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Wonderland in White | Snow in JTNP #2

Having climbed into the tent by 7:30pm, exhausted after nearly two days without sleep, we fell asleep quickly despite the tent flapping wildly in the wind, the entire thing swaying - as I imagine a train car might - with each gust. Still, with warm feet and ear plugs, everything was dandy until just after midnight when I heard the pitter-patter of rain.

Or was it?

Rain, it turns out, isn't so bad as long as it stops early enough in the morning that the rain fly can dry out by the time we need to put the tent away. So, realizing that we had six more hours of sleep and winds that could dry the tent in a matter of minutes, I snuggled down into the comforter and smiled my way back to sleep.

Well then, I guess it wasn't just windy out; it was cold too!

It was @mrs.turbodb who noticed that the rain fly was pressing down on the top of the tent when our alarm went off in the morning, and I chuckled out loud when I unzipped the door to a blanket of white covering the ground. Talk about Deja Vu. Luckily, this time we weren't huddled in the cab trying to stay warm all night, but we were definitely going to pay for it with a tent covered in frozen rain and snow.

While @mrs.turbodb set about her morning routine and made breakfast, I wandered to The Penguin and Bowing Tree to see how it'd fared overnight.

The sun hit the tent just as we were wrapping up our cereal, but temps in the mid-20s °F mean that there melt-and-dry time was going to take hours rather than minutes, so I braced my fingers for freezing and stowed the tent for a short ride to our first trailhead. There, I redeployed, hoping that sunny skies would prevail, and that by the time we were ready to go, everything would be dry.

This Ladder-backed woodpecker was soaking in the sun just like we were.  (Picoides scalaris)

Luckily for us, our first two hikes could be accessed - with an extra mile of footwork - from a single parking lot, so with the tent squared away, and the solar panels charging our socks, we headed for the shorter of the two loops - Barker Dam.

In the morning sun, it didn't take long for the granite to shed its white coat.

We decided to hike the loop in the opposite direction than I'd done on my first visit, and soon we were wandering by a jumble of rocks with a couple petroglyphs that I can only imagine were added in the last 20 years or so.

Hello, ladies.

The second set of petroglyphs we came to were old - likely Serrano in origin - but had been irrevocably defaced when, in 1960, a film crew - contracted by Disney to produce a TV episode entitled "Walt Disney Presents: Chico the Misunderstood Coyote" - painted over the original faint petroglyphs in order to make them more visible on camera.

I can only imagine sitting at this window as a kid, chipping away at the granite as part of my "homework."

It was about this time that the first snow flurry blew through. It was a quick event - lasting no more than about five minutes - but nearly sent us packing to the Tacoma in order to put away the tent and ride out the storm in the cab.

So much for the weather forecast. This is definitely not 60°F and sunny.

Luckily, we pushed on, because a few minutes later, it was as though the sun had never stopped shining.

A few flakes were still falling - carried in on a swift breeze - as we neared Barker Dam.

In the early 1900s, ranchers, needing water for their stock, searched for ways to supplement natural water sources. They dug wells, improved springs, and expanded natural catch basins in drainages of canyons and rock formations by building small dams.

This area began as a natural tank, a catch basin for rainfall and runoff. It was expanded into a dam by the Barker & Shay Cattle Company, and later enlarged by Bill Keys, owner of the Desert Queen Ranch. At its maximum it encompasses about 20 acres. A pipeline once carried water to the cattle trough in the wash below the dam.

Despite the rains of the previous week, there was no water behind the dam.

Cattle ranching was a short-lived effort in this area. When the rainfall decreased in the early part of this century, grasses declined and many springs dried up. Cattle raising gradually moved farther west to greener pastures.

NPS sign

My understanding is that Barker Dam is one of the more popular hikes in the park, but just as had happened on my first visit - perhaps due to the ambient temperatures on both occasions - we nearly had the loop to ourselves as we headed back towards the parking lot.

Glancing over our shoulder on a regular basis, we kept a keen eye on the next wave of approaching weather.

It'd taken us less than two hours from climbing out of bed to wrapping up our first loop. A combination of the early hour and blustery conditions - that would keep sane people confined to their RVs - we were unsurprised to find the parking lot exactly as full as it'd been when we pulled in: one vehicle, including the Tacoma.

Somehow - and to my relief, since I knew that we'd probably have to scratch our plans if the white stuff kept falling - the next wave of snow avoided us completely. A northerly wind blowing it to the south, bright blue skies prevailed overhead. Still, cool conditions meant that the tent was far from dry, and I set about reorienting the truck while our personal chef assembled some more turkey sandwiches and grapes for our next outing.

Off we go, through the Josuha Tree gate!

Our first stop was at the Wonderland Ranch, where - luckily - I realized that my camera battery was nearly dead, and we were able to retrieve a second one without retracing too many of our steps.

Whether you call it the Ohlson House, the Wonderland Ranch or Uncle Willie's Health Food Store, the pink ruins near the Wall Street Mill were apparently owned for some span of time by the Ohlson family.

When they arrived and left is unknown, but photos of the property in 1975 show that it was intact with a complete roof. Perhaps it caught fire at some point and when the dust settled, these ruins were all that were left standing. Records list one "Signe Ohlson," who died - in the town of Joshua Tree - at the age of 100 in 1986. Did they had some connection with the Ohlson property, perhaps being the last resident of the house before it burned down?

Pink walls, not your usual desert decoration.

It's easy to see why the place is referred to as the Ohlson House. And Wonderland Ranch kind of makes sense, being right on the edge of the Wonderland of Rocks. But who came up with the name, "Uncle Willie's Health Food Store?" My guess ...rock climbers. They like to name everything.


Nestled into the wonderland of rocks.

From the Wonderland Ranch, our four-mile loop continued north. Into the wonderland of rocks, this was one of the hikes I'd been most looking forward to, as I hoped it'd be less crowded and more lightly visited than many of the Park's trails - we were headed to the Red Obelisk.

Almost immediately, the scenery delivered.

Wandering up the wash.

A small rock dam held back a whopping zero gallons of water.

We continued on for a little more than a mile up the wash. This was the wettest of any hiking we'd do on this trip, a constantly flowing stream forcing one of us - the one not smart enough to wear his hiking boots - to step carefully in order to maintain dry feet. Along the way we regularly deviated from the imaginary path, a rock here or a boulder there vying for our attention.

Eel rock is hungry for some ...rock.

A cresting wave, frozen in time.

And then, as we turned the corner from one canyon to another, our destination - if there could be only one - was obvious. It was red, and it was an obelisk. Our only question now was whether we would have it to ourselves while we ate lunch or would have to share this slender monument with others.

First sight.

A clearer view.

Sure enough, we had the run of the place - the only two other hikers we'd seen - barely, they passed us as though we were standing still - apparently headed to some other bouldering destination that was even more betterer™ than this one. Not that there was any shortage of betterer places, thank goodness.

Who needs ropes? When you're my age, a fall doesn't hurt for long anyway (before you die).

Lunch at the Red Obelisk - sheltered by rocks - was a pleasant affair, allowing us to eat leisurely without any concern for the winds that'd howled by us to this point on our trip. That, and the fact that there were plenty of outcroppings and desert flora to enjoy made this our most enjoyable lunch of the trip!

Arches are so yesterday. Half-an-arches are where it's at!

This Dollarjoint Prickly-Pear (Opuntia chlorotica) was a lot fuzzier than some of the others. A different variant, perhaps?

I am not a fan of cholla, but this one was dazzling in the sun.

From the Red Obelisk, the trail meandered another couple of miles, eventually turning south again toward the Wall Street Mill. To our surprise, this was the hardest part of the trail to follow, several sections requiring a bit of bouldering and negotiation of dry falls. In other words, fun!

Somewhere along the way...

In addition to the modern and defaced rock art we saw in the area, we also had a chance to visit the Red Lady pictograph and her nearby mortero. These were a couple of artifacts I'd been excited to show @mrs.turbodb, as I related my (disgusting) story of digging out the mortero on my previous visit.

If you know where these are, please do your part to keep their location a little harder to find, they are exposed enough as it is!

The Red Lady.

A deep mortero.

It was 1:00pm or so when we arrived at the Mill. Owned by Bill Keys, the one-man mill operated from 1932 to the mid-1940s, mostly doing custom work for other mines in the area. At times the mill ran for 24 hours per day with a maximum daily output of two to five tons depending on the nature of the ore. Keys charged miners $5 a ton for this processing, which generally grossed the miners between $35 and $50 a ton.

One of Keys' converted ore haulers.

A one-man operation.

Ore from surrounding mines was dumped into ore carts that would be winched up this rail and dumped into the top of the two-stamp mill.

Keys’ operation of the mill ended in 1943 when he was confronted by Worth Bagley and ultimately ended up shooting the man. After turning himself in, Keys was convicted of manslaughter and - at 63 years old - was sent to San Quentin. He was paroled in 1948 and received a full pardon in 1956 as a result of an investigation and magazine articles written by Earle Stanley Garner (author of the Perry Mason mystery series) about Keys and the unjust conviction.

Keys placed this stone* after shooting Bagley. Guess he wasn't shy about what happened.
(*Technically, this is an NPS replacement for the original, which was defaced.)

Our loop complete, we returned to the parking lot where the tent - now drying for nearly five hours - had only a few remaining drops of water on the fly. It'd only be a few more hours before we had to set the darn thing up for the night, but for now I pulled out a towel, wiped off the remaining water, and got everything stowed so we could roll a few miles down the road. There, not far from the Pinto Wye, our third - and final - hike of the day would be a completely cross-country affair, no trail to be found. Perfection.

The best kind of trail is one you can't see.

A hike into a remote canyon, we were in search of an old mine camp from the 1930s and something called a "Boulder Cabin," which I hoped might be similar to Cary's CastleBass Camp, or one of the other cabins-under-a-rock that we've encountered. Only time would tell; for now, we were enjoying ourselves as we made our way up the wash.

A silver cholla gleamed in the sun. The devil's plant.

A purple pencil cholla showing off its shade.

A green pencil cholla getting colorful with its spines.

John's Camp was the first habitation site we encountered. Or, I suppose, it was the first one we recognized. Not much remained but the foundation for an old stove and a few metal cans, but less than a quarter mile up the wash, the tailings pile from the Gold Hill Mine was visible, so we headed that direction.

John's Camp sunstar.

A cool old can.

A good amount of tailings there. Perhaps we'll finally find an adit to explore!

I'm not sure what caused us to turn around exactly, but we did - just before reaching the mine site - and there on some boulders along the side of the wash were the etchings of modern man. We don't know how modern, exactly, but I'd guess they aren't older than the early 2000's, given the lack of patina and subject matter.

Ethel and Ben must have been here on Valentines Day.

Wilford, I hope you were a miner in the area, and not some modern day visitor.

Our focus once again on the mine, we ascended the old road out of the wash to discover an old mill foundation. Built in April, 1931 by "ABJ," he wasn't going to let anyone forget it - nearly all of the footings carried his initials!

Perhaps this footer - once capturing the butt end of a beam - fell over.

Apparently, ABJ had a dog named Ming.

Sure enough, behind the tailings pile, a dark adit stretched into the hillside. Sealed long ago with wire mesh, time has rendered the seal irrelevant, a human-sized gap now available on both sides of the grate. Leaving my cohort behind as she explored the hillside looking for more workings, I headed in, hoping to find a golf-ball sized gold nugget as my reward.

Plenty of room to squeeze through.

The 300-foot long adit ended up being completely straight and 100% boring.

Having expected that the Gold Hill Mine was a small-time operation and that there wouldn't be much to explore, we pushed on up the canyon. While there'd been no trail to this point, we'd seen the rare footprint or two along the way, but from this point onward, we saw not a single indication that another human had passed this way.

Eagle Rock.

As we neared the point on our map that I'd marked the Boulder Cabin, an even more prominent landmark presented itself on the hillside. Reminiscent of the Red Obelisk, I was sure I'd find some rock art along the smooth surface of the face.

The only rock art were the rocks themselves.

Only a little further up canyon, we found the Boulder Cabin. At one time, this might have been like many of the other cabins that are built into boulders, but that time has long since passed. Today, only one of the three non-boulder walls had a few stones remaining, the rest having succumb to gravity over the decades. Still, it was fun to wonder what was, as we poked around this old mine camp.

Sole remaining low wall.

The notch in the boulder was probably for an old wooden beam, running along the top of the stone wall.

With not much left of the cabin, we split up to investigate some of the usual detritus that was scattered about camp, hoping that it might give some clue as to who was here, what they were doing, and how they managed to get here.

This was a cool old can we found, the "twist top" still intact, and the first of its kind that we've seen.

Not far away, a very small old smelter - partially collapsed - showed remnants of green glazing droplets on the bricks. Copper?

@mrs.turbodb made this discovery about 100 feet from the cabin. How in the world did this thing get up past the dry falls?

With daylight fading, our search for the actual mine site - since surely there must have been one - as indicated by a waste pile or more machinery didn't last long. We had a little more than two miles back to the Tacoma, and we still had no idea where we'd be camping for the night.

We'd not thought much of this dry fall - and one other - on the way up, but having discovered the old truck, we realized the canyon must have changed significantly over the last century.

Upon reaching the Tacoma, we realized we had a few options. With no backcountry camping allowed in Joshua Tree, we could:

  • head east - to the BLM-managed Dale Mining District - where there's plenty of camping, but that would be an extra hour of driving to get to camp, and then another hour the following morning before we would reach our first trailhead.
  • head south - to the BLM managed camping areas just south of Joshua Tree - which would be close to our first hike, but is nothing more than a glorified parking lot with dozens of generator-running-RVs. Not our kind of place.
  • head back to our camp site in Jumbo Rocks - only a few minutes away, but half-an-hour from the next morning's trail.

And so, for the 3rd time in 24 hours, I found myself snapping a photo of The Penguin and Bowing Tree. It felt familiar - a feeling I don't often experience when I'm out on an adventure - and as the sun dropped below the horizon, we heated up some of the tastiest plain-Jane quesadillas we've had in a long time.

Standing tall.

With no dishes to do, we strained to keep our eyes open as darkness settled in. While we'd slept well in the blustery conditions, we'd surely sleep better tonight as a stary, windless sky circled slowly overhead.

The next day would be our last in the Park, and it'd be different than the rest. Not all of our miles would come on foot, and hopefully the Tacoma was up to the task.



The Whole Story






  1. Rob K
    Rob K March 17, 2024

    It's been a very wet 2024 in Southern CA from the mountains westward to the coast. However, the desert has been more rain-shadowed than normal. Twentynine Palms and most areas east of the San Bernardino Mtns have had well below normal precipitation all winter which might explain the lack of water behind the dam. The rain disparity lessens as one goes north toward I-15.

    Glad you got to see some snow at the park; it makes for an even better visit.

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 17, 2024

      Yeah, part of why we headed this far south to begin with was to escape the moisture 🤣. Of course, as a native Californian, I know it's good to get as much as possible, given the repeated years of drought and a water table that is surely lower than it should be.

      The snow does make for a special visit, if only we could have snow and 65°F temps at the same time!

      JOHN D MORAN March 17, 2024

      Meanwhile, west of the !-15 in the Antelope Valley part of the Mojave we've had more rain that I've seen in many years, maybe more than 10 years and things have been staying damp with little light showers, even last night and maybe tonight. There is even standing water in some areas.

  2. Anthony Williams
    Anthony Williams March 17, 2024

    I believe your "cool can" was for Spam, which used to have that sort of opening system and tapering sides.

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 17, 2024

      Really? You mean actual Spam, or a more generic "meat in a can?"

      • Anthony Williams
        Anthony Williams March 17, 2024

        I did mean Spam (c) but now I’m doubting myself and thinking it a can of corned beef. I’m pretty sure Spam had that wind-up opener but I’m only sure that corned beef had the tapering can. FWIW!

      JOHN D MORAN March 17, 2024

      I don't remember Spam ever having that long of a key, even way back to the 1940's although they did have tapered cans. I've seen old, round, coffee cans with a key but again not that long. Actually the only cans I remember that had such a long key were sardine or kipper cans, the long skinny ones. Oyster cans had very long keys. So much for my can-a-bulism.

    JOHN D MORAN March 17, 2024

    I really enjoy your adventures and this was no exception, excellent photos as always. A few days ago I finally got into the truck and explored some of the dirt roads east of here. I especially wanted to check the Shadow Ranch Road. Found that a part of it had recently been graded, probably by the county but rain from about a week ago had already dug some deep ravines with water still standing in some which made me turn back after a few miles. No cell service out there so not risking getting stuck. But there are many roads out there crossing and paralleling each other. Beautiful country after all the rain and we're still getting some sprinkles from time to time. BTW - Had been planning to head up toward Whitney Portal and the Movie Road/Alabama Hills but just heard from the Western Museum in Long Pine that the road is under repair after being completely washed out. They posted some videos of the damage and the road is completely torn up and impassible, the wrath of Mother Nature!

    • turbodb
      turbodb March 18, 2024

      Thanks as always, John. Glad to hear you got out to explore a bit, even if you discovered difficult conditions. The rain always leaves the desert so ... vibrant, and add to that the smell - it's just a fabulous time of year to be out there!

      I'm hoping to get into the Bishop/Big Pine area a little later in the spring, to explore not on the west site at Whitney, but on the east, through the Whites and Inyo. I've never approached those from the Owen's Valley side, so I'm probably just opening another "can of worms" that I'll want to spend years returning to and exploring!

      • JOHN D MORAN
        JOHN D MORAN March 18, 2024

        Almost all of our access, back in our backpacking/hiking days, to the Sierras was made from the east, almost no people back then, west side was a lot of people and now it's insane. It's been years since I went to Yosemite and the trails on the west were one continuous line of people, pretty miserable, one waiting line going in and another coming out, called it a day after an hour and left. Always liked the east better, much faster elevation changes.

        • turbodb
          turbodb March 18, 2024

          I've done a bit of exploring in the Sierra NF from the west, but I much prefer the 395 corridor as well. The pace on the east side is much more pleasant, and the quick change in elevation you mention makes for some dramatic views. Plus, being on the border between mountain and desert offers so many opportunities that you just can't get when you're in deep forest on the west side. 👍

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