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.