orocopia_camp2 2golden_girls fremont_pincushion canterbury_bells3 chuparosa_pha evening_snow_pmat ocotillo_red3 orange_groves
Cottonwood Mountains bajada wildflowers    08-A-18.jpg

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip Chronicles
by David Senesac

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip Chronicles contents

Joshua Tree National Park
February 26 thru March 2, 2008
page 3 of 9

>Friday afternoon Cottonwood Mountains bajada hike

I loaded up gear and began a hike off west along the edge of the Eagle Mountains. Beyond the 70 yards or so of bajada flats thick with flowers, was a short drop into the flat granite sands of the main Cottonwood Wash that is about 150 yards wide. Then came another short climb to the west bajada bench along the wash that was also abundant with flowers. In fact there was a vast field of lupines on that side. Another 100 yards beyond is a long gradual slope of lupines down to a wash draining the next minor basin rising on a bajada west. It is beyond there, further west, that I spent the rest of my following two afternoons. Not as many dense areas of wildflowers, but a better mix of species with better separation for composing interesting images. Wash slopes with better numbers of ocotillo and palo verde to use as mid ground elements. Craggy nearby peaks my topographic maps showed a sun orientation for at this time of year, that would provide shaded backgrounds late in afternoon thus allowing ocotillo to stand out dramatically. Flowers included many more chuparosa, justicia californica, with their striking red flowers and deep blue-purple flowers of canterbury bells, phacelia campanularia. I only expose a few sheets of the pricey film each day and if given an opportunity tend to scout out well beforehand where I will do so when light becomes optimal. Thus this afternoon roamed back and forth across the expansive bajada areas looking for the finest potential compositions. Where I found ocotillo I then looked for nearby chuparosa and then explored how I might frame those within other scene elements.

The 4x5 image at this page top, 08-A-18.jpg, was where those elements best came together and where I exposed just one of two sheets of film. Both the lupine and brown-eyed primrose glowed magically while a myriad small plant structures into the distance provided intricate detail that a big 30x40 inch print will deliver a knock-out punch with. An afternoon breeze had been lulling very infrequently so I had to sit on each of my two best situations during the brief critical period where light would be best an hour or so before sunset. I didn't want to shoot too late in the afternoon as there would be too many shadows and the warm light would reduce all the beautiful natural flower colors to just warm hues. As a bonus, clouds above were not only improving the sky aesthetic but also helped provide some fill light into the shadowed background mountains. The image at the center page column is a 100x2900 pixel top to bottom sliced crop of that image from above the n in Cottonwood in the description, by a crude flatbed scan. A drum scan at my normal sized prints would contain nine times as many bytes for that same area. I hiked back to my car satisfied I'd located the goods for another session Saturday.

Not at all surprisingly, I didn't see any footprints in soft sandy wash areas either. Well at least human shoe prints haha. The late January rains likely dropped near two inches of rain in those areas causing washes to flow some and smoothing them clean while priming plants below the surface to make an appearance. Just like at Death Valley two years before, I found it incredible, that although thousands of tourists and photographers had been pounding the vast flower fields west of Jubilee Pass each day for two weeks since the previous gully washer, virtually none, nada, had bothered to hike the modest half-mile or so to the canyon where I captured the two best images of my trip that currently grace my web gallery. Pristine smooth soft wash sands there told that same story.

another evening back in the Orocopia

At the end of the day, some clouds offered possible interesting sunset and dusk skies. pic1 However my choice for a subject had poor position for the clouds. Just to see what wildflower conditions lie further north, in the waning light, I drove up the canyon all the way to the ranger station, noting all the worthwhile displays were indeed only in the lower canyon or bajada. However reports were that another several miles north in the Pinto Basin, lupines were putting on a good show. I drove south back across I10 and up into the Orocopia Mountains to a different spot than my previous two nights. In the dark, I located a usable spot beside a remote dirt road and within short order had put together another nighttime camp beside my vehicle. As it was Friday night, I expected some numbers of photographers and wildflower seekers to show up during the night and use the usual road camping spots at the I10 interchange. So in choosing a more remote spot, I was keen to avoid any disruptions to my night due to arriving visitors.

Saturday March 1, dawn Cottonwood Wash hike

Well before dawn began lightening the eastern horizon, I broke camp in the dark, and headed back across the valley to the Cottonwood Wash areas. Very surprisingly there were only THREE vehicles along the entire stretch of the road. It was Saturday March 1? Didn't Southland photographers know this crown jewel of the Colorado Desert had been peaking? That early to mid morning normally offers the most quiet air, so is the best time to do some work without bobbing wildflowers? pic2Eager to be productive before sunlight came down from peak tops above, I hiked a half mile out on the east side of the bajada to the edge of the Eagle Mountains where another wash cut against the rocky mountains, then circled on back to my car. On the way I observed various species and took some digital pics using flash like these golden girls, chaenactis grabriuscula.

lower canyon Cottonwood Wash hike

Back at my car, with the sun rising up enough to do some work, I then drove north into the mouth of the south to north trending canyon containing Cottonwood Wash where there were dense areas of flowers on both sides of the road of similar species to those on the roadside bajada lower down. By that time of about 7am maybe a dozen SUVs and cars were now along areas of the highway. That south to north trending canyon has many more trees and also ocotillo up on the nearby rocky canyon slopes. My idea was to find frames where I could shoot flowers somewhat backlit with trees standing out in isolation against the shadowed canyon walls. Most impressive in those areas was the often tremendous density of dark purple hued chia, salvia columbariae amid other flowers. Backlit was about the only way the chia would end up anything but black on the limited latitude of film surrounded by all the lighter flowers. Thus my first subject was a swath of dense backlit chia amid Arizona lupine, Mexican poppies, Mojave suncup, brown-eyed evening primrose, desert dandelion, malacothrix glabrata, and other flowers with two palo verde trees backlit against the shadowed canyon walls. After my trip on reviewing film, I noted the dark backlit chia alone didn't provide an adequate foreground for a strong image. Next, I moved east to the edge of the wash that routed along the edge of the rock canyon walls and found good numbers of my favorite foreground species, chuparosa. I framed up a sunlit slope of several ocotillo, blooming yellow brittlebush, encelia farinosa, and barrel cactus on the canyon slope with a foreground of a large chuparosa bush with its impressive red flowers and glowing backlit Arizona lupine,    08-A-21.jpg   . Considering that area down in that canyon, I was so close to the shadowed canyon walls that if I included sky, half the frame would simply be boring backlit canyon walls. Thus if I ever use that frame will likely crop it just above the ocotillo. Another small nugget of wisdom to remember in the future. After a half-mile along the wash, I chatted a bit with an elder local Indio couple that brought lawn chairs out to this fine wash area. Circling back to my car, I drove south back down to the main poppy expanse along the road.

Cottonwood Wash main bajada hike

Now about 9am when harsh light conditions were reducing options, there were suddenly many more cars, tripods, cameras, and people about. I wandered out into that zone and luckily quickly came upon a large mass of purple mat, nama dimissum within poppies and lupine I'd been hoping to find and frame in a landscape. The poppies of our lower desert areas are not the same species with deep orange corollas one finds in say Antelope Valley but rather of smaller corolla size, less orange, and tend to grow on smaller less bushy plants. The one difficult issue with poppies is they only open up for a few hours at midday when light tends to be rather harsh. One nifty piece of gear dangling off the back of my pack is a very lightweight flimsy tripod camp chair that I use to stand up atop. Though very wobbly, it allows me to view into my groundglass at near 7 feet up while my tripod G-1318 center column is at maximum height. For shots on a flat plain of flowers, it does wonders looking down on patterns. So there way up high, I made the one 4x5 shot of my trip at the main roadside Cottonwood Wash bajada. In the distance to the southeast I could see Interstate I15 and the Orocopia Mountains. An increasing morning breeze was also giving me doubts I would even get a shot off. As the film format increases, so does possible detail on subjects. Thus anything that moves like bobbing flowers are that much more apparent and unacceptable.


Amazingly seconds after I set up my 90mm Nikkor lens then shoved in the film holder, a fine momentary calm occurred and I exposed the film,    08-A-22.jpg   . I did take a bit of time looking for various species to place in front of backgrounds of impressive areas of dense purple mat including this one my Coolpix captured of Fremont pincushion, chaenactis fremontii.


My next hour was a futile one mile hike while the sun became too harsh. So I aborted that effort and returned to my car about 11am, driving south out of the park to a tree that would provide marginal shade a few hours where I could relax, eat lunch, and siesta during mid day. In the mean time the area was inundated with cars coming up the road. Chains of a dozen back-to-back cars were common as the slow to rise urban visitors finally arrived.

Saturday afternoon Cottonwood Mountains bajada hike

That afternoon about 2pm I hiked back out west visiting many of the promising spots I'd scouted Friday and some new ones further up that wash system. A stronger breeze had come up that prevented some shots I might have otherwise worked on. Disappointingly, my Coolpix did a truly lousy time capturing color from all the canterbury bells, phacelia campanularia. Days later on my computer, it was an effort converting the colors captured into something close to what my eyes actually saw. pic4One particularly spread out wide palo verde was covered densely by a green dense branching mass of brandegea with a dozen or so canterbury bell plants poking up through outer branches on each of the tree's four sides. Often other brandegea were tangled up with the weak stems of chuparosa bushes or provided a green coat for the robust structure of blue phacelia. I did capture some chuparosa beside blue phacelia aka common phacelia, phacelia distans, that often also enjoys life tangled up in those bushes. I could also imagine the resident rodent population preferring the safety and shade inside those thickets.


As the lowering sun began casting shadows across the bajada, the constant breeze waned and I moved to the one best location I'd scouted during a previous two hours. I pointed my 150mm normal lens on a foreground with three chuparosa bushes, Arizona lupine, brown-eyed primrose, and a few Mojave suncups. My tripod was set low to put the middle ground of ocotillo branches up into the light blue sky above the background shadowed Cottonwood Mountains. Below were considerable yellow brittlebush. Skies this Saturday were nicely clear so the late afternoon light more intensely caused all the near flowers to glow nicely even though my lens direction was more off axis than the previous day's similar image. Somehow I managed to nail with perfect exposure all my late afternoon backlit shots that are always tricky guesses mixed with experience. The exposure setting this time was at about EV13.7.    08-A-23.jpg   

I moved a few steps to my right and framed again more directly into the sun in order to include an aesthetic pyramidal shaped peak at frame left. With focus and exposure remaining similar, I soon exposed my last sheet of the day,    08-A-24.jpg   . However days later my film showed I had managed to get part of the dark slide I use to shield my lens from sun glare, in the left top corner of the image frame. In order to include the pyramidal peak I will need post process that equipment error by cloning in a likely sky in order to create a more accurate resulting image. And that image will be marketed with an asterisk explaining that unusual situation.

magnificent red skies at dusk


As I hiked the long ways back towards my car, I was quite surprised to see a couple wide ranging photographers were actually exploring down in the wash I'd passed a half mile from the highway. It was good to see other rare photographers that weren't so glued to their vehicle and near roadsides. If people only knew what they could see with a little crosscountry hiking. I drove south down the road to the only spot along the road with several ocotillo, then set up my Coolpix atop my old Benbo tripod to capture dusk skies with clouds above behind silhouetting ocotillo. That worked out very well as I clouds in the clear desert air provided the best dusk skies of my trip. And surprise, amid belly flowers in dimming light were numbers of white-hued evening snow, linanthus dichotomus, that only spread their petals just before sunset and then close just after sunrise. pic6

Santa Ana night winds rout David

I drove back to the previous night's campspot and again set up camp. After making dinner, a family of mice in the brandegea tangle beneath a nearby palo verde began to visit my camp probably both due to curiosity and the smell of food. Enough with that, I pulled all my gear another 20 feet down the wash where I was a good 10 feet from any vegetation. Some time later the big mouse of the group braved crossing the bare open wash sand for my goods and I so scared it when mouse began crawling atop my sleeping bag that none of the curious wiggle noses bothered me the rest of the evening. Later on at 3am I awoke to some violent winds. In a few minutes they were gone. Then several minutes later returned awhile and went away again. Then some time later returned again and after that did not go away. My gear was rolling about and I suspected a dreaded Santa Ana condition had set up due to a storm passing well to the north that moved into the Nevada Great Basin and then pushed outward to the southwest increasing the pressure gradients. The clouds I'd seen the past couple days were a good sign of the end of such a front passing high above in the atmosphere. Such winds will blow for two to three days and would likely really desicate many of the flower areas I'd been working on tearing up plants and flowers on the wane. So I decided to pack up at 3am while 40 mph gusts were wreaking havoc on my gear and drive north out of the deserts.

Sunday March 2 driving back north

Sand blasted my car as I drove down the dirt road and onto the I10 freeway. It was west to Indio, then Palm Springs, Banning, and up to San Bernadino where winds were particular violent. The next day I read about a peak recorded wind gust of 84 mph, tipped over big rigs, and power outages. That the winds would likely subside late Monday with Tuesday morning more quiet before another breezy condition would set up later Tuesday further into the week. Yes time to continue on out and not look back. Hours later passing through the eastern Antelope Valley areas along SR-138, I could see rainfall had been no where near what had been recorded at the poppy reserve remote weather station in January. Driving north on SR-14 through Lancaster, I noticed the Fairmont Buttes did have a nice light green look at distance. So how widespread would be the bloom of poppies and goldfields later in the month? Over Tehachipi Pass and northwest now on SR-58 I passed Bakersfield and then vectored off US99 onto SR-65 in order to investigate conditions along the base of the Sierra foothills that would start with the considerable oil field lands just north of town.

lushly green southern Sierra foothills

To my surprise the hilly grasslands abruptly became much more lush and vibrant green with wide swaths of rising wildflowers coloring the hills. Though orange hued fiddleneck dominated, there were also broad areas of white hued popcorn flower, and two types of yellow hued mustard. Smaller swaths of purple hued tansy-leafed phacelia and brilliant orange California poppies, added to the mix. I stopped beside the road and came up with a game plan for exploring some of those Kern County back roads instead of immediately zipping further north through Tulare County and onto Fresno County where I planned to try and find some blooming orchard subjects. Well as I drove further east closer to the edge of the Sierra, flowers just got better. I found one road with lots of flowers and spent a few hours working the roadsides. All those areas were camera behind barbed wire shots with private oil field or cattle ranch lands on the other sides.


I continued driving north along the base of the foothills, taking several diversion backroads, not all of which had much to offer. Generally I found wildflowers had not bloomed higher than about 1,500 feet in elevation at this quite early time of spring. Also the further north, the more developed the landscapes become, especially with considerable rural home building. Thus it became difficult to frame flowers with power lines, roads, and structures in the mix. By time I reached Fresno County, it was getting too late in the afternoon to work the orchard areas. I thought about driving east 30 plus miles up to one of the nearest public campgrounds for the night in order to try and visit the orchards in the morning. Instead growing weary of life on the road, I was now close enough to continue on for another three hours and reach home.

concluding the adventure

Thus as the light of dusk lowered in the western sky, I sped west across the valley towards the end of my aborted 6-day trip that came a few hours later in the evening. Over the four days in or near Joshua Tree, I had exposed 28 each 4x5 sheets of Provia 100F film with my Wisner on landscapes and clicked off about 250 small images with my tiny 7mp Coolpix digital camera. Many those images were for-the-record shots of the wide landscape while others were close-up images of wildflowers. Thus an indication I was rather busy. Some of the 4x5 images displayed in this story, like the one at page top, are certain to be added in the future to my online gallery of marketed images.

Spring 2008 Wildflower Trip Chronicles...page 4

   David Senesac
   email: sales@davidsenesac.com

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