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