It had been nearly a year since Desert Mike and I trudged our way through the Coxcomb Mountains, located along the eastern border of Joshua Tree National Park (read about the first trip here). Ever since that trip, the memories have been fond, and we regularly found ourselves discussing a return trip. In January, I contacted Desert Mike with the proposal that we plan a 3-day backpacking trip back into this remote and wild mountain range in February.
On that first trip we had utilized the only path that is regularly used by hikers and backpackers (and by regularly, I doubt anymore than a few handfuls a year). We didn’t want to do that again, we had been there, and we had done that – it was time to move onto something more challenging and very unknown. After staring at maps, and satellite imagery for a significant number of hours over several weeks, we devised a plan to penetrate the center of the range.
No matter how we would approach it, there would be nothing easy about this trip. The Coxcombs are roadless, trailess, and waterless. It requires several miles of hiking across wide open desert, just to reach the base of the range. Once at the base, there is no telling what the canyons hold – whether it be boulder jumbles, dryfalls, or dense vegetation that is hell-bent on ripping your eyes from their socket, or gashing your skin into a bloody pulp. Sounds like fun, huh?
In the planning stages we made two trips out to the area, we needed to get the lay of the land, and figure out where we could park without bringing unwanted attention to my Jeep – which would be sitting unattended in the desert for several days. The last thing that we wanted was to return from three days in the wilderness, to find the Jeep scrapped for parts, or tampered with. For the most part you can trust fellow desert wanderers and travelers, but all it takes is for there to be one asshole to come along. There was also the matter of how close we could get via vehicle, without crossing into the JTNP-wilderness boundary.
For anyone that thinks that the NPS isn’t paying attention to the wilderness boundaries, think again. On one of the planning trips, we returned to find a note from Ranger Chad on my windshield. The note started off, “Hi Jim” and made mention that several ATVs had entered the wilderness illegally, and to call him if I had noticed any significant damage. The note closed thanking me for respecting the wilderness boundary.
Thankfully we didn’t come upon extensive damage, only the tracks that they had left behind on their joyride. Unfortunately those tracks will spoil the wilderness for some time to come, and can also invite others to do the same. But know this, even in the most remote parts of the park – “they” are paying attention, so don’t be a tool!
The next step in preparation was to put together the essential items that would be needed to sustain, and keep us as comfortable as possible for three days. My list included the following items: 4-gallons of water (divided as follows: 2-3L bladders, 1-10L dromedary bag), 5-Mountain House dehydrated meals, 2-packages of beef bites, 8-granola bars, 1-quart sized bag of Kale chips, 2-packages of seaweed snacks, 5-coffee bags, winter jacket, pair of long-johns, change of undergarments, sleeping bag, pillow, tarp, backpackers cook stove, knife, head lamp, handheld GPS, spare batteries, and my camera gear. Total weight in excess of 60-pounds.
Day 1 began at noon, we loaded our goliath size packs into the back of my Jeep, and sped off on Highway 62 from the town of Joshua Tree. From here we had an hour drive past Twenty-Nine Palms. Once we arrived, we stashed the Jeep and began the 2.5 mile hike across the open desert. It was slow going with 60-pound full packs, a horny desert tortoise was likely to beat us across this stretch of desert. I can remember turning around on several occasions over the first hour, and vaguely seeing the Jeep in the distance, thinking to myself, “damn, that is all the further we’ve gotten!”
After an hour and a half, it was time to get those packs off for a bit. Noticing a small rock outcropping, we made a beeline for it. There was no doubt that if we would have “dropped-pack” without having something other than ground to drop them on, it would have been very difficult to get them back on. What we hadn’t expected to find at the outcropping was the evidence of man. Scattered around the granite island were dozens of C-ration cans. Instead of resting, we “dropped-pack” and meandered along the boulders, there were several other places that we found the same style of military ration cans. Further exploration uncovered a blind, built out of stone on top of the outcropping.
We knew that General Patton had used some stretches of land in this vicinity for the training of his men before the attacks in North Africa during WWII, in the 1940’s. But what we hadn’t realized was that we would be crossing those training grounds. We hadn’t even realized that, that was what we were doing when we found the empty C-rations and blind. It was when we left the outcropping, and were back on the way to “our” canyon, we found strung across the desert, hundreds of bullet casings, hand-grenade and mortar cans, barbed-wire, and even tank tracks! When we finally reached the mouth of “our” canyon, we again “dropped-pack”, and explored around the region. We found more of the before-mentioned, and a curious inscription in a nearby canyon, that simply read, “Pat”.
All of these “extras” threw us off a bit time wise, and we didn’t end up entering the canyon until just about sunset. The early section of the canyon had some of the highest wash walls I have ever seen, towering some 40 feet above ground level, while the canyon walls themselves tripled that, or more. At one point this canyon had seen some extensive flash flooding, but those days appear to have been long ago, as vegetation in the wash itself looks healthy, and untrampled. Human tracks were non-existent, and animal tracks were scarce, with the exception of a coyote or two – whose tracks we would follow over the course of the next two-days.
A half-mile up canyon we decided to set up camp for the night. Our initial intentions were to be several miles up the canyon, but not a big deal. Seeing as how this was an exploration trip, there really needed not to be a schedule to follow. We found a cozy nook above the wash, and set up our minimalist camp consisting of a simple tarp on the ground, and our sleeping bags on top. We settled in, and watched the sky turn a baby blue, and the clouds a beautiful shade of pink. The light, escaped from the monzogranite canyon walls, and all became enshrouded in darkness.
Like any night spent on the ground, sleep doesn’t exactly come easy. I can’t think of a time that I’ve rested an entire night through without waking up several times, and this night would be no different. In some ways it can be very annoying, but in others, an experience to wake up every so often and see the stars illuminating ever so perfectly in the sky above. It is a glimpse several thousand years into the past (more info.).
We rose at first light. I enjoyed a cup of coffee, and a couple of granola bars before packing up my gear, and stuffing it all back into my behemoth of a backpack. It was time yet again for the death march to ensue, and that it did, slowly but with much determination.
I was happy to see the massive wash walls dissipate quickly, and the canyon walls close in. The wash became narrow, and strung with boulders ranging in size from a quad to a tractor. The presence of Catclaw Acacia made itself know as it gripped and dug into our skin, reminding us that we are very much alive. It wasn’t far from our first nights camp, in which we encountered the first of many obstacles that we would encounter that day, a thirty-foot vertical dryfall blocking the wash. With a little investigation we managed to find a work around, which wasn’t nearly as hairy as trying to climb the well varnished wall.
Keep in mind that this is all 100% exploratory, we had not an inkling as to what we would encounter in this canyon. Satellite imagery can only paint so much of a picture, and obstacles are generally not something that one can clearly identify. That is all good however, a surprise is better than knowing, at least in my humble opinion.
Once around the first dryfall, the canyon became a meandering maze; a hall of solid granite that had scooped us into its mouth. At every turn the walls grew higher, and the formations more unique. We trudged along slowly, stopping to rest our aching backs for five minutes here, and ten minutes there – while feeding our faces with well deserved snacks from our packs.
Several miles, and a dozen blood-lettings later we turned a corner to find a bleach-white spine lying in the wash. We figured it was likely that of a bighorn sheep, which was confirmed when we found the intact skull and horns discarded in nearby bushes. These were the remains of a big, old-boy. His horns were well-worn, and dull – we believe he was a victim of old age, desert bighorn have an average life expectancy of 10-12 years, and this guy looked to have lived them out.
A turn or two in the wash later and we found what Desert Mike’s old goat bones had feared for the duration – the canyon was filled with stacks of truck sized boulders, and with no other way around them, but over them. Personally I love this type of terrain, it is challenging, tiring, and potentially dangerous – but it is a helluva lota fun. Mike has some years on me, so to him, I get the idea that this type of terrain is more painful than anything else.
The canyon remained jammed for a good eighth of a mile, I rushed through it, then scouted ahead to see just how much more difficult it may get. My thought was that if it remained this way or became even worst for any extensive period, than we should call it. A quarter of a mile later, I encountered another dryfall, and yet another dead bighorn sheep. I scurried up the dryfall to get a glimpse of what was ahead, this was finally the top of the canyon, the terrain leveled out, and the wash widened.
I returned to Mike, and found him just getting through the jam. He had lost some of his equipment down into the crevices between the boulders, and had to climb down to retrieve it. At this point the man looked a little defeated, but not ready to throw in the towel. I told him about the next challenge that lied ahead, and how everything leveled out past that. We forged on.
Now in the center of the range, we had entered the crazy world of granite spires, and peaks. A cartoon like wonderland of distorted faces staring out at us among the 4,000 feet high, strung granite boulders that make up the Coxcombs. The entire mountain range screams, “Don’t fuck with me, or I will kill you!” We stopped, braked for an hour or so, and had some lunch as a chuckwalla lizard perched on a nearby boulder stared at us, like he had never seen a human before; and he probably hadn’t.
After lunch, and a quarter of a mile later, our wash came to an unexpected end. We were within a half-mile of the location in which I had intended to use as a base camp to explore additional canyons, but the wall of rock on all sides of us said, “no”. We scurried up a hill-side to get a look at the terrain ahead, and decided to not even bother trying traverse any further. After some bitching and moaning we turned back in the direction in which we had come.
I remembered seeing some spires that had interested me when we first reached the top of the mountain, and when we approached them on our way back, I suggested that we try to check them out. Like everywhere else up here, there was no direct or clear path. A long line of climb this, and climb that ensued. From a vantage that allowed me to overlook the area, I could see a small basin below the spires, and that was where I wanted to spend the night. I was already imagining the breathtaking sunset that would transpire, transforming the granite peaks into another worldly dimension.
It was only two o’clock, but exploring was rough up here – nearly impossible. Mike took one of his famous cat naps, while I stumbled around the region, looking at anything and everything that jumped out at me and yelled, “boo!”.
By four o’clock, I planted my ass in a position in which I could watch the sun disappear – and I just sat there, watching, and studying the formations. I waited, and I waited, and I loved every moment of it. Two hours of watching, and looking has never been so not-boring. The shadows creeped, and the sun disappeared. The colors of the granite popped as the harsh light disappeared, and the sky turned a shade of light blue, followed by an eruption of orange and reds. The moment was perfect.
It had been a long couple of days, and by seven, we had crawled into our sleeping bags. Sitting at a couple of thousand feet higher than what we had been at the first night, the temperature and the wind was nearly frigid. We drifted to sleep quickly, but not all that comfortably.
First light approached, and it was time to say goodbye. I sat in the exact spot in which I did for two hours the evening prior, and I watched the sun rise, setting the peaks on fire as the first harsh rays penetrated them.
We hiked out of the Coxcombs that morning, bidding them a farewell. It total we registered twenty-miles, four dead bighorn sheep, a pair of coyote tracks, a brutal landscape, two sunsets and sunrises, and over 600 images. The bonus of course was the arsenal of items that General Patton’s troops left to rust and decay on the desert floor.