I spent New Year’s Eve at Slab City, near the Salton Sea in southeast California and took a roundabout return trip northward through parts of the desert I’d never explored. I wanted to focus on landscape photography, so tried to plan to be somewhere pretty or dramatic in the morning and evening of each day. I was also keeping an eye out for nice timelapse locations.
Just north of the Salton Sea, squished between the town of Mecca and Interstate 10, are two little wilderness areas: Orocopia Mountains Wilderness and Mecca Hills Wilderness. En route to Mecca Hills Wilderness after a late Slab City departure, I stopped to do some aerial photography while the light was nice (will post soon), then raced up the road through Painted Canyon for a few still photos in the fading light.
click photos to enlarge
Painted Canyon road ends at the Ladder Canyon trailhead. The last hikers were straggling back to their cars when I pulled up, dark having almost completely set in by then. With no idea what might lie ahead and without any sort of plan, I set out up the narrow, sandy canyon in the crescent moonlight. A couple of short headwalls had aluminum ladders to aid the ascent to easier terrain above. I continued at a leisurely pace, by moonlight, for a couple miles till the watercourse climbed out of the confines of the canyon and became a wide wash through open country. After a brief stargaze, I turned back down the canyon.
Exploring a new canyon by moonlight never feels like a round trip, but like one continuous hike that is constantly changing.
About 15 minutes up from the trailhead the canyon narrows markedly, with a sandy alcove below a steep pour-off. This is where the first ladder is. When I got there on my way down, the moon threw a lovely glow on the opposite cliff face, with Orion framed perfectly by the canyon walls.
I set out at a run to the truck, but by the time I returned with my camera and tripod to set up for a timelapse, the moon’s intensity had faded. Still, it was worth a try. I set the intervalometer and hiked back to the truck for some food and warmer clothes.
Returning to retrieve the camera, I noticed a small “trail” sign I’d missed previously, pointing left toward a boulder-choked side canyon. Scouting, I found a trail through the rocks that ended abruptly at a small, vertical-walled amphitheater with a ladder to the top. Above that was the cutest little slot canyon ever, at times so narrow a yardstick wouldn’t have fit crossways. It slithered its way up through the conglomerate walls, gradually widening and flattening out until it became a gully with a trail up to the ridge and a view of the Coachella Valley lights.
By the light of my headlamp, I managed a couple of phone camera shots. What a delightful thing to find on a random hike up an unknown canyon at the end of a road I’d never heard of before.
Wide awake from too much coffee too late in the day, I packed up the camera gear and drove to Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park and set up another timelapse, the lights of Coachella Valley blasting the clouds with their yellow sodium glare. It was windy, well below freezing and quite late, so I left the camera running and crawled into my sleeping bag in the back of the truck. I’ll post the timelapse when I process it, but here’s a still image from that sequence.
Next morning, I bought a National Park pass for the year on my way out. While Joshua Tree is an awesome place, I’ve been going there regularly for over 30 years and this trip was more about exploring new places. Besides, it was freezing! In the town of Joshua Tree, I did laundry, took a shower, gassed the truck, got more food and bottled coffee and headed out Amboy Road, between 29 Palms and Amboy, a route I’d never taken and also the shortest way to the Mojave Desert Preserve.
Almost to Amboy the road crosses the Bristol Dry Lake bed where, according to a big sign, the National Chloride Company mines sodium chloride and potassium chloride. From what I gather, the salt layer is a few feet down, so the overburden is left in heaps alongside long trenches that fill with briny water. The salt is mined once the water evaporates.
My curiosity piqued by the long windrows of overburden marching across the lake bed like a small industrial mountain range, I pulled over and slogged through the saline mud to snap a few photos.
Amboy Road hits old Route 66 at Amboy. Turning east, you pass the big Roy’s Motel and Cafe sign. I’m assuming it’s famous, since it seemed like every other car stopped so occupants could hop out to snap selfies. It would be amusing to stay there for a few days sometime, just to see what goes on in Amboy.
Just up the road to the east, if you’re not texting at the wheel, you’ll see two of these:
They are Chinese guardian lions, also known in the West as “foo dogs.” The statues are solid marble, seven or so feet tall (well over my head) and sit there with no commemorative plaques, interpretive signs, protective guardrails or “keep off” warnings…just…there, hard marble eyes staring down the harsh Mojave Desert sun, wind, heat and cold. A mystery. And, from the log book tucked between the legs of the one I investigated, that might be the point. To get people out of their cars, to stop, walk, experience the desert and mystery, to provoke delight, curiosity or wonder.
Inside an unzipped plastic pouch was a log book, soggy from the recent rains, along with laminated, typed up entries from previous log books. Next trip, with more time to linger and read, I’ll stop at both statues and maybe leave my own note.