Monday, December 30, 2013

Sledding in the Desert: the Kelso Dunes of Mojave National Preserve

Date: November 30, 2913
Place: Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve, California
Coordinates: 34.8866, -115.7149
Difficulty: strenuous

9 years ago we stopped at the Kelso Dunes on our way east. It was a cold and windy, and merely a day after it had rained there. The sand was well packed and we hiked up the big dune, me carrying the elder (then the only) chika on my body.
Last November, when we planned our trip to Mojave desert, I made sure to incorporate a visit to the Kelso Dunes into our plan. After our previous sand experience at the Algodones Dunes, where we had to leave too soon because of the buggies, I wanted to give the children a few hours of concentrated fun. And what's more fun than sliding down a huge dune?

Nestled between several mountain ranges, the Kelso Dunes stand out on the dark Mojave background. The sand, eroded from the surrounding mountains, is concentrated by the wind in that one spot and accumulated to a height of 650 feet.

Sand shift in the wind. That is, if it isn't bound down by plant roots. And much of the sand area is bound down by grasses and other vegetation.

Sand plants have long-reaching roots to keep them grounded when the sand blows away. They also have to deal with being covered every now and then.

Although covering smaller area, the larger mass of sand is free of roots. Free to shift with the winds. Tracks made by day, erased clean by night. Towering in several elongated crescents, the large dunes loom over the plain.

It's a long way down ...

The fastest way to go down is by sledding :-)

My elder chika was the only child in our group that made it to the highest dune and slid from there. The others settled for a lower and shorter slope, that also proved faster. They spent a good jolly hour going up and down that sand slope with the round sleds and had a lot of fun.

I took the long way down. Not before I said hello to the sole butterfly that made it all the way to the barren dune top:
Painted Lady
Years ago, I participated in a sands workshop. We had arrived a dune area at dusk (most desert wildlife is nocturnal) and marked a stripe of sand. Throughout the night we arrived at that stripe each hour to check the newly made tracks and re-erase the sand stripe, making it ready for the next night visitors.
The sand documents those who walk on it or wiggle through it. Until the next wind wipes it clean. This kind of workshop is a great way to experience the true richness of life in the desert sands.

It was day time when we were at the Kelso Dunes. Still, there were plenty of pretty footprints.

Some of the track makers we even got to see with our own eyes :-)

As much as I searched, I could not find the tracks of Shai Hulud.
Animals aren't the only living things that make tracks on the sand. The flexible grasses, bent by wind, mark perfect arches and even full circles in the sand. I walked about, enjoying and photographing these natural compasses until the group was ready to go back.

Going back to lower elevation, I paid closer attention to the other vegetation, such as the bladder sage, which looked even more colorful than at the Hole in the Wall.
Mexican Bladder Sage (Scutellaria mexicana)
Slowly we made our way back to the car, reluctant to leave the place where we had so much fun. It was time to leave the desert though, and embark on the long drive home. 

We spent that night in Bakersfield, because we planned to stop at the San Luis NWR on our way home. We found a hotel room, went inside, and took off our shoes ...
and found that the Kelso Dunes had sent a souvenir with us.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Quiet Wilderness: Hiking at Mid Hills, Mojave National Preserve

Dates: March 10 and November 29, 2013
Place: Mid Hills campground, Mojave National Preserve, California
Trailhead Coordinates: 35.12307,-115.43283
Length: full length trail is 10 miles. We hiked in and out 3 miles.

After hiking the Rings Loop at Hole in the Wall, raiding the visitor center's gift shop and spending a couple of hours on a lengthy branch, we were ready to go hiking again. There was some debate as to which trail to go on. Since time was very much a concern we eventually decided to hike in the area of Mid Hills campground, which didn't require much driving to get to.

Mid Hills campground is situated at the north part of the Providence Mountain range, and it is about 1000 ft higher than Hole in the Wall. The first time I was there it was with my botanist friend on our big desert tour. On that time we had arrived from the north and I was still thinking we might be camping there for the night. Turning east from Kelso Cima Road to Mojave Road, which very quickly becomes a dirt road, we were driving in a beautiful forest of Joshua trees. They were just beginning to bloom and of course we stopped to appreciate them from up close:
Early-blooming Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) 3/10/2013
As we turned south onto  Black Canyon Road and were getting higher and higher, and I saw the snow patches on the ground. My friend had fallen asleep and I thought we might just go past the snow before she wakes up ... but then, right after turning west onto Wild Horse Canyon Road, I saw this cutie sitting on top of a pretty granite formation and woke her up to see.
Antelope ground squirrel
As we continued on, my friend had noticed the snow. I knew right then that there was no chance of convincing her to spend the night there. We did, however, stop at the campground and walked around.
Only one of the campsites was occupied. Otherwise, the place looked deserted. We didn't see much fresh growth, and the only thing blooming was an invasive species of Stork's Bill. A past fire has left most of the trees dead and bare, and there was snow on the picnic tables.
On some of the trees, though, we saw birds. One of them I even managed to photograph:
Loggerhead Shrike 3/10/2013
After spending an hour walking around the empty campground we returned to the car and continued to Hole in the Wall, where we hiked the Rings Loop Trail.

Going there with the family last November, we had arrived Mid-Hills with little more planning. We had thought to hike down the 10-miles trail that stretches between Mid Hills and Hole in the Wall and turn back when we felt like we've walked enough. Thinking this to be a pretty simple and straightforward plan, I left the topo map in the car and we set out with the park's brochure, some water and light sweaters.
A pinion that survived the fire (barely). Mid Hills, 11/29/2013

The trailhead is right at the turn to Mid-Hills campground. We parked and headed out.
There was an official sign at the trailhead with a map but, being busy with one of my chikas, I didn't pay much attention to it. The other adults in our group had seen a loop trail on that map and decided we should walk that loop.  I didn't argue.
This time I paid more attention to the devastation area left by the big fire a few years back. Very little greenery was left of a vast forest of pinions and junipers that grew there once.
Fire devastation area. 11/29/13
We started down the trail and, almost immediately, I noticed tiny pink and blue flowers very close to the trail and very close to the ground. I stood guard by it to protect it from being trampled by careless children.
Gooding Verbena (Verbena gooddingii)
In its beginning, the trail goes up a small hill. Coming over the divide, the trail descends into a dry creek, leading down and down.
Most green vegetation we saw there was on the slopes of that creek and on its bottom. That included some cacti,
Cactus (Opuntia sp.)
 ... the only other blooming plant we saw on that trail,
Goldenbush (Ericamria sp.)
... and some sage 'bonsai' growing out of the creek bed and shaped this way, no doubt, as a result of floods.
Desert Sage (Salvia dorrii)
 We haven't seen too many birds there, and those we did see, didn't yield themselves to the camera. This sparrow being the exception:
White-crowned Sparrow, juvenile
 The only wildlife other than birds that we've seen was this cold and lonely millipede:

After a bit less than a mile the creek opens up into a wide plateau covered with dry grasses and dotted with gray shrubs. We kept going straight southward and down without seeing any sign of any trail looping back.
It started to get cold and the sun was getting low. At some point we came through a cattle gate with a sign saying that we are 1.2 miles south of the trailhead. After some debate, during which I raised some doubts about the existence of a loop trail, it not being labeled on the park's brochure, we decided to walk a little further. Papa Quail, who was one of the two that had seen the trailhead sign had continued alone even further but, having seen nothing of a different trail looping back, we decided to back track our steps and return on the very same trail we came on.
A pretty rock formation west of the trail.
We didn't want to get stuck on the trail in the dark. We had no lights, no warm clothing, no food and only little water left. Going back was the safe thing to do. The only choice, really, when hiking with children.
Sunset illumination
There were dark clouds in the west and a crack in the clouds that let the sun rays seep through. It was quite a sight - the photo really doesn't do it justice.
Naturally, we were wondering if we'll get rained on. As it happened, we remained dry.

In this light I was finally able to photograph the snow on the peaks of Providence Mountains State Recreation Area (sadly now closed due to budget cuts).

The late afternoon light was also better to photograph these pretty rock buttes north of the trailhead. As tempted as I was to go and climb them, they were a bit far and it was already pretty late.

Near-sunset light as its special beauty. Even if the illumination isn't good enough for and ID. I am happy with just the silhouette. 

A final look at the creek we ascended before crossing the divie and going down to the parking lot:

After getting the chikas into the warmth of the car I strode straight to to the sigh post and, sure enough, there's a loop trail marked there. I meant to ask the ranger about it the next day but never got to do it. To me, it is still a mystery.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Wildderness Immersion: Camping at Hole in the Wall

This is not a hiking post. It is about our camping experience in the Hole in the Wall campground and the flora and fauna we saw there, because there are already many photos in the Rings Loop trail post :-)  
All the photos in this post were taken by Papa Quail and me in the campground area. 
Sunrise at Hole-in-the-Wall campground

Dates: November 29-31
Place: Hole in the Wall campground, Mojave National Preserve, California
Coordinates: 35.04551, -115.39361

The mesa east of the campground
Hole in the Wall campground is in the south tip of the Providence Mountains In Mojave National Preserve, just 1/4 mile from the information center there. It is a primitive campground with well-spaced sites. We were told that Thanksgiving was their busiest time of the year but when we got there late on Thanksgiving Day afternoon, it was far from full. And it did not fill up at all while we were there.
Desert Sage (Salvia dorrii)
We were warned that it will be cold there. That was true enough. Desert nights, particularly in high grounds (over 4000 ft where we were) can be very cold indeed. The moment the sun set, the temperatures dropped. Since at this time of year sunset is about 5:00 pm, that left us with about 3 hours of darkness and chill to keep the children busy and happy until dinner was ready and until it was time to hit the sack. Sitting around the campfire wasn't enough and art activities we brought for them turned out to be very useful indeed.

Desert Sage (Salvia dorrii), close up
Other than early nightfall, cold nights also require appropriate planning. Unlike camping in mild weather, where one can get away with bringing mediocre equipment, having suitable equipment can make the difference between a good experience and a really miserable one when it comes to cold nights.  We were well equipped and had a very good camping experience there.
Pleuraphis rigida
As far as deserts go, Hole in the Wall area is rich with vegetation. There is surprisingly little bare ground there: various shrubs, cacti and yucca plants cover most of it. I was surprised to see how many of them were blooming so late in November.
A DYC I wasn't able to identify
Some, of course, were already fruiting.
Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata)
As rich as the area is with vegetation, it was also rich with wildlife. We've seen there cottontail rabbits and jack rabbits and squirrels.
Jack Rabbit
And many, many birds too.
Black-throated Sparrow
Papa Quail had walked around the campground with his camera and documented many of them, of which I post the nicest ones. Still, I was disappointed not to have seen a roadrunner on this desert trip.  Next time, perhaps.
Cactus Wren
One of the reasons I enjoyed so much camping there was the silence. No traffic, no partying neighbors, no banging on tin cans to scare away bears. Just blissful silence (with occasional coyote howling, but that's ok).
Another thing I absolutely loved about it was the STARS! We were there on moonless nights and I got to observe the night skies without the light pollution that drowns the stars in the Bay Area. After the chikas and Papa went into the tent for the night I took the time to slowly wash the dishes, pack everything in the car and enjoy the solitude, silence and the amazing desert night skies. I wouldn't switch this experience, cold and all, with any fancy resort in the world!

We don't have the right equipment for night photography, so I don't have a photo of the pretty constellations that decorated the sky. Papa Quail, however, had taken this twilight photo of Venus, shining over a darkening butte, as beautiful as the goddess after which it is named.
Sunset and Venus

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plant Society for their help in identifying plants!