Saturday, December 7, 2013

Where Rocks Come Alive: Banshee Canyon and the Hole-In-The-Wall at Mojave National Preserve

Date: March 10 and November 29, 2013.
Place: Hole in The Wall, Mojave National Preserve, California
Coordinates: 35.04217, -115.39499
Difficulty: Easy, but to complete the loop requires two short spans of rings climb.

Nine years ago we stopped at Mojave National Preserve on our way to Utah. We climbed on the Kelso Dunes and let the elder (then the only) chika make little sand angels with her legs. It was a wet and windy day and we didn't stay there very long.

Last March I took my botanist friend there. Once again it was to be a stop on our way to another destination, the Joshua Tree National Park. We did, however, visit another part of the preserve: the Hole in the Wall at the Providence Mountains, and hiked the little Rings Loop trail. It was on that day that I resolved to return to Mojave desert as soon as possible. This past Thanksgiving break I fulfilled my resolution and took my family there for camping, along with another family of friends. Of course we did the rings loop again! It is a very beautiful and interesting hike with a bit of climbing excitement included. I post here photos from both times I hiked this trail: that of a late afternoon in March and that of an early morning in November.

The trailhead of the rings loop is at the south-most end of the Hole-in-the-Wall information center. A massive red stone hill to the right:
 and an open plain dotted with desert shrubbery to the left:
I have always been fascinated by desert plants. I admire the resilience and beauty of these apparently unassuming shrubs.
Goldenbush (Ericameria sp.) 11/29/13
They have strong personalities, these desert plants :-)
Buckhorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) 11/29/13
On the March hike, we set out to look for flowers, and saw only very few. Turns out that November this year was a much better time to catch the blossoms:
Eastern Mojave Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) 11/29/13
None of the annuals. Just the shrubs were blooming. That was enough to make me happy. 
Desert Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) 11/29/13
We did see one shrub in bloom last March: the bare-looking and pungent-smelling Turpentine Broom.
Turpentine Broom (Thamnosma montana) 3/10/13
In November I saw the bright yellow fruits of the same plant. 
Turpentine Broom (Thamnosma montana) 11/29/13
Another shrub with interesting fruit caught my eye: the delicate Bladder Sage.
Mexican Bladder Sage (Scutellaria mexicana) 11/29/13
 The trail enters through a small gate leading into grazing area. To the right, the rocks bear the marks of the original inhabitants of the area: Native American petroglyphs. 
 There was constant chirping on the hill slope. Many of the little singers were white-crowned sparrows, which are quite common there.
White-crowned Sparrow 11/29/13
Some of these little brown birds were rock wrens, which were, as their name implies, standing vigilant on top of boulders.
Rock Wren 11/29/13
 I photographed these birds last March too, but the ever-patient Papa Quail managed to acquire better shots. He also managed to capture this cute and very quick squirrel at the split second it stood to pose:
Antelope Ground Squirrel 11/29/13
As I looked through my November photos I discovered that the same plant had caught my eye again: this small, red barrel cactus nestling between the green-gray shrubs:
11/29/13 Barrel Cactus
They are strewn all over the hill slope north of the trail:
 I can think of no better place to live than the edge of a cliff:
A Barrel Cactus in a rock crevice, 3/10/13
The trail curves to the right at the bottom of the hill. As it loops back to the north this impressive butte comes into view. It reminded me of a sphinx in guard.
 This ancient sphinx must be guarding the entrance to Banshee Canyon, which is the actual hole in the wall:
The entrance to Banshee Canyon, 11/29/13
Banshee Canyon is so named because of the sound the wind makes there. It wasn't windy either time I was there but on our recent hike we all had much fun playing with the echos there.
In March we saw many swallows flying about. They were very fast and I couldn't get any clear photograph of them. They weren't there in November, but there was this magnificent red-tailed hawk soaring above the rocks:
Red-tailed Hawk 11/29/13
The rocks there are a true celebration to the eyes. One doesn't have to travel all the way to Utah to see arches. (That said, I would love very much to go hiking in Utah).
Rock arch near the Banshee Canyon entrance, 11/29/13
Banshee Canyon is short and deep and rich with beautiful rock formation. The one that really got me blown away is right inside the entrance: these two rock 'heads' facing each other in eternal mutual regard. As long-time Pink Floyd fans, both my botanist friend and I were immediately reminded of the cover art of their last studio album: The Division Bell. It was late in the afternoon when we were there and only the right figure was in the light, while the left was already in the shade. We couldn't get a good photo of both figures together. Last November, however, we were there in the morning and, knowing what awaited me in Banshee Canyon, I rushed ahead and managed to photograph the two faces in the same light before anyone else in the group had gone down there.
Once I was satisfied we all took turns posing for photographs inside the left person's nostril :-)
There isn't much vegetation inside Banshee Canyon so this yucca really stands out there.
Yucca schidigera
To complete the loop one has to climb sheer rock. It's not all that high and there is help: two lines of iron rings hammered into the rock, which give the loop trail its name. That was what the kids were waiting for (as was I).
Completing the climb we exited the canyon into the picnic area. There is an observation deck there, overlooking another turn of Banshee Canyon and there were many birds chirping about.
The children were not satisfied yet, and went about climbing some more on the nearby rocks. Only the words "visitor center" and "gift shop" managed to peel the youngsters off the rock face.

Looking from a distance, who can tell all the excitement hidden behind those rocks? 
11/29/13 A view of Hole in the Wall from the campground
I totally recommend this hike. It is short and easy (people who don't wish to climb the rings can do it as an in-and-out trail), and it is packed with the rich beauty of Mojave desert.


  1. Replies
    1. It was! I'm glad you decided to brave the cold :-)

  2. I can also say it was a great trip! and the picture of the "division bell" is great! :-)
    I'm so glad we went to this hike, it was lovely!

    1. I thank you for giving me the chance to rediscover Mojave. Without you, I don't know how many more years would have passed with me going to Death Valley and Joshua Tree, skipping Mojave Preserve altogether ... I'm glad I got to see more plants in bloom. It does happen, you know, even in the desert ...