Saturday, 29 April 2023, Joshua Tree NP
I had another delayed start, one I couldn't blame on 'enjoying camaraderie'. I'd made an early reservation for the Keys Ranch ranger-guided tour, looking forward to exploring the history of the area, but received an email yesterday that the park had cancelled all ranch tours due to the anticipated heat. With my day now free of a schedule, I dallied, spending time searching YouTube for Chasm of Doom videos, writing down directions on where to find it. Just in case I found myself nearby.
Once I dragged myself out and headed to the Visitor Center, I found the weekly farmer's market in full swing. Who can pass up a farmer's market? Not me! I spent a few minutes there, buying a loaf of lemon bread to nosh on later.
In the park, I turned west instead of south, heading into the heart of the park. At Skull Rock, hordes of people played in the rock piles on both sides of the road.
I parked and joined the crowds, climbing over some boulders, squeezing between a few and under others. Unlike at Arch Rock, I didn't know in which direction to find Skull Rock, and since my right ankle was feeling signs of stress (the residue of my dunes walk?), I didn't want to push it.
From the main park road, a dirt lane labelled 'Bighorn Pass Road' called to me. For a dirt road, the NPS maintained it well. It didn't cross any pass that I noticed, staying flat as it slid through a forest of Joshua trees. In the distance, I could make out the snow-covered San Gorgonio Peak, thumbing its nose as our air heated
into the 90s again. When I stopped for a photo, I discovered that I'd left my 300mm zoom lens back in my room. Sigh. No close-up photos for today, I guess.
The road returned to pavement near the Barker Dam and Wall Street Mill parking lots. The ranger, when I'd asked about singular experiences in the park, suggested I see the pool behind Barker Dam. "It's rare to see water still there this time of year," he said. It'll likely be gone in the next week." Okay, add that to my list: 'See doomed water.'
I began with the Barker Dam nature loop. It led through the arid landscape surrounded by more cracked rocks. As I neared the dam, I noticed several plants in the middle of patches of blue soil - almost as if someone had spray-painted them.
In fact, a park volunteer said that was exactly what happened. "Researchers came through here in the last day or two, marking invasive plants with blue paint. Soon, workers will come by and pull up the weeds."
The volunteer pointed out the dam, just ahead on the trail. "Bill Keys took over this land from the original settler and built the dam. In this harsh land, he learned to scavenge to get by. He had no rebar to reinforce the dam with, so he built it using old bedsprings."
I couldn't tour his ranch, but I still got to hear about that pioneering settler.
The lushness of the green around the dam amazed me,
especially compared to the dry domain surrounding it. How could people have raised cattle here? One sign mentioned that the region received up to 10" of rain per year here a century ago, but it now garners only 2-5" annually.
Back at the car, I worried about my water lasting. I'd filled both of my bottles when starting out, but the maps showed no place to refill in this part of the park. I should be able to nurse my remaining water to get to the mill and back, then I could drive to the entrance station for more. But would that also give me enough to wash down my APB (avocado and peanut butter) sandwich?
I ate the sandwich as I wandered out on the one-mile path to the Wall Street Mill. Bill Keys, who both ranched and mined this area, bought this mill to crush the ore and extract the gold from local mines. He contended with another pioneer, Worth Bagley, over water rights and control of the road to the mill. In 1943, tensions escalated to a shootout, with Bagley losing his life. Despite his claims that Bagley ambushed him, and he returned fire in self-defense, a jury convicted him of murder and sent him to San Quentin for nine years. In 1948 a judge pardoned Keys, who returned to the park and erected a monument carved out of rock to his victim: "Here is where Worth Bagley bit the dust at the hand of W.F.Keys. May 11, 1943." (The monument remained there until 2014, when two acts of vandalism forced the NPS to remove it for safekeeping. Why do idiots have to ruin things for all of us?)
The trail was more a suggestion than a well-worn path. Numerous tendrils wove through the scrubby terrain. A review online states that a spur runs 0.1 mile to the ruins of Wonderland Ranch; I didn't see anything marked. The traces I followed passed an old, rusted-out car
before reaching the Wall Street Mill.
I did see more of the desert blooms brightening the terrain.
My water lasted without issue. A 15-minute drive to the entrance station got me refilled, followed by a 20-minute drive to the grand vista at Keys View. My fifth day of unrelenting heat continued to take a toll; by the time I reach Keys View, I had to sit back and close my eyes for nearly half an hour.
The viewpoint justified the drive. I could see from the Salton Sea to the southwest back to the snowcapped peaks further north. The ranger had told me to take note of the brown gash running through the valley: "That's the San Andreas Fault."
I checked my watch: not yet time to call it a day. I set my sights on Hidden Valley, deciding to seek out the mysterious Chasm of Doom. I recognized I might not actually complete the trail; I had forgotten to pack my headlamp today, and one portion has limited light. Still, I had to try.
According to the video, I had to walk around the second picnic table, go behind the barbecue grill, and follow a trace up the rocks to a dead tree. I found the second table, looked behind the grill ... nothing that looked like a secret passageway. Backing up, I went to the third table and grill, but saw nothing there either. Same for the first table.
Arrrgh! Why couldn't I have a treasure map, with X marks the spot? Unwilling to give up that easily, I ferreted around the rocks and the tables, looking for something that resembled the video. After a few minutes, I found a slot between rocks that vaguely reminded me of the video,
but it looked awfully narrow. I wouldn't want to get stuck there.
Backtracking, I sat on a boulder behind the tables, pondering my options. As I wondered, a hiker clambered up a rock a few feet away from me. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," he apologized.
I remembered the ranger's advice: "Just hang around and ask if anyone knows where it is." With that in mind, I replied, "No problem. I was looking for the Chasm of Doom, heard it was supposed to be around here someplace."
"Yeah, it's real hard to find. Actually, I was heading that way myself."
I sized him up. Younger than me (but most hikers are!), he looked like an adventurous type, intent on his goal. "Really? Mind if I tag along?"
"Sure, the company might be nice." He paused, then added, "I'll warn you, I'm probably going to make some wrong turns and have to retrace my steps. It happens every time I do it. Like I said, really hard to find."
True to his warning, he made a few wrong turns, with me following dutifully. Soon he found the narrow slot I'd seen earlier. "Ahh, this looks like it."
He squeezed through the gap, then easily climbed a few boulders on the far side before emerging back in the sunlight. I'd left my camera and pack in the car, knowing I'd face tight spaces, so I know sucked in my breath and eased into the slot.
I'm sure I was thinner on top half my lifetime ago, when I used to slither through the Cookie Oven with ease. Today I could get halfway through the slot before front and back both lay flat against the rock. The end of the slot beckoned only a foot or so away, but I'd sucked in all I could. "Sorry, I can't quite make it," I called out to my guide. "I've got to back up."
"No problem," he called back from out of sight. "There's more than one way to reach this point. Here, let me work my way around."
A moment later, I heard this voice from the opposite side from the slot. Working my way over to him, I see a clearer path. I find a way to clamber up to his level, then follow him farther. Oops, here's a bigger boulder to climb. I look at it, hesitate, then hear him say, "You can chimney up this."
I looked warily at it and gave it a go. Not a typical chimney move - I put my butt on the boulder to climb, raised my feet to the vertical rock across a small gap and pushed against both for stability. Then I slowly moved my butt up as the boulder curved away, keeping pressure against the vertical rock as I inched my way up. I haven't done a move of that ilk for many decades!
Atop the boulder, I could see my guide had already worked his way to the top of the rocky chute. In that instant, I recognized that ascent from YouTube
- this was indeed the way! I also recognized that this would get no easier from here forward, with more iffy climbs ahead. Knowing that I had no headlamp, and even more concerned that the next squeeze would be even tighter, I took a deep breath and called it a day. "Thanks, but I'm going to pass."
I still had to descend - but here, that would be easier. Instead of trying to find an elusive passageway, I could just look for the easiest way to climb down. At the bottom, I emerged from the rocks behind the fourth picnic table. Remember that for next time. Yeah, right.
I still had time to take the Hidden Valley nature trail loop, to see if I could recognize the entrance to the old Cookie Oven. (I couldn't.) This idyllic corner of the park had largely been inaccessible to ranchers, until Keys blasted a hole through a rock-clogged passage to open it up in 1936.
Three months later, FDR named the park a National Monument, ensuring such damage would not happen again in the park.
I enjoyed the scenery in this protected hollow, with the desert plants providing a foreground to the maze of boulder walls around me. One feature, dubbed the 'Big Burrito' by rock climbers, serves as a reminder of the uneasy co-existence
between recreation and preservation. Joshua Tree is a world-reknowned site for rock climbing, but overuse of the most popular routes have trampled vegetation and disturbed nesting birds. Climber groups and park rangers are trying to arrange a comprise between climbing and resources.
I noticed one other stop on the map to check into: the Hall of Horrors. (It had not appeared on 2018 park map, only getting added in 2021). It did not impress me - it was apparently a playground for those practicing their climbing techniques, not a spot that 'regular' tourists frequented.
At dinner that night - Chinee food! - my fortune had me shaking my head. It read, "There are no limits to what you can do." Really? Three consecutive days, three keynote hikes, three failures to finish. I'll have to see how the biggest challenge of this tour works out in a few days, as I leave the desert for the coast.