desert_dandelion_sp burned_car_sp desert_senna desert_5spot_cen blazing_star2 rose_pea2 car_camp_om contrail_dusk Arizona_lupine ocotillo2 globemallow_sky sv_dep_bep2 orocopia desert_5spot_sky

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip Chronicles
by David Senesac

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trips Chronicles contents

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

road trip gear & logistics

Back in my shaded vehicle, I ate some lunch, studied maps, and worked on some gear issues. Like my duct taped reading glasses with broken frames were coming apart again haha. Or my intermittent headlamp battery cable that I split open with a knife, found the broken section, twisted the stranded wires back together again, and duct taped it all back together. Well hey folks my area of expertise is electronic hardware debug after all. In my vehicle, I had enough food to stay out for more than a week. A lot of dry packaged foods like the Lipton rice meals or noodle meals, macaroni-n-cheese, and various cans of food like chili and spaghetti. But also apples, oranges, some canned vegetables, bread, peanut butter, and blueberry bagels. I always bring much more food than I may ever intend to eat. My small foam cooler had a fresh full gallon of milk and a half-gallon of orange juice. The latter took quite a hit after my immediate return from the little magenta hill. During the day to keep it cool without any ice, I kept the cooler in my trunk below my down sleeping bag. And a big 5-gallon plastic water container that I not only used for drinking but also for bottle showers each evening.

I carried a full summer backpack in case I wanted to camp off away from my car some distance at a dusk or dawn location that would work better if camped next too. I also had a winter tent that I never used the whole week and instead slept out under the stars using a couple sleeping bags. One for an extra cushion above two Thermarest pads and the other as a blanket with cheap reinforced blue plastic ground sheets below. There are very few bugs crawling about or annoying or biting flies in late winter even in the desert to make that an issue. Well bees, butterflies, and moths had arrived and they're on my side haha. A pile of maps and books went in a large plastic box I carried out each evening and placed beside my sleeping bag in case I needed some reading or study. And that included several well-used wildflower references. Of course, my car, as someone regularly venturing out into remote places, has twice as many tools and stuff as usual squirreled away in the trunk to deal with vehicle problems should they arise. What do you do in the desert at midday while in the shade after eating and drinking? A siesta of course! And that lasted a relaxing dreamy hour or so.

Wednesday afternoon lupine at Sheephole Pass


At 2pm I was driving back east then north on Iron Gate Road past the garbage strewn salt works about Dale Dry Lake with all manner of rusting junk and up to nearby 2,307 foot Sheephole Pass on Amboy Road. South of the pass as reported, was a considerable field of thigh high Arizona lupine, lupinus arizonicus. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring ways to put the Sheephole Mountains in the background of dense lupines later in the afternoon when light would be optimal. There were a number of other usual desert species about so I occasionally found close-up subjects worth going to work on like desert dandelion, malacothix galbrata. Besides my old two compartment Black Diamond L40 Stone daypack, which holds about 2200 cubic inches, I wear one of the green two compartment, REI fanny packs, with my Shepherd Polaris Dual 5 light meter on the belt along with a 30 inch wide collapsible LiteDisc reflector. And no I don't look the part wearing a photo vest haha. But I do wear one of those long billed safari caps with sun neck protectors, and kneepads. In fact I will readily lay down all over the ground to get shots of low to the ground wildflowers.


About 4:30pm despite a frustration in not finding anything too impressive, I exposed a couple mediocre sheets. Sunset at this time of late winter was 5:30pm so light was pretty good. Beyond about 4pm, the smallish yellow orange Mexican poppies, that add a color variation to the blue hued lupines, tend to close up leaving only the dim blues for front lit landscapes. A day later I found far better lupine areas about the Cottonwood Wash and Orocopia Mountains and went back to backlit positioning. So these two shots were with hindsight a wasted effort that I should have just used my Coolpix on like I did on this burned car amidst lupine. A sheet of large format 4x5 sheet film costs about $2 and development $1.50. So it is not like shooting little 35mm film rolls. I almost never bracket exposures despite the tricky narrow slide film exposure latitude even on strong subjects and am very picky. Getting exposure correct is simply the most difficult issue with large format and continually amazes me that I've been so "lucky" with all my experienced guessing. I would average just 7 sheets a day over my 5 active days of shooting on the road trip and that folks is typical.

evening back at the burned truck

After the sun set and some help from two good Samaritan English folk, I was on my way down to 29 Palms with a desire for a burger. At home I've never regularly eaten meat but on the road after a lot of hiking, it does bring the carnivore out of me at times and certainly helps rebuild muscle tissue. The town is home to a large Marine air combat base, and the Joshua National Park main headquarters is there at the main northern entrance road into the park. As an old USAF vet, I have a soft place in my heart for armed services people and know they are feeling a lot of pain during the current Mideast war while life rolls on merrily for other Americans who ought to care more. I then picked up a Big Mac to go, topped off my gas tank, and I drove east back down SR-62 to my same Tuesday night campspot I'd yet to view in the light of day. During the night, I enjoyed a nearby family of coyotes when they all began howling at the rising waning moon near mid night. Obviously it including several little pups that quite enjoyed adding their little puppy-like yelps to the nightly serenade.

Thursday February 28 morning among sand verbena


Up at dawn Thursday February 28 and walking about the local area briefly, I now knew where the best sand verbena displays were and it just so happened my burned out truck camp zone was right at the center within these few square miles of flowers. How convenient I marveled! So as the sun painted nearby peaks, I got my gear squared away, and set out looking for subjects nearby. In the warm light I soon found a nice 4x5 subject for a close-up of brown-eyed evening primrose, dune evening primrose, sand verbena, and sand. However the resulting film image lacked striking impact. By my camp was a wash of deep sand obviously used as a route for trucks out to the nearby mines in the Pinto Mountains.


On a bench on the far side, I found some nicely dense sand verbena mixed with dune evening primrose and Arizona lupine. Some beautifully straw yellow dried bushes provided an excellent sharp detail foreground. The middle ground had creosote bushes and the background the Sheephole Mountains with Sheephole Pass at frame upper left plus a whitish band below of the saltpan about Dale Dry Lake. Thin clouds had moved in covering much of the sky dimming the landscape off an on as the sun poked in and out. When the foreground bench was in good sun while the background was a bit dim for more dramatic contrast, I exposed one nice sheet,    08-A-8.jpg   . With my Coolpix and lying down prone on the sand again, I put a deep rose pea species up against the blue skies. Finally ending my morning session, I exposed a couple sheets capturing the psychological contrast of a burned out truck amid colorful flowers. However jet contrails were increasingly plaguing the background section of cloudy sky. Grudgingly, I exposed film anyway since I had decided to move on and would not get a further chance. Note the Coolpix image at this page top.

driving into the vast Colorado Desert

I knew the main target of my journey was the Cottonwood Wash area 30 miles south as the bird flies but far more by highway. I likely nailed some nice sand dune flower shots and it was time to move on. Actually I already have a few very strong sand dune wildflower images in my gallery index from my work February 2005 at Anza-Borrego State Park that will be difficult to improve on. Thus had doubts of the value of expending too much effort in these fine areas east of 29 Palms. Likewise, I'd captured several superb landscape images of desertgold sunflowers at Death Valley in March of 2005, only two of which I have yet processed to market on my online gallery. So I doubted I could improve on those images by bothering to drive north to the Amboy Crater area where the main desertgold blooms were occurring. Thus the more varied species mix at Cottonwoood Wash was calling my strategy wonderings. Packed up, I headed east over Clark's Pass and down SR-62 into truly vast Colorado Desert creosote valleys bordered by abrupt sterile rocky mountain ranges. The 4 mile wide, 20 mile long, north to south trending Coxcomb Mountains in particular had some rather aesthetically craggy granite peaks.


I stopped where yellow flowers of desert senna and its large drooping seedpods were conveniently next to the road on a large bush. I tend to put my nose into a lot of wildflowers in order to smell their wonderful fragrances. Desert wildflowers versus those in other environments, tend to more often be fragrant and many quite so. I would speculate the reason is that it allows pollinators from vast distances west in more lush coastal areas to fly east following fragrance and find the often quite limited zones of desert gardens. If the pollinators simply migrated east blindly they would more often simply die in the overwhelming areas of harsh dry desert. In 2005 I witnessed amazing numbers of migrating butterflies on the wing in a rather dry Panamint Valley moving east towards the wonder-fields a few dozen miles east in Death Valley.

About 20 miles east of the pass, I turned south on SR-177 that went straight like an arrow through like creosote plains of Palen Valley desert bounded by the Coxcomb and Palen Mountains. Fifteen miles further the highway vectored southwest rounding the Coxcombs. Some interesting dark rock geology at that end also contained increasing numbers of greenery and wildflowers along each wash path. I passed the Desert Lily Reserve then reached the bustling big rig traffic on Interstate I10. Now heading due west up a gradual rising Chuckwalla Valley, Arizona lupines and Mojave suncups, were increasing along roadsides. At Chiriaco Summit at 1,710 feet, I stopped in at the popular way station of gas station, shops, and the General Patton Museum where a Foster's Freeze was easily most popular that warm day.

geological terms

A few geologic definitions are worth touching on here. A wash is a narrow, constricting bed of an intermittent stream, as at the bottom of a canyon, typically dry but subject to rapid flow during flash flooding. Arroyos are washes that have cut a deeper ravine through the strata they pass through. pic14 Though some plants do try and gain a foothold in the washes, all but more robust tree species with their larger root systems, tend to get washed out every few years. An alluvial fan is a fan-shaped sloping deposit of alluvium or waterborne erosion debris onto a flat plain, whose source is usually a narrow canyon located at the head of the fan. At the base of mountains in arid and semi-arid environments is a related term bajada; a broad sloping deposit caused by the joining together of alluvial fans. Those lower slopes of mountains are characterized by loose sediment and poor soil development.

pleasant camping in the Orocopia Mountains


Another further 5 miles east was the south entrance to Joshua Tree National Park that routes south to north up Cottonwood Wash between the west to east trending Cottonwood Mountains and Eagle Mountains. It was now mid day so instead of wasting energy and gas driving into the park when light was harsh, I began exploring the considerable numbers of dirt backroads south of the freeway in the Orocopia Mountains. Once a half mile up any of those roads, one enters bajadas with all sorts of wildflowers though they tend to be dominated by lupines.


I located a quite wonderful little hidden valley rich enough with blooming flowers and shrubs, and delighted chirping birds that I spent that afternoon and next morning there instead of the Cottonwood Wash area. Well I wasn't on a schedule after all and could spend a week to two weeks in the desert as I wished. It was a quite pleasant unexpected diversion and such occasionally happens during my backroad wanderings. Arizona lupines growing on the wash flats and up slopes between the dominant creosote with ocotillo and barrel cactus amidst rocky hills. In wash channels were the green naked branches of palo verde, yellow flowers of desert senna, tiny blue flowers of indigo bush , pic5 fragrant desert lavender bushes, and many more perenial shrubs I couldn't identify. With the lupine were modest numbers of Mojave suncups, Mexican poppies, chia, brown-eyed primrose, sand blazing star, desert stars, desert dandelion, blue dicks, bottlebrush, brittlebush, purple mat, Fremont pincushion, miner's lettuce, brandegea, golden girls, cryptantha, three species of phacelia, and here and there desert fivespot, chicory, globemallow, and prince's plumes, plus many less conspicuous species. pic11 A fine place for me to do some close-up work for a day without walking far, worrying about securing my gear from anyone driving by, or hobbled by lugging about my large format gear. Further the more convoluted topography of the small hills and arroyos would tend to reduce effects of any breezes that rose in the afternoon. Beneath a shady palo verde tree, I parked, set up a pleasant camp, and then took a bottle shower in the warm 80 degree afternoon desert air. After cooking and eating a can of spaghetti and meatballs for lunch, it was siesta time dreaming away under the shaded branches lying atop my soft sleeping bag pile a couple hours.


Later about 3pm I picked up my view camera and ranged about the area sizing up images while going to work on any close-up subjects I noticed. During that afternoon I exposed a couple more sheets of film while adding a number of close-ups to my digital memory chip. At sunset into dusk I explored about a half mile from camp looking for ways to put ocotillo up against the colorful dusk clouds and skies. With another long day of hiking behind me in a pleasant isolated location, supper then cooked and eaten, I didn't dally that evening with much reading.


Friday February 29 morning in the Orocopia

I dedicated Friday morning February 29 for more work about my Orocopia Mountain area. Thus spent the whole morning with light intermittent breezes capturing subjects in that area. Early in the morning I was again plagued by jet contrails everywhere in the sky including this image near my camp towards the Eagle Mountains to the north that I shot anyway in order to provide a pleasant personal record of a really nice location,    08-A-12.jpg    Over the next few hours I exposed another four sheets of film on lupine expanses though none really turned out too impressive. Similar to past experiences shooting front lit landscapes of either blue or purple flowers. By themselves without other colorful species to contrast with, they are often difficult dim subjects. For the most part my morning was consumed taking close-up images with my Coolpix and I managed several fine shots including ones of blooming ocotillo and Arizona lupine.


Joshua Tree National Park
Cottonwood Wash

At midday, I packed up and drove back east to the Chiriaco Summit shops where I joined the vanilla ice cream line, topped off my gas tank, and filled up my large water carrier from a hose conveniently beside the building. Back west and then north into Joshua Tree National Park, I began assessing the Cottonwood Wash areas. Immediately I noticed wildflowers were nearly as dense as what I'd seen in 2005. Unfortunately in 2005, I was about 2 weeks beyond peak displays due to a choice to focus on the more rare blooms in Death Valley, so barely bothered to work the area and had only a vague feel for its terrain. After a couple short walks in the near road areas, it was obvious there were quite a few prominent species about that were far more abundant than what I'd seen across the valley in the Orocopia's and some like chuparosa and canterbury bells that I had not seen at all. Primarily the roadside difference was the incredible density of wildflowers all piled atop each other much like one sees at Carrizo Plain.

photography strategies on the bajada


One of the main issues photographing the main Cottonwood Wash bench areas beside each wash is there are few ocotillo, palo verde, or other trees to provide structure to a composition. Thus one tends to be limited to shots of mottled patterns of flower color with a minor percentage of frame height for distant mountains plus sky. To remedy that, I hoped to instead explore the upper wash areas beyond the canyon entrance or the areas west along the front of the Cottonwood Mountains. Many flowers subjects work best when captured off axis or backlit from the sun. Direct front lighting for wide landscapes is rarely effective and early and late warm front lighting is often mediocre too, although many photographers seem to work such shots as though the results are automatically appealing. However the result to this person is often simply boring orange and reddish hued flowers without a natural mix of flower colors or distinction or beautiful leaf and stem natural greens. Now if the subject flowers are themselves red, orange, or magenta then one might build on enhancing that natural color. And also some white flowers work well reflecting dawn/dusk sky light, improving otherwise dim lower landscapes. For perpendicular off axis situations, mid morning or mid afternoon often brings out the best mix of color and saturation. The sun needs to rise up enough to provide a more intense combination of reflected light and glowing light that comes from inside translucent flower color parts. A similar situation exists during the fall when shooting colorful leaves. Early and late light at any orientation is often pathetic san later post processing manipulation, compared to mid mornings or mid afternoons. With some flowers like lupines more backlit angles cause a better glow that I was interested in capturing here.

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip 3

   David Senesac

return to home page