With an abundant water supply, plants and animals thrived. For thousands of years the Cahuilla people grew crops of melons, squash, beans, and corn and gathered plants and seeds for food, medicine, and basket weaving. (Indian Canyons Trail Guide brochure)
We wind our way down into the canyon following the stream…
And ascend the ridge to return…
It really is incredible to look about and see lush palm trees popping up among the rock formations and harsh but subtlety beautiful desert environment.
As we continue heading back, Palm Springs looms in the distance.
Beside us, the rock formations are amazing.
And when we see the view below is carpeted in the green canopy of palm trees once again, we see the trading post and parking lot in the distance where we started our hike.
Notice the trail leading out of the canyon on the other side. That’s part of the West Fork Trail, about 9 miles long, obviously a more strenuous one than the Palm Canyon and Victor Trail we are hiking. Indian Canyons (Andreas, Palm, and Murray) have more than 60 miles of hiking and walking trails.
But then the trail veers away again into more rock sculptures only nature can carve.
Finally, as we loop our way back to where we began, Jeff bemoans not seeing something he was hoping to see… Then suddenly!…
Jeff’s wish comes true! A big-horned sheep appears out of nowhere and poses for us. So cool!
What a great way to end our hike!
But wait, there’s more… Just a short hike from the parking area is West Fork Falls.
Nestled between giant boulders of rock, the falling water sprays us with a refreshing cool mist.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have always been industrious and creative with a reputation for independence, integrity, and peace. In 1876 and 1877, the U.S. Federal Government deeded in trust to the Agua Caliente people 31,500 acres for their homeland. About 6,700 acres of these are within the Palm Springs city limits. The remaining sections span across the desert and mountains in a checkerboard pattern:
On a late April morning, Jeff opened the door to our RV…
Just look who came to visit!
A speckled rattlesnake! And yes, they are venomous and potentially dangerous if disturbed.
These long, heavy-bodied snakes with thin necks, triangular heads, and a rattle on the end of their tails, inhabit the rocky areas of the deserts and mountains, and southern coast region of California. (californiaherps.com)
Rattlesnakes are “pit vipers” which means they have 2 organs, one on each side of the front of the head above their mouth. These “pits” are used to sense the heat radiating from warm-blooded prey. (californiaherps.com) I circled the pits in the photo below.
californiaherps.com, courtesy of Gary Nafis
A few days later, Jeff steps onto the boardwalk of the main oasis. Luckily he was looking down as he quickly backs off and decides to take a detour…
Ginny, our Preserve Manager, hears this rattler in early May…
As we say on the Preserve, “let sleeping snakes lie…”
Sylvilagus auduboni live in a wide variety of habitats including: arid desert grasslands and shrublands, riparian areas, and pinyon-juniper forests. (desertusa.com)
The desert cottontail’s ears are larger than other species and most often are carried erect.
Normal behavior upon spotting a predator, most likely coyotes, owls, bobcats, and yes humans) is to freeze in place to avoid being detected. Upon sensing imminent danger, the cottontail will hop away in a zig zag pattern.
On windy days cottontails are rarely found outside their burrows because the wind interferes with their ability to hear approaching predators. (animalia.bio)
Desert cottontails eat grasses, cacti, bark, twigs, and the beans of mesquite. Rarely do they need to drink as they get water from the plants they consume or from dew on leaves. (pbs.org)
also live in the Sonoran desert and are distinguishable for their big ears and top notch speed.
Jack rabbits are true hares because, unlike cotton tailed rabbits, they do not build nests. The mother simply chooses a place to give birth and the young are born fully furred, with their eyes wide open.
There are 3 species of the genus Lepus native to California: 1.) The black-tailed jack rabbit (Lepus californicus) is a desert dweller, preferring to live in the valleys that are flat and open. Its cousin, the antelope jack rabbit (Lepus alleni) prefers the Sonoran desert. 2.) The white-tailed jack rabbit is the largest of California’s hares and inhabits the hills of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. 3.) The snowshoe rabbits range is in the higher elevations of the mountains. (desertusa.com)
Jeff and I would often see jack rabbits hiding and darting between bushes along the Indian Palms Trail across the street from the main oasis and in the open valley of Moon Country.
There are an estimated 117 species of identified dragonflies in the Southwest who prefer the arid lands and warm waters of the desert.
They come in a rainbow of colors including: red, fuchsia, orange, blue, emerald green, gold, black, maroon, earth toned, and even metallic. Their size varies too, from nearly 6 inches to less than an inch.
Dragonflies start life as a tiny egg, not much bigger than a period at the end of a sentence. These eggs are scattered over waterways or inserted into vegetation that is floating in or overhanging water. Eggs can hatch within weeks to become larva. This stage can last from a month or two to even a few years of growing and molting. After emerging from its shell, the new adult dragonfly is ready to fly off in an hour or more.
Sadly, adults live for only several weeks to months, feeding on vast quantities of mosquitoes, gnats, and other small insects in order to mature sexually and mate. (desertusa.com)
Hot temperatures and long periods without water are the two major obstacles desert spiders must endure. Early mornings on the boardwalk of the main oasis is where Jeff and I would see them actively at work spinning silky orbs and feasting on snared prey. I think these spiders are sand wolf spiders who live comfortably in the dry desert and can stay cool under the shade of palm trees on the Preserve. Their eyes glow at night due to a special reflective tissue that helps them see better in the dark. (a-z-animals.com) Now, that would be a cool picture!
A similar desert spider is the giant crab spider with a body size of 0.8 inches and a leg span up to 6 inches. These huntsmen usually hide in the day to tolerate the heat and aggressively hunt at night feeding on small lizards, other spiders, insects, and other small invertebrates. (a-z-animals.com)
The desert recluse spider, which we have never seen, has long legs for sliding through sand. It has a toxic bite that is capable of killing the cells and tissues around this bite. Fortunately, bites are quite rare in humans because, as its name implies, this spider dwells far off in the desert where most people have no desire to wander. (a-z-animals.com)
The desert tarantula is a very common species of the desert, living in sand burrows to escape the heat. I never saw one, but Jeff did, right off the boardwalk of the main oasis. Apparently this lonely guy is wandering around looking for a mate, according to a-z-animals.com
Since trees are scarce, squirrels that live in the desert are small gnawing mammals that dwell on the ground and dig burrows to live in and to safely retreat from their many predators. All Sonoran Desert squirrels are Ground Squirrels.
The round-tailed ground squirrel is active in the summer months as it hibernates during winter. It is sandy colored (duh), resembling a prairie dog, with smooth fur and a long tail tipped in black. I never noticed the black on its tail, however. These critters never stood still long enough for me to get a closer look! (desertmuseum.org)
Courtesy of animalia.bio, here is a great pic of the round-tailed ground squirrel:
This little guy “invested” in real estate property outside of our RV and built a subdivision of burrows!
The antelope squirrel, sketched below, is courtesy of desertmuseum.org:
Often mistaken for a chipmunk, the Harris Antelope Squirrel lives in the lower elevations of rocky deserts. It has a white stripe on its side, a white underbelly, and a bushy tail that it usually carries arched over its back.
And here’s a picture courtesy of en.m.wikipedia:
Courtesy of the National History Museum in London (nhm.ac.uk) here is a great pic of this spider wasp, Pepsi genus:
And here are some pics I took on the Preserve:
The tarantula hawk is a spider wasp. Only the females have stingers to prey upon (yep) tarantulas. Using their 1/4 inch stinger they paralyze their victim before dragging it back to the nest as living food. (en.m.wikipedia.org and nps.org)
(Picture below courtesy of Alan Schmierer, Wikipedia Commons)
The tarantula hawk then lays an egg on the prey which hatches to a larva. The larva then eats the still-living host. Lovely, huh? (en.m.wikipedia.org)
Here is a picture of the females’ stinger courtesy of Wikipedia Commons:
Only the wasp’s larva are carnivores. Adults get nutrition from nectar. (nhm.ac.uk)
Although tarantula hawks rarely sting people without provocation, their sting is among the most painful of all insects. Fortunately (?) the intense pain only lasts for 5 very loooong minutes. This pain has been described as: IMMEDIATE, EXCRUCIATING, UNRELENTING, and SCREAM-INDUCING!
The bullet ant, living in the forests of Central and South America, has a more painful sting which lasts from 5 to 24 hours! Ouch! No thank you! Below is a picture of this scary guy courtesy of Christian Vinces at nps.gov:
Because of their extremely large stingers very few animals are able to eat tarantula hawks. According to nps.org, only roadrunners will risk being stung to eat a tarantula hawk. OMG!
Seriously? This guy, pictured below courtesy of allaboutbirds.org? You go, roadrunner! You got this! Beep Beep…
Also known as doodlebugs because of the marks left in the sand,
antlions are known for the predatory habits of the larvae which dig pits in the sand to trap ants. (en.m.wikipedia.org)
Below is a side-by-side picture of a distoleon tetragrammicus larva and the adult version, sometimes known as an antlion lacewing, often mistaken for dragonflies. The adult insects have a short lifespan compared to the larvae. (en.m.wikipedia.org)
Antlions are the immature offspring of a very different looking insect as you can see from the above photos. After being placed in the sand as an egg by their mother, baby antlions build inverted cone shaped pits by crawling backwards in a spiral and throwing piles of sand outwards. They then spend months to years sitting quietly at the bottom of the cone waiting for prey. Ants that step on the slope lose their footing and tumble into the pit where the antlion larva waits with powerful jaws and fast reflexes. Antlion young are well adapted to living in very hot and dry habitats and can survive for months without food or water. (Ann Dunn, archboldedublog.org)
We never saw an actual antlion larva, although we had the opportunity to dig through their many doodles in the sand. But, as guardians of the Preserve, why would we disturb the habitat? And I am guessing that we DID see the antlion lacewing but just confused it for a dragonfly.
Once they have enough nutrition, they build a a silk cocoon and develop as a pupa for about a month until a delicate winged-form adult emerges resembling a long, thin moth. (Ann Dunn, archboldedublog.org)
Oh how we loved seeing coyotes around the RV and Preserve and hearing them at night! (According to desertmuseum.org, we learned that coyotes “sing” to communicate with other coyote families and as a way to keep track of their own family members.) We even named two of them: Wiley and CJ (Coyote Junior). We respected them from a distance and celebrated their presence. Almost every evening shortly after 5:00 when the visitors were SUPPOSED to have left, at least one or two coyotes would saunter across the parking area in front of our RV.
Often mistaken for medium-sized dogs, coyotes have long bushy black-tipped tails, pointed ears, and a narrow pointed face. They adapt very well to different habitats and can be found living in large cities, desert scrub, grasslands, foothills, and populated neighborhoods. Coyotes are omnivores and will adjust their hunting style to what foods are available, meaning they will stalk small prey alone and often hunt in small packs together to kill larger prey like deer. In the Sonoran Desert they will eat cactus fruit, mesquite beans, flowers, insects, rodents, lizards, rabbits, birds, and snakes. (desertmuseum.org)
Of course on the Preserve, Wiley and CJ and their friends would eat the palm fruit from the California Fan Palms as evidenced by the clumps of purple droppings and seeds.
In the wild, coyotes live between 10-14 years. Their most common enemy is disease. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions will also prey upon them. In cities humans are responsible for killing coyotes with their cars as the animals try to cross busy roads. (desertmuseum.org)
Twice we saw dead coyotes: once a fully intact coyote at the bottom of Pushwalla Canyon (some hikers also reported this to us thinking that we would remove the dead animal… nope, it’s the circle of life in the desert). The second encounter was below Bee Mesa where the skeletal remains of a Canister latrans slowly deteriorated in the desert sun.
Since there are no mountain lions, wolves, or bears on the Preserve, we can safely hypothesize that these coyotes died from disease.
Side Blotched Lizard
Jeff finally spotted one and took a great picture!
I never could find the dark blotches located on both sides of its chest just behind the front leg! Below is a good picture of one from californiaherps.com:
Side blotched lizards are active daily all year round in the arid Sonoran desert. They enjoy basking on rocks, hopping from boulder to boulder, and running quickly along the ground. But they are also good climbers. When frightened they will run into a burrow in the sand or hide under vegetation. When captured, their tails often break off and wriggle on the ground to distract a predator from grabbing their bodies and allowing them time to escape. Fortunately, the tail grows back. Unfortunately, these lizards only live for about one year. (californiaherps.com)
Other Common Lizards at Home on the Preserve Include:
We live in the Colorado Desert, part of the Sonoran Desert extending southeast from California to northern Mexico. The Colorado Desert is the lowest, hottest, most arid region of the Sonoran Desert. Wishing for snow is non-negotiable unless hell freezes over. By definition, a desert receives less than 6 inches of rain per year. The desert in Southern California barely receives 4 inches per year. 😳
So, taking liberties with Irving Berlin’s bestselling “White Christmas” song, please bear with my desert adaptation set to the tune of his iconic holiday classic:
I’m dreaming of some rain on Christmas,
So that flowers bloom and grow.
And later in the Spring,
The blossoms shall bring,
Colors delightful to show…
I’m dreaming of some rain on Christmas,
With every week that passes by.
May the mountains be snowy and white,
And melt down to make the desert bright.
And then… what to my wondering eyes did appear? A sudden rush of dark clouds, And 8 raindrops right here!
Ah, every raindrop has 15 minutes of fame, to paraphrase Andy Warhol… Not long after Jeff and I did our happy dance, the sky’s canvas brightened into a muted sunset.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Whatever you prefer… I realize I say Merry Christmas but I really mean Happy Solstice that we celebrate. Somehow this whole year had been a winter solstice hanging over our heads. But, for now, let’s be children again and look forward to bright surprises dropped down the chimney or brought by Hanukkah fairies or shared on Zoom calls with our families.
Jeff and I drive to Joshua Tree NP to watch the sunset and observe the “great conjunction” aka, the closest alignment of Jupiter and Saturn since July 16, 1623, a little more than a decade after Galileo first used a telescope to discover Jupiter’s 4 largest moons. Unfortunately, because of the planets’ position to the sun, this great conjunction was virtually impossible to see. So that takes us back to March 4, 1226, when Genghis Hahn was still roaming Asia, as the last time the planets were this close and as visible. (scientificamerican.com)
What makes this event even more special is the fact that is taking place on the Winter Solstice of 2020.
We enter the NP from the west entrance around 4:00 and are surprised that the rangers are just ushering all cars through. Jeff heads to Keys View overlooking the San Andreas Fault and Thousand Palms Oasis where we live right now. (We packed sushi, olives, cheese, a baguette, and nuts to eat when we arrive, but snacked on them on the drive up to the high desert.) Apparently lots of other people decided to choose this spot too.
We find a makeshift parking spot and ascend the walkway…
We hear a beautiful voice singing “Oh, Holy Night” and then “Ave Maria”…
So special and such a clear, angelic voice… Wow!
I start taking pictures of the setting sun…
And the Salton Sea…
And the moon…
A shared heavenly experience… And a shooting star! While Jeff was looking at Mars through his binoculars, I saw a shooting star approach the two planets, visible with the naked eye. A collective, “Ahhh” erupted…
That’s the Coachella Valley below and the lights are from Palm Springs. The road riding into the sunset is Interstate 10.
And here’s a view of Palm Desert and some of the other desert communities…
It gets darker…
And finally, it’s dark enough that I can capture the 2 planets with my iPhone… look closely…
The next rendezvous, according to scientificamerican.com, where Jupiter and Saturn are separated by just six arc minutes will arrive on March 15, 2080.
Jeff and I first visited Amboy Crater, located on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, in July during the triple digit heat of summer. Today we return for a proper hike into the cone itself to explore the caldera and hike to the rim.
This National Natural Landmark, an anomaly of black rock rising in the earth-toned desert, is formed of ash and cinders. It is 250 feet high and 1,500 feet in diameter. The crater is situated in one of the youngest volcanic fields in the United States. It is located in the Barstow-Bristol trough, an elongated tectonic depression running west-northwest, which approximately straddles the boundary between the Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert tectonic blocks.
To get there from where we live in the Coachella Valley, we take Thousand Palms Canyon Road north to Dillon Road and head east on Highway 62 toward Twenty Nine Palms past Joshua Tree. We turn north (left) on Godwin Road and east (right) on Amboy Road. Amboy Crater is about 45 miles from Twenty Nine Palms. We cross Bristol Lake, once a prehistoric sea, now a dry lake mined for the calcium chloride used to de-ice roadways in colder climates. (desertusa.com)
The volcanic field was created by at least 4 distinct periods of eruptions, resulting in a coaxial nested group of cinder cones. (I understand this to mean that the group of nested cinder cones share the same center or axis.) The most recent eruption of Amboy Crater was about 10,000 years ago. The lava flows consist of basalt rich in minerals of magnesium, iron, and calcium. If you look closer, you might observe minute green-colored olivine crystals. The red color indicates the presence of ferric iron, the result of steam on heated rock. (from kiosk in parking area)
The trail to the crater is only 1.1 miles from the parking lot/day use area. This well-marked trail leads to the west of the cinder cone, taking you to a wide opening where an explosive eruption breached the crater wall. From here you can descend into the caldera and/or climb to the top. Round trip, the trail is about 3+ miles, depending upon how many trails you descend and ascend within the cone before returning to your car.
The trail leads you through sand and lava fields:
Up close and personal, the crater is less intimidating. (I know it looks like there is a trail here leading to the rim. Trust me, this is not the way up…)
The trail wraps around the back to the right and then starts to head up. Here the uphill is steep and uneven but fortunately this part is a rather short climb.
Once you climb up, you are inside the crater.
Four trails lead up to the ridge.
Naturally, Jeff and I choose an “iffy” and steep trail to the top. These pictures are deceiving in that the trail looks well-established and an easy climb… NOT in my humble opinion. I am scared to look down. I am scared to lose my footing. I am just plain scared. I end up crawling my way to the top, latching on to any secure rock I can find.
Whew! I hug the ground when I safely make it to the rim! Then I stand up. And look back down.
More views from the ridge…
Here we descend into the caldera again on the most friendly trail.
I pause and look back up to the top…
And down again…
One last curve…
And we are in the caldera. I look back one last time…
And we descend onto the trail leading back to the parking area.
We walk back toward our car and turn around for a last close-up and personal look at Amboy Crater.
Looking ahead again, a train runs parallel to Route 66.
Amboy Crater is so worth the “off the beaten path” drive! There is no shade or civilization at all as you travel through the desert. The feeling of solitude is intense, but welcoming, if you know what I mean. But if you need to feel connected again, head to the town of Amboy before returning back to Twenty Nine Palms. Look for the giant neon sign on Route 66 that advertises Roy’s Motel and Cafe.
The exact population of Amboy, originally founded in the 1850s by salt miners, is less than 10. It was the first stop in a series of railroad stations constructed across the Mojave Desert in the late 1800s. In 1938 Roy’s Motel, named after Roy Crowl, opened as a rest stop for travelers, the only respite from the desert heat for miles and miles around. With the rise of automobiles, Roy’s Motel included a gas and service station. At it’s heyday, the town of Amboy, owned by Herman “Buster” Burris, had a population of 700. Buster eventually sold the town and moved away. Albert Okura, a businessman, Historic Route 66 activist, and philanthropist purchased the town of Amboy in 2005. (roadtrippers.com)
According to desertusa.com, Amboy is a time capsule of 1950s Americana. After Albert Okura purchased the town for $425,000, he has slowly been restoring it. Roy’s is open for gas and there’s a little store where you can buy water and a postcard and use the restroom. On November 16, 2019 the iconic neon lights of the Roy’s Cafe & Motel sign were lit after 20 years of darkness, lighting up the roadway again for travelers on Route 66. In the future there are plans to restore the 20-room hotel and 6 bungalows.
“There is an old cemetery, a church and a post office nearby — all closed now — but the grave markers remind us of the history and the residents who used to live there.” (desertusa.com)