Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Into the Desert: Self-Isolation at the Coso Range Wilderness

Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

Date: December 18, 2020
Place: Coso Range Wilderness, Olancha, California
Coordinates: 36.266897, -117.766855
Length: 3.2 miles 
Level: moderate

The rise in COVID-19 cases resulted in a state-wide closure of hotels and campgrounds. Even backcountry camping is forbidden in many places, including Death Valley National Park, which was the planned destination for my family's winter vacation. When my plans crumbled my patience snapped. After nearly a year of no time alone at all I was becoming knot of anxiety and despair. I mad a half concocted plan to take my daughters backpacking in the desert (Pappa Quail had to stay and work) , but soon realized that this would make the three of us miserable. So when Pappa Quail told me I should go on my own I jumped on the idea whole heartedly. 
The California desert is big and wide. Even with Death Valley NP off limits, there was still plenty of open desert area to get lost in all by myself. My choice for this hermit experience was the Coso Range Wilderness. 
It took me over 7 hours of nearly continuous drive to get there, with the final access road to the Lower Centennial Springs camp area and trailhead being 7 miles of rough dirt road demanding a very slow drive. At the end of the road I found a nice campsite where I settled for the night. Having still some daylight left I wandered around a bit to explore the surroundings. 
Silver Cholla, Cylindropuntia echinocarpa 

The first thing I looked for were the springs. I didn't need spring water right then and there because I had brought with me a large container with plenty of water. I wanted to know however, if the springs were flowing to get an idea of how much water to take with me should I decide to go backpacking. I went up the creek a bit directly to where I expected to find the spring - a small grove of poplar trees and willows. The creek bed was bone dry and the vegetation around looked very miserable. I wasn't very hopeful but I went into the grove anyway. There I found a small hole that was covered with wet leaves. I looked down into the hole and found brown water below the cover of leaves. That was all. Disappointed, I climbed back up and out of the creek, glad I wasn't in a survival situation when I would have to drink this water. 
Over the creek was a small cabin. At first I thought it was a relic from an old settlement site, and perhaps it originally was. But the cabin can actually be used by anyone who gets stuck there without proper accommodations: it has some wooden sleep benches, a fire pit , and some emergency equipment. It was also very dusty and it was quite obvious that no one had taken advantage of this wilderness hospitality in a very long time. 
The Cabin at Lower Centennial Springs

Neither did I. I returned to my campsite and lit a very necessary campfire because as soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted. I cooked dinner and sat to eat, watching the last daylight kissing the mountains goodnight and fading into darkness. One by one the stars popped out and before long I was sitting under the most magnificent canopy of night sky I have seen in a very long time. 
I kept feeding the fire, holding out until 7 pm. Then I finally put my campfire out and crawled into my tent, checking in for the night. 
Sunset at the Lower Centennial Springs
It was a very long and very cold night. Temperature was fine inside my tent and my double sleeping bag, but outside the temperature dropped below freezing point. By daybreak it was so cold outside the tent that I didn't feel like getting out until the sun actually cleared the mountain ridge, at about 8:30 am, making it officially the longest night I've ever hunkered down. Once the sun was out however, the temperature rose quickly and soon became quite pleasant. 
Now I was facing a dilemma. I wanted to go backpacking but I didn't trust that I would find any water at the Upper Centennial Springs. I also knew that the nights would be very, very cold. Basically I needed to limit my winter gear for water. Having grown up in a desert environment I leaned toward carrying more water. 
I took it slow and easy and it was almost noon when I finally set out carrying over a gallon of water and a full set of winter clothes in my backpack, but I did leave the second sleeping bag behind. 
My hike as captured by my GPS

I started up the creek west of Centennial Creek. My pack was very heavy and the desert silence lulled my mind into a daydreaming state. There was no wildlife activity anywhere, not even birds. There was plenty of gorgeous desert plants, however. Most attractive of all - Joshua trees. 
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

There was no established trail there so I simply followed the path of least resistance, hiking up the creek bed. Hiking on gravel, especially while carrying heavy weight, can be very tedious. 

Soon however, I encountered rocky areas that provided more solid footholds. They did present other challenges too though, as I often needed to figure out the best climbing route up and around large boulder aggregations. 

I wasn't deluding myself that I would find any wildflowers at this time of year, especially since the Coso Range hasn't seen any precipitation in a very long time. Still, the dry remains of last year's bloom were a pretty cool sight. Everlasting floral shapes mummified by the desert air. 

These of course, were not merely leftover flower bits, but the actual fruit and seeds, not yet dispersed. 
Hopsage, Grayia spinosa 

This wash wasn't exactly a canyon with high side walls but the slopes on the sides did seem to get taller and steeper as I progressed up'stream'. 
Further in, my path narrowed even more. Besides having to negotiate rocky steps I also had to push my way between and around the shrubbery, much of which was prickly. Surprisingly, there were very few cacti there.  

At some point I turned around and looked back, surprised to see how high I ascended over the flats below. I hardly noticed the climb because of the mild slope of the wash itself. 
View northeast 

As the slopes got steeper and the sun got lower I got more often in the shade of the southern ridge. Each time the sun disappeared behind the ridgeline the temperature had dropped a few very significant degrees. As long as I was under the direct sunlight I was comfortable, but one step into the shaded areas and I had to wrap myself in my sweater and pull down my winter hat's ear flaps. 

I found a lupine bush, recognizable by the shape of its leaves only. It was so shriveled and damaged by the drought that I wondered how long it would survive and when will the rain come to save it. I knew for a fact that won't be that night I had planned to stay there.

Many of the creeck bed rocks were beautifully decorated by orange circles of lichen - a hardy, symbiotic organism comprises of mutualistic species of an alga and a fungus. 

While Joshua trees are the signature trees of the Mojave desert, there were a couple of other prominent tree species in the area, pne of which was the Utah juniper, a species common to the deep California desert. 
Utah Juniper, Juniperus 

The side wash I was hiking up on begins inside a military zone that's off limits to the general public, i.e. me. This military zone is used for aircraft bombing practices, and I really didn't want to accidentally enter it, so I kept checking my map to se when I should be turning to climb the eastern slope to get over to the Centennial Creek. When I came upon a human-made trench across the creek past which the path seemed to be efficiently blocked by boulders I thought this was a sign I should better start across at that place. 
I though I could see a faint trail meandering up the eastern slope. Without stopping to think it over, I heaved my backpack on my shoulders and started very slowly uphill. 

My slow uphill progression gave me plenty of time to appreciate the pretty desert colors of early winter. The evergreens mixed with the grays and rusty reds and pinks, interspaced with the grainy talus rocks suspended in their slow motion mid-sliding way to the bottom of the creek. 

The map I had was too large scaled to be good for fine navigation. It was very useful to have a modern GPS navigator on my hand. Easily spotting the most prominent feature in the area, I made my way toward it, circumventing that butte from the north. 

Joshua trees are most interesting plants. They belong to the Yucca genus and branch only at their blooming apices. The more branched a Joshua tree is, the more blooms it had. In the photo below - a baby Joshua that hadn't bloomed yet, and a toddler Joshua that had bloomed once. 
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

Uo at the top of the butte was a cavity and inside was something that looked like a perched bird. I couldn't really tell what it was because the sun was in my eyes. I went up slope and around until the sun was hidden behind the butte's summit and took a photo. I was somewhat disappointed that upon enlarging the photo I saw that that 'bird' was just another rock. 

The first gully I've came upon at the top of the ridge was leading back to the wash I came up on so I meandered eastward on top of the ridge, searching for a way down to the Centennial Wash.

It's a good thing I found a pointer in the right direction ....

There seemed to be quite a lot of trees on top of the ridge. A real forest, in desert terms. Some of the most magnificent Joshua trees I've seen on that trip were right there, between those two washes. 
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

The other trees were the Utah Junipers and the single-leaf pinions. I was excited to see so many pinion trees and I had hopes of seeing the pinion jay which had eluded my family birders for many years. I didn't get lucky with the jays but I was very happy to see how many pinions were growing on that area of the Coso Wilderness, all of them looked very healthy. 
Single-leaf Pinion, Pinus monophylla 

I didn't see any jays on this trip.  In fact, on my first day there I didn't see any bird. It was eerily quiet the entire time. I did encounter one evidence of a very specific type of bird, however. It was a half broken owl pellet. Owls swallow their prey whole and regurgitate all what isn't digestible - fur and bones - as a pellet. It s much fun to find such pellets and dissolve them in water, pulling the tiny rodent bones one by one and reconstructing a skeleton. I know of at east one species of rodent that was identified as a separate species based only on bones found in owl pellets. No live specimen was ever captured or seen. 
Owl Pellet

Eventually I found Centennial Wash, the one I needed to go down to. The eastern bank of this wash is a high wall of broken basalt. It supported very little vegetation and looked quite impressive, deep dark against the lighter desert background, like a fresh cut in the Earth. 
Looking down on Centennial Wash

I found a way down the western slope of Centennial Wash. As soon as I cleared the ridgeline though, the sun disappeared behind it and I found myself hurrying downhill to beat the fading daylight and the gathering chill. 
When I reached the creek bed it was at some distance downstream of the Upper Centennial Springs, which I estimated to be at least half of a mile. It was only 4:30 but within half an hour it would be dark and very, very cold. I decided to stay and set camp where I was, making use of the remaining daylight to pitch my tent and gather enough firewood for my evening fire and my wood stove. 
Centennial Wash

I should probably add a word of caution here - camping at the bottom of a desert wash, especially in winter,  has some risk tin it of being caught in a flash flood. Desert storms can be unpredictable, strong, and destructive. Where I was that risk was very low not only because there was no precipitation in the forecast for the entire region, but also because the Centennial basin is fairly small. Either way, I was more concerned about the possibility of being stampeded by burros, the droppings and hooves prints of which I've seen all over the place. 
Chilly sunset at Centennial Wash

After eating my dinner I huddled as close to the flames as I could, trying to absorb as much warmth from my small campfire. There was no sound except for the wind, and the heavens were the gorgeous starry desert night sky. I pointed the constellations to myself quietly, both sad and glad that I had no one else there to share the experience with. 
I sat by the fire for two hours until my firewood was all burnt. It was only 7:00 when I finally put out the last of the embers and crawled into my tent for one of the coldest nights I've ever experienced in my camping life. 


  1. This seems to be a very special as well as very difficult trip... The Joshua trees are beautiful.

    1. The trip wasn't difficult, it was the remedy to a difficulty. I did need different logistics because of the season and my choice of location, though. I would happily go again into Joshua Tree country :-)