sanluis_rwr shooting_star3 burned_truck_sv sr62_car bottle_brush_sky langloisia2 sah_mustard_sv dale_lake desgold_sverbena

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip Chronicles
by David Senesac

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip Chronicles contents

Joshua Tree National Park
February 26 thru March 2
page 1 of 9

My first photography journey of 2008 was a 6-day road trip 500 miles southeast to areas in and near Joshua Tree National Park. I'd been carefully monitoring weather and climate conditions all during the winter rainy season. With the ever increasing amounts of weather and climate information publicly available on the Internet, a person that knows how to get at raw data, can get a good sense of climate conditions like never before. After the two good January storms put rains into our deserts, I knew there would be some level of wildflower blooms this year unlike the last two. Usually after such rains, the first flowers appear about four weeks later so I also began monitoring wildflower reports on various well-known web sites and searched obscure rural newspapers for similar stories. Finally as mid February passed, early reports came in of rising flowers at East Mojave areas like the Kelso Dunes, Amboy Crater, and Sheephole Pass, and further south Cottonwood Wash. From experience, I know the window for desert plants is often rather brief so from the fourth week of February I was packed and staged to head out. However as a potentially major storm the last week of the month bore down on California, I decided to wait till it passed. The storm, despite looking serious, came ashore rather tamely and then pushed away towards the north leaving the southland just some minor coastal rain and little in the deserts. Although in hindsight I might have been a bit happier with conditions a week earlier, I have much to be satisfied with. Wildflower conditions were better than I expected from reports and the fair weather with usually only modest afternoon breezes was much less disruptive than is usual at this time of late winter.

Tuesday February 26 the long drive


I left my residence in Campbell (near San Jose) at 7:20am on Tuesday February 26. Driving south then east over the Coast Range, at the 60 mile point I stopped along SR152 near Pacheco Pass at the San Luis Reservoir Wildlife Area (DF&G), checking wildflower conditions. It also was an early safety opportunity on the long drive to check under my hood to see if my old 94 Subu sedan was running normally. I would be driving at relaxed speeds in the 60 to 70mph range most of the trip in order to reduce stress on my trusty car. That area was nicely green with grasses and early flowers rising after the several rains late this winter. Shooting stars are the starring dense species one will find there, that grow in blue oak savanna areas with some wonderful wind shaped trees. Other species at nearby Pacheco State Park tend to bloom a bit later. I also noticed a good crop of vibrant California poppies rising in some areas of the Upper and Lower Cottonwood Creek Wildlife Areas further east along SR152.


Reaching the San Joaquin Valley 20 miles further, I turned south on Interstate I5 for the long 150 boring mile drive south towards Bakersfield. By time I reached the Little Panoche Creek J1 junction 25 miles south, green grasses were noticeably shorter with only short rising orange hued fiddleneck growing beside the road here and there. That continued along that full route that obviously has received below normal rainfall. Nearing Bakersfield 250 miles along, I left the highway and took a major urban boulevard several miles in order to locate a cheaper gas station away from the usually pricier freeway offramp stations. Turning southeast on SR-58, I continued to see below normal rainfall conditions all the way up to Tehachipi Pass. I've seen thigh high fiddleneck at the SR-223/SR-58 junction in 2003 that this year was only ankle high grass and stunted fiddleneck. East of the pass in the much drier Mojave Desert, even though it was much less green, I estimated there was more green than usual and that continued east past Mojave and into Barstow at my 375 mile point. So I thought at least those desert areas will have some wildflowers coming out in the next month. At Barstow, I turned south on SR-247 that immediately climbs to higher Mojave Desert areas and found noticeably greener conditions. Although I noticed only a single wildflower by the roadside over that 100 miles south to the town of Yucca Valley, the region will likely have some respectable wildflowers rising by mid March. With dusk rising, I drove east on SR-62 into 29 Palms that is just north of Joshua Tree National Park, filled up with pricey gas for the last time, and headed further east into empty Colorado Desert areas where I'd read wildflowers had been blooming from web reports. I felt relieved to have completed the long 10-hour drive this first day without any problems.

desert of flowers


As I neared the Dale Dry Lake area, I began to notice considerable small shadows in my headlights beside the highway and an overwhelming sweet fragrance that shouted   SAND VERBENA !   Having seen just the one flower along my route for the previous 200 miles, the sudden change was exhilarating even though I was weary from the long 500 mile drive. I slowed down and began peering into the dim roadsides for signs of dirt roads. I soon came upon one, turned south up its dirty bumpy twisting route, and immediately noticed large numbers of large white flowers about the dim landscape glowing in my headlamps that could only be dune evening primrose. About a half-mile in, I stopped at the hulk of a burned out truck where the sand was getting questionable for my old low clearance 4WD to proceed. "What's out there?" as I wondered if there was a reasonably flat place to camp. Hmmm, too bad my bright Yukon HL LED headlamp was in my camera daypack. I stretched awkwardly into the back seat, unzipped the lid on my daypack, pulled out the headlamp, and then flicked on its switch. Moving around it intermittently went on and off. Ahhh...yes back on my fall trip to Sequoia NP that headlamp became flaky. Something to work on at lunch tomorrow. I stretched the duct tape strain relief just so, where I recalled it tended to work. Outside my car I quickly noted there were lots of soft sandy body-sized clean sand spots to set up most everywhere in this fragrant night wonderland. Pleasant low 60s temp too. I backed up the car 50 feet, did a 180 degree rotation to orient my car heading out down the road, and parked slightly off the main dirt road track. I figured there was about one chance in 10,000 anyone would be driving down this road, but do such out of habit of long years of primitive aka dispersed camping.

After parking, I made a quick primitive camp for the night. Wow was the fragrance wonderful. Too excited to immediately turn in, I walked a quarter mile further up the sandy road marveling at all the flowers about. Besides the above two species, were lots of brown-eyed evening primrose, and occasional other familiar species I would need to poke into one of my desert wildflower guides to recall the names of. In the distance the low rumble of big rig trucks continued through the night. I'm a light sleeper so given a choice prefer to move well away from road sounds at night. A single area of light could be seen miles away in the distance at what on the map showed salt mineral mining at Dale Dry Lake. Above were thousands of stars one usually sees in the dry clear air of our deserts. During the evening, I studied some topographic maps of the area, re-read web wildflower reports I'd printed out, and did a quick flip through the picture section of one of my wildflower guidebooks. Turning off my light and closing my eyes finally, I imagined possible game plans for the morning before drifting off into dreams.

Wednesday February 27 exploring the roads

As early dawn light rose in the east on Wednesday February 27, I packed up and drove back down the dark road then east up the highway towards Clark's Pass at 1,880 feet. There I hoped to capture some kind of dawn light situation while having a chance to see what flowers were up at that sandy pass area. Beyond the pass a half mile with only a few clouds in the sky, I didn't bother to take more than a couple Coolpix, for-the-record, pics. I did note some nicely shaped mountains further east I would later identify as the Coxcomb Mountains.

Unfortunately about the only wildflowers growing near the pass were the degusting alien invasive Sahara mustard that is fast becoming an ecological nightmare in our Southwest deserts. It was sickening to see how dense those ugly bullying plants had become along the road in just a few short years. I drove back west on SR-62 and noted wildflowers only really began to appear where I neared the Iron Gate Road that leads north to Dale Dry Lake. Thus there was indeed just a narrow band a few miles wide where thunderstorms passed in September that had any flowers to speak of. How amazing!


As warm orange sunlight began working its way down the craggy granitoid Sheephole Mountains range just north, I turned north down the wide well graded Iron Gate Road towards the Dale Dry Lake salt works. All along the road were colorful magenta hued sand verbena, abronia villosa, large bright white flowers of dune evening primrose, oenothera deltoids, off-white smaller brown-eyed evening primrose, camissonia clavifornia, and yellow hued Mojave suncup, camissonia campestris. Lots of flowers but without interesting structure to work something in beyond the constant low density creosote bushes, larrea tridentata that dominate so much of the Colorado and its further east Sonora Deserts and give the whole desert a characteristic background fragrance. However the gangly creosote bushes rarely add much to one's photographic compositions. The Sheephole Mountains would do nicely for my backgrounds. I drove back south then continued west on SR-62 deciding to do a quick survey on roadside areas along the highway.

Not seeing anything compelling enough to start walking around, I drove on further beyond the roadside flowers to unsigned Gold Crown Road and turned southeast down its very bumpy washboard surface. There are often many no-name roads in deserts that can be quite confusing to eliminate from the ones actually shown on topographic maps. So I tend to carefully assess the landscape versus a map as I move down a highway, recording odometer mileage readings, and looking for clues in the topography. Gold Crown turns towards a low pass in the Pinto Mountains a few miles away up a low gradient slope. In the distance I could see yellow patches just west of the pass below Humbug Mountain, I expected were desertgold sunflowers. Only the dense yellow areas seemed to have many flowers. Not exactly how I planned to spend the best shooting period of my first morning. But I had spent effort and gas to drive a few miles up the road thus decided on hiking out a half mile to the yellow areas. The Pinto Mountains mark the edge of a long east to west border of Joshua Tree National Park.

Humbug Mountain bajada hike


So for the first time on my journey, I hoisted up my 23 plus pounds of daypack with camera gear plus another 6.7 pounds of the big Gitzo G-1325/G-1318 tripod and set off across the Humbug Mountain bajada. Crossing a number of wash channels dominated by the ever-present creosote bushes, many had ORV tracks that no doubt began a couple miles north where these washes crossed the highway. It's fine with me that those folks who enjoy riding up such legal off road routes, do so in the sandy wash channels where the water periodically removes any trace of tracks. Scattered smoke trees, dalea spinosa and palo verde, cercidum floridum, eked out an existence at the wash edges with small bluish-purple flowers of blue phacelia aka common phacelia, phacelia distans, finding niches tangled up below the trees and various bushes with green dense branching masses of brandegea, brandegea bigelovii.pic5 I laid down prone on the ground to be able to peer into my lcd display right at ground level and took a picture of bottlebrush, camissonia boothii, up against the sky. Here and there were obvious desert lilies leaves that were yet to bloom. Beyond the washes, desertgold sunflowers, geraea canescens, grew atop the hard rock debris soil about as densely as I'd seen in 2005 at Death Valley. pic7 Most interesting were the variety of small species down in the wash like desert stars and purple mat. One particularly striking flower, a spotted langloisia, langloisia punctata, begged for a portrait from my Coolpix camera. I exposed a so so 4x5 sheet,    08-A-1.jpg   , (Mouse left click these 4x5 image links.) on a landscape with brown-eyed evening primrose, Mojave suncup, and desertgold to get out of my system the fact I'd not used my view camera 3 months since early November.

sand verbena hill hike stomping Sahara mustards

An hour and a half later with sunlight getting a bit too harsh, I was back on highway SR-62 driving back east. I stopped at a spot along the berm at a dip of a wash where dense naked green branches of a palo verde tree provided the only roadside shade for my parked car over miles. With a very light breeze, the temperature had already risen by 9am to the high 70s and would rise to over 80F at midday. Of interest, I noticed a half mile distant was a slight hill that seemed to be dense magenta from sand verbena. Setting out on the second hike of the morning, I began my war against the Sahara mustard by stepping on a great many along my tediously sandy path. I tended to ignore the skinny wimpy ones that had never taken much of a drink of rain waters thus were not likely to produce many seeds and instead stomped the larger ones. A good thrusts with the side of my boot right at the base of the bulky plants usually was effective at breaking the main large celery-like stems causing the plant to half lean to the side in mortal injury. At least I'm hoping mortal? For some largest clumps, I continued to stomp a bit atop the remaining roots but that soon began to take too much effort. A twisted idea rose up in my imagination of some future DNA scientist engineering a race of mustard eating jackrabbits. Better than stomping is pulling mustards out roots and all but that takes more effort.

Out at the hill, indeed were nicely dense sand verbena that I framed up with sharp outlines of the Sheephole Mountains to the north as a background. Unfortunately there were jet contrails in the sky mixed in with thin clouds that I waited some till they blurred in a bit with other clouds though results later showed I should not have wasted my pricey film. Unlike most photographers today per my personal long consistent style, I will not digitally alter in post processing my image graphics by removing even those white streaks in the sky. Also on the hill, I exposed a fourth sheet,    08-A-3.jpg   , on what would be one of only a couple 4x5 close-up images of the trip, a nicely shaped dune evening primrose against clean isolated sand that is sure to receive a pricey drum scan in the future.


Before leaving my beautiful little magenta hill, I raged against all the mustards there, kicking and stomping at least a hundred. One person will not make a difference but at least I can say I tried and will continue to do so. If we could get a few thousand people to come out to some of these special areas during key times, it would be possible to really make a dent in all these mustards. A few thousand people wearing boots spread out over 5 miles of highway or 26,000 feet, could each take on a 25 foot wide path and quickly exterminate most all those plants by walking a half mile out on each side of the highways. Even better if they were all carrying little push hoes to guillotine them. It's the roads where those invaders are spreading from. Gee with 10 gazillion humans now living in Southern California that can't be asking too much. Some kind and considerate mega-millionaire ala Bill Gates could simply take notice and offer to rent a few hundred urban school busses for a day on a late spring weekend bussing out a few thousand urban folk who have never been out in the our desert. Free ice-cold lemonade would of course be back at the busses. Well of course the state could do that too if one could get past all the politicians and legal monkeywrenchers that would figure out ways to do nothing.

Spring 2008 Wildflower Road 2

   David Senesac

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