Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Center of Desert Life: Upper Centennial Springs at the Coso Range Wilderness

Scenery by the Upper Centennial Springs

Date: December 19, 2020
Place: Coso Range Wilderness, Olancha, California
Coordinates: 36.244812, -117.767841
Length: 4.5 miles
Level: easy 

The night following my first day at the Coso Range Wilderness was one of the coldest I've experienced on any trip. To accommodate the water I needed to carry on my desert backpacking  trip I had to leave my second sleeping bag behind. I slept fully clothed, cocooned inside my single, mummy low temp sleeping bag, with my winter coat draped over the bump of my hips. It was warm enough inside my little cocoon but it was also very tight and quite uncomfortable. At no point I was in any risk of hypothermia, but I didn't sleep well at all that night. 
Another difficulty associated with winter camping is that the nights are extra long, and when the night is also extra cold that means staying inside the warm cocoon for many long hours, daring not getting out until the bladder forces you. As it was, I laid in my tent for 13 hours long and when I finally got out the sun still hasn't cleared the horizon. Because the wash I was sleeping had a south to north direction, the sun didn't show itself until 9:30 am.
My morning routine that day took me over an hour during which I was more cold than the entire night before. As soon as the sun was up however, everything suddenly warmed up and I thawed in no time. 
Sunrise at Centennial Creek

I should have lit a campfire to help me through the prolonged morning chill but I kept expecting for the sun to pop out over the ridge. So I only had my wood stove on and I huddled over it while I was preparing my breakfast and eating it. I kept it burning for some time after that until I felt compelled to get up and do something useful, like breaking camp. 
By the time the sun finally showed its face I could not feel my toes anymore. Thankfully they didn't take to long to thaw. 
(Just as an indication on how cold that night was, the water bottle I had inside my tent contained slushy ice in the morning). 

The first thing on my agenda after breaking camp was to go upstream to the Upper Centennial Springs. I debated with myself whether to take my backpack with me or leave it behind and come back for it later. Basically, the decision to be made was whether to stay out one more night or return to the Lower Centennial Springs and cam by my car. To stay another night would be acceptable if the Upper Centennial Springs were flowing, and I had yet to verify that. Also, there was the respect of passing another night hankering down for the long, intensely cold night. 
Eventually I decided to leave my backpack sort of hidden behind a large rock and armed with only one water bottle and my camera I headed up the wash toward the Upper Springs. 
My hike up and down Centennial Wash

My inside debate didn't last long. I answered myself that I really wouldn't enjoy another long, sleepless night, deciding to have it easy this day and go back to camp by my car where I had my additional sleeping bag and plenty of water. I looked downstream at the now fully sunlit wash, then, not laden with my backpack, I took off upstream.
Centennial Wash, view downstream

Going upstream I had to first scramble up some boulders that blocked the easy gravel path of the wash bed. I was glad not to have carried by heavy pack along.
Centennial Wash, upstream view

A few small trees were growing in the wash, most of them junipers and pinion pines. The Joshua trees were mostly higher on the slopes. Sometimes I needed to scramble around the talus on the slope so I got closer to the Joshua trees.

The first indication that I was getting near the springs was the band of willow bushes, all bare of leaves for the winter. Where there are willows, there is water. 
When I found the water I saw it was in a very solid state: completely iced over. The entire area of the springs was overrun by burro activity: hoof marks everywhere, dry burro bones scattered under the willows, and lots and lots of feces, some very recently dropped. All the water holes looked very soiled. With that impression, I was glad I decided not to rely on the Upper Centennial Springs as a water source. Even with filtering and boiling, I admit I'd have difficulty drinking it. In a survival situation, sure I would, but I had plenty of clean drinking water with me for the day, and so my filter remained unused. 
Upper Centennial Springs

I continued upstream, slowly following the strip of willows, hoping to see burros. I saw more water holes, dug out likely by burro hooves. All of these were very dirty, and all of them were solid ice.

A small band of junco birds were chirping in the willow branches and nearby on the ground, no doubt waiting for the water to thaw.
Dark-eyed Junco
Off to the side I noticed the remains of a human-made structure. Inside the ruins was a single rusty folding chair. The structure was surrounded by wire and dry scrub. I didn't feel compelled to go inside for any further exploration.
Old Homestead Ruins

Further south I saw more evidence of recent past human activity in the form of fences and enclosures. Beyond them - a vast field of Joshua trees. It looked as if I reached the top of Centennial Basin. Not too far south was the military bombing practice area of the China Air Base. In fact, I could hear gunshots ringing in the air every now and then. I assumed the gunshots were at the military zone, although they didn't sound anything like aircraft bombing practices. I didn't know what else that military zone was used for.

To the east the big basalt wall of the wash was much lower now and I could see well the nice semi-pillar shape of the rocks. I followed the eastward curve of a small tributary, estimated that I'd have no problems getting across to the wash on the other side, but decided to get back to the main springs area.

I crossed the main wash to get to the west side and on the way I came upon a human-built well that had a pump installed with a battery and a broken and very dirty solar panel. The well itself was cemented and covered with a heavy metal lid with a steel bar inserted through the lid loop for leverage. I tried lifting the lid but it was too heavy for me, even with the steel bar.
Springs Pump

No Jacob showed up to uncover the well for me and I didn't try tinkering with the pump to see if I could get it to work. Instead I turned back north and followed the willows back to the main water hole of the springs.

When I reached the water hole I saw that a thin strip of water thawed at the edges. A thirsty crowd of little gray birds that weren't juncos flocked by the slightly thawed water hole. They flew to the willows when I approached and chirped loudly at me. I sat down quietly on the sand at a respectful distance from the water and prepared my camera and in a short time the birds were back by the water, drinking, bathing and interacting with one another. They were sparrows all right, but not of a species I was familiar with. Only at home when I enlarged my photographs on the computer screen did I get an ID from my family birders.
Sagebrush Sparrows

I was sitting quietly by the springs water hole, knowing that eventually I'll get up and walk downstream again to fetch my backpack and continue down to the Lower Centennial Springs. All of a sudden I noticed movement of a large creature in the willows. Initially I thought that might be a burro but to my surprise a tall man stepped from behind the willows. He was carrying a rifle and was accompanied by a very excited dog. I waved at him as he looked in my direction and he introduced himself as a chukar hunter and said that his brothers were in the area as well looking to shoot these birds. (Chukar is an introduced bird species, brought to the U.S. from the Middle East to be a game bird here, and has spread in the southwest deserts at the expense of the native sage grouse). 
The chukar hunter asked if I had seen the petroglyphs. I knew there were lots of petroglyphs within the military zone but I didn't see any here. He told me that there were some in this area and offered to show my where the nearest one, that of a bighorn sheep, was. Keeping safe distance, I followed him to a large rock behind the old homestead where the petroglyph was.
Petroglyph of a bighorn sheep

The petroglyps in this area date about 10,000 ago. It was pretty exciting to see a human message from so long a past. 
The hunter pointed me in the direction (a bit more south) where another petroglyph rock was. I thanked him and went there while he went on to search for more chukar.
The other rock had its flat side entirely covered with petroglyphs, but these were more faded. The main theme was still the bighorn sheep.
Petroglyph rock

As I made my way slowly along the wash I scared off a flock of quail that darted quickly up the opposite slope. I admit that at first I thought they were chukar, they were far and they vanished all to quickly in the scrub. I did get some blurry far away images. When enlarged at home they revealed the covey to be mountain quail.
Mountain Quail

I turned back north and this time walked down at the wash bed, hoping to see more wildlife by the water holes, but all I could see were more juncos and sparrows and nothing else. Every now and then I heard the report of a hunting rifle and wondered if that might had an effect on the wildlife scarcity. 
Centennial Wash

This time around I didn't stop by the larger water holes where I saw the sagebrush sparrows. I was already an hour later than the time I wanted to get back to my backpack and my stomach reminded me that it was past lunchtime. Still, I couldn't pass the old and venerable Joshua tree that stood guard just away from the willows and junipers near the springs.
Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia

It didn't take much to get from the upper Centennial Springs to where I had camped the night before and where I had left my backpack. Not that I was worried, but I was glad to see than my pack was exactly in the same position I had left it. I sat down and had my lunch.
Centennial Wash

From that spot it was just a matter of walking down the wash. This time with my heavy backpack on. On a quick pace it would have been less than an hour to get to the lower springs, but I was taking it really slowly, stretching my alone time in that gorgeous desert, enjoying every minute of it.
Single-leaf Pinion, Pinus monophylla

Although the small Centennial Wash cannot support a rich riparian vegetation except in the springs areas, there were still trees to be found, here and there a juniper, or a pinion pine. I was glad to see they all looked healthy and thriving. On a hot day I would have appreciated the shade. On my winter hike there however, I cherished the sunshine and refrained from sitting in the shade.
Utah Juniper, Juniperus osteosperma
Centennial Wash streams (when it does) to the north. As I was making my progress downhill the canyon sides got higher and higher. Eventually I got to a point where the sun hid behind the ridge. The time was only slightly past 2 pm but it was clear that the day would come to an end really quickly from then on. I was amazed at how cold it turned the moment I was out of the direct sunshine.

I was glad to get out of the shady spot. Increasing my gate I did my best to stay ahead of the shade line from then on.

Centennial Wash doesn't curve much but every now and then it would and then the view from its opening onto the next mountain range to the north.

Tearing my gaze from the horizon I brought my eyes back down to appreciate the near beauty of the still attached seeds of a desert shrub, waiting patiently for the flashfloods to wash them away, meanwhile casting neat silhouettes on the rock below.

Other close by beauties were the wash rocks, smooth but not rounded enough to be called pebbles. I found one with a lovely green hue, different from all other rocks around it. I wish I knew more geology and could tell more about that rock.

The lengthening shadows were chasing me quicker now, and I quickened my pace in response. For the most part, the walk in the creek was easy, although I kept sinking deep in the creek bed gravel. Every now and then the creek would drop through a talus section where I'd have to carefully climb down between the boulders. At one of these places I had to lower my backpack first, then let my body drop after it. 
To my great surprise I saw a pair of hikers climbing up the rocks on their way upstream. I didn't expect to see anyone else that entire trip and today I've seen the hunter and now those hikers. We waved each other and moved on, on opposite directions.
Centennial Wash

The pinion trees fascinated me. It is the only pine species I know that has only a single needle growing out of each point. I plucked one of the needles out and chewed it, enjoying the gentle fragrance and sweet, citrusy taste.
Single-leaf Pinion, Pinus monophylla 

I didn't try any of the juniper berries that the local junipers were laden with. Some of these junipers had interesting and captivating shapes, almost like personalities.
Juniper, Juniperus sp.

There was plenty of interesting geology about. Not just the basalt on the eastern side but also fascinating rock formations on the west slope and in the creek bed itself.

A diked boulder resting in the middle of the wash

Another sight that captivated me was shapes of the the basalt scree on the slopes. They looked like shadows of aliens or monsters. I enjoyed imagining figures stuck on the mountain side.

Eventually the late afternoon shade caught up with me and I had to put on my sweater. Shortly after that I reached the Lower Centennial Springs and the leaf-turning poplars huddles around the tiny mud hole I've seen there on the evening of my arrival.
Lower Centennial Springs

When I reached my car I decided to move my camp a bit further down to the plateau north of the mountains. I was hoping to have an earlier sunrise this way .

That evening I debated with myself once more. Should I drive back home tomorrow or stay in the desert one more day? And if I stay, where at? 
The wind picked up and blew embers out of my campfire. I got concerned about the possibility of my fire jumping off to the dry vegetation nearby and soon I quenched my fire. The temperature plummeted quickly and the wind added a nippy chill. I didn't stay much longer outside to enjoy the truly beautiful starry skies. I quickly packed everything inside the car, brushed my teeth, and crawled inside my tent for another night in the desert. This time however, I did have the double sleeping bag, and I slept warm and comfortable. 
Sunset at the Coso Range Wilderness

As I thought, the sun cleared the horizon earlier than inside the Centennial Wash. As soon as it was out, so was I. Calm and happy I packed my tent and decided to get back home. I got what I came to the desert to find - some well needed time to myself, all by myself. 
As I reached SR 190  and turned west I saw the high peaks f the Sierra Nevada, and the glorious Mt. Whitney ahead. A great sight to take home at the end of a lovely trip.
Mount Whitney View

I love the desert.


  1. That was a very short day... but at least you got what you wanted :)