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...Destinations

Big Game Guzzler #26, Iron Mountains and Unnamed Spring

Tierra del Sol 4 Wheel Drive Club of San Diego Conservation Trip
Big Game Guzzler #26, Iron Mountains and Unnamed Spring, Granite Mountains
Desert Center, CA

It was early morning as I finished loading the last minute items into my Jeep Cherokee and headed to meet Dan and Chris for breakfast. After an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast, we headed for an extended weekend of desert exploration with three objectives: find and inspect Big Game Guzzler #26 (Lutz Big Game Guzzler) in the Iron Mountains, find and inspect an Unnamed Spring in the Granite Mountains and find an possible route for a club run in the Palen/McCoy Wilderness Area. The first two objectives were part of a Tierra del Sol 4 Wheel Drive Club conservation effort to assist the Society for the Conservation of Big Horn Sheep (SCBS).

From Santa Ysabel, we headed through Borrego Springs and on to Indio where we picked up I-10 heading east toward Desert Center, CA. Along the roadside, the Ocotillo stocks were covered with green leaves and fresh blooms were beginning to show. At Desert Center, we topped off our gas tanks and headed north on State Highway 177 for our first destination, a big game guzzler in the Iron Mountains. Although cryptic, the directions were adequate to guide us to the end of the graded road near the Iron Mountain Tunnel, part of the California Aqueduct bringing Colorado River water to Southern California. After airing down, disconnecting sway bars and leaving the graded road, travel became an adventure. While we did have GPS coordinates as a course direction guide, finding the route through the desert vegetation was a challenging task as the faint two wheel track traversed washes and detoured around bushes. We did find the cairn marking the point to cross the wash and head up the canyon; only we didn't cross the wash far enough; about 20 feet short. The GPS alerted us to the need of a slight course correction and we were once again on track for the illusive fire ring and the end of the road.

After driving as far a we could, we parked and prepared to travel the last section on foot. That is when the first of several mental notes were recorded in preparation for future desert trips: carry a spare water bottle. During the bouncing ride in, my insulated plastic water bottle that had accompanied me on many trips over the past ten years cracked, leaving a puddle of water on the floor of my Jeep. I still had plenty of water; no container to carry water in a backpack. Thankfully, Dan and Chris did have a plastic soda bottle in their ice chest that met the need. After double checking GPS coordinates and the topographical map, we set out for short hike to the guzzler. Water is very important to life in the desert. For desert wildlife, guzzlers provide a source of water. During the infrequent desert rains, runoff water is channelled into holding tanks. Water from the tanks flows into a small trough which provides a continuing source of water during the frequent dry periods.

From the main canyon, our destination was a mere three-quarters of a mile up a side canyon. Mental note number two is to remember that as lines on a topographical map get closer together, the elevation really does rapidly change. Once turning out of the main canyon, the side canyon became narrow and the route, marked with rock cairns, was over and around big boulders while following the water course. Since leaving the pavement, we had encountered numerous points that showed it has been a wet season in the desert. The dirt track was obliterated in many places where it crossed small water courses and the vegetation, while now dry, was abundant. During our hike, numerous small lizards and one Chuckawalla were spotted along with several ravens and a variety of other birds.

As our hike progressed, brief stops for rest became more frequent, the small canyon narrower, the sides steeper, and the boulders bigger. About a hundred yards short of our destination, the canyon turned to the right. Chris had just stopped to rest when she heard the clattering of rocks. The source of the noise was a large Desert Bighorn ram with about a three-quarter curl to his massive horns. We watched him while he watched us. Sanding still, his tan coat blended into the rocky hillside while his snow white rump looked out of place on the hillside. Just as quickly as he appeared, he turned and disappeared. We watched as he quickly moved up the steep, rocky hillside and over the ridge out of sight. We then turned our gaze to where he had come from and spotted the pale green tanks of the big game guzzler sitting high on the hillside above us. So close and yet still far away.

The last few hundred feet of climbing up the steep waterfalls produced mental note number three; next time, participate in a few preliminary hikes to improve physical conditioning! At this point, Dan opted to return to our vehicles with the excuse of finding out the baseball score. Over coming the last waterfall obstacle brought us within view of the complete guzzler which consisted of two large plastic tanks sitting on concrete pads and one small metal water trough. Nearby was an empty concrete pad that could hold an additional tank. The two tanks were connected by a pipe that extended to a waterfall about fifteen feet above. During periods of water accumulation, enough would come through the pipe system to fill the large plastic tanks. The water trough was fed by a pipe from the tanks. Close inspection showed the system to be in working condition. The pipe feeding the tanks was intact and appeared to be ready for the next storm to channel water into the tanks. There were several neatly stacked piles of rock held in place with wire mesh. The wire mesh showed no sign of deterioration nor deformation.

The trough contained a heavy layer of green algae and over a dozen bees lining the water edge. Using a short length of plastic tubing, I siphoned off the water and cleared the algae.

The number of bees rapidly increased and I began to wonder if I had encountered a group of the dreaded Killer Bees. I backed away and watched as the large swarm of bees began to disappear and showed no interest in me. I returned to the trough to finish the cleaning process and the number of bees again increased. After receiving two bee stings and noting that the activity was centered around the water and not me, I felt a sense of relief that these were most likely not Killer Bees.

Chris and I surveyed the transect areas. A Transect Area is a defined area covering the assumed approaches wildlife would use to the water source. Sheep in the transect areas would leave evidence, tacks and pellets, which is used to approximate use of the water source. Transect Area #1 which extended from the based of the waterfall above the tanks to the ledge dropping off to another level (Transect Area #2) contained a large bed of course sand. There were numerous tracks in the sand and about fifteen distinct pellet collections (more than 4-6 pellets within a six inch area) of pellets with numerous single pellets. The sandy area of Transect #2 also contained numerous tracks and about ten distinct pellet collections. While not a defined transect, the area above the tanks contained over two dozen distinct pellet collections along with numerous tracks. The one ram we had spotted appeared to come from Transect #2 heading in a westerly direction before turning (north) and heading uphill past the tanks and over the ridge. No pellets were observed below Transect #2. Having completed the trough cleaning and pellet count, I stashed the plastic tubing for future use and Chris and I began the descent. The first hundred yards of descent was just as tough going down as it was going up. The downhill rest stops were not as frequent.

We reached the main canyon floor and proceeded in the direction of the parked jeeps. We had just stepped out of the sandy wash when a rattling noise stopped us. In the dry grass less than four feet away was a rattlesnake. About half of its four foot long body was raised in an 'S' shape with the remainder straight behind and the end of its tail rapidly vibrating. While we stood unmoving, the snake quickly turned and moved off into the brush. We left in a different direction although we really needed to head in the direction the snake had moved. With no more excitement, we arrived at our vehicles where Dan greeted us with the news the Padre's had won the NLCS playoff game #3 that day.

We setup camp that evening at the fire ring and enjoyed the peaceful desert night around a campfire. As daylight turned to dusk, we watched bats in their erratic flight chasing insects. While sitting around the fire, we observed a very small mouse with a tail over twice as long as his body scurry around searching for bits of food.

The next morning, we broke camp and headed for our next objective, an unnamed spring in the Granite Mountains. After turning off of State Highway 177 in the Palen Valley, the old dirt track became difficult to follow for the first two hundred yards through a couple of turns before turning due east. Thankfully, it was a straight road that was easy to spot when lined up properly. While searching for the correct road, Dan and Chris found a dirt mound with rocks spelling out "Firing Center". Knowing that the area had been used as a training center during World War II, this aroused a curiosity that we decided to investigate on the way home with a brief stop at the Patton Museum at Chiriaco Summit. Now, it was time to find the Unnamed Spring.

We followed the old road straight east into the desert until it ended in a jumble of washes and piles of rock. At the end, we headed up the drainage toward some GPS waypoints I had plotted. The cryptic notes in my directions indicating "very rocky" was not adequate to prepare us for what we encountered. After about two hours, we had covered about a mile and a half; sometimes in the wash and sometimes out of the wash. It was slow travel over fields of rock and around piles of debris from flooding. Close to the foothills, we came to where the wash was one broad drainage and not numerous narrow rock and debris filled washes. From there, travel became much easier with occasional piles of debris to negotiate around. It was a scenic drive through a wash that varied in width from slightly wider than a vehicle to several yards. We finally reached a point where further progress was halted. According to the GPS, we were within a few hundred feet of our destination. Forward travel from here would be on foot.

We were at a junction of a two canyons. Looking ahead (eastward) was a small draw almost obscured by vegetation. To the right was a wide gravel bar about three feet above the main wash floor. That direction lead to a wide canyon. We set out on foot across the gravel bar in the direction of the canyon opening. The walls quickly closed in and within four hundred yards, we reached a rock ledge that extended from wall to wall and twenty feet high. There was a sandy depression at the base indicating that in time of plenty, water would stay in pools. On the right was enough slope allowing an easy climb to the next level. At the next level, the canyon continued for another three hundred yards, stopping again at another rock ledge that extended from side to side. This time, the walls were higher and there were no easy slopes to the next level. Within the space between the rock ledges, we found several concentrations of sheep pellets along with blurred tracks on the sandy wash floor. As noted the previous day, lizards were in abundance. Reaching the end, we returned to where we had parked. As we neared the parking spot, we spotted a rock cairn at the entrance to the narrow draw we had note earlier. Then, we realized this was the entrance to the unnamed spring.

We surveyed the narrow opening trying to find and easy path past the large Crown-of-Thorns bush that filled the opening. Using my walking stick, I reached to move the branches from the path on the right. Suddenly, the air was filed with the fluttering of wings. We watched as a large covey of quail took flight and lost count at over thirty birds. Again, I reached to push the branches aside when another flight of quail filled the air. Again, we lost count at over thirty birds. As I reached to move the branches for a third time, another flight of quail arose from the bushes. This time, we didn't bother to count the birds although there were as many as the other two. As the last of the quail disappeared above the canyon walls, we proceeded to crawl past the thorns. Within ten feet, the path opened and we spied a wooden structure that seemed out of place. Standing about four feet tall and covering about an eight

foot by four foot area was a wooden "deck" that provided shade for a small pool of water in the rock below. The pool of water was about six inches across and a couple of inches deep. There was a small amount of algae on the surrounding rock and no bees.

Just past the deck, the narrow draw went up one level and about twenty feet past, went up another level. Both upper levels were dry and no sign of sheep pellets or tracks were found. Several stacks of rocks were securely held in place with wire mesh. The wooden "deck" appeared in good condition. The support posts were anchored in concrete. Some of the nails were heavily rusted although none of the boards were loose.

With the inspection complete, we returned to our vehicles for lunch. We stretched a tarp between our jeeps to provide some shade from the mid-afternoon sun. While enjoying our lunch and the scenic beauty of the desert, we contemplated our next task; finding and easier way out!

Returning to the road was quicker than the trip in. We were able to stay in the drainage until the last three-quarters of a mile when the wash became a jumble of rock piles, debris, and narrow passages. Exiting the wash, we found ourselves in the field of boulders, soon to be left with no choice but return to the wash. By then, the road was in sight and the wash was passable. Out of the rock and on a smooth track, I noted a difficulty in steering which was due to one tire almost flat. A brief inspection revealed no visible puncture so air was added and we continued on our way to a road about three miles south that headed toward Palen Pass. As this was the desert, the only shortest distance between two point exists on the map. We travelled four and a half miles west to the main road before we could turn south to find the next road and head east again. By this now, time was becoming an important factor. Game Four of the NLCS series was starting and radio reception in the low laying Palen Valley was very poor. As we approached Palen Pass, radio reception improved and the shadows became longer. It was time to find a camping spot before darkness settled in.

The road over Palen Pass is a corridor between the Palen Wilderness Area to the north and the McCoy Wilderness Area to the south. Once over the pass summit, the land opened into a flat rocky plateau. We continued and crossed several small washes before reaching a broad sandy wash where we stopped for the night. While setting up camp we listened to the all important game as the outcome would set the stage for the last day of our trip. We had tickets to Game 5 and a Padre loss meant an early return to San Diego. Once the negative outcome of the game was evident, we finished supper and adjourned to a nice campfire in the middle of the wash. The last movement of water through left us with an ample supply of firewood.

We awoke the next morning to a cloudless sky and still air. All weekend, we had very cooperative weather. Mid-days were warm; however, evenings, nights and mornings were wonderful. The wonderful weather was not to be enjoyed when I saw my left front tire flat. After a quick tire change, we finished breakfast, packed and headed for home. While we had not completely traced a route for a club run, we knew we would be back for a more leisurely trek through this area. Now, it was time to head for San Diego and the big game.

Backtracking our route from the previous evening, we were treated to a very scenic display of geologic formations and color shades in the seemingly barren hillsides as the morning sun rose. Reaching the highway, we stopped to air up our tires and connect sway bars. Across the black top was a historical marker that reminded us of the find the previous day. The Palen Valley was part of the far flung Desert Training Center used during World War II. We were near the site of Camp CoxComb which was one of twelve camps throughout California, Arizona and Nevada used to prepare Army troops for combat in the deserts of North Africa. Additional information about the role of the California Desert during World Was II is available at the Patton Museum at Chiriaco Summit.

Where in the Hills is Cerro Gordo?

Where in the Hills is Cerro Gordo?

John Stewart

The souvenir T-shirt reads “Where in the Hills is Cerro Gordo?” Like many of the western ghost towns from the glory days of mining, Cerro Gordo is now a distant memory for many people. Originally settled in 1865 by Mexican prospectors, Cerro Gordo at one time boasted a population of more than 4,500 residents in the mining district, slightly more than the 1870 population of Los Angles.

So, just where in the hills IS Cerro Gordo? Several Tierra del Sol 4WD Club members found where it is and enjoyed every minute of the drive in and out. Cerro Gordo is located at the 8,500 foot level in the Inyo Mountains overlooking the Owens Valley. From Highway 395 about one mile south of Independence, CA, we turned on State Highway 136 and head for Keeler. We had spent the early day trekking through the White Mountains and opted for the quick ascent to Cerro Gordo and an evening campsite. After a brief stop to air down, we began the 7.5 mile trip up the steep and winding road to Cerro Gordo. The graded road followed the route once traveled by ore carts pulled by mule team.

Upon reaching the town site of Cerro Gordo, we were greeted by the caretaker and tour guide, Frank Purkart. Frank entertained us with delightful tales of Cerro Gordo’s past, including a description of the remnants of the original smelter and the history of the town buildings which include the 1871 American Hotel, a restored 1904 Bunkhouse and the 1868 Belshaw house which are currently used for overnight guests. Other buildings include a general store (now a museum), an assay office and numerous other structures. During its peak, the Cerro Gordo mining district produced over $17 million dollars worth of silver and in later years, the mine tailings yielded over $250,000 worth of zinc. The main mine consists of approximately 37 miles of tunnel spread over seven levels.

As it was getting late, we started on the trail north out of town toward Swansee, which follows the ridge of the Inyo Mountains. The short narrow, slightly off-camber trail soon gave way to a steep down slope which then turned into a long and steep climb. About four miles outside of town, we reached the remains of a long abandoned aerial tramway which had carried salt for 17 miles from the Saline Valley on the east to the Owens Valley on the west during the period of 1917 to 1930. Many of the tramway towers, buildings, and equipment remain. That was our campsite for the night. During evening supper, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains followed by a campfire and tales of past trips. While others opted for the protection of a tent, I spread my mummy bag on my cot under the stars. At 9,000 foot elevation, the night sky was clear and the bright stars and Milky Way were a spectacular sight.

The morning presented a constant dilemma. Was it to watch the sun rise in the east over the Saline Valley with the Panamint Mountains and Death Valley in the background or watch as the rising sun illuminated Mount Whitney and the Sierra Mountains to the west? A truly enjoyable background for breakfast. We reluctantly broke camp and began the decent to the Owens Valley floor and the little town of Swansee.

During the decent, we made a brief stop at the Burgess Mine. At slightly over 9,000 feet, the rustic cabin has provided shelter for many travelers. Notes scrawled on the walls told of a romantic honeymoon spent and the weary backpackers that found one season to hot an another season to cold. A crude furness made from a 55-gallon drum was ready to warn the cold traveler and tins of food were available to ensure no one was trapped without something to eat.

Again, this spot provided spectacular views of the Saline Valley and the Owens Valley with Mount Whitney in the background. From the Owens Valley floor, it is difficult to identify Mount Whitney as the tallest peak in the lower 48-states. From the vantage point of the Inyo Mountain ridge, the majestic height of over 14,000 foot Mount Whitney is clearly visible. Reluctantly, we left that beautiful vantage point and continued the downward trek. We still had about 6,000 feet down and 19 miles to go.

The trail down was at times idling along with towering canyon walls on either side. At several points, the trail dropped rapidly through the Pinion Pines and Juniper bushes. Definitely, 4-wheel drive and ample ground clearance were necessary. The downhill descent was easy. In places, an uphill ascent could be a challenge.

The Pinion Pines and Juniper soon yielded to sagebrush and grass while the temperature began a noticeable rise. About three and a half hours after leaving the Burgess Mine, we reached the town of Swansee. It was now time to air up and say goodbye to the mountain beauty. An extended July 4th weekend of wheeling in the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains was coming to and end. During the return trip to San Diego, the immortal words of General MacArthur came to mind: “I shall return.”

Willow Spring, Big Maria Mountains

Tierra del Sol 4 Wheel Drive Club of San Diego Conservation Trip
Willow Spring, Big Maria Mountains
Blyth, CA

It was early Friday afternoon as Dan and Chris and I headed to Blythe, CA to locate Willow Springs for the Society for the Conservation of Big Horn Sheep (SCBS). We spent Friday night at a good cheap hotel in East Blythe and after breakfast and double checking the GPS coordinates, headed north on Highway 95. About 17 miles north of town, we encountered the first of many obstacles. The directions and map provided by the SCBS noted a road off US 95. USGS topographic maps and the DeLorme California Road Atlas agreed that a road started at the same spot. Physically, that spot was a six foot high wall of dirt and rock and bore evidence of being a road at one time. Undeterred, we scouted for other highway exits. We found two additional exits about half a mile south of the now blocked route. Both roads were posted with the brown signs designating entry into a Limited Use BLM Land Management area indicating street-legal vehicles were allowed.

We followed a well used dirt road for about a mile before stopping to air down and disconnect sway bars. We proceeded to follow the road as the contour changed from low rolling mounds into a broad wash strewn with boulders. The road became difficult to follow as it wandered around bushes and through a flood plain. After a couple of backtracks to pickup the road, it soon became evident that the map, which located the road on the south side of the wash, did not correspond to reality. We found the road to be on a ridge almost a mile north of the wash. Following that road, we were able to reach the canyon floor via a well defined route. Once in the canyon, it became evident that vehicle travel would be restricted as the wash was covered with loose rock of all sizes and body or suspension damage was a sure possibility. By now, it was approaching noon and the heat was becoming noticeable. We parked in the shade of a canyon wall for lunch and preparation for the last one and a half mile section on foot.

We proceeded up the canyon trusting the GPS coordinates provided were correct. The rock along the wash was freshly polished by tumbling through rushing water. Several pockets of sand at the base of large rocks showed past signs of deep water pools. Very little vegetation grew in the now dry stream bed. The higher banks were covered with dry growth of desert wildflowers. As we neared the spring location, several spots were noted where a thick layer of green algae was drying in the sun and small amounts of moisture remained in the mud. At one pool, still containing some water, more than a dozen frogs were observed hopping around. About a hundred feet away, several large rocks loomed above the canyon floor. As we neared the rocks, the vegetation became more abundant, although dry.

At the base of the rocks was the remnants of a large pool of water covered with green algae.

The rock formation formed a crude corner, one side facing north and the other side facing east. Out of the corner, a small stream of water trickled down over algae covered rock. About 10-12 feet above the ground was a separation in the rock that contained another small pool of water. The main pool of water, when full, would have been about 2-3 feet deep before spilling into smaller pools downstream and covering a 15 (east-west) by 20 (north-south) foot area. The north bank of the pool rose up to a higher plateau while the east bank of the pool appeared as a dam. The base of the drying pool was sandy with vegetation growing near the outer rim of the high water mark. In the mud near the base of the rock, several sheep tracks could be seen. There were two and maybe three sets of prints, one of which was significantly smaller than the others.

Numerous birds were observed along with at least three different varieties of butterflies. The water that trickled down the rock was covered with a large number of bees. When we approached the spring, a covey of 10-15 quail took flight. Numerous lizards were observed along with several ground squirrels. The only other signs of wildlife were two instances of coyote scat. One interesting observation was a three-sided man-made structure of rock about 100 feet northeast of the rock base. About twenty feet from the rock structure, a hole about five feet in diameter and over six feet deep had been dug. The hole had been in existence for a long period as it sported a small creosote bush growing in the bottom.

Yes, the desert spring known ad Willow Springs did exist and functioned as a still used water hole. The GPS coordinates and the topographic map were accurate in the placement of the spring. The access road was a different story!

As the afternoon was becoming progressively warmer in the wind sheltered canyon, we returned to our parked vehicles to replenish our supply of water and find a suitable camping spot for the night. We followed the Slaughter Tree Wash toward the Colorado River where we found a wind shelter spot at the base of a huge Tamarisk tree.

As evening progressed, we enjoyed the sight of Barn Owls leaving their nest on hunting excursions and returning with their meals, all the while listening to the melodious songs of the other birds. The anticipated nights sleep was interrupted by the sounds of a small mammal foraging for food in the dry leaves under the Tamarisk tree. My sleep was disturbed when the sounds changed from rustling leaves to scratching on fabric. Opening my eyes, I saw two small paws tipped with claws, which I assumed to belonged to an opossum, banging on my tent. A quick yell sent the owner of the paws scurrying away.

Dawn was ushered in by the hooting of the owls and a rising chorus of bird songs. After breakfast, we returned to the road along Slaughter Tree Wash and followed it through the mountains to where it joined Midland Road as it appeared to be well traveled and bore signs of being a maintained road and the only signs noted defined the area as Limited Use. The road wound through the desert washes and furnished some beautiful scenic views before joining a pole-line road and ultimately connecting with Midland Road. An abundance of birds, grasshoppers, and other insects were the only signs of life. We paused to wander around a couple of old mining claims and noted evidence of several others on the hill sides across the valley.

We reached Midland Road and paused to air-up. A pickup passed accompanied by an obnoxious noise. We soon encountered vehicle and discovered the source o the obnoxious noise was the pending loss of a tire. The driver and his passenger left their disabled vehicle and were beginning a long walk into Blythe. They gratefully accepted a ride into town. We dropped our passengers at gas station. With some regrets at leaving the peaceful serenity of the desert, we turned onto Interstate 10 and headed home leaving the beautiful scenery behind and vowing to return.

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