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To the End of the World, and Beyond | Snow in JTNP #1

With the Pacific Northwest winter in full swing, both @mrs.turbodb and I were itching for warmer temperatures and a bit of sun as we planned our trip to the far southern reaches of California and Joshua Tree National Park.

I'd visited for my first time almost exactly a year earlier, and this would be an introductory visit for my companion, one I hoped she'd enjoy given the heavy emphasis on hiking - and the nearly-complete-lack-of-driving - that I had planned. Plus, with surroundings composed of rock wonderlands and sunny skies, I was reasonably confident that we'd be pleasantly entertained.

As our departure date neared, everything looked great - the low probability for a few showers seemed to dissipate, and daytime temperatures in the high 50s-to-low-60s °F seemed perfect for an active adventure.

Off to a bad start...

Unlike most trips where we leave the Pacific Northwest mid-morning on a Wednesday and arrive in Las Vegas right around lunch, we decided that we'd fly in out on Tuesday night so we could get a full day of hiking in on Wednesday. Our flight - from 10:00pm to 12:30am - meant that the usual folks wouldn't be around, but they'd assured me that they'd have the truck parked outside (as usual), and that the night security personnel would be happy to hand me the key upon our arrival.

Everything was going smoothly - not something to be taken for granted when flying on Spirit Airlines, mind you - until our Lyft dropped us off at the storage facility and we noticed that the Tacoma wasn't waiting in the usual location. Not only that, but the night watch - with less than two weeks experience - had no idea that we were expected, and had been given no instruction on what to do should a situation like this arise.

It would take 3 hours to unwind the fiasco, and we finally climbed into the Tacoma about the time we'd expected to arrive in Joshua Tree. Exhausted, we decided to open the tent and sleep in the parking lot, our plan for the following day in jeopardy, half our night's sleep lost to one of life's little mistakes.

Later that morning...

After three hours of sleep, we were up before the sun in an attempt to salvage as much of the day as we could. I knew this would be a challenge, but hoped that the three hours of driving between Las Vegas and the trailhead for our first hike, would give @mrs.turbodb a chance to catch up on some of the sleep we'd missed, while I steeled myself to push through on a few hours of shut-eye, as I used to do on a regular basis when we'd begin every winter trip with a long drive.

And so, after a quick fuel and provisioning at the local Albertsons, we headed south. Headed through terrain we'd recently traversed several times while completing the East Mojave Heritage Trail, a light rain began to fall as we gained elevation along the eastern escarpment of the Ivanpah Mountains.

By the time we reached Cima, we were in 4WD and moving at a much slower pace than we'd planned. And we were both hoping that the weather we'd encountered was not indicative of what we'd find at our destination!

We weren't expecting the white stuff on this trip to the sunny desert.

The Joshua Trees were looking celebratory with a white coat.

Eventually - as we neared the southern border of the Mojave Preserve - clouds gave way to sun, and once again it seemed as though we were in for the good weather we'd been expecting. With the road clear of the slippery slush, we picked up speed and had nearly arrived at our destination when we spotted it along the side of the road.

Flat earthers, eat your heart out! And please, ignore the reality that continues beyond.

Our desert art quota filled, we were soon on our way into the park, through the north entrance - the only paved entrance I'd not experienced on my first visit.

Having hoped to start our first hike at 7:00am - only a half-hour after sunrise - the early morning fiasco meant that it was noon when we finally pulled into the parking lot for our first hike. Knowing that it'd be impossible to cover the 11-miles of hiking that I'd planned for the day, we called an audible and headed to a hike we'd planned to do the second day - a seven-mile loop to the Lost Horse Mine.

Into the yonder.

Hoping that we'd avoid the crowds - or at least, people walking with us for extended distances - we set out in the opposite direction than the trailhead signage suggested was the "usual" clockwise route to experience the Lost Horse Mine, Valley, and Mountain summit. Turns out we're not that original, as we'd spend half - or more - of the hike within a few hundred feet of several groups of hikers, all of them moving at in the same direction and at approximately the same pace we were!

Still, by watching our pace, we were eventually able to space ourselves such that we were all out of earshot, and it was easy to get caught up in the surroundings, which were beautiful, if a bit on the chilly side.

All these funny looking trees; guess we're in the right place!

This was a great little Purple Prickly-pear Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia santa-rita) right beside the trail.

One of my favorite cacti in the Park, this Common Fishhook (Mammillaria tetrancistra Engelm.) always fascinates me with its intricate spines. (We didn't see any this time, but the blooms are beautiful.)

At approximately the apex of the loop, we rounded a bend in the trail as it meandered through the Lost Horse Mountains and caught sight of an old rock chimney, some scattered metal debris, and a couple of small waste rock piles. These, it turns out, were the ruins of Optimist Mine. Unfortunately, positive thoughts aren't generally the path to riches - you need actual gold for that - and the Optimist Mine was a bust.

All that remains of the old bunkhouse at the Optimist Mine.

We'd packed sandwiches and grapes before heading out, so after poking around the ruins, we made our way over to one of the waste rock piles in hopes of finding an adit to explore. Long collapsed - or perhaps always just a surface digging - only a small depression remained, but with a few boulders to sit on, we zipped up our windbreakers and hunkered down for a chilly lunch.

Mostly sunny skies might have meant that temperatures were somewhere in the 50s °F, but with 20mph winds gusting into the 30s, it felt much colder, and we didn't dally after devouring our meal. Anxious to get moving again, we soon found ourselves winding our way east, towards the increasingly stunning views of Pleasant Valley.

Even the clouds were looking fine as we got a peek into Pleasant Valley.

Don't be fooled, she was having a hard time maintaining her balance as the wind huffed and puffed at her back!

After soaking in the views, the loop headed north on the final approach to the Lost Horse Mountain summit - a small side spur - and our first glimpse of the Lost Horse Mine.

From the summit, we had a nice view of the granite wonderland we'd explore for much of the following day, near Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and the Wall Street Mill.

There you are!

Johnny Lang began development of the Lost Horst Mine began in 1894 when rich ore was hand cobbed from ore-shoots in the Lost Horse vein. A year earlier, he'd met up with a man named Frank “Dutch” Diebold, who'd who had discovered likely-looking gold-bearing quartz near Pinyon Mountain but he had been driven away from the site by a local gang of cattle rustlers, the McHaney Gang.

Lang offered Dutch $1,000 for his claim if it proved out, and began developing the property under the ever-present threat of being killed by the McHaney outlaws. To reduce the chances of being killed, official county records indicate that Lang took on three partners in December 1893 as rich outcroppings of gold were found, some of it large enough to be sold as specimen gold. The richest known specimen of gold found near the mine was picked up by Jim Fife. It was a mass of gold the size of a man’s fist; the grade of the ore estimated to run 4,000 oz per ton.

In the early stages of development, the high-grade milling ore was processed by a two-stamp mill at Pinyon Well. This soon proved to be unsuitable causing Lang and Fife to erect their own two-stamp mill at Lost Horse Spring. In 1897 the mine was patented, a new ten-stamp mill was installed at the mine and a five-mile water pipeline built to the site from Lost Horse Spring. Soon, Sampson and Tucker report the development of the mine to include an 80-foot tunnel driven on the Lost Horse vein, and a 500-foot shaft sunk on the vein with drifts at the 100, 200, 300, and 400 levels.

Over the next several years, more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver were pulled from the mountain. The booming of the ten 850-pound stamps could be heard echoing across the valley 24 hours a day as the ore was crushed before being amalgamated with Mercury in order to separate it from the waste material.

As the story goes, the day shift was producing an amalgam the size of a baseball while the night shift, supervised by Johnny Lang, recovered a mere golf ball. One of Lang's partners - Ryan - hired a detective to investigate and discovered that when Johnny removed the amalgam from the copper plates, he kept half for himself. Ryan gave Lang a choice: sell out or go to jail. Lang sold, then moved into a nearby canyon where he continued to prospect.

Gasoline power was substituted for steam in the 1920s, and the last work appears to have been done in 1936 when the Ryans - then leasing the site - removed the supporting pillars of ore from the upper levels of the mine, and treated approximately 600 tons of tailings with cyanide. Despite all of the work done in the 1930s, only a few hundred ounces of gold were recovered during the decade.

The Lost Horse Mine was acquired by the NPS from the Ryan descendants in 1966. The mine road was closed to vehicles, the mill restored as an interpretative exhibit, the head frame taken down for safety, and the mine shaft sealed by a concrete slab.

Geology and History of Mines of Joshua Tree National Parkand Lost Horse Mine

An old winch that once pulled ore from the shaft at the Lost Horse Mine.

The 10-stamp mill installed in 1897.

The steering for an old mine truck slowly rusting away in the wash below the mill.

By the time we finished poking around the old mine site, it was a few minutes after 2:00pm. The winds were picking up and running on only a few hours of sleep, we were tired after covering the first 4.5 miles of the loop. Luckily, it was downhill from here, and we resolved to take a quick nap in the warmth of the cab upon our return!

Just a couple more miles to a nice warm nap.

Back near the trailhead, we were back in the familiar scenery the defines this National Park.

After finding a place to park that was in - but not facing - the sun, it took mere minutes for each of us to nod off. With the cab acting as a cocoon, the warmth was welcomed by our weary bodies, and by the time we awoke, we were in much higher spirits. A perfect time to explore the Hall of Horrors!

The clouds added a dramatic flair.

A cluster of rocks favored by climbers, except for the name and a reference I'd found online to a slot, we didn't know much about the Hall of Horrors - not even which of the dozens of paths we should follow to see whatever the main attraction might be.

The clouds to the west weren't looking promising from a "no-precipitation-in-the-forecast" perspective.

Somehow - which I'll attribute to sheer luck - we stumbled on the Hall reasonably quickly as we wandered around the cluster of granite. Filled with water from rains earlier in the week, we weren't going to be wandering our way through, but we did watch a more prepared couple - each of them wearing Muck boots - as they sloshed and squeezed their bodies between the boulder walls.

Not too Horror-ible of a squeeze, really.

As we made our way back to the Tacoma, the sun was racing toward the horizon and the view to the east was starting to cloud up as well!

We still had 45 minutes of light - probably enough for a final quick hike to Barker Dam or one of the dozens of popular rocks along Park Blvd, but we were both tired and ready to be done so we beelined our way to the Jumbo Rocks campground. To say that we're not big fans of camping in a campground is an understatement, so I'd booked what I hoped was the most private site - away from the main loop - so we wouldn't be disturbed once we settled down to sleep.

Before we could do that, however, there was one last thing I wanted to do. In my pre-trip planning, I'd found a nearby rock-and-tree formation that caught my eye, so we wandered amongst the rocks, hoping to catch the pair just as the sun broke below the clouds and settled along the horizon.

I think my favorite is this shot with just a light glow.

Playing with scale. Penguin Rock and the Bowing Tree from a couple more angles.

In the end, there wasn't much light to be had and with temps quickly plummeting into the 30s °F, and winds that only seemed to be increasing, we were both ready to pull on our new electric socks before eating a quick hot dog dinner. Then - and most importantly - we could and snuggle down under our comforters - our earplugs inserted to dull the thwapping of the tent all around us - and drift off to the first real sleep we'd had in 48 hours!

Not really, but the rest will have to wait for the next installment!




The Whole Story



  1. sk
    sk March 14, 2024

    did you make it to indian cove? gorgeous area and popular with the climbers. plus the sierra club and other do a lot of hikes up to Peak 4377

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 14, 2024

      We did not - we were always in the central-to-south portions of the park on this trip. We did drive past Indian Cove on our way home and it looked intriguing, so we'll need to check it out on a future visit! 👍

  2. Jay Stern
    Jay Stern March 14, 2024

    Some really great images. And, while at the time it may not have been ideal, what a great treat to see the desert in snow. The contrast is pretty special from my perspective! All that being said, it does look awful cold on this trip! 😉

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 14, 2024

      Thanks Jay, glad you enjoyed the photos! Snow in the desert is always great for a unique perspective. I really only made a big deal of it because the last time I visited Joshua Tree (almost exactly a year earlier), it was also quite cold. With 65+ mph winds and snow overnight, it was one of the most unpleasant nights I've spent on an adventure!

  3. David Fitzgerald
    David Fitzgerald March 15, 2024

    Love your travel choices! the desert is so much different than the PNW, In the past few years I have become fascinated with DV and Joshua.
    Safe travels!

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 15, 2024

      Thanks David! Curious if you've found any really great spots in JTNP? By really great, I mean remote (5+ miles?) hikes to locations that are off the beaten path.

  4. Larry
    Larry March 15, 2024

    Another great trip; thanks for giving us memories of the desert up here in the PNW

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 15, 2024

      Glad you enjoyed it Larry! There are a couple more days to come on this one, and we found some really cool stuff along the way!

    JOHN D MORAN March 15, 2024

    I hate it when a plan doesn't come together! LOL. Have had plenty of them but somethings just happen. I always allow some extra time because you never know when someone is going to screw up or the weather changes unexpectedly. I can only remember one High Sierra backpacking trip when we got skunked. Went over Kearsarge Pass and suddenly a huge storm blew in and it was clear that it was staying so we made the decision to pack out the same night. It was the best decision because the late spring storm raged for a week dumping huge snow and we would have been trapped. In any case, your Joshua Tree trip is beautiful and the narrative is great. We've avoided JTNP because of the huge crowds (like Yosemite) but, hopefully, this spring we'll get to Anza-Borrego. Thanks again for sharing.

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 15, 2024

      Thanks John! The crowds at JTNP are definitely "some of the worst" we've encountered, though I bet they aren't that bad compared to places we don't even consider venturing - Yosemite, Zion, etc. As with everywhere though, it seems like as soon as you get into the 5+ mile-long hikes, you've got the whole place to yourself, so we just made sure that every one of our excursions was of that variant!

      Anza should be great this time of year. I've heard there's a really nice bloom going on right now!

  6. Jim
    Jim March 15, 2024

    Nice! UJ

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