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2019 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

Joshua Tree National Park 3/2
Joshua Tree National Park 3/3
Joshua Tree National Park 3/4
Joshua Tree National Park 3/5
Joshua Tree National Park 3/6
Joshua Tree National Park 3/7
Joshua Tree National Park 3/8
Joshua Tree National Park 3/9

2019 Trip Chronicles:  Page 2

Joshua Tree National Park

During winter while my main focus is resort skiing in Tahoe, I had been keeping an eye on precipitation information for our Southern California desert areas and after a storm dropped a record 3.69 inches of rain on Palm Springs on February 14, I expected Cottonwood Bajada, CB, at the southern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park would likely have a good wildflower bloom. That was 4.38 inches for February after 1.45" in January and 0.53" in December. However I really didn't know how much rain actually fell at Cottonwood Bajada since it is about 40 miles east of Palm Springs and precipitation during storms locally in desert areas tends to vary considerably. I expected it would take about 2 weeks after the storm for plants to come into blooms from that water. Late February reports began to surface on DesertUSA dot com for rising flowers at CB so I began looking for weather windows of calmer conditions during this usually breezy time of year. And that pointed to the first week of March with the first less breezy day likely March 4.

An old 4x5 film view camera friend D living in Colorado would be joining me for a week of dispersed camping. Thus on Saturday morning March 2, 2019, I drove south on US101, east on SR152, south on I5, and east on SR58, then into downtown Bakersfield by late morning for a pit stop where I also picked up a bit more cash at the BofA. From there, continued southeast over Tehachipi Pass and east into the Mojave Desert that was still looking dormant with small green herbs poking through sandy soils amid all the sagebrush and creosote. At US395 I turned south then at Victorville SR18 east and SR247 east to a dirt road north of Yucca Valley where I slept in my Forester overnight.

On Sunday morning March 3, 2019 was up at dawn then into Yucca Valley where I stopped at a couple markets filling my 27 liter cooler with perishable drinks and food plus cubed ice. By 8am I was driving up through Joshua Tree National Park while noting vegetation continued to look dormant. As I left the highlands and drove south on Pinto Basin Road, wildflowers began to appear and by time I reached Wilson Canyon there was enough color to start exploring roadside areas with my camera since it was in optimal morning light though a forecast breeze reduced chances of actually working subjects. It did give me an idea of possibly driving back through the area after whatever work to the south ended. Further along towards the Cottonwood Springs Visitor Center, conditions were still early. I stopped at that busy center buying a Sonoran Desert wildflower book then continued south as the paved road changes name to Cottonwood Springs road dropping into Cottonwood Canyon.

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Immediately it was obvious storms had indeed dropped good rains in the area and as I drove into the canyon mouth where the sunny south facing bajada begins, wildflower conditions appeared to look better than the two other times I had visited the area that marks the northern extent of the Sonoran Desert with the Mojave Desert to the north. This small zone of about a quarter mile to each side of the road and less than 2 miles long can have the most impressive displays of Sonoran Desert wildflowers anywhere. I parked at the one roadside spot with a bit of afternoon shade from a screwbean mesquite tree and sent a text message to my friend D who then committed to his longer road trip.

online topo Cottonwood Bajada

The rest of the morning, I rambled about several areas east of the road surveying spots to work on following days when breezes waned. It was great to have nailed what would be the peak color conditions this spring while most plants were wonderfully green and very few visitors had yet arrived or trampled pathways through the dense fields. And indeed by this week's end it would be looking quite different. In the wind protection of a small side canyon wash I managed with the help of two wind blocking 32" collapsible disks working the above apricot mallow, sphaeralcea ambigua, close-up. In the evening drove down to the Edison Power road just south of the park boundary where the buried California Aqueduct from the Colorado River routes and set up a dispersed site for the night. When I disperse camp, it is usually just for the purpose of overnight sleeping thus little gear moves outside my vehicle. There were maybe 3 dozen other vehicles along that BLM area with more than half larger RV's that were really there because of convenience to the busy I10 freeway just a mile below.

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Monday March 4, 2019 was up early dawn, rearranged gear in the Forester, and then drove the 2 miles to the best expanse of flowers I'd surveyed. Friend D still on the road had texted me and was likely to arrive about noon in his Outback. Despite arguable conditions of best wildflowers anywhere in the Southwest, there was just one other photographer with a tripod along the road. I expected it would be the following weekend after social media postings that largest numbers of visitors would arrive. At 7am I worked the above backlit view to the southeast. The sky was rather hazy while breeze slight. Note Mexican poppies, eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana, are still closed up thus the landscape is not as aesthetic as at midday however it is early morning when breezes are most likely calm at this geographic location thus less focus stacking plant movement issues. This annual species is smaller and more yellow than our deep orange state poppy. The other dominant annual wildflower species in the region is the tall maroon purple hued Arizona lupine, lupinus arizonicus that grow densely about much of the bajada. Another very common species rising out of round dome shaped clumps of cyan hued leaves is the perennial yellow hued brittlebush, encelia farinosa. Also visible are dark flower heads of chia and white hued brown-eyed primrose. The Orocopia Mountains at frame right in the background is a wilderness while the plain in the distance shows a very busy with large trucks I10 and a string of high voltage electric power towers.

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This next image above was shot at 7:15am PST on the east side of the road towards the northeast and Eagle Mountains. Note the poppies are still closed up however they are so dense that they still provide excellent frame color. This is about the optimal time of morning on a sunny day with the sun altitude up 25 degrees for best color saturation. At 8:30am a breeze began after hiking out to the foot of the mountains that put an end to my morning work.

Back on the west side of the road, I explored more than a mile to the second canyon. I found those areas full of wildflowers like I'd seen in 2008. In 2017 there were not many flowers more than a half mile to either side of Cottonwood Springs Road as rainfall had apparently been spotty. Late morning was back at the Forester and then drove the short ways to my screwbean tree shaded roadside spot. Visitor traffic picked up late morning but was still quite light considering the bajada was now at peak conditions. As I was cooking soup a bit after noon, D arrived after his marathon drive and we spent the next hour plus relaxing and discussing conditions and plans. Early afternoon we drove north to the canyon mouth then explored about those areas. Mid afternoon returned with D to the next wash areas west.

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Breezes in this south facing zone with a long line of rocky desert mountains to the north and a wide valley south, tend to be variable, difficult to forecast and mid afternoon, indeed breezes subsided a bit for about an hour. Thanks to D asking to get his own shot here that I went to work a second time that turned out better. In the foreground are white skeletons of 2 brittlebush shrubs with a patch of dark purple hued chia, salvia columbariae, below right. Note how the now open bright poppies are much more prominent. The larger tree center frame is a blue palo verde, cercidium floridum, that do not have leaves but rather its trunk and branches are a grayish green with chlorophyll. They are more common within washes than other species and tend to have dense growths of annual species like white fiesta flowers below entangling their lower branches. The tree itself blooms full of yellow flowers in late spring. In the background are the granitoid Cottonwood Mountains that reach above 4k while my tripod is at 2k and the I10 freeway one mile plus south is at 1.4k. On all these images, the originals have been severely downsized for web use while below each image, the enlarged vertical slice view links to narrow slices of images at 50% pixels showing far more detail.

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The wide granite sand wash flats on the bajada have few annual plants as heavy winter rains flood violently down those channels scouring away seeds. But where plants do rise up they are nicely isolated on bright sands as close-up subjects. Above image shot with my 60mm and 32 inch circular folding diffusion disk is a purplemat, nama dimisum, plant against the coarse granite sands. Such belly flowers are ideal subjects, less likely to move from breezes.

I normally also carry a 32 inch silver reflector disk that gets more use as a breeze blocker. Looking at the enlarged vertical slice view shows a white-yellow flower inner throat with yellow anthers. Focus stacking allows one to work such oblique close-up views without a necessity as with single shots to be subject vertical in order to have adequate depth of field. Thus better more natural perspectives along with significantly better resolution detail by using a lens's sharpest aperture that with my 60mm is F5.6. A difficult part of focus stacking is not ending up with frame areas that are soft and that requires an experienced mix of different apertures, large for important elements and small to guaranty one is not missing something in such complex subjects.

Near sunset at 5pm PST, I worked the backlit image with glowing Arizona lupine at page top. Cottonwood Bajada is ideally unblocked east and west for warm early and late landscapes. Note how hazy skies were to the west over very urban Coachella Valley. As dusk enveloped skies, we drove our Subarus south across I10 that changes to Box Canyon Road. The paved road was blocked while a dirt track out of view around some trees allowed ranchers up the road and this person, to use it. Note the February 14 storm had caused considerable road damage in the region with the Box Canyon section likely to close after any time such storms occur. Inside my Forester, the loud external sounds of nearby I10 trucks were not a bother overnight as I slept soundly.

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Tuesday March 5, 2019 we were up at sunrise and soon on our way back north a mile plus on Cottonwood Springs Road. I parked at the same location as Monday then set up on a subject east of the road I'd viewed Monday across an expanse of flowers dominated by Arizona lupine northeast towards the Eagle Mountains that begin rising 0.7 miles away. At 6:15am PST worked the above 3 column stitch blend image. Of the 61 shots 35 were at f5.6, 8 at f8, and 18 at f11. Again note how the Mexican poppies are closed up at this early time of morning. However even curled up, they are dense enough to provide good color. The center slice of the enlarged vertical slice view shows in the foreground, a few white hued brown-eyed evening primrose, camissonia claviformis. Notice a few of the taller lupines had bloomed weeks earlier thus show long peduncles of gone to seed pods while the majority of lupines show few seeds as they had grown up after the February 14 deluge. The older lupine also do not have the pointy tip of green buds like the newer plants.

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This next image above was shot about 6:50am on the east side of the road looking northeast towards the Eagle Mountains. Note the purplemat on bare areas where the wash left sand. During heavy rains when water is flowing down the wash, it spreads out over many large and small channels of the broadening bajada that erode easily creating new channels and leaving new terraces from year to year. During heavy winters plants grow to large size like these while in drier years these wildflower plants may be much smaller or absent.

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Bare sandy spots amid the flower fields often had purplemat. Above image at 7:30am PST to the north from the east side of the road shows a blooming ocotillo tree up in the sky frame right. Also note the short plant with white flowers a bit up from center bottom frame edge. That is one of several desert cryptantha species that though common in these landscapes, tend to be out of sight below taller plants.

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Looking south southwest from the east side of the road. Ocotillo are uncommon on Cottonwood Bajada terraces except close to the rocky mountains that are about a half mile beyond this tripod position. The large dark green shrub is a creosote bush that is one of the few still green plants on this expanse by summer. In the distance on the plain below the Orocopia Mountains, the dark green dots are mostly creosote bushes.

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After crossing the road to the west side then walking quite a ways, I returned to the east side and linked up with D at a particular peaking group of lupine in front of a nice screwbean mesquite snag per above image. The shrub at frame left with dark leaves is a creosote bush, larrea tridentata, the most common shrub in our southwest deserts. The strongly scented bush is also the most likely element in desert frames to be moving around in the lightest breezes. With breezes increasing ending our morning session, we went back at our vehicles a bit after 8:45am and decided since it was still early after a short rest and added gear, we would do a long exploratory hike up into the second canyon to the west.

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About a half mile west, I returned to an ocotillo, fouquieria splendens, tree with exceptionally red flowers I'd seen the previous day. Per image above I was able to get the distant background mountain in the frame by focus stacking. Such an element would normally be impossible due to massive parallax blurring of flower edges, however since there was blue sky between the two elements, that blurring was in front of blue sky thus easily removed with the Clone Stamp. Note the glossy red petal surfaces. Also the huge spines that are quite stiff like the rest of this amazing desert plant. Although I managed to get shots in for the ocotillo flowers, it was generally too breezy to stop for any serious images. We continued up the canyon that I expected no others had walked into for years while noting there were lots of flowers though not as dense as beside the road. One area had an abundance of purplemat. The rocky hills and their canyons also have many more ocotillo trees than the flat bajadas and valley below. We climbed to 2200 feet then dropped down into a wide sandy wash at a minor north facing cliff where there was pleasant shade beneath a palo verde tree for a relaxing hour of lunch before leaving at 1pm.

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About 1pm on the hike back, stopped to capture the above subject of a large blooming chuparosa, justicia californica, with yellow hued Mojave suncup and ocotillo behind. And yes this took a lot of work post processing as there was moving vegetation. Bright blue hued canterbury bells were more prominent in this canyon versus Cottonwood Bajada and one can be seen frame right. On one wash terrace bells were densely mixed with suncups, however they were bobbing about in the breeze too much. Later we drove south down across the I10 freeway to where we spent Monday night and enjoyed a leisurely end of day. Forecasts had shown the possibility of some showers and before sunset we did see some that had us escaping inside our cars. The same system had dropped over an inch of rain along the coast and LA basin but here in the desert rain shadow little remained.

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Wednesday March 6, 2019 we were up early as always then drove up to the same roadside parking spot I used the previous 2 days. Post frontal high clouds moving at a strong speed were above with just a light breeze we didn't expect to last long. My main objective that I'd tried to work mid morning Tuesday during too strong a breeze, was the above backlit snag subject looking southeast amid a particularly dense mix of flowers. With patience over 15 minutes was able to complete the set of 55 shots for the strongest image of the road trip. Note again how while it was too early for open poppies, the mix of dense flowers regardless works well and while the sun is low keeping plant areas below flower tops dim, individual flowers tend to stand out more. Trees mid frame are all screwbean mesquite, prosobis pubescens, that like many desert species, have thorns.

I lined up the dome of the brittlebush with the snag while setting my tripod low. One thing I've noticed with other photographers is most move around and after finding a tripod spot for a subject with a foreground, immediately set up and shoot at standing height. I have a habit of bothering to also evaluate what a scene looks like down lower as such may have a significant impact on the balance of foreground, mid, and background in a frame. By going low here, I was able to increase the frame percentage of the flower field from maybe one-third if standing, up to one-half at knee height as well as increase the size of nearest flowers at a more level natural perspective. And that is also a factor in why I work wearing cheap knee pads.

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Before the trip, wind forecasts showed Tuesday morning light breezes while Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday wind and that was how it played out. I had expected to visit Anza Borrego State Park depending on conditions but that notion was dismissed when I arrived on Sunday seeing strong conditions here. Field work in these desert flower blooms requires planning for extra days as calm conditions are uncommon. Thus it is a good reason to have other diversions as magazines or books to read during such unproductive periods. Instead we decided saturday morning would be our last morning to work the bajada and then we would drive west about 100 miles to the Lake Elsinore hills poppy explosion. When dawn rose on Thursday March 7, 2019, and it was indeed nearly as calm as forecast, I was intent on finding a bajada expanse of flowers to make a large image using my 60mm lens. With luck after rambling through lots of flowers southwest of where we had been parking, I found the good subject above. Starting at 6:15am PST it took about 45 minutes to shoot 202 shots for a 12 frame 6 column by 2 row image. Note how frame elements including the blue sky, are lighter to the left, and darker to the right with the background peaks a better indication of the off axis sun angle.

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Next I rambled out to the bajada below the next canyon west circling north to the foot of the mountains where I discovered a productive zone we would visit Saturday morning. Despite the increasing breeze, about 8am I was able to work the above subject that was out of the main north air flow that was moving south down the throat of the bajada. The rocky mountain slopes have more ocotillo and brittlebush that tend to colonize nearby bajada slopes plus other plant species that are not often found on the plains.

Returning to our vehicles at 9:30am, I found D patiently trying with his view camera to shoot a landscape in the breezes along the east side of the road. An hour later we were off north on the Cottonwood Springs Road driving about 20 miles to Portuguese Canyon where we got out and walked around a bit. All these areas were mostly just covered with small green herbs 2 to 3 weeks away from peak blooming.

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After a lazy midday parked at our usual spot, then mid afternoon we drove to the mouth of the bajada and hiked out to the foot of the mountains where I had gone through early morning. It was still too breezy for serious work, however was time well spent evaluating subjects to work on Saturday morning. At dusk we drove down to the Edison Power Road, drove a mile west, and just parked amidst numbers of other vehicles along that section.

Sunrise Friday March 8, 2019, showed clear sunny skies with wind. We decided to drive a few miles west on the dirt Edison Power Road and at the end got out and hiked up a narrow ravine and at a spot the topo showed was possible, we climbed up steeply east to reach the adjacent larger canyon. Back at our Subarus we drove back out then west on I10 about 20 miles to Indio for ice and fresh food. With wind continuing to howl, we returned to disperse camp in a wash besides the Edison Power road we had looked at during morning. That required driving over a nasty bulldozed berm I went to work with my spade shovel on and then some careful slow driving about 70 feet across wash sand we were determined not to get stuck in. But it was a fine shady spot below a large palo verde with a 20 foot or so wash cliff on the west side providing afternoon shade to relax at the rest of the day.

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As we were making camp, I worked the above nearby frame filling patch of a purplemat plant. Like with many flower species, petal colors gradually sun bleach over several days after opening from buds. Individual plants also vary right out of buds in amount of color saturation of their flowers. Thus a task searching for close-up specimens is to find a subject with strong saturation with an aesthetic form soon after buds open before sun bleaching lightens color.

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Saturday March 9, 2019, was our departure day, however we would first spend the morning where we explored Thursday afternoon. At an early 6:30am I set up to work this above subject northward. With the mountains still in the shade, it provided a useful background for blooming ocotillo to stand out. The breeze had waned a bit from when we got up at camp, thus a good sign for our final efforts.

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This next subject at 7:50am was from down in the wash where chuparosa are much more common. Many of the sand isolated perennial shrubs and trees within the washes are colorful little gardens of less sturdy species that use their hosts to endure occasional flash floods while enjoying the extra water provided. On the foreground bush are blue fiesta flowers aka blue phacelia, phacelia distans, poppies, brittlebush, and apricot mallow. The blue fiesta flowers often cover their hosts so completely as with the green mass mid frame right, that one cannot tell what is underneath. Note the Arizona lupine just left in front of that blob where a seed found a successful wash sand home. For this composition, I had looked at chuparosa foregrounds where I might include the dense colorful lupine field on the sloping terrace above.

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And yet another colorful subject down in the wash channels with a chuparosa foreground with this view east northeast up the slight incline of this terrace that is the next west of Cottonwood Bajada proper. Note the ocotillo leaves are a rich yellow orange thus near dropping away indicating it has been some time since the last good soaking rain. Note surrounding the chuparosa area several clumps of blue fiesta flower each of which probably atop the skeleton of some past bush.

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The above close-up shows apricot mallow and a brittlebush that grew up on a chuparosa skeleton. A challenging slightly moving vegetation subject for post processing. I positioned my tripod for the mixed orange and yellow combination. Another example of a shot with huge depth of field only possible with focus stack blending. There were many more fine like subjects that we looked at each day while during the limited calmer periods we primarily focused on landscapes.

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Above shows a mediocre single frame image of a tall blooming ocotillo between two background peaks and a to be avoided creosote bush surrounding its root base. This was a quite difficult subject to process due to movement of the creosote bush. Some small areas of such frames must unavoidably use the Photoshop clone tool to replace locations that are out of focus and have no frames that are in focus for those areas. Plant and tree elements in the frame that move may be sufficiently captured due to adequate shutter speed without blur, however parallax blur and irregular positioning from movement between shots will result in holes to full coverage. Another troublesome element in the image was the palo verde at mid frame left with a background of the distant rocky peak. At F5.6 focused on either will result in softness of the other. To remedy such required using an additional higher F-stop of F11. In this case I patiently processed the image and then downsized it about 14% to regain a bit of sharpness.

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The last image worked on this trip is the above single frame subject I would have like to have found during a calmer period allowing a larger image. Mixed in with the highly saturated canterbury bells, phacelia campanularia, a lily family species, are poppies, lupine, chia, and fiesta flowers. Behind the bells are large white petals of sand blazing stars, mentzelia albicaulis. Mixed in frame right are deep purple notch-leaved phacelia, phacelia crenulata, that are more often found on the rocky sun facing lower mountain slopes but like all these desert annual seeds, some seeds brought down in washes during heavy storms, find fertile ground within wash channels below.

Late morning we drove off to Lake Elsinore with an intent to work a publicly unknown area I found in 2010 accessed by an obscure location that was not where all the crowds were mobbing. However what I saw were lots of poppies with few other species. Thus an out of sync species condition. A better call on my part would have chosen Anza Borrego and not Elsinore. I15 was in a ridiculous gridlock due to drivers parking in illegal locations and back ups to exits and entrances. Although we could have driven to Anza Borrego, we would have had to do so without using the obvious I15 route. Also I suspected wildflower conditions in the badlands areas were not as strong as some were reporting as many of those people were new to the game seeing it all for their first time. This and the fact we had been in the field 6 days all gnawed at our willingness to continue so I chose to bail while D had a vague plan to hit some areas on his way home.

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2019 Trip Chronicles:    Contents

   David Senesac
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