My father and I had a magnificent 3-day trip from Los Angeles to Rainbow Basin, north of Barstow. This is my first go at a trip report of that weekend. I’ve put the photos from this trip into a set in Flickr.
Friday was spent going the long way over the San Gabriel mountains, driving up Osborne Street from the 210, past the wildlife waystation and the roadside info board about the San Gabriel fault, then taking the 14 and across the back side of the range and then up to Barstow. The second day we spent exploring the campground and doing the Rainbow Basin Scenic Drive, and then driving east to see the Calico Early Man Site and the Pisgah Cinder Cone. Sunday, we hiked up into Owl Canyon above the campground though rain moved in, and then we drove back to LA over the 15 through Cajon Pass in sleet and snow of the early evening, stopping at REI to shop for a new tent!
I did quite a bit of research ahead of time for this trip, since getting Dad out here from Indianapolis happens fairly rarely. Not knowing ahead of time what Dad would be in the mood to see, I hunted down information about all sorts of things to do and see in the area. I’m the geologist of the family, Dad’s the botanist, and ;we both needed to get away from civilzation for the weekend to center ourselves. I brought along a pretty big binder of notes, maps, webpage printouts, and photocopies from books so that we could get information about whatever stuff in the area happened to interest us.
Please, please, please, if you are considering a visit to this area, do a bit of homework ahead of time and follow the rules. Take only photographs, leave only footprints… respect these areas so that others can appreciate their solitude and natural state, without trash, noise or damage to mar the view.
References: Barstow California - California Online Highways
Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley and BLM Lands North of the Mojave National Preserve Through the Eyes of Desert Dave’s East Mojave Page
Digital Desert Photo Archives
Over The Rainbow: Area outside Barstow a faulted and fossilized dream for scientists, 2, 3 - from HighDesert.Com’s travel archive
Early Man Site: Artifacts retrieved frm Calico Early Man Site force archaeologists to re-evaluate their beliefs about early man in North America, 2,
3 - from HighDesert.Com’s travel archive
Early dates of human occupation in the Western Hemisphere using the Calico archaeological site in southern California as an example - graduate seminar online bibliography by Kristine Bryan
(Simpson, Ruth D.; “Updating the Early Man Calico Site, California,” Anthropological Journal of Canada, 20:8, no. 2, 1982.)
Calico Early Man Archaeological Site - California Online Highways
Friends of the Calico Early Man Site
ASA Online - Dating Early Man in the Americas
SAA/BLM partnership - Calico Hills Archeaological District
Barstow Chamber of Commerce - Attractions and Historical sections
Owl Canyon Campground and Wildflowers
We rolled into the Owl Canyon BLM campground at dusk and set up camp. Coldcut sandwiches hit the spot!
Clouds threatened a bit, so we set up the tent, but slept out in the open under more stars than LA will ever see. In the chill of the morning, we warmed up over hot instant cereals and hot chocolate, then hiked around the campground a bit getting a feel for the place.
The campground is very tidy and quiet, with clean pit bathrooms and a water tap. We didn’t run into the BLM attendant, but other campers apparently had. There is a camp dog that has been living in Owl Canyon for at least three years known as “Hobo”, who will investigate visitors a bit but not let anyone near him.
As you can see in the Flickr set, there were not many people there overnight on Friday, just a trio of camper-trailers, one van-convertible fellow with a mountain bike, and a pair with about six dogs, who Hobo joined in play with. The campground lends itself to seclusion… though there is not much foliage anywhere, the outcroppings between the sites alow you to fantasize that there’s no one for miles.
We took photos of the slopes above our campsite, and the view from them to the pair camping with their dogs site.
I took photos of Dad hiking along the ridge between the two sites, and he took photos of me hiking up (having two cameras along is fun!).
The little whitish plants were all over near the campground, some with reddish flowers/berries, and some without. We still haven’t identified them (Dad’s botany background from college on the east coast did not include desert plants!).
Saturday morning, we drove out past the group campground and along Fossil Bed Road to the “scenic drive”. Those photos of the signs didn’t turn out too well thanks to the poor light, but you can sort of see on the map the area I’m referring to. When I get the time, I’ll either retouch the photos, or find a better map of the roads, trails and campground.
Dad’s interest in botany is what originally led us to plan a desert trip for this spring; he had hoped to see the desert wildflowers in bloom. However, this year, the show is not expected to be spectacular, since the weather patterns have not been conducive. We did see a few things in blossom, which we haven’t identified yet. The bladder plants in different microclimates were in different states of development…
And we haven’t figured out yet what the funny yellow-blossoming peapod plant is, either.
Rainbow Basin Scenic Drive
Saturday morning after our instant hot cereal breakfast, we drove out past the group campground and along Fossil Bed Road to the “scenic drive”. There were signs everywhere about the California Desert Tortoise, which are apparently very easy to mistake for speed bumps on the dirt roads, but we never encountered one.
The drive is a dirt road, mostly graded but with some rough spots which made us cross our fingers that my little Sentra would make it through OK. It winds through some beautiful sedimentary layers, and is one-way due to the narrowness and curves in the road. I would advise against driving this road if there had been recent rain; mud from the sedimentary mudstones and conglomerates which form some layers of the canyon would have made it treacherous for all but the most agile 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Dad liked a green layer that tends to weather into rounded boulders; he walked along the layer and perched up near the top of a promontory, which was pretty nifty.
Near the end of the drive is a parking area and plenty of wandering-around-room, which Dad was viewing from his perch. Somewhere in our photos are some other people wandering around in the upper right, if you’ve got very sharp eyes.
Once we got to the parking area, we also wandered around for a while. There were some families around the parking area (a pair of teenaged boys were perched on boulders listening to their walkmans and looking very bored; they were deaf to the thundering whisper of the beauty and mystery which surrounded them)… but as we ventured further away from the cars, we quickly became the only people we could see or hear.
Dad tends to quest for the high promontories, I tend to explore canyons. There were layers of grey, green, rusty brown, ruddy red, dark brown, nearly black… some layers were mudstone, others more coherent sandstone, still others conglomerate with interestingly colored cobbles. The sound of the wind calls to your soul in places like this.
Calico Early Man Site
We then headed east, first along the 15 to the Calico Early Man Site. I didn’t take pictures there…
I’m not sure if I believe Dr. Leakey’s findings about the tools and the dates assigned to the alluvial fan in which they are imbedded, and we didn’t want to make waves as an outspoken skeptics on the group guided tour, so Dad and I did the self-guided tour of the place. The visitors’ center does have some very well-done replicas of the tools, and it was neat to see that workmanship, whether or not I believe that their existence indicates the presence of Homo Erectus or Homo Neadertalensis in North America 200,000 (plus or minus 20,000) years ago. Some did fit eerily well into my hand, though.
I had done some research on the site during my GeoChem undergrad days, and had a paper describing how an analysis was done of the “possible fire ring”. Interestingly enough, the two pamphlets available for the self-guided tour mention that the ring of stones is still under investigation, even though the research paper I had was at least ten years old and fairly conclusive in its findings. Here is more information about the controversy:
Pisgah Cinder Cone
We drove south to the 66 and the 40 to see Pisgah Cinder Cone. It’s on mining company land, but you can drive up and park at their entrance. There seems to be a trail off to the left of the entrace from the parking area which may or may not lead to the cone itself, and a big NO TRESPASSING sign glaring you in the face, but Dad finally got the opportunity to walk on an identifiable lava flow. He didn’t go past the sign, just in the area beside it, by the way.
We returned to Owl Canyon campground Saturday night, and an hour after retiring, we were glad to have kept the tent set up, as it started to rain.
Owl Canyon Hike
Sunday morning, after a hearty corned beef hash breakfast, we headed up Owl Canyon. It’s beautiful hiking, but there are a few tricky spots to scramble up in the narrowest sections of the canyon. We were very glad to have sturdy hiking boots and warm layers of clothing!
The start of the trail is at the northernmost end of the northernmost cul de sac of the campground. 50 to 100 yards from the trailhead, you can either choose the gulley or a mesa. We chose the mesa, because Dad wanted to see the plants.
I got some photos to show the slope up to the mesa and the view across the gulley from the top of that slope, with Dad playing Sasquatch for scale.
We still haven’t figured out yet what most of the smaller plants are in our photos.
There were a number of big anthills, with lots and lots of industrious but fairly slow-moving black ants. Perhaps they speed up as the temperature rises during the morning? There were also a number of what looked like burrows near the bushes. Dad and I are not sure what makes them… could be desert mice, kangaroo-rat type critters, or perhaps burrowing birds or large spiders?
Some of the Joshua trees on the mesa had blossomed. The geometry of the leaning stalk and the sedimentary layers beyond caught my fancy.
On top of the slope which led back to the gulley were some technicolor lichen. The colors as I remember them are much brighter than these photos show, but I haven’t decided whether or not I want to retouch the color scaling on the images or leave them as is.
I took three photos to create a panorama taken from the top of the slope we went down to return to the gulley, but I haven’t Photoshopped them together yet. There are never enough hours in the day…
We headed up the gulley for parts unknown… the holes in the side walls of the canyon made us wonder if that’s where the namesakes of the canyon make or made their homes.
The canyon walls got significantly taller, and the cobbles and pieces of igneous rock imbedded in the sedimentary layers more and more interesting. The green color of some layers is from two different comtributing factors… some of the imbedded fragments’ parent material was very green, and the small bits of that same parent material appeared to make the green mudstone layers the same shade. Other instances of a darker green mineral appeared to be formed in cracks in larger pieces of rock. I took some closeup shots of the conglomerate layers since the rules of the area do not allow collecting.
The gulley turned into a gorge as the walls steepened and got taller. There is a cave on one side of the canyon, about a foot off the gulley’s gravel floor. We had a flashlight along, thanks to a tip from the van fellow in camp with the mountain bike, so we ventured in just a bit. The cave appears to go deep into one of the sedimentary layers, and we found a few ledges with rat middens which looked to be inhabited though not occupied. Feeling slightly hemmed in, we left the cave and continued up the canyon.
There were two really trickier places where the canyon narrowed to the point where we had to scramble up narrow dry waterfalls. Note to self: bring some rope and climbing clips next time just for safety, especially if mist or rain could be in the offing. Do not attempt this hike if the area has had or will have significant precipitation!
After the two really narrow places, the canyon opened up a bit again, to incredible views.
Every time we thought about maybe turning back, since we really didn’t know how far the trail/canyon went, we found something amazing just around the next bend to keep us going… I took a pair of photos to make a panorama of one of the more colorful sections.
One of the green layers looks just the shade of toothpaste!
A really prickly plant was quite at home in the canyon, as were a trio of large pheasant-looking birds which we startled coming around a bend.
In the steeper parts of the canyon, a hawk screaming got our attention. Far above us was a nest with one or two hungry little ones, and the adult watched us as we made our way along the canyon cleft below them. We were surely the aliens, and they the natives, as the adult took flight above us, soaring and then swiftly winging across the boundaries of our vision above the lip of the canyon.
About 1/3 of the way from the top of the canyon, it started to rain. The narrow gorge opened up to a basin which had not only the grey, green, rusty brown, and red shades which we had been hiking through, but also a purplish red, a blue-grey, and some dark nearly-black brown tones. Dad decided to head for one of the central and tallest promontories in the basin to get a good view before we would turn back.
I decided to investigate the above purple-red side canyon a bit, and Dad headed up the promontory to my right ahead of me, taking this picture as I returned to the fork where I had turned, heading up the trail following him.
One of our photos shows not only the trail we took to get to the promontory, but if you look carefully, you should barely be able to discern three tiny shadowy figures in the gravel bed about 1/3 of the way from the right side, about halfway from the top edge of the photo. They were three intrepid hikers who wandered far up the purple-red gulley on the right side of this photo, and when we headed down, they were enough behind us that we were already having warm lunch by the time they made it back out, looking cold, windblown and soaked. Ah, the benefits of wearing the right gear!
As we got to higher ground, the wind had really picked up, driving the drizzle horizontally, the cold air whipping between gaps in our clothing. I had passable rain gear along, and once I was bundled, I was fairly comfortable, though Dad told me I looked like a “drownded rat”!
There were four-wheel drive tracks along the rim of this basin, but we’re not sure where the tracks lead… they sure don’t go back the way we had come up! I’m trying to get my hands on some topo and geological maps of this region to figure that little mystery out.
We wound our way back down from the top of this promontory, where we had the best view (and oddly sandy walking, perhaps it arrived carried by the wind?) but also the most wind-driven rain, and found some shelter at the fork in the canyon near where we’d seen the little hikers in the distance. Dad posed with the most colorful combination of dark-green rock and bright-orange lichen we could find, and I got a closeup shot of the lichen.
As we made our way back down the canyon, we found that the rain slackened as we lost elevation. The sprinkling drizzle disappeared, leaving only a small trickle of water finding its way down the canyon to remind us to hurry back to camp. Side canyons contributed to the flow, but the trickle invariably disappeared into the gravel of the streambed, and as we hiked along, it would reappear again, fed by lower side canyons as they joined the main gulley. We were very glad that the rain was not heavier in any of the canyons connected to the one we were travelling in, as some of those narrowest parts of the canyon were tricky enough when damp, and would have been much worse to traverse had there been slightly more water flowing.
We made it back to the campground in one piece, and here’re the photos for Mom to prove it! Peanut butter and honey sandwiches while we waited for the water on the stove to boil.
We heated up the stove, changed into dry clothing, and enjoyed a chicken rice pilaf mix with canned chicken and corn thrown in. The wind was picking up, so we stuffed our gear in the car and headed home, taking the 15 from Barstow over Cajon Pass and into LA via the 210. Cajon Pass was gusty and cold, with blowing sleet and snow. There was a jack-knifed bigrig on the lanes going the other direction on the LA side of the summit, and we were glad to get down from that elevation as the sun broke through under the storm clouds as we got to the 210.
We stopped at REI on our way home since Dad now understands completely why I want a different tent. Dinner was at home; smoked sausages and sauerkraut from Schreiners while we sorted Dad’s gear and got him packed to head home. His plane left out of Burbank bright and too early Monday morning, and we got a first-hand look at that Southwest Airlines plane parked in the middle of Hollywood Way as well as the five news helicopters hovering humming like nosy dragonflies over the situation. His flight home was uneventful and I’m told that Mom and he had all of his laundry done 24 hours after his flight touched down. Wish I could say the same…