Lori Carey Photography

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Exploring Mojave - Turtle Mountains, the Lost Arch Inn and Amboy Crater - Day One

The wildflowers are blooming!

In addition to the Desert Gold, purple sand verbena was everywhere at Amboy Crater two weekends ago. That's a nice surprise in the middle of January, and with the additional rains we've had this past week we're hoping for a good show this spring.

We set off for a last-minute trip with some friends from Project-JK; a easy scenic trailride with time for exploration and photography. And wow, was this a fun trip! Six jeeps met up at the Coco's in Barstow; in addition to us and the WayOfLife family, there was the Doojer family, Toad and BullFrog, their friends the Mazzman's, and Patrick from Full Traction with his son Kenny. We fueled up both our jeeps and our bodies for the long trip ahead and set out with Amboy Crater in Mojave National Preserve in mind for our first stop.

Amboy Crater is a 6,000 year old extinct volcano, and a beautiful example of a cinder cone surrounded by a lava field, located midway between Barstow and Needles along historic Route 66. Amboy Crater and Lava Field were designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973. The jeep trail out the to the crater (Amboy Crater Road) was closed and that was a good excuse to get out and stretch our legs. We didn't have enough time to hike to the top of the crater if we were going to make camp by nightfall, but there was plenty of time to hike to the base of the crater. Wow, the lava field was an explosion of purple and gold wildflowers, such a wonderful surprise this time of year. While Cindy and I spent most our time photographing the flowers, the boys spotted a huge lizard in the rocks(I believe it was a chuckwalla) and the rest of group wandered around enjoying the sights.

Conscious of the time, we jumped back in the jeeps to find the trailhead to our planned campsite at the Lost Arch Inn. It was a short ride back along the historic Route 66 to the Sunflower Spring trailhead,

but first we had to stop to explore and photograph some abandoned buildings along the way near Essex. I really love photographing these old buildings so it's great that the rest of the group likes to stop and explore too.

You can see by the photos that the sun was already getting lower in the sky, so we were soon enough on our way to the trailhead.

Sunflower Spring Road is Desert #9 in Southern California Backcountry Adventures by Massey and Wilson. It has a difficulty rating of 4/10, a scenic rating of 10/10, and a remoteness rating of +2, which means it is a relatively easy ride that is as beautiful and as remote as it gets! It begins in Essex and travels for 45 miles until it reaches US 95 just 23 miles south of Needles. The trail borders the Piute Mountains Wilderness, the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness, the Turtle Mountains Wilderness, and the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness, which makes it an excellent trail for hiking into any of the remote wilderness areas. The trail is mostly washboarded or deep sand through the bajadas with a few steep and eroded wash crossings. Creosote, cholla, ocotillo and barrel cactus blanket the desert floor, and the mountains are spectacular. One of my favorite views was of Old Woman statue to the west near Sunflower Wash. Unfortunately we were racing against the sun and did not have time to stop for photography along this stretch. It broke my heart to see the gorgeous late afternoon sun on all of the mountain ranges and not be able to stop, but that's reason enough for a return trip to this area.

About 35 miles along the turn for the Lost Arch Inn Trail (Desert #11 in the aforementioned book) is marked by an old mailbox that is used for traveller's messages. How it got there is a mystery, and once again I'm sorry I didn't stop for a photo but we were really hoping to make camp by nightfall and had to keep moving. The trail leads to, what else, the Lost Arch Inn, an old, barely standing cabin (there used to be two of the them, but one has recently collapsed) that was home to Charley Brown and his partner Jesse Craik, two desert prospectors. Charley Brown lived there from 1922 until his death in 1948 while searching the Turtle Mountains for gold and silver. There is an old vehicle graveyard a short distance away, and the area has an incredible number of open mineshafts (you need to be careful wandering around after dark!).

The sun was sinking below the mountains as we pulled in, and we set up camp in the dark; we always set up a community kitchen area, then spread the tents out for a little privacy (and quiet - I won't name any names but there are some in the group who snore. You know who you are!) The temperature was dropping rapidly, the ground was rocky and there was broken glass scattered about, we were trying to set up using flashlights and lanterns, and we were tired because we had been travelling all day. But someone started the campfire and I found a bottle of Jameson in my kitchen bin that was left over from the last trip. I passed the bottle as we warmed by the fire, then Cindy opened some wine as we started preparing dinner. Once we had eaten, we were cozy and settled in by the fire.

The old cabin was spooky in the dark with the firelight flickering on it; there were no doors on the cabin and the furniture inside cast moving shadows across the floor. I realized it was the perfect subject for experimenting with some lightpainting. I had been dying to give this technique a try for the longest time, but hadn't found anything that interested me enough.

The first thing I learned is that it is all but impossible to focus in the dark if you don't have a bright enough flashlight. Although the beam on my flashlights are fine for finding my way to and from my tent in the dark, they just weren't strong enough to allow me to focus precisely on the building. Although I think it adds somewhat to the mystery of the photos, add another item to the shopping list! The second thing I learned is that it's tough to reliably chimp this type of exposure - what you see is not close to what you get - the image looks much brighter in camera than it will when downloaded. I thought my first few shots were overexposed and so used less light and a shorter exposure time in subsequent shots, and later found they were too dark to do much with. I should've made the connection because I've found the same thing when I try to chimp my manual flash exposures. But I still got a few good shots, I'm happy with the results and can't wait to play around with this technique again.

This first shot is using light from the campfire only:

and this is one is a longer exposure while I walked around the outside and inside of the cabin firing off my 580EX:

The second one has a different color temperature and the star trails are longer due to the longer exposure, but you can still see the warm glow of the campfire. I wish I had put more light inside the cabin on some of my exposures, but it's a learning experience.

I also tried lightpainting a shot of our tent and campsite, but I didn't use enough flash in the tent and my exposure was not long enough. I was afraid that the ambient light from the nearby campfire was going to spill into my shot so only did a five minute exposure. That wasn't nearly long enough to gather sufficient light. Another lesson learned, but it was late and I was tired, so we retired for the night excited to see what the next day would bring.

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