon itself, you're at a sand parking lot. The trailhead heads northeast from the loop into a narrow canyon.

You'll walk on the stem of the lollipop trail for about 0.25 miles; watch for a small trail sign pointing left to a canyon entrance with rockfall. This is Ladder Canyon. Scramble over the rocks and head into the narrow and noticeably cooler slot canyon. On the rockfall's other side is your first ladder.

The Mecca Hills are being uplifted as the North American and Pacific tectonic plates slide against one another along the nearby San Andreas Fault. When rain falls across the nearly barren hills, the rushing water cuts through the rock, forming the canyons. Some of the exposed rock at the canyons' lowest points were are more than 600 million years ago. The process of erosion continues today, leaving a layer of soft sand across the canyon floors.

Ladder Canyon is an otherworldly experience of curving stone, at time reminiscent of the famous Antelope Canyon near Grand Canyon National Park. Sometimes the slot canyon here is a mere two feet wide.

Look for the cairn
Upon exiting the slot canyon, you'll be on a small ledge that gives you an awesome bird's eye view of where you've just walked. Gradually the greater canyon widens, and the heat picks up here as there's less shade from the mudstone walls.

Once you've entirely left the canyon, you'll see a large pile of small rocks, often referred to as a cairn. Upon reaching it, you've gone about 2.75 miles and used four or five ladders. Be sure to look south for a great view of the Salton Sea.

While turning back than continuing the loop means less walking, climbing down the ladders actually is more difficult than going up them. Instead, descend to your vehicle through the wider, less steep and only slightly longer Big Painted Canyon – which means continuing the loop.

To do so, from the cairn, look for the footpath that goes northeast. When the trail reaches a T at the top of Big Painted Canyon, turn left/north; you'll walk across the desert with communication towers in the distance. Near the base of a foothill, the trail curves right/east then right/south, as it heads down into Big Painted Canyon. Large arrows fashioned out of rocks point the way to go.

Big Painted Canyon
Follow Big Painted Canyon south/southwest. A lot of neat rock formations appear in various hues of pink, purple, red, rose and green, with quartz scattered across the canyon floor. There are additional ladders along the way as you descend through the canyon. Be aware that some lead to a canyon top vista; going “up” a ladder means you’re leaving the canyon and trail.

With Big Painted Canyon's moister conditions, you can find ironwood, palo verde, smoke trees and even the rare lilac-colored Mecca aster along the trail. Ocotillo rises on the canyon rim. Plenty of harmless lizards scramble about the rocks, and if glancing at the sky, you'll probably spot prairie falcons.

Eventually the trail reaches the entry to Ladder Canyon. Continue southwest onto the stem trail leading to the parking lot.

The loop is best done in early spring and late fall. The early morning light plays sublimely on the slot canyon walls. As this is a remote desert hike, carry extra water. Always test the ladders to ensure they are stable and secure before climbing them (note that the tallest ladder is about 12 feet). Be aware that flashfloods can wash away the cairn and rock trail markers, so always carry a topo map and compass on this hike.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Day hiking trail crosses Joshua tree forest

Sunset on the Boy Scout Trail at Joshua Tree National Park.
Topo map for Boy Scout Trail at Joshua Tree National Park.
The following blog entry was originally written for and published by the Uken Report.

Day hikers can enjoy a walk through a large Joshua tree forest in the desert above the Palm Springs, Calif., area.

A segment of the Boy Scout Trail at Joshua Tree National Park runs through a grove for a 2.4-mile round trip. To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley turn north onto Calif. Hwy. 62. In Joshua Tree, go right/south onto Park Boulevard (in town, aka Quail Springs Road). After the park’s western entrance station, drive for several miles then turn into the Boy Scout Trailhead parking lot on the road’s left/north side; the lot is just past the Quail Springs Picnic Area.

This marks the trail’s southern terminus. The trail heads north into the desert. To the east, Mt. San Gorgonio looms on the horizon, even at this distance.

After crossing a couple of washes and swerving northeast, the trail ascends into a Joshua tree forest. The park’s namesake are gigantic members of the lily family, so named because their outstretched branches reminded Mormon pioneers of the Biblical figure Joshua calling out God.

Joshua trees can be found all across the Mojave Desert in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah; indeed, some biologists suggest that the Mojave can be defined as the range of Joshua trees. The Joshua trees primarily grow between 1,300 and 5,900 feet elevation, though, so they won’t be found on the desert’s mountain tops or its low areas, such as those in Death Valley.

For desert plants, Joshua trees are fast growers. They can rise 3 inches a year for their first decade. Barring a natural calamity, the trees survive hundreds of years. The oldest ones are thought to be about 10 centuries old; when they were seedlings, the Anasazi were building their cliff dwellings and Leif Eriksson was sailing for North America.

If hiking the trail between February and late April, you might spot the Joshua Tree in bloom. Its creamy white flowers are about 1-3 inches long. Joshua trees don’t bloom every year, though; first a winter freeze and then just the right amount of rain must fall.

Though its looks like a tree, the Joshua tree is one in name only. It’s actually a type of yucca.

You may want to soon hike the trail while the Joshua tree is still around. Scientists predict that climate change will reduce its range by 90 percent before the end of this century. If that occurs, the national park’s ecosystems will change dramatically.

A split appears in the Boy Scout Trail as approaching a small, crescent-shaped butte. Veer right/northeast to stay on the main trail.

After passing the butte, the trail continues northeast toward the basin’s eastern edge. Small mounds of monzogranite boulder rise amid the Joshua tree forest.

At 1.2 miles, the hike reaches a side trail going right/northeast to Willow Hole. That trail heads into the rock formations forming the basin’s east wall and is known for its washes and wind-sculpted boulder formations. This marks a good spot to turn back.

If feeling more adventurous, you can continue on the Boy Scout Trail. The path runs for another 6.8 miles round into the hills ahead, then descends to a basin floor, ending at Indian Cove Road near Twentynine Palms.

The trail is entirely open to the sun, so be sure to don a brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, as well as bring plenty of water. Dogs are not allowed on the trail.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks series.