Lori Carey Photography

Thursday, February 7, 2008

More Mojave Explorations: The National Preserve, Part IV

Our final planned destination on this Mojave trip was the Aikens Mine Trail, located in what is known as the Cinder Cones and Lava Flows National Natural Landmark, to hopefully locate a lava tube we could explore.

The Mojave National Preserve is a great place to see incredibly diverse evidence of our volcanic past. The previous day we had witnessed the result of an extremely powerful and violent eruption at Hole-in-the-Wall. Our trek this day would take us through an area of relatively recent volcanic activity characterized by thick basalt lava fields and approximately 40 cinder cones. The Mojave desert region has an incredibly fascinating geologically history, and if you're a geek like me and interested in learning more about it I found the best and most interesting information at the U.S. Geological Survey's website here. It does a great job of explaining the forces that shaped this diverse region.

From Kelso Dunes we headed back toward KelbakerRoad, which we took north back past Kelso, essentially making a big loop. This part of Kelbaker Road passes through thick black basalt lava fields and the horizon is dotted with red cinder cones.

I didn't see any signs marking the turnoff for the trail, but I had a waypoint marked in my gps. The trail starts off as an easy, sandy route that winds past a few corrals and water tanks. At one point it crosses the Mojave Road Trail (Old Government Road) and if you continue along the trail you'll eventually reach the spot where the famed Mojave Phonebooth used to be. Even though I had a waypoint marked for the lava tube about 4.5 miles in, I missed the trailhead on our first pass and we continued up the trail where the surface turned to the rough, rocky bed of the lava field.
I was glad I had ten-ply tires (Toad and I both wheel 35" Toyo Open Country M/T's) because those rocks looked sharp. This is the milder part of the trail right near the lava tube:

We drove for miles enjoying the surreal scenery until I looked at my gas guage and noticed I had less than a quarter tank. We stopped to check the maps and realized that we would be pressing our luck to try to make it to Cima Road. Besides, I still wanted to turn around and find the lava tube! So we found a spot to turn around and head back in the direction from which we came. This time, when the waypoint popped up on my gps I saw the trailhead:

There is an area for parking a few feet away where the 2WD road turns into the 4WD road (or vice-versa in this case). Then it's a quarter mile hike up to the lava tube on a well-defined path. The first holes you'll notice are "skylights" into the tube. A little further up the hill is the larger hole with a barely attached metal ladder to use to descend into the tube. We sent Bill down the hole first to test the ladder. And that way he could catch us if the ladder decided to let go of the side of the hole while Toad or I were descending.

As seen in this photo, after climbing down into the hole you can work your way down toward the left into the lava tube. The tube to the right of the ladder has been completely collapsed here, a scary reminder that playing around in here is not entirely without risk. The ceiling is very low at some points, but it becomes much higher in the main chamber. Light is provided by the skylights I mentioned earlier, but this is not a great place for the claustrophobic.

Here's a shot I took from inside the tube looking up that really shows the layers of basalt that make up this landscape:

After exploring the lava tube we continued on up the hillside. The sun was a bit lower in the sky now so Toad and I wanted to spend some time photographing the surrounding landscape while Bill and BullFrog found more holes into the lava tube.

Back in the jeeps we continued retracing our steps on Aiken Mine Road until we reached Kelbaker Road, then started making our way back toward Baker. Every few minutes one of us would get on the CB announcing the need to stop for a photo.

Baker came all too soon. After gassing up we were reluctant to end the trip so we found a Bux (has this always been here?), grabbed some caffeine and broke out the sandwiches from the lunch we never stopped to eat. We people watched the steady stream of customers, most likely on their way to or from Las Vegas since this stretch of the 15 doesn't lead to much else, and shared a few more laughs about our adventures. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset as we caravaned back down the 15 until Toad and BullFrog had to turn off to head up to canyon country and we continued down to Orange County.

The more I visit the desert the more I find to appreciate and photograph. Buying the jeep and modifying it for offroad exploration has been one of the best decisions I've made - in addition to the new photo opportunities, I've made some great friends who enjoy the exploring as much as we do. And there is so much more to see.

Our next trip to the Mojave will be the weekend of February 15th. We'll travel the length of the old Mojave Road with 15 jeeps split into two groups. That many vehicles (and more than 30 people) is going to put a definite damper on my photography, but I've been trying to do this trail since September and it's finally come together so I'm really excited about it. I'll probably use this trip more for scouting purposes, then plan a return trip when I have a better idea of the photo opportunities.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

More Mojave Explorations: The National Preserve, Part III

When I left off we had just found the perfect spot to set up camp at Kelso Dunes at the edge of the wilderness boundary, the sun was setting and I was running for the dunes with my gear.

Wow, it was everything I had hoped it would be. The first thing to catch my eye were the various patterns of ripples, and the late afternoon sun was perfect to photograph them.

Then as I looked closer I noticed the animal tracks. The most obvious and recognizable were those of roadrunners and kangaroo rats. This isn't the best shot of the bunch, but it does show both types of tracks:

The Kelso Dunes rise up to 650 feet high, cover 45 square miles and are part of a greater sand transport system which includes nearby Devil's Playground. The dunes are composed mainly of quartz and feldspar, and black magnetite accumulates along the crests. They are known for their "singing", or booming, which is a relatively rare phenomenon in the world. It seems that when the sand is dry and the humidity is low enough, the dunes make a low frequency sound that can actually be felt; they literally emit acoustical energy when the sands are disturbed. It is not at all like the squeaking one hears when walking across wet beach sand, it is a much deeper sound. This link at the National Parks Conservation Agency has an audio file you can listen to. They can sometimes be heard when the wind blows, but a favorite activity of hikers is to slide down the side of a dune to make it sing. Yes, you are not only allowed, but encouraged, to do this. I was still very disappointed that we hadn't made it in time to hike up to the top of the taller dunes and that I wouldn't get a chance to see if I could make them sing, but was hoping to hike up before first light in the morning. The hike is steep loose sand, an uphill climb for over 600 feet once you make it past the smaller dunes, so the rangers warn hikers to plan for two hours out. Of course, the hike back is much faster, especially if you slide to the bottom!

The dunes turn a warm pink-gold color in the late afternoon light, the sun was just about to sink behind the mountains and I was composing and shooting as quickly as I could.

Because we were surrounded by mountains, we would lose the light well before sunset. I started heading back toward where Bill, Toad and BullFrog had camp all set up. My final images were of the alpenglow on the Providence Mountains, one of which was in my last post, and this shot of the last light on the dunes:

Once the sun was down the temperature started dropping like a rock. With the fire going we cooked up a hearty dinner and had a few nips of Jameson while reliving the events of the day and making plans for the following day. The temperature continued to drop and we were soon dressed in full winter gear. We were sitting so close to the fire that we were practically in the firepit. As a matter of fact I managed to melt the side of my favorite coffee mug and it now has two protruding growths (bubbles) on the one side. Bill had everyone choose a rock to use as a sleepingbag warmer. No one wanted to leave the warmth of the fire for the tents that night, but eventually our supply of wood needed to be conserved for the morning and the day's adventures had finally worn us out enough that we grabbed our sleeping bag rocks and turned in for the night.

I can honestly say that this was the coldest night I ever spent on the desert floor and we were fortunate that there was no wind. The word 'brutal' comes to mind. Bill insists on sleeping in his skivvies and he was miserable all night. I, on the other hand, sleep in my UnderArmours and sweats - layers - and was fine except for my feet because they had gotten beyond cold earlier and I was never able to warm them by the fire.

Up before dawn with every intention of heading out to the dunes, I decided to make some coffee to take with me. I tried to fill a pot with water from my jerry can but was only able to get about half a cup out. I wondered if we had somehow used up all of our water already, but then noticed that the water in the pot was freezing right before my eyes. Hmmm...I am not a morning person - I basically function on auto-pilot and if something out of the ordinary happens I don't have sufficient brain cells working yet to think it through, but I did somehow decide to start a fire because it was COLD. All thoughts of heading out to the dunes disappeared as I huddled around the fire for warmth and contemplated my need for caffeine. Toad got up then and gave me some bottled water she had in her jeep. I added it to the ice in the pot, made my coffee, and realized that the only way my feet were going to thaw out was if I took my boots off and set my stocking feet near the flames.

That did the trick, so I set off for the dunes knowing that once again I would not have time to hike to the top, but I could catch the early morning light on the lower dunes.

Toad and I agreed that we'd have to return soon and give ourselves plenty of time to hike up because these dunes are incredibly beautiful and it's a shame that we didn't give ourselves enough time to do them justice.

Back in camp the guys were up so we started cooking a hearty breakfast and spent a lazy morning around the campfire. None of us were too eager to pack up since we hadn't slept well because of the cold and it felt so good to huddle around the fire, so we didn't get moving until late morning. We did our usual sweep to see if we could leave the site better than we found it but this area was absolutely spotless and we made sure the fire was completely out. A few minutes for group photos (and jeep photos) in front of the dunes, and we were off to Aiken Mine Road and Cinder Cones and Lava Fields National Natural Landmark to explore a lava tube.

BullFrog and Bill posing before we hit the trail again:

Monday, February 4, 2008

More Mojave Explorations: The National Preserve, Part II

Continuing on about our mid-December trip in the Mojave National Preserve -

After leaving the Kelso Depot visitor center we traveled north on Kelso Cima Road 14 miles to the well-graded Cedar Canyon Road. Six miles east brought us to another well-graded dirt road, Black Canyon Road. Black Canyon is paved from I40 up to Hole-in-the-Wall, but is a graded dirt road north for the next ten miles until it joins Cedar Canyon Road. There is a visitor center and a family campground with pit toilets, fire rings, picnic tables and water if you don't enjoy primitive camping, first-come first-served for $12 a night.

The brightly colored sculptured rock formations at Hole-in-the-Wall (elev. 4400 feet) are the result of a violent volcanic eruption approximately 18 million years ago. A ground-hugging cloud of ash and rock fragments covered everything in its path, fosillizing birds, animals and plants below the ash layer. The rock fragments were so hot that they welded together, forming tuff. The caldera (cone-shaped depression) was formed when the ground collapsed along several fault lines. It was then partially filled with volcanic debris. Later, lava oozed out of the magma chamber to form plugs and domes. Well, at least, that's the very summarized supershort version.

To the south there is a very short hike (if it can even be called a hike) up to an overlook with a view that kicked my vertigo into full gear. To the west is the Rings Trail down into the canyon. The steep descent/ascent through a cleft in the rocks is aided in spots by the strategic placement of ringbolts.

I scrambled down the rocks a ways until I came to the first set of rings, but the rest of the group decided they weren't feeling that energetic. Besides, it was mid-day so the light wasn't good for photography, and we were pressed for time if we were going to reach the dunes in time to hike out for sunset, so that hike is saved for another day.

Back at the jeeps we realized we had spent more time than planned here and were way behind schedule. We consulted our topo map to determine the quickest way to reach the Kelso Dunes. Sticking to maintained roads meant driving about 60 miles down Black Canyon Road to Essex Road, then 20 miles west along I40 until we reached the southern end of Kelbaker Road which would take us to the road out to the dunes. Alternatively we could retrace our steps and loop around to the north, but that would still be over 40 miles, and we wanted new scenery. Then I noticed a jeep trail that cut through Foshay Pass in the Providence Mountains about ten miles south of where we were, and would put us on Kelbaker Road right near the road to the dunes. Bill popped into the visitor center to ask the ranger about the condition of the trail and they warned

him that it was deeply rutted and washed out due to the recent rains. We figured that would be no problem since we came for adventure and both of our jeeps were fully modified for extreme terrain, so off we went.

Several trailheads converge at the spot where Black Canyon and Essex Roads meet up, so it took us a few minutes of consulting the maps and gpsr's to make sure we took the correct one, which begins as Pipeline Road. It was a nice wide, flat and sandy trail for several miles. If you've ever traveled on jeep trails through the desert you know that they can quickly disappear and it can sometimes be difficult to determine if you're still on the main trail. Since I was playing trailboss on this trip I didn't let on that I did a little eeny-meeny-miney-moe at some points, hehe. It seems that somewhere along there if I had beared to the right instead of the left I would've put us on Vulcan Mine Road, which would've put us a bit north of dunes but is an easy trail. A little further on and if I had beared left instead of right I would've put us on the graded trail that runs parallel but climbs higher up the side of the mountain. Instead, my choices put us on a trail that wasn't maintained at all that consisted of endless miles of 30 foot, 30+ degree descents and ascents. This was the road the rangers had warned us about. The descents were very deeply rutted and washed out, fully capable of rolling of a vehicle and requiring very careful wheel placement. Toad didn't have any problems, but my back end slid on one of the descents, giving me a momentary heart attack as I envisioned rolling my jeep in the middle of nowhere. Toad commented that at least now she knew what line NOT to take and proceeded to skillfully navigate her way to the bottom

Here's Toad descending one of the milder hills. BullFrog decided to watch from outside the jeep.

The climbs, although steep, were smooth and no problem. But still, halfway through my nerves were still shot from my previous mishap and I let Bill take the wheel. When the Kelso Dunes finally came into view I breathed a sigh of relief, but we still had another fifteen or so of those rollercoaster hills to conquer and the sun was already so low that I knew I'd never make it to the top of the dunes before nightfall. I thought it would be forever before we reached flat grounds, but we eventually met up with Kelbaker Road directly across from the road to the dunes.

We raced down the road to the hiking trailhead for the dunes and took a minute to check it out. There is a small parking lot here and restrooms, which we made use of. The ranger at the Kelso Depot visitor center had told us to keep going after the road ends and we would find a primitive camping area, so we jumped back in the jeeps and headed down the road. The camping area was easy to find on the boundary of the wilderness area and we had our choice of spots. It is deep sand here so it's really only recommended for 4WD vehicles, but what a beautiful spot to set up camp. In front us where the Kelso Dunes, behind us where the Granite Mountains and to the east were the Providence Mountains. Gorgeous!

After circling a few times we found the perfect spot. Bill started setting up camp and I selfishly grabbed my gear and raced out to the dunes just as the sun was sinking below the horizon.

Alpenglow on the Providence Mountains

The Kelso Dunes will be the topic of tomorrow's post.

Friday, February 1, 2008

More Mojave Explorations: The National Preserve, Part I

I'm trying to catch up on writing about some of the other trips we've taken over the last few months!

Toad and I had been trying to put together a trip somewhere for just the four of us so she and I could take as much time with the cameras as we wanted without having to worry about keeping up with a group, and I had been wanting to see the singing Kelso Dunes for the longest time. We had first planned to do this trip in October but the wildfires broke out and we decided it was better to stay close to home. Then we tried in November, but the flu took out Toad and BullFrog for weeks, so finally mid-December Bill and I met up with them in Baker before venturing out to wander somewhat aimlessly through the Mojave National Preserve toward whatever caught our eye.

We had considered possibly doing a portion of the old Mojave Road, but since we had already had some rain I knew that Soda Dry Lake might not be crossable. So we started by driving 35 miles down Kelbaker Road to talk to the ranger at new vistor center in the semi?-ghost town of Kelso.

I don't think the post office is receiving mail any longer!

The Kelso Depot is a Mission-style two-story building replete with stone arches and a red tile roof that was built by Union Pacific Railroad in 1924, and it is one of only two remaining depots of this style. It had overnight accommodations for employees, a telegraph office and waiting room for passengers. A restaurant was later added. Although trains still pass the station, the building had not been used in over 20 years. The town of Kelso once had a population of 2,000 when iron ore was mined during WWII; now less than a dozen people remain. Desert USA has nice little piece on the fascinating history of the train depot.

A few years back the National Park System decided to remodel the building for use as the main visitor center for the Mojave National Preserve, and it reopened in early 2006. Wow, what a beautiful job they did.

In addition to the having the friendliest and most helpful ranger I've met (and every one I've met has been fantastic so that's saying a lot), this building is gorgeous. I wish I had a better photo than this, but the harsh mid-day desert sun didn't want to cooperate from any angle.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is the long gleaming lunch counter. The ranger manning the center told us that they had been trying to contract with someone to re-open the restaurant but were having a very difficult time finding anyone willing to commit because Kelso is literally in the middle of nowhere. Such a shame because I imagine it would be a lot of fun to have lunch here, or maybe breakfast before hitting the trails.

The remaining rooms hold a theater, a gift store, and several interactive displays about the Mojave Desert. We spent a lot more time here than we planned because there was so much to see. After signing the guest book I asked the ranger about the condition of Soda Dry Lake and the best spot for primitive camping near the dunes. He told me it was a good thing I asked about crossing the lake because they had decided this morning that it looked like it could pose a problem and that they would most likely be sending someone out later that day to check on it. Rather than risk getting stuck in the caustic mud, we decided to head out to Hole in the Wall, then over to the dunes where we would camp for the night. Reassured that we were both driving 4WD, the ranger showed us a spot that he said would be perfect for both sunset and sunrise at the dunes. We planned to make it to the dunes in time to hike up for sunset, which meant we'd need to be there no later 2:00pm. We reluctantly left this beautiful piece of California history and set out toward Hole in the Wall.