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2017 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

Amboy Crater NL 3/8
Cottonwood Bajada, Joshua Tree NP 3/8
Joshua Tree NP Thursday 3/9
Joshua Tree NP Friday 3/10
Joshua Tree NP Saturday 3/11
Joshua Tree NP Sunday 3/12

2017 Trip Chronicles:  Page 2

Sonora Desert Road Trip 1of3

By the end of February, my focus was intensely on weather information from Sonora Desert web sites. On February 27 a cold storm moved down the coast dropping modest rains in the state that tapered off further south. However a surprise surge of tropical air moving up from Baja California met that front and produced significant rains just over San Diego County and southern Riverside County areas including the deserts. Borrego Springs within Anza Borrego State Park recorded 1.49 inches bringing seasonal totals to 6.8 inches and Palm Springs about 35 miles west of Cottonwood Bajada in Joshua Tree National Park recorded 1.17 inches bringing season totals to 6.96 inches. From experience I knew it would be about a week plus before effects from those rains would show by supercharging already rising annual herbs. Although I was now even more optimistic, weather sites in desert areas are so limited that one cannot assume just because a gauge reported significant rain that similar rains occurred even short distances away. However generally the closer a remote gauge, the more likely. I would only know with certainty when I saw areas of interest. Accordingly I made immediate plans to start a road trip at that time. I also contacted an interested old photographer friend D that has lived in Colorado a decade.

In 2008 as a result of some fall monsoon storms, limited areas of those desert regions had seen a significant wildflower bloom including Cottonwood Bajada. I had nailed that area at peak and hoped for similar conditions:
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In 2005 had been down at Anza Borrego SP when wildflowers at that park were epic and likewise hoped to see similar conditions:
print_05-B-17
print_05-B-23

And also during the 2008 trip had visited western Riverside areas that also had superb blooms:
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The following topographic map link is centered on Cottonwood Bajada in Joshua Tree National Park where a few day of this trip is featured. Use the + and - at window top left to zoom in and out and the tabs at top right to change to Satellite and Map views:
topo Joshua Tree NP

The following links to the national park service official Joshua Tree National Park web site:
Joshua Tree National Park

The following links to the BLM Amboy Crater PDF page:
Amboy Crater NL

The 2005 bloom had been extraordinary across broad areas of Mojave and Sonora Deserts. Although recent news media reports are claiming the current bloom to be "the best in 20 years", the truth is 2005 was considerable better over wide desert areas reflecting a lot more general rain. In fact even during my trip storms flash flooded down many washes. I decided on a route that would take me over Tehachipi pass on SR58, through Mojave, Barstow, and out I40 to US66 to Amboy Crater I had worked in 2008. Then would drive south over Sheephole Pass to Twenty-nine Palms, and through Joshua Tree National Park to its southern entrance. By Tuesday March 7 all my gear and the Forester was ready. Looking at weather information showed winds would be minimal on 3/8>9, so instead of waiting till 3/9, I set out that late Tuesday afternoon driving over 330 miles to just east of the desert town of Mojave along SR58. There slept off on a dirt road with trucks on the highway moving by loudly all night.

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At dawn on Wednesday March 8 I was off towards Barstow, arriving a bit after sunrise where I topped off gas and added some perishable drinks to my small cooler. Under mostly sunny skies continued east a bit then explored some marginal for my Forester clearance 4WD dirt roads I will herein decline to mention except to say it regularly amazes me how in this era there are so many outstanding remote places in the state that have yet to be noticed by serious photographers. After that, I continued east to Amboy Crater. Air temperature by late morning was 84F with light breezes. Remote Amboy Crater National Landmark along famous and somewhat decaying pavement of Route 66 is on BLM lands. The BLM has recently built a modern visitor facility there with paved parking, a restroom, information kiosk, a paved path view point, and several picnic/camping spots with tables and cabana shading. Well done and thank you! A single car was parked in the lot and only a few more drove up during my 3 hour visit. I rambled out cross country where I knew wildflowers grew and soon found nice areas of flowers where I worked a few subjects. The above patch of peaking sand verbena and brown-eyed primrose were on the south facing side of a wash. Here and there lizards scurried about accompanied by sounds of bees enjoying the flowery offerings. At one point yelps of young coyote pups added to the pleasant sounds in this quiet remote environment. Our deserts after above normal winter rains are so wonderful to be out in on calm sunny days.

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Amboy Crater is a black volcanic cinder cone that errupted about 80,000 years ago creating a 27 square mile lava field. Such Pleistocene period lava fields are common about Eastern Mojave Desert areas. The black rock tends to absorb sun heat so these areas can become hot from absorbed surface radiation. A single trail of a mile plus, leads to the modest 250 foot tall cone. Rambling cross country I saw no footprints in the often sandy areas between the black rock, an indication of how few visitors come this way, instead content to use the trail. Northeast of the cone was a large field of desert gold sunflowers where I captured the above modest image of this iconic feature. Back at my vehicle after 2.7 miles recorded on my Trimble Navigation GPS app, it was time to continue on south. Although there had been above normal rainfall in the zone, it was not as green or flowery as in 2008.

By early afternoon, I turned off Route 66 then drove south on Amboy Road and reached Sheephole Pass. In 2008 wildflowers had been abundant along both sides of the pass for miles but this late winter of 2017 there were just a few green plants as rains had obviously been modest. I continued south down and into Twentynine Palms, a city of a bit more than 25,000 residents that primarily rely on the nearby US Marines training base and visitors entering the northern entrance of Joshua Tree NP. In 2008 I had spent a couple days a dozen miles east about the Dale Dry Lake area that had many wildflower but such was relatively dry this year. At a McDonalds, I used their free wifi to text status via my moto g to the friend that would link up with me Friday. I checked my gmail then latest status on a couple wildflower report sites. On Google Maps located a nearby small city park where using a water fountain, refilled a couple of my smaller water containers. Topped off gas again, then stopped at a supermarket as my last opportunity for perishable foods before several days about remote areas. By mid afternoon, continued on into Joshua Tree National Park, up into the beautiful Joshua tree landscapes, down into the vast Pinto Basin plains, and out to the southern entrance area of the park on the Cottonwood Springs Road. The above higher elevation areas though green were still weeks away from their wildflower blooms.

Cottonwood Bajada, Joshua Tree National Park

However wildflowers increasingly appeared as I neared the southern lower elevations of the park that is considered at the northern extent of the Sonora Desert while areas north are Mojave Desert. By time I reached the bajada, sunset was near with light too dim for serious work. Wildflowers at least along the road side were every bit as impressive as in 2008 so that unknown was now answered. Exciting days ahead! I ran off shots of a couple roadside subjects then continued south out of the park, across the I10 freeway, and out on a familiar dirt 4WD road to a lonely desert site in the Orocopia Mountains I had used in 2008. There I also texted D that verified I was within cell coverage.

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Awoke dawn on Thursday morning March 9 and breezes were indeed light as forecast. Quickly organized gear in the Forester then drove off north. In the lightening landscape, it was immediately obvious the Orocopia Mountains were considerable less green than during my late February 2008 visit. As I crossed I10, a breeze was stronger and by time I reached the park boundary a mile further north, it was quite windy with double digit wind velocities of wind moving down from the north northeast shaking creosote bushes constantly. Maybe 20 vehicles, mainly RVs and SUVs were disperse camped just off the paved Cottonwood Springs road along the dirt aqueduct road. That is the pipe buried California Aqueduct from the Colorado River. Further north in the main road side flower fields, I got out and explored about some. Wash terraces west of the road were particularly dense with plants and brown-eyed primrose huge and peaking, an indication my timing was perfect. It appeared areas of dense wildflowers and greenery did not extend west or east far thus rains in the zone had not been widespread though apparently storms did dump right along the road. Though the wind was frustrating, I would be in the area at least 3 or 4 days so my chances of at least one nicely calm morning and late afternoon were good.

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Instead of spending more time in the gusty bajada area, I drove about 15 miles north to the northern end of Eagle Mountains that I had noted on my drive south were most green and had excellent views northeastward. Oddly the further along the road I drove, the lighter winds became despite the target area being higher and more exposed? The above wide panorama was one of a few modest images I worked with a yellow hued bladder pod, peritoma arborea, and a few Mojave yucca, yucca schidigera, at frame left, a tall pencil cholla, opuntia ramosissima, poking into the sky at center, several burnt red hued desert mistletoe, phoradendron californicum, colonized on shrubs, and a wash behind. Rambling about the uneven terrain 1.6 miles, the many perenial shrubs in the area were a particular subject of my fascination. In the distance, beyond the Pinto Basin, ranges receded far into the distance in the dry clear desert air.

On my return south, I explored the Cottonwood Springs Campground and nearby visitor center, noting the location of water faucets at the campground, the only source of drinking water for about 25 miles. In the back of my Forester strapped by bunji cords were two full 3 gallon water bottles I had just purchased the week before after noticing my old vehicle water container had developed a small leak. Another gallon was split amongst smaller water bottles. Water management is of course a key matter of logistics on remote desert road trips.

Back at Cottonwood Bajada by early afternoon, winds had decreased a bit but still left the notion of any photography unworkable. I decided on a long exploratory hike west of the road to the edge of the Cottonwood Mountains in the distance in order to evaluate flower conditions in good areas I had explored in 2008. What I found was the further west from the road I went, the smaller, more droughty plants became. Thus it appeared only a narrow band near the road up Cottonwood Canyon received good rains. Along the way my 2 collapsible disks, a diffuser and reflector, I use for close-up photography had popped off the back of my Osprey Talon 22 day pack because I had not secured a carabiner clip. On my return east, walking while watching my moto g, I used the Trimble Navigator GPS topo map track to closely repeat the track I made hiking out and eventually came to a spot where the 2 disks had dropped. Although I could occasionally see my footprints, without the track to closely follow, areas I had passed through were simply too vast with similar looking terrain all about to have had any hope of finding the gear by memory and sight alone.

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In these desert landscapes, bright sandy gravelly washes where flash floods flow are interspersed by adjacent higher terraced land with richer soils upon which dense areas of annual wildflowers grow. The terraces also have greater numbers of perenial shrubs and trees than within the bright sands of the water scoured washes. All the following images of dense wildflowers were on such terraces. Edges of the terraces are regularly eroded during each flood often leaving short vertical cliffs of loose unstable gravel soil. With a near full moon rising, I walked along the wash looking for a situation of dense lupine I could put up into the deep blue sky with an upward angle to include the moon. Found the above fine subject then spent a half hour waiting for a lull in the breeze. I then immediately exposed a second shot focused on the moon and after returning from the trip, focus stack blended the two frames. One will note lower flower stems of the annual Arizona lupine, lupinus arizonicus, show seed pods where earlier flowers on each plant had been. When a water supply in the plant's roots have been exhausted, flowers will no longer appear at the top. Likewise the off white hued brown-eyed primrose, camissonia claviformis, show seed pods just below flower clusters at the top of their stems. The towering flower stems on the bajada terraces were a good indication of how much rain had fallen during the winter rainy season.

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Back at my Forester after a wearying 3.7 miles of GPS travel to my considerable delight, breezes continued to decrease to the point shooting wildflower landscapes in late afternoon light was suddenly going to happen. Thus captured the above panorama of offset back lit wildflowers much like I had successfully done in 2008 using my 4x5 film view camera. Using my mirrorless digital A6000 panorama set up besides being lighter, had considerable advantage, with most important being able to adjust the exposure optimally with the histogram. Generally I underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 stop whatever that shows because one can always raise luminance levels while overexposed objects cannot be recovered. The tall Arizona lupines make a superb back lit subject. Areas also had considerable roundish brittlebush. Buds rose above the rounded shapes atop glowing light frog green stems. In some ways they are more aesthetic during this period looking like grazing herbivores than later when densely covered by their yellow flowers. Mostly closed up Parish's poppies, eschscholzia parishii, brown-eyed primrose, chia, salvia columbariae, and desert dandelion, malacothrix glabrata, added to the dense mix. At frame edges are palo verde, cercidium floridum, trees while in the background are dark spots of mainly ocotillo in the back lit rugged rocky Cottonwood Mountains.

After the sun set, I crossed over the highway to the east and found a fine isolated Bigelow's monkeyflower, mimulus bigelovii, plant image above, in the wash that I captured in the late sky light. Although the sandy gravelly washes are relatively barren, some annual seeds come to rest after flash floods on their sands that then offer nicely isolated subjects against the gravel sands. In places where debris tends to dam up, groups of denser plants may grow that eventually over years could become new terraces. Although the surface of the washes and terraces look very dry given the harsh daily sun and low humidity, just a few inches under the surface showed a modest amount of soil moisture that the green desert plants were obviously still making use. Moisture that in just a few weeks would disappear leaving very dry surface soils.

A day that had begun with rather frustrating wind turned out to be reasonably productive. I drove south out of the park, across the freeway, and out on the familiar dirt road to my Orocopia Mountain camp spot. From my sleeping position in the bed of my Forester, I had a night view north about a mile and one half to the noisy I10 interstate. The sound of the many distant 18 wheel trucks during the night grew as heat radiation across the desert landscape escaped into space allowing sound waves to bend in towards the ground. Before retiring, I set up my MSR firefly backpacking stove and cooked a can of Progresso chicken corn chowder soup. Tomorrow would be interesting as my old friend D would be arriving about noon after driving 4 hours from Phoenix where he and his common law wife had been visiting her parents.

Orocopia Mountains hike

When dawn rose on Friday March 10, I noticed a minor breeze was stronger than at Thursday dawn. Assuming that probably meant another breezy morning to the north, instead of immediately heading off to the bajada flower fields, I decided to explore my near camp Orocopia Mountain zone. In 2008 I had found the area to contain several species that I had not seen just north on the park side of the broad west to east trending desert valley. Although the area occasionally saw 4WD visitors, often target shooters, such people had little reason to venture beyond the unmaintained primitive dirt roads. Thus hiking off into the area was exciting simply because there would be no other human foot prints. On the road trip I brought along few printed topographic maps at the 7.5 minute scale I prefer to use hiking cross country. Instead used my moto g Trimble Navigator application for which a year before for my Death Valley work had bought for $100 a map set on a 32gb SDcard containing all California 7.5 minute topographic maps, as well as overlay land ownership information and aerial views. A whole lot of information in a small pocket sized device. Of course further the maps were integrated into the GPS tracking program I had been using.

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The landscape was generally dry with scattered ocotillo, palo verde, and mesquite trees, as well as the many desert shrubs. Below such shading, wind protecting perenials were often other plants like blue phacelia. In thin soils of open areas between rocky bedrock and outcrops were patches of sparse annuals. I began following the master wash in the area and as I went deeper into the mountain it became more interesting, much like on some of my Death Valley hikes a year before. South facing slopes of the mountain showed increasing numbers of notch-leaf phacelia, Mojave suncup, and Parish's poppies. Were it not for the breeze, I could have worked some intimate landscapes and close-ups. After about a mile, I climbed up to a small saddle looking down to the next wash system east. From there per image above, I could see snowy Mt San Jacionto at 10,804 feet in the distance. In the sandy wash ravines were many animal tracks including those of large animals including deer and even possibly bighorn sheep. Back at the Forester, my GPS showed 2.2 miles of hiking.

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I drove back over to Cottonwood Bajada and parked in the upper section of the bajada where the Cottonwood Canyon mountain walls narrow. In the terrace flats between large wash areas per above image, were the same dense areas of chia and desert dandelion I had seen in 2008. A modest breeze would make serious photography difficult however I always heft along my camera gear because even in breezy weather, I sometimes come across subjects that wind won't affect.

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And indeed per image above in a wash came across a nicely round purplemat, nama dimisum, belly flower plant with some adjacent just rising Arizona lupine leaves that I used my collapsible diffusion disk to soften light evenly from the otherwise harsh sun. I explored the eastern edge of the bajada along the edge of mountain slopes where chuparosa were common in the wash channel. However I found it a mystery as to why most bushes had few flowers. After 2.4 miles recorded on the GPS track, I was by late morning back at my car. I drove down the road to the one spot where a palo verde tree provided some shade and set up my vehicle to wait roadside for my friend that would be arriving. And after a couple hours D pulled up behind my car and we then spent a couple hours walking a bit about the area and making plans. It was the warmest day of the week so far at about 90F. We drove up the canyon and found a road side spot we could drag blue plastic tarps a short distance off below a shading palo verde to spend a couple hours leisurely eating lunch and napping in shade.

By mid afternoon that had become rather boring so we packed up and drove back south then embarked on a hike into the area I had hiked earlier while modest breezes and partial cloudiness continued to make any work tedious and slow. We worked a few modest subjects while aware none were particularly strong. By late afternoon breezes again waned some, however a blanket of thin clouds now covered the sky muting colors in the landscape. We left early to our Orocopia Mountain camp zone where we would set up a comfortable camp and end a rather unproductive day in leisure.

Back to Eagle Mountains

As day broke Saturday March 11, we packed away gear then set off down our dirt pathway but yet again found as soon as we crossed the I10 freeway, the landscape became increasingly windy. So there was indeed a common phenomenon of morning wind occurring we did not understand. We drove north to the Eagle Mountain area I had worked a couple days before and hiked around a couple hours without taking out our cameras. Near the end we came across a young couple that were hunting chuckwalla lizards to photograph. Just then he found a big one down in a narrow crack that then inflated its body so removal was impossible. I used my collapsible reflector to illuminate down in the crack so he was able to capture a nice image. We drove back south to the campground and filled our water bottles then parked roadside along the bajada a few boring hours hiding from the harsh mid day sunlight and warm temperatures. The region was now in a heat wave that would last through our impending visit to Anza Borrego. The weekend brought visiting throngs of cars with visitors increasingly walking through the flower fields making foot paths. Together with the plant wilting heat, the flower fields were undergoing a significant change for the worse in just a few days I had been there. How fortunate to have arrived just days before when footprints were few and flowers were at their most robust freshness.

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By 4pm afternoon breezes were once again following the pattern of previous days, waning to levels landscapes were possible. Unlike Friday, today was however mostly nicely sunny allowing strong flower and landscape color. I worked a terrace expanse of still open Parish's poppies with lupine in the foreground at page top. Note the large yellow hued bladder pod shrub frame mid left. Parish's poppies, eschscholzia parishii, are smaller and yellow instead of orange per our California poppies. They do present a wonderfully bright yellow landscape where present as they often grow in dense masses as the above. Like our state flower, this yellow species closes up tightly by mid afternooon and does not reopen till mid morning. On Sunday morning after leaving, we noticed some rather large expanses on the Cottonwood Mountains slopes above the aqueduct road, further west than we had driven that we regretted not finding and exploring. Another image just above, a stitch blend of two horizontal 60mm lens frames, was more directly right into the sun. Thus details of the Santa Rosa Mountains in the background are muted by considerably more Rayleigh scattering. The lighter yellow strips mid ground are patches of desert dandelion. The shrubs also in the mid ground are creosote bushes, larrea tridentata, the most common shrub of our hot western lower elevations deserts that dominate all the way east into Texas. Creosote have a very distinctive smell, especially apparent after any rains.

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Late afternoon worked the above image partial back lit subject with a large brittlebush in bud as my foreground. The small green flower stems rising out of the leaf mass are especially prominent. Poppies at this time are of course mostly closed up. At the edge of the terrace and wash, glowing in warm light against the back lit Cottonwood Mountains are a few small palo verde trees. As sunset we again drove back across I10 and up to our Orocopia camp. After each day I enjoyed a bottle shower and on this evening cooked up a can of Campbell spaghetti and meatballs. During nights in our southwest deserts, skies are often clear and with the low humidity, considerable radiation heat transmits away out of the atmosphere that cools down temperatures more than usual and at least at this time of late winter are reasonably comfortable for sleeping. Additionally night insects tend to be few so we could leave our car windows open. However one does not leave doors open lest pack rats or mice jump in due to food smells.

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On to Anza Borrego via Box Canyon

As our eastern sky lightened Sunday March 12, the two of us were ready to move on to Anza Borrego in part because with expected morning breezes we would be waiting through yet another full day of unworkable breezes in hot weather while weekend visitors continued to trample wildflower areas we had generally already well explored. I had gotten up early again and set up for a dawn shot eastward at our camp area that captured the modest sky color above silhouetted with nearby landscapes.

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To make sure we were not missing anything, we drove across the freeway just to confirm it was breezy, then turned around and drove southwest on the Box Canyon Road that drops down to Coachella along the Salton Sea. Not far along that road we began to notice washes with an abundance of strongly blooming chuparosa, unlike the weak blooming shrubs encountered up on Cottonwood Bajada? As we dropped into the narrow floor of Box Canyon proper, signs of 4WD and OHV users running recklessly everywhere were rampant. Wildflowers were abundant though maybe a couple weeks past prime so looking somewhat ragged. After driving a few miles I got out and walked a bit up a canyon. D had lingered somewhere up the road so after returning to my car drove back up and found him set up with his 4x5 view camera looking at the above giant chuparosa, justicia californica, bush against mud conglomerate strata of an eroded canyon wall. Gee I almost stopped there myself and in fact should have because it was a superb subject nicely in shaded blue skylight. Well I also wish I would have pulled out my 60mm, backed up a bit and worked a 2x2 vertical stitch with my 60mm lens. Lacking that, I hope D's work resulted in a nice image.

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During my road trip March 7 through 17, daily high temperatures in the region were averaging about 10F above normal that not only impacted the rate at which flowering vegetation went through cycles of budding to blooming to seed but also made our mid days for several hours uncomfortable. The above right graph with those dates in yellow, shows similar temperatures during the period at the town of Thermal California that is about 25 miles west southwest of Cottonwood Bajada and 35 miles northwest of Borrego Springs, the two locations we spent most of our time at at.

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2017 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
   email: info@davidsenesac.com

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