Winter, Saline Valley.

Dried-mud polygons in a high basin. We found worked obsidian chips alongside the dry lake.

Dried-mud polygons in a high basin. We found worked obsidian chips on a small rise above the dry lake.

Mike and I started off 2015 with a 3-day walk in Saline Valley, located near Bishop between Owens Valley and Death Valley. You can get into Saline Valley from the north or south via the rough and often washed-out Saline Valley Road. We were able to drive the intrepid Subaru in from the north, with only a few icy sections to negotiate.

Saline Valley is part of Death Valley National Park, the largest National Park in the Lower 48. The valley floor boasts warm springs and a somewhat-perennial hippie colony, where rumor has it that the word “wind” is forbidden; a marshy salt lake; and sand dunes nestled between the towering 10,000-foot escarpment of the Inyo Mountains to the west and the Saline Range to the east. Unless you are in the deep canyons of the Inyos, where water flows, the only water you have in the Saline Range is what you carry with you.

Remnants of a snake. We also found a frozen tarantula higher up-canyon.  We did not see or hear any wildlife until we were almost back in the bottom of the valley—winter had sent most creatures underground or to lower elevations.

Remnants of a snake. We also found a frozen tarantula higher up-canyon. We did not see or hear any wildlife until we were almost back in the bottom of the valley—winter had sent most creatures underground or to lower elevations.

People sometimes ask why we walk around out here. Despite sometimes heavy packs, we enjoy these remote and untraveled routes because there is always something to see: Animal tracks or giant, ancient logs in a wash. Jumbles of geology, where basalt, granite, limestone, and other rocks sit side by side. Carpets of wildflowers after a rain. Evidence of past, violent volcanic or hydraulic action. Obsidian pieces and rock art left by long-ago nomads.

And always the chance to sleep in the open, full of dinner after a day of walking, under the stars amid the absolute silence of a mostly empty valley, and with the next-day’s promise of sitting in a warm sleeping bag with hot coffee, watching the sun rise.

Easing into Day 1 with heavy packs and thankfully mellow terrain.

Easing into Day 1 with heavy packs and thankfully mellow terrain.

Finding an easy way down into the wash on Day 1, with heavy packs. We planned 1 gallon of water per person, per day - so we started with 24 lbs. of water each, plus other gear.

Finding a way down into the wash on Day 1. We planned 1 gallon of water per person, per day – so we started with 24 lbs. of water each, plus food and other gear, which added up to 50+ pounds each.

Faint remnant of an old trail where Waucoba Wash narrowed at the base of a ridge,

Faint remnant of an old trail where Waucoba Wash narrowed at the base of a ridge.

Waiting for dinner in our cozy 2-person down sleeping bag.

Waiting for dinner in our cozy 2-person down sleeping bag.

Chilly morning pack-up, as sun hits the Inyos across the valley. We had daylight enough to walk from 8am to 4pm, or longer if we wanted to pull out headlamps. The moon was almost full, so nights were bright.

Chilly morning pack-up, as sun hits the Inyos across the valley. We had daylight enough to walk from 8am to 4pm, or longer if we wanted to pull out headlamps. The moon was almost full, so nights were bright.

Petroglyphs in a tiny canyon that drained a small lake basin. Always someone was here first.

Petroglyphs in a tiny canyon that drained a small lake basin. Always someone was here first.

We passed a variety of rock formations that probably had origin in past volcanic activity.

We passed a variety of rock formations that probably had origin in past volcanic activity.

Sunny afternoon wash-cruising beneath the towering wall of the Inyo Mountains. Miners once built a tramway to haul salt from the now-dry lake up and over these mountains and into the Owens Valley for transport. Some of the tram towers are still standing.

Sunny afternoon wash-cruising beneath the towering 10,000-foot wall of the Inyo Mountains. Miners once built a tramway to haul salt from the lake up and over these mountains and into the Owens Valley for transport. Some of the tram towers are still standing.

Volcanic-rubble layer cake in a large wash.

Volcanic-rubble layer cake in a large wash.

Cross-country over a moonscape of volcanic rocks.

Cross-country over a moonscape of lava rocks.

Overlooking what would be our campsite, on the flatter, sandier ground below.

Overlooking what would be our last campsite, on the flatter, sandier ground below. The Saline Valley Road travels along the foot of the mountains across the valley.

We discovered the "Saline Valley Tetons" in the middle of the bottom of the valley. These were the largest boulders around.

We discovered the “Saline Valley Tetons” in the bottom of the valley. These were the largest boulders around. How did they get here?

Ten-foot log of unknown age and origin in Waucoba Wash, several miles from the mountain forests on the sides of the valley.

Ten-foot log of unknown age and origin in Waucoba Wash, several miles from the mountain forests on the sides of the valley.

Christmas Cheer in the Mojave: Granite Mountains Walk

Mike plots our route into the Granites on a chilly but sunny winter afternoon.

Mike plots our route into the Granites on a chilly but sunny winter afternoon.

After Christmas we spent a day exploring part of the Granite Mountains in Mojave National Preserve.

The range lies within a transition zone—between the Colorado (Sonoran) Desert to the south, the Great Basin Desert to the north, the Colorado Plateau to the east, and the western Mojave Desert—so there is a wide variety of flora and fauna here. Part of the range is also home to the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, an ecological study area managed by the University of California.

We made the most of a short winter day exploring an area on the northeastern end of the range. There is clearly a lot more to do here.

We followed low ridges up into the mountains, with Kelso Dunes behind.

We followed low ridges up into the mountains, with Kelso Dunes behind.

An old, faint trail led along the ridge up into the mountains.

An old, faint trail led along the ridge up into the mountains.

Old cairn, possibly left by a prospector. The Granites saw some prospecting activity, but the area was never heavily mined.

Old cairn, possibly left by a prospector. The Granites saw some prospecting activity, but the area was never heavily mined.

Perennial water in Bighorn Basin makes for thick brush in places, including cottonwood, catclaw acacia, baccharis, grasses, and other shrubs.

Perennial water in Bighorn Basin makes for thick brush in places, including willow, catclaw acacia, baccharis, and other shrubs.

Coffee, cactus and pie break, Bighorn Basin.

Coffee, cactus and pie break, Bighorn Basin.

Cresting a ridge of the Granites before dropping off to the east.

Cresting a ridge of the Granites before dropping off to the east.

We found this small, water-washed gorge at the base of the Granites.

We found this small, water-washed gorge at the base of the Granites.

Less than 100 feet long and just 10 feet wide, the gorge was an unexpected find.

Less than 100 feet long and just 10 feet wide, the gorge was an unexpected find.

Happy to have winter layers as alpenglow hits the Providence Mountains to the north, signaling the end of a beautiful winter day.

Happy to have winter layers as alpenglow hits the Providence Mountains to the northeast, signaling the end of a beautiful winter day.

 

Chips off the old block: Coso Petroglyph Tour

Coso Range, CA

Coso Range. (click for larger version)

Little Petroglyph Canyon represents one of the most outstanding and best preserved displays of Native American rock art in the country. This area, located in the Coso Range west of Death Valley, has been occupied for millennia by Native Americans; current groups are of Paiute-Shoshone descent.

Paiute-Shoshone peoples have been in this area at least 600–800 years, practicing a hunter-gatherer lifeway. They would seasonally move to harvest resources by a carefully planned schedule that required constant monitoring of potential resource areas as well as knowledge of which resources were useful. (source: Maturango Museum)

Atomic age petroglyph. Since it's now more than 50 years old, it's generally considered historic.

Atomic Age petroglyph. Since it’s now more than 50 years old, it’s generally considered historic.

Pre-tour activities (I am not making this up)

The US Navy assumed management of the area in 1943, and the site lies within the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake. The Navy’s presence has helped ensure the excellent preservation of the petroglyphs as we see them today, but has added some interesting complications to visiting the site.

Tours are organized by tireless volunteers at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA. After reserving our spots well in advance and filling out mountains of Navy-required forms, we received a fairly lengthy briefing.

Dried water tank for wandering animals. This canyon appeared to have plenty of water.

Dried water tank for wandering animals willing to dig for it. This canyon appeared to have plenty of water.

During this briefing our vehicles were searched and we were warned about the following, including but not limited to:

  • rattlesnakes,
  • the heat,
  • not missing the turnoff,
  • drinking enough water but not peeing in the canyon,
  • not stowing 60mm mortar shells under your front seat (this happened last year),
  • herds of tarantulas migrating across the desert (yes, really),
  • mustangs, burros, and sundry wildlife,
  • tripping on things,
  • not climbing on boulders to get closer to the art,
  • not driving faster than the speed limit,
  • flat tires and horrendously expensive helo rescues with the potential of one’s car ending up as a bombing target,
  • not touching the art, and
  • the possible existence of unexploded ordnance from mistakes made during bombing runs.
Wee foot.

Wee foot.

Finally, escorted by guides, our group of about 20 people drove 40 miles up through healthy groves of Joshua Trees to the 5000′ plateau at the head of the gently sloping canyon. We walked down-canyon about 2 miles, turning back at a 75-foot dry waterfall.

This petroglyph site is one of more than 400 documented in the area. Here is a tiny fraction of the staggering amount of rock art we found in this canyon.

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There is no agreement about who actually created the rock art in Little Petroglyph Canyon, and the art is almost impossible to exactly date.

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Significance and interpretation of the art have been the subject of much speculation.

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The canyon started as a sandy wash whose walls gradually closed in. In this canyon alone, there are thousands of petroglyphs chipped into the volcanic basalt, as well as a few pictographs (paintings on rock).

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Hunting was done with atlatls (upper left) and bow-and-arrow, which is also depicted on other panels.

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There were many images of sheep, and some of deer.

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It appears fairly clear what is going on here!

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There were many images of elaborately decorated people, which are thought to be shamans.

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Shaman, or bad hair day?

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Many rocks had “layers” of older art with newer art chipped on top.

It is unlikely we will ever fully understand the complex cognitive world of these people, whose culture was so unlike our own. 

“It is unlikely we will ever fully understand the complex cognitive world of these people, whose culture was so unlike our own.” (source: Maturango Museum)