Quail Mountain, Chuckwalla Mountains, Spirit Mountain
By: Debbie Bulger
While the coast was inundated with pouring rain, Richard Stover, Jackie Stroud, and I spent a dry Christmas week photographing Joshua trees, watching birds and climbing peaks. After warming up with a hike beside flowing water in delightful Pipes Canyon, we set off to climb Quail Mountain, the highpoint of Joshua Tree National Park. Hiking 13 miles round trip and climbing 2,400 feet didn't leave time to stop and explore the remains of an old-time miner's cabin. So we'll just have to return.
We chose to approach Quail from the Quail Springs Picnic Area although several other routes (all about the same length) are possible. To our surprise, the bobbing heads of early-blooming Mohave aster greeted us as we ascended. A fierce wind blew most of the day. We returned down a fun wash with 5-10 foot dry waterfalls.
We camped for three nights in J-Tree's Black Canyon Campground and were delighted by visits from Gambrel's quail and a bold cactus wren. At night we were serenaded by coyotes and owls despite the campground's location in the suburbs. On the last day we hiked up easy Warren Peak from our campsite and then drove to the BLM Corn Springs Campground just west of the park.
Our plan was to climb Chuckwalla. We had unsuccessfully attempted this peak, (often used as a list finisher by the DPS) last year. Although Chuckwalla has a reputation for being easy, we were forced to bail last year, got caught in a flash flood and ended up running over our camp stove which we abandoned by the side of the road as it was leaking gas. We were seeking atonement by returning to the scene of the crime to pick up our litter and of course, bag this peak. The camp stove was gone. Perhaps highway workers or maybe a thrifty camper had picked it up.
The peak was still there, however, and we started up the traditional DPS route. After leaving the canyon, as I was scrambling up the ridge on loose rock, I slipped, and my hand fell into a welcoming cholla looking for someone to assist it with reproduction. The clumps of spines made my hand look like a porcupine. "Get two sticks," I shouted to Richard, after I stopped screaming.
I'm sure it hurt Richard more than it hurt me. He does not enjoy inflicting pain. As he pulled out each cholla joint (numerous clumps on my right hand and one clinging to my butt), I screamed. Finally I decided to climb up to where Jackie was listening and have her continue the de-stickering with tweezers.
Jackie complied, but Richard remained behind. He had decided the ridge was too exposed for his comfort. This bit of easy third class was a surprise since most descriptions of Chuckwalla describe it as first or second class. My DPS directions read, "Follow the wash ... to the summit ridge, turn right for a short walk to the top." Were we off route, or do most climbers consider the narrow ridge a "walk"?
On the summit Jackie and I had another shock. There was the roar of a plane and a loud noise. Smoke rose from the southwest a short distance away. Although the map indicated an "aerial gunnery range," I was not prepared to be bombed! After requisite photo taking and register signing, we rejoined Richard and returned to the truck. Jackie left to return to Joshua Tree, and Richard and I headed for a motel in Blythe to soak my hand.
We spent the next day leisurely driving to Christmas Tree Pass. We stopped to watch birds along the Colorado River, saw golden eagles, an American kestrel, a roadrunner. But our biggest surprise was Oatman, Arizona. This little settlement has discovered how to attract tourists. The mines are no longer viable, there is no industry. But they have an abundance of burros. There are burros in the street, burros on the wooden sidewalks, burros sticking their noses into car windows and back pockets. Mama burros, grandpa burros, fuzzy little babies. The vendors sell carrots, and t-shirts and whirligigs. We bought a whirligig. Most weird was the uniquely American entertainment: two guys pretending to shoot each other in the street.
On to stupendous Spirit Mountain. After some initial confusion about which faint dirt road was the trailhead (there are many and all are now staked as wilderness), we set off. There is a parade of ducks leading to the summit from the main wash. Normally, I hate ducks, but this time I was glad to have them as we threaded our way among barrel cacti. Although the distance is only about 1.5 miles as the crow flies, the switchbacking and route finding make it longer. We took about 3 hours to make the summit.
But where was the summit? As the ducks petered out there were several third class gendarmes. I climbed one and spotted the summit littered with the remains of an old survey marker. But how to get there? We descended a bit and then crossed over a 10-foot-high third class rib to reach a clear path to the summit where we had good views of the Colorado River.
For the remainder of our trip we explored the Mojave National Preserve. The beautifully-restored Kelso Depot is now open and is well worth visiting. We wandered many sandy 4WD roads stopping frequently to see Northern Shrike, Harris Antelope squirrel (including a baby squirrel) and blooming desert verbena. We spied on cottontails, black-tailed hares, coyote, lots of red-tailed hawks, white crowned sparrows and more.
We quietly celebrated New Year's Eve Greenland time at Hole in the Wall Campground.
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