On Haystack, we found sun and solitude off of the Art Smith Trail in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, a spectacular view of Southern California's mountain ranges, and our old summit register entry from 2011.
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep near Art Smith Trail, Palm Desert, CA
Ovis canadensis nelsoni
Listed in 1998 as Endangered Species due to substantial population decline from disease, predation, habitat loss and human disturbance
Cross - country to Haystack
Directions to Art Smith Trailhead:
Travel south on CA State Route 74 (Palms to Pines Scenic Highway) from CA State Route 111 in Palm Desert 3.5 miles to long sandy parking area on right of road just as it starts to curve to the left to ascend switchbacks up hills to the south. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center is adjacent to parking, across SR 74.
Hike Directions: (Topo map of our route below)
Cross-country route off of Art Smith Trail to summit of Haystack Mountain
Yellow marker indicates point at which we left Art Smith and ascended wash
Elevation at this point = 2,237 feet; ~1,600 feet to summit from turn-off
Geology and History:
The trail to Haystack Mountain treks through quartz diorite, a coarse-grained intrusive rock with 5-20% quartz (diorite has <5% quartz). It has the classic speckled black and white texture and large grain size. Quartz diorite is often confused with granite because they look similar. Both are intrusive rocks with a phaneritic texture in which mineral grains are visible without magnification. Granite, however contains 20-60% quartz. Quartz grains are not usually visible with quartz diorite, but can definitely be seen in a granite. This rock unit is Cretaceous age (144 to 65 mya).
The efforts of Art Smith, a.k.a. "Trail Boss", a Desert Riders equestrian helped to establish the Desert Riders Trail Foundation, a non-profit trust for trail preservation and building. The Desert Riders equestrian club was initiated in 1931, has made 28 trails as of 2010, many of them follow ancient Cahuilla Indians' migratory hunting and gathering trails.
"Probably I was too young and venturesome to feel dismay, but I know now what Mama must have felt as she looked out upon that savage scene of sand and rock and sky locked in the pitiless grip of desert summer."
- Nina Paul Shumway, Your Desert and Mine, an account of her family's settlement and beginning of the date
industry in the Coachella Valley.
The past few times we have hiked the Art Smith Trail, we have seen Peninsular bighorn sheep in Dead Indian Canyon near the rust-colored metal sign that marks the Art Smith trailhead, not far from the parking lot. They were listed as a federally endangered species in 1998. This morning, the sun shone brightly on the deep-walled Dead Indian Canyon and a group of ewes with their lambs. This trail, just west of Palm Desert, links to trails leading into the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs.
The Coachella Valley is a special place for me and I carry memories of hiking all of its trails with dear friends that I will always keep in touch with. It's my "old stomping ground", or more aptly put, my old hiking ground. Living there in the 1980's and 1990's, we climbed, traversed, slid, sweat, laughed, got stuck with cactus spines, boulder-hopped, and celebrated our hikes and friendships. I am grateful I can still be able to hike these wonderful trails and when I do, all of the memories come back vividly. I met Fred on Mt. San Jacinto, and he automatically became a part of our hiking clan.
Not many people venture off Art Smith to climb Haystack Mountain. To our surprise, we found the same notepad in which we had made our 2011 entry in the summit register can! I guess the dry climate and the sparse number of Haystack Mountain visitors helped preserve this small note pad. It's a simple message: "12/21/11 - Fred, Sue and Scott - old friends who love to hike." We missed Scott this year, but were looking forward to hiking with him to Pinto Mountain in the next few days.
Walking on Art Smith Trail is a treat in itself, a meandering path with weathering rock piles, beavertail cactus and brittlebush blooming in the spring, and that satisfying crunch of gravel with each step. One can imagine Cahuilla Indians walking to water sources on the trail and equestrians from the Desert Riders on horseback winding through washes across the open desert. But to pick your own route cross country, dodging cholla cactus, sharp-toothed agave leaves and cat claw acacia shrubs, climbing up and sliding down boulders and dry waterfalls is the greatest satisfaction.
Art Smith Trail was busy due to the Christmas holiday. This trail treks through a possible plutonic synform (a downward-closing or concave fold of topography). Shimmering green California fan palms pop up occasionally to the left of the trail, and the valley patchwork of forest green golf courses sprawl to your right.
California fan palms
Haystack Mountain on the horizon as seen from near Art Smith Trail
Leave trail at ~ 3.4 miles and hike to highest point at far left of long ridge
Palm oasis in canyon on left
We left Art Smith at 3.4 miles from the trailhead at a wide wash and headed west-southwest across relatively flat, open low desert. From here, it was 1.3 miles to the summit. We encountered no major rock barriers, only a few very small waterfalls and sandy benches covered with rounded boulders. I was surprised to see a few small junipers; the land is generously dotted with hedgehog cacti with their inch-long needle-spines.
Wash ~ 3.4 miles in from Art Smith Trailhead at SR 74 in Palm Desert
Climb up flank of cone to ridge - follow ridge to summit, seen in this photo
Getting closer to the base - climb cone to ridge and follow to summit
"False summit" on the ridge
Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) in foreground in front of cholla cactus
Arriving at the base of Haystack, we gained its sunny east ridge by hiking straight up the steep flank to the left of the mountain, occasionally grasping rocks. The ridge is a Class 2 scramble with at least one "false peak" on the way up; not a long hike and the view at the summit is nothing short of spectacular. It is here you realize the enormity of this beautiful Colorado Desert and its mountain ranges.
The controversial Dunn Road can be seen not far from the summit. It is a wide, sandy road that Mike Dunn carved out through the slopes of eastern Santa Rosa Mountains starting at Pinyon Flats in the 1960's and 70's. It traces around the contours of mountains, through what is now Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains NM to Cathedral City. Because Dunn bulldozed some of his road on federal land, the BLM put a gate across the road. But Dunn would just bulldoze it down, and the BLM would fix it. I remember, when I lived in the Coachella Valley in the 1980's, Dunn Road was used for recreational jeep tours. Now of course since it is entirely on national monument land, it is only accessible to non-motorized travel. There were also differing opinions about whether Dunn Road compromised the bighorn sheep habitat.
360 - degree view from Haystack Mountain summit
Summits include Mt. San Gorgonio, Mt. San Jacinto, Toro Peak, Martinez Mountain
Also Little San Bernardino Mountains and southern Joshua Tree NP
The summit view includes the highest points in the Santa Rosa Mountains: Martinez Mountain and Toro Peak, and also Mt. San Jacinto towering above Palm Springs. To the north lies Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California, and the northeast the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the southern part of Joshua Tree National Monument. Ancient Lake Cahuilla filled the basin of the current Coachella Valley up until 500 years ago.
This area is rich in culture and history - from the hunting/gathering Cahuilla Indians to the first settlers of this arid land, to the history of the date palm industry - not to mention the dramatic and substantial geologic history. The San Andreas Fault courses through the Coachella Valley.
View from Haystack Mountain to the northwest
Mt. San Jacinto (closer range) and Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest summit in Southern California (on horizon with snow)
Our summit register entry from 12/21/2011:
"Fred, Sue and Scott - Old friends who love to hike"
Scott and Fred near Haystack Mountain summit - 12/2011
Palm Desert in background on valley floor, Southern Joshua Tree NP on horizon
I recommend returning by the same route unless you are open for more adventure and willing to negotiate the steeper and rockier terrain to the southeast. We did just that but also ended up in a thick and tangled palm oasis, the palm fronds clashing in the breeze. Briefly crossing the oasis, crunching through dead fronds, we found our way out by ascending a steep canyon wall. Out into the open again, we saw not far from us two mountain bikers on the Art Smith Trail. Back to civilization.
As we hike back along this very familiar trail, I picture a scene from 25 years ago - a faint image of a group of friends, walking in rhythm, boots crunching, happy voices laughing and talking, celebrating friendship and this great land.
I bet we find both of our summit register entries the next time we summit Haystack.
The Cahuilla Indians roasted the heart of the agave in pits on rocky drainages
Desert Fan Palm fronds
"Filifera" describes the white filaments between the segments of the frond
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Fred and Sue on the way down - another beautiful hike in the desert!
Beginning of Art Smith at its intersection with California SR 74. Metal trail sign below. Wide wash is entry to Dead Indian Canyon
Topo map and our route and elevation profile to Haystack Mountain via Art Smith Trail and then traveling cross-country up east ridge
Click on image for .jpg of topo map
Bighorn Institute. 2019. Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.
Retrieved from https://www.bighorninstitute.org/endangered-peninsular-bighorn
Dibblee, T.W., and Minch, J.A., 2008 Geologic map of the Palm Desert and Coachella 15-minute quadrangles, Riverside County, California. Dibblee Geological Foundation.
Patten, Carolyn. "The Desert Riders." Palm Springs Life, October 1, 2010. Desert Publications, Inc.
Retrieved from https://www.palmspringslife.com/the-desert-riders/
Pearce, Al. "Dunn's Road Could be One of the Most Beautiful in Desert." Desert Sun, Volume 45, Number 214, 11 April 1972. In website: UCR Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research.
Retrieved from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=DS19720411.2.59&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN--------1
Schumann, W. 1993. Handbook of Rocks, Minerals and Gemstones. Harper-Collins Publishers and Houghton Mifflin Company.
Taylor, Joan. "The Dunn Road: A Checkered Past." Desert Report, 2007. Sierra Club publication.
Winter, John D. 2010. Principles of Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology, 2nd Ed. Pearson Education, Inc., New Jersey.
Our annual California desert peak hike with our friend Scott - this year to isolated and rugged Pinto Mountain in Joshua Tree Wilderness.
Pinto Mountain - eastern Joshua Tree National Park in the Pinto Mountain Range
From California I-10 East out of Indio, take Exit 168 into South Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. Drive north 20 miles on Cottonwood Springs Road/Pinto Basin Road (past Joshua Tree Visitor Center) to Turkey Flats parking area and sign board on right side of road.
This hike treks through an array of different types of rock units ranging from Holocene cover (10,000 years ago to now) to
Proterozoic Era (up to 2.5 billion years ago). A geologist's dream. It passes through some of California's oldest rocks; these rocks also top Monument Mountain, across Pinto Basin to the southwest.
Trailhead and parking at Turkey Flats, 20 miles from Interstate 10 in Joshua Tree
Pinto Mountain on horizon
Topo map and elevation profile of hike to summit of Pinto Mountain, Joshua Tree NP.
The hike begins at Turkey Flats trailhead on Cottonwood Springs Road/Pinto Basin Road. The last half of this hike climbs 2,200 feet in 2.3 miles to summit elevation of 3,983 feet.
Our route across the alluvial fan at base of ridge; the trail travels on spine of ridge all the way to summit of Pinto Mountain in a north/northeast direction (looking at southwest-facing slopes)
Pinto Wash at base of fan
Some of our best and most memorable adventures have been on hikes to desert summits in Southern California with our friend Scott, a Desert Peaks Section hiking veteran. Last year we hiked Monument Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park. This year, drawn to Joshua Tree again, we stepped it up (literally) with a tougher hike to Pinto Mountain summit.
We parked at the Turkey Flats trailhead and signboard, a 20-mile drive into Joshua Tree National Park south entrance from California I-10. Scott had good directions for locating the ridge we would ascend: locate the summit at 32° then locate our ridge climb at 36°. Pretty straightforward direction and approach. We made a beeline toward the smaller ridge to the right of a large, shadowed canyon which is just to the right of Pinto Mountain summit (see directions, above). The flat 2.5 mile distance to the toe of the ridge accentuates the immensity of this sublime desert. A feeling of space and solitude.
To hike Pinto Mountain is to experience two distinctly different terrain types with very little transition in between: flat, soft and casual to steep and rocky. The last half climbs 2,000+ feet over rough and angular rocks and also requires route-finding, occasionally reaching for a handhold. The easy walk across Pinto Basin takes you through soft sand flats and beautifully rippled "dunes", through minor washes before crossing Pinto Wash. We saw a desert tortoise burrow near the dunes. I was surprised at the bright purple blooms of sand verbena vines draped across the sand dunes and an abundance of bright green vegetation in December. The fractured and curled "clayey" soils in Pinto Wash also give a clue to recent saturating rains. As you make the short descent off the dunes, stay just to the left (west) of a long low hill cut by a wash.
Desert Sand Verbena
Scott (left) and Fred heading out in morning to Pinto Mountain summit
The ridge to ascend is just to the left of Fred with the shadows to its left side
Sand dunes ~ halfway between Turkey Flats trailhead to base of Pinto Mountain
Shortly after crossing Pinto Wash, the hike ascends an ever-increasing amount of coarse gravel and boulders, the characteristic feature of alluvial fans where heavier rocks drop out early in its deposition and smaller rocks are deposited at the toe of the fan. We maneuver down through stream cuts and around rocks on the upper alluvial fan as we finally reach the bottom of our ridge. We missed the cairn indicating the start of the ridge trail on our way up and started the climb on the ridge spine, which was alright because we soon ran into the light-to-moderately tracked trail on the ridge. Don't be tempted to descend down the canyon on either side of the ridge - when in doubt, stay on top of the ridge. There are a few places along the 2.3-mile ridge hike where the trail bypasses a high point, however.
Pinto Wash just before base of alluvial fan
Clayey soil that has been recently saturated with water and then has dried and formed fractures into polygonal sections as well as "mud peels" caused by a fracture of clay parallel to its surface.
Approaching alluvial fan deposited from canyon on the left
Hike up ridge to the right of this canyon, and just to the right of Pinto, with vertical rocks and shadows to Pinto Mountain with its white quartzite slopes. Pinto Wash in foreground.
Beginning of ridge trail
Small cairn on the large rock on the right, faint trail in middle of photo heads to ridge
We started here at toe of ridge
The ridge walk was very windy, especially on the saddles. We took a lunch break on the lee side of a bump on the ridge to avoid being battered by the wind. From our spot we could see the alternating light and dark rock; although we couldn't see a trail, we could see our ridge to the top.
Rocks and Joshua trees define Joshua Tree National Park, but if you look closely, you will find among them smaller creatures and plants brightly colored in contrast to the neutral tones. Groups of red barrel cacti randomly dot the landscape, with mounds of curved red spines spectacularly lit by the sun. Scott pointed out a tiny round cactus with a bright red fruit and sharp white spines, sheltered by a "shelf" of equally sharp quartzite - a common fishhook cactus. There was a strange black caterpillar with bright yellow dots and stripes that went from crawling to a curled position as soon as I cast my shadow over it. The best match I could find for this caterpillar is the white-lined sphinx moth, AKA hummingbird moth that has a long proboscis to reach deep for nectar in penstemons, among other flowers.
No other place I'd rather be at that moment!
Rock with flat surface provides a "chair" to sit and rest
Pinto Mountain left (highest) summit
Alternating light and dark rocks correspond with varied rock units (see Geology, above)
Red barrel cactus
White-lined sphinx caterpillar
Common Fishhook cactus in quartzite
Nothing gets in the way of the expansive views of mountain ranges perched on the desert floor in every direction as you near the summit. It doesn't take long before you feel like you are standing far above the immense basin. Creosote bushes make tiny dots on the smooth floor below and washes braid toward the low point of Pinto Basin. The hike goes through several rock units.
Sharp and angular quartzite crunches and clinks under boots and becomes loose and steep as you near the summit. A few trails can be seen through the steep section where I had to hold onto fractured rocks; they all make their way up the ridge line. I looked down the trail to see that Scott had temporarily disappeared under the crags I was on, so I waited until he climbed and appeared again. Suddenly, the flat crown of the summit appears as you emerge from the steep rocks and take a short walk to the summit cairn. We took shelter from the persistent northwest wind at the lee side of the cairn, procured the metal box containing the summit register, and found a page to put our entry for 12/26/2018: "PEACE - from Sue, Scott and Fred - 3 friends who like to hike together".
Summit of Pinto Mountain, 3,983 feet looking northwest
Saguaro cactus sculpture from old wire present on top of the mountain
Scott, Sue and Fred on Pinto Mountain summit
Our summit register entry for 12-26-18
The entry above ours: "Christmas Eve/Dec/2018 - Happy Holidays everybody! We made it to the top". - Ecuador, USA, Argentina
Summit looking north
Together, another summit and memorable day in the beautiful American West!
U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker on Pinto used for triangulation station (main station) for land survey
The wind was cold and blowing steadily, so we stayed long enough to get our photos, revel in our accomplishment, and grab some food for the journey down. The bumpy ridge extended from our feet to the basin. The walk across the alluvial fan, then across Pinto Wash was a welcome change from the quad-burning descent down the last part of the ridge. This time we followed the trail all the way down and found a cairn marking the entry to the ridge.
In the late afternoon, the wind finally stopped blowing; we took another rest, lounging on the rocks and basking in the sun before our flat and long walk across the sand. Colors became more vibrant as we walked toward the sun lowering toward the hulk of mountains across the valley. The light yellow sand we walked in the morning was now a deep golden hue, and the sky above Pinto Mountain now held wispy light gray clouds, tinged with purple. I turned a few times to watch the light changes on Pinto; the white summit, where we had just been a few hours ago, was glowing. The next time I turned around, it was blue-gray in the dusk shadow. The temperature dropped as we walked across soft sand, avoiding burrows. Getting back to the parking lot and throwing off boots, a few cars drove up and people got out to snap a quick photo of Pinto. We got to be on top of that beautiful place today. We were the lucky ones - three friends who like to hike together.
"It is enough to know why I came here: to breathe in the solitude and the silence."
- Ann Zwinger, Wind in the Rock: The Canyonlands of Southeastern Utah
On the way down - Scott and Fred - descend ridge to the left with saddles in between high points
Late afternoon sun and deep red hues of barrel cactus
Not officially dunes, but an accumulation of blowing sand adjacent to mountain range
Pinto Mountain in late afternoon - "dunes" in foreground
Cross-country hike to summit of Monument Mountain with expansive views in Joshua Tree National Park, and some of the oldest rocks in California
Trip Stats (from Pinkham Canyon Road approach, off of Cottonwood Springs Road)
Yucca and cholla cactus
Near Pinkham Canyon Road looking southeast toward Cottonwood Mountains, southern part of Joshua Tree Wilderness
"Mind expanding" is what designer Jonathan Adler calls Joshua Tree. For those who have traveled deserts in Southern California, hiked the dry washes, climbed rust-red and brown rocks and seen valleys that extend nearly to the horizon backed by mountain ranges, Joshua Tree is a special place. It's an expansive and sublime wonderland. It was our long-time friend Scott's idea to summit Monument Mountain in southern Joshua Tree National Park around New Year's Eve 2017. Scott has hiked many peaks on the Desert Peaks Section Peak List, and he has tons of experience hiking cross country.
The views from the mountain's south ridge are incredible, and about 1/2 way to the summit, if you turn around and look to the south, you can see the Salton Sea, a large lake formed from overflow of the Colorado river when engineers in 1905 were attempting to deliver more water to irrigation canals . The weather was perfect: sunny, no wind, and 70 degrees. Fred and I had arrived from Boise for our yearly desert holiday fix.
After driving up Cottonwood Springs Road from Joshua Tree NP's southern entrance, we headed left (west) onto the sand/gravel Pinkham Canyon Road that begins adjacent from the Cottonwood Visitors Center. The road was in good condition, but I would still recommend a 4-wheel drive vehicle because there was soft sand in parts. We piled out of Scott's red pick-up 5 miles down Pinkham Canyon Road and stood in a sun-flooded broad valley of yucca, cholla and creosote surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides. Looking north to our destination, we could see our ridge to the summit, but Monument Mountain was not in view. We started walking across the wash due north.
Our route down from summit of Monument Mountain from Pinkham Canyon Road (black dashed line), Joshua Tree NP (North at top of map)
Google Earth image of our two routes: pink line represents our ascent to main ridge trail; Blue line represents our descent. On our way down, we took a ridge to the west and then joined back on the main trail (seen on map at upper "loop"). The blue line route down is easiest: the path wasn't apparent when we started. We parked ~ 5 miles down Pinkham Canyon Road (bottom of image).
click on map for larger image
View to the north of the Monument Mountain's south ridge. Cross the wash and head for toe of ridge
From edge of wash, climb up first hill to the south ridge of Monument Mountain
The flatter valley wash soon turns into an alluvial fan with larger rocks and braided channels at the toe of the ridge. As you look north, you see a rise and it is best to get to the top of it and onto the ridge as soon as possible; that will take you to the top of Monument Mountain. Walking on the ridge is pleasant with less vegetation and rocks to navigate than walking on the slopes beneath the ridge. The trail on top of the ridge is faint and marked at somewhat regular intervals with small cairns. Once on the ridge, the route is a gentle rolling climb to the summit cone of rocks with washes on both sides. Some dry washes have deep rock cuts at the top.
As seen from the Google Earth map above, we took a less efficient way up (pink line), side-hilling and navigating rocks. Sometimes you don't figure out the "right" way up until you go down! Although there is no "right or wrong" way, just more efficient and therefore more enjoyable routes.
Fred ascending to ridge from Pinkham Canyon Road in valley below
Looking at Monument Mountain summit, 4,837 feet elevation
About 2/3 of hike distance, (1.7 - 2.0 miles), Monument Mountain finally comes into view. You can see faint trail leading up to the ridge after descending slightly down from the ridge into a broad sloping valley on your left and a saddle to your right. The climb up the stable metamorphic rocks to the summit is relatively easy. Nothing matches the feeling of so much desert around you, and unobstructed, airy 360-degree views.
Augen gneiss - some of the oldest rocks in California at early and middle Proterozoic age
Monument Mountain summit
Augen gneiss at summit of Monument Mountain, some of the oldest rocks in California, age 1.65 bya (billion years ago)
Light-colored feldspar mineral fragments in metamorphic rock
The survey marker on Monument Mountain is a triangulation station (or main station), as indicated by the triangle inscribed in the middle of the disc. This is surrounded by three other survey markers in distant locations that have inscribed arrows that point directly back to this main station.
Upon reaching the summit, we were somewhat surprised to see 2 people from the San Francisco Bay area that had hiked up via Porcupine Wash, from the northeast direction. I was surprised because this peak is so isolated and is located in the wilderness area. When I exclaimed, "There's the red can!", one of them commented that it was just trash left on a mountain. I explained to him that it was a summit register, whereupon he signed his name. I told him that the register at Cowboy Camp in the Santa Rosa Mountains still had the entry I had written almost 20 years ago!
Mt. San Jacinto, the towering presence over Palm Springs can be seen to the west.
The rock at the summit looks and feels old because it is old! These rocks record the earliest geologic events in Joshua Tree National Park - originated as sedimentary and igneous rocks that underwent metamorphism and then a couple of continent-building episodes finally to be uplifted during the Mesozoic tectonic events where it became fragmented. There are 4 units of this metamorphic complex within Joshua Tree. The augen gneiss on Monument Mountain is a metamorphic granite containing elliptically-shaped feldspar porphyroclasts in its layering (augen in German means "eye"). You can see these lighter grains of feldspar embedded in the dark rock. This type of rock has undergone Uranium-Lead geochronology from the zircon grains it contains to arrive at a date of 1.65 billion years ago, making these some of the oldest-known rocks in California.
Scott, Sue and Fred on summit of Monument Mountain
View to the south of the Salton Sea from the summit
View from the summit to the southeast
Red Barrel Cactus
Scott next to summit register, Eagle Mountains in the distance
Heading down; we ascended on faint path seen to the right side of the ridge in this photo
The way down is straightforward - follow the ridge! This is a good first-time cross country hike for the hiker that wants to get off a well-trodden path and do some fairly easy navigation with a good topo map. There's a smaller ridge to the right (southwest) as you head down and we took it for a little while about 1/2 mile down, but then got back on the main ridge. To avoid being pulled off the ridge and side-hilling over rock-cluttered and vegetation-thick (watch for the cactus spines!), sighting in the next cairn as one is passed is helpful.
As we got closer to the valley, we got sucked into a canyon - easy to do if you get off the ridge. By this time, we could see a glint of sunlight off the truck that was far across the wash. Further down we regained the ridge that at its end was a broad slope we descended easily to the alluvial fan and then finally to the wash. The walk across the broad valley passes over many small channels, through cholla and yucca.
Once we finally found the truck on Pinkham Canyon Road, we savored the setting sun illuminating the cholla cactus making them glow among the yucca and creosote.
Kaiser, J. 2017. How Geology formed Joshua Tree National Park. Retrieved from
Powell, Robert E. 2001. Geologic Map And Digital Database of the Porcupine Wash 7.5 minute quadrangle, Riverside County, California, U.S. Geological Survey Open-file Report 01-030, scale 1:24,000, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
Trent, D.D. 1998. Geology of Joshua Tree National Park, from California Geology, Dept. of Conservation, Divsion of Mines and Geology.
Roger Keezer, Coachella Valley Hiking Club hike leader, Search and Rescue Volunteer for Riverside County Sheriff, and great friend conceived the phrase, "Cactus to Clouds", a now well-known extreme hike. Fred and I recently hiked with his wife, Maria, to his memorial in the mountains near Palm Springs, California.
I've a vague memory of the first time I met Roger and Maria Keezer 26 years ago. We were among other hiking enthusiasts invited to the first meeting of the Coachella Valley Hiking Club, founded by Philip Ferranti. Ideas for a new hiking club were being considered: what kind of hikes should we offer, to where, how do we rate their difficulty, and who wants to be a hike leader?
Etched in my memory, however, is Roger's silhouette as he climbed in front of the sun and up the steep side of a mountain, walking stick in hand, pack on his back, with shade from a canvas brimmed hat. He wasn't a big man, but he could take long strides and climb like a mountain goat as we trailed behind him, our legs burning and hearts pounding. I still marvel at Roger and Maria's strength and endurance, and their hiking accomplishments. They celebrated Roger's milestone years of 70 and 75 hiking rim-to-rim the Grand Canyon one day, turning around and hiking back the next day. To do this, you must be fit, as Roger and Maria were. Walking from the North Rim to the South Rim is ~ 22 miles with a 6,000 foot elevation loss followed by a 4,500-foot climb out of the canyon. They were "rim-to-rimmers" before that term became popular.
Roger and Maria Keezer, on summit of Quail Mountain, the highest in Joshua Tree National Park
Roger Keezer conceived the name for arguably the toughest hike in America - an extreme physical test that climbs from Palm Springs to the top of Mt. San Jacinto in one day - a 10,300 foot heart-pounding gain. In 1993, six of us, including Roger and Maria, completed this hike. When I asked for a name for t-shirts to commemorate this extreme hike, Roger quietly said, "Cactus to Clouds". Our event was then dubbed the "First Cactus to Clouds Challenge". This hike is on many an extreme hiker's and runner's bucket list.
First Cactus to Clouds Challenge - Summit of Mt. San Jacinto - 1993
(Roger and Maria Keezer standing 3rd and 4th from left)
On trail near Palm Springs, California
Joyous to be out of the Boise snow this winter, Fred and I hiked with Maria under a warm desert sun near Palm Springs, California to a place where we celebrate Roger's memory on one of his favorite trails - a place that meant a lot to Roger. It is here that friends and family remember Roger with cards, photos, valentines and poems. So wonderful were many things on this hike: the sun warming the cool morning, the scent of creosotes, the satisfying crunch of gravel under foot, and especially walking on the trail again with Maria. But, oh, do I miss Roger's determined steps and gentle spirit!
Roger and Maria started their hiking career after retiring from Lucky Stores in 1992. We all became hike leaders with the Coachella Valley Hiking Club. After many hikes, many miles, many stories, many awesome mountain top views, much sweat and effort, our friendship endures. Quick-paced with stick in hand and pack on her back, Maria still marches up and down desert trails, and I'm still trying not to fall behind.
Maria Keezer still hikes steady and strong
Roger didn't talk much about himself. It was a few years after I met Roger that he told us he was a submariner during his Navy days. He was a quiet man with a gentle laugh, who could serve up a great-tasting tequila shot for hors d'oeuvres, followed by the most perfectly grilled tri-tip for dinner. He had a beautiful mint-condition 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback that he and Maria took on "Mustangs Across America" - a trip from Las Vegas to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Fred, Sue and Maria near Palm Springs, California
California Barrel Cactus - Ferocactus cylindraceus
Roger often had interesting stories about helping to rescue lost people in the Coachella Valley and San Jacinto Wilderness when he was a volunteer with Riverside County Sheriff. Those were the happy stories, however, there were also the stories of body recoveries.
Wildhorse Trail near Indian Canyons, Palm Springs, California
"Teddy Bear" Cholla - Cylindropuntia bigelovii
Maria and Roger Keezer, Ray Wilson, Scott Tanner, Fred Birnbaum on Art Smith Trail, Palm Desert, California
The view from Roger's memorial is stunning. I could see many places we had all hiked together in the washes and mountains surrounding us. The air was clear and the sun high as we stood and reminisced about the last 25 years of our friendship - and Roger's life. It's good to know there is a particular place we can go to remember Roger, although for me his spirit is still present in and around the desert mountains that he loved so much.
View of Mt. San Jacinto Wilderness from the top of Murray Peak, Coachella Valley, California
Maria and Roger Keezer, Fred Birnbaum
September 23, 1929 - August 22, 2015
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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