Sunday, October 9, 2016

Mastodon Peak

View of Little San Bernardino Mountains from Mastodon Peak
2.6 miles loop, 440 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate (Easy if skipping the summit scramble)
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park entrance fee required

Deserts, ironically, are defined by water. Nowhere does the presence of liquid life matter more than in the very landscapes that lack it. From the creosote bush to the farmers of the Imperial Valley, every organism fights for their cut of water. Although a short and otherwise unassuming hike, the hike to and from Mastodon Peak in California's Joshua Tree National Park is a walk through a landscape where every drop of water has shaped the view that you see.

The southeastern corner of Joshua Tree National Park is often overlooked for the more immediately spectacular landscape of jumbled boulders and forests of the park's namesake yucca in the northwestern corner, but Mastodon Peak shows that this part of the park has its charms, too. The hike to Mastodon Peak is easy, short, and scenic, offering a chance not only to climb a small desert peak but also an opportunity to see many plants of the lower Colorado Desert and an up-close look at a desert oasis. Hikers who skip the rock scramble to the summit of Mastodon will miss some of the desert views but can still enjoy the trail for its desert botany, geology, and history.

I hiked this trail on an early November morning, driving in from Palm Springs by taking I-10 east and then taking exit 168 and heading north on Cottonwood Springs Road. At the Cottonwood Visitor Center, I turned right onto the road heading towards Cottonwood Campground and the Cottonwood Spring Oasis. I parked at the end of the road, just above the patch of palm trees and cottonwoods at the aptly named Cottonwood Spring Oasis.

Here, a number of fan palms stood by a large cottonwood and a number of smaller ones displaying golden fall foliage. The trees filled the bottom of the wash at the oasis, one of the few water sources in this otherwise bone-dry desert. The spring proved useful first to the Native Cahuilla as a water source and later to gold miners who saw the spring more as a source of water for gold milling.

Cottonwood Spring Oasis
I followed the trail from the parking lot through the oasis towards Mastodon Peak and Lost Palms Oasis; the initial portion was paved with a railing but the trail turned into a sandy wash after passing through the oasis. The trail quickly climbed out of the wash to a rocky saddle, opening up views of a landscape of jumbled boulders. The desert landscape here was awash with fascinating plants: amongst the boulders, I found ocotillo, cholla cactus, mesquite, catclaw, yucca, and creosote. The diversity of desert botanical life here was a reason why one of the initial names proposed for this protected area was Desert Plants National Monument; Franklin Roosevelt's administration ultimately decided on Joshua Tree National Monument when this area was initially preserved.

One of the more noteworthy plants in this part of the Colorado Desert were the ocotillo, which are spindly, many-armed plants. Although not cacti, the ocotillo's curved appendages are full of thorns.

Along the next half mile, the trail hugged the southern slopes of a hill, with good views of the boulders and plants immediately surrounding the area. At three-quarters of a mile from the parking lot, I came to a junction with a trail heading towards Mastodon Peak on the left; the trail heading straight continued towards Lost Palms Oasis. I took the left fork and followed this well-built trail up a set of rock stairs ascending through a rocky gully.

Trail climbing towards Mastodon Peak
The trail passed by a few collections of jumbled boulders before coming to the base of the highest pile of rocks- Mastodon Peak. Hikers expecting a prominent, soaring summit will be disappointed- Mastodon Peak is small and only sticks about 100 feet out above its surrounding landscape.

The Mastodon Peak summit block resembled the odd rock formations found in the northwestern corner of the park at Jumbo Rocks or the Wonderland of Rocks. It is the result of a similar geologic history: the exposed monzogranite was initially formed as an intrusive igneous rock, meaning that the rock formed from cooling magma deep within the crust. Over time, uplifting and erosion have brought the monzogranite to the surface; physical processes that brought the rock to the surface also resulted in a system of rectangular joints. Erosion along these joints create the distinct jumbled-rocks look of these monzogranite outcroppings.

Mastodon Peak summit block
I followed a social path around the right (east) side of the base of the summit block until coming to a scramble path at the north side of the peak. The scramble was not terribly difficult but did require use of my hands and could pose a challenge to anyone not used to rock scrambling. Hikers who skip the rock scramble can still enjoy a majority of the views described here.

The summit of Mastodon Peak offered a 360-degree of the surrounding desert, a panorama of the southernmost part of the park. The viewshed was actually fairly limited to the north and east, mainly encompassing the nearby Eagle Mountains and Little San Bernardino Mountains. The view to the south was quite impressive though: from the summit of Mastodon Peak, at just over 3400 feet above sea level, I looked past the mountains bounding Cottonwood Canyon down to the low, flat Coachella Valley, which connects to the even lower Imperial Valley. The valley reached its lowest point at the shimmering blue waters of the Salton Sea, an accidental endorheic lake (a lake with no outlet) that sat some 230 feet below sea level. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains rose to the west of Coachella Valley, reaching their high point at the soaring summit of San Jacinto Peak, over 10,000 feet above sea level and the sixth most prominent peak in the 48 states. To the right of San Jacinto Peak, I noticed the very top of San Gorgonio Peak, the tallest mountain in Southern California, peeking out over the Little San Bernardino Mountains. At the southern end of the view, it appeared that I could see all the way down to the Peninsular Ranges near the Mexican border.

Salton Sea and San Jacinto Mountains from Mastodon Peak
The recent history of the Imperial Valley and the Colorado Desert is the history of European settlers trying to reshape the desert to their will. The Salton Sea formed due to their actions: although lakes had come and gone in the past in the endorheic basin of the Imperial Valley, the area had small, transient lakes when European settlers first arrived. A plan to irrigate the Imperial Valley by digging a canal from the Colorado River backfired spectacularly in 1905 when the Colorado River redirected its flow from its main channel into the canals feeding into the valley. As a result, the Imperial Valley was flooded until the river banks of the Colorado were restored.

The irrigration scheme was eventually successful- today, the All-American Canal, the world's largest irrigation canal, diverts critical water from the Colorado River to the below-sea level valley. As a result, the Colorado River, sculptor of the Grand Canyon, principal recipient of the Rocky Mountain's annual snowpack, and surely one of the great rivers of the planet, is reduced to a trickle or nothing at all when it enters Mexico, just miles away from its mouth at the Gulf of California. The farmers of Imperial Valley were among the first to tap the Colorado River, laying early claim to precious water rights in a region where water is becoming ever more scarce. The precedence of their water rights have given these farmers priority to the dwindling supply of water in a drought-stricken state, keeping the alfalfa fields surrounding El Centro green through the Valley's blistering heat and ensuring the supply of lettuce and spinach for those Earthbound Farm salad greens clamshells found in American supermarkets throughout the winter.

The Salton Sea remains, kept just barely alive by the fertilizer-laden runoff from the farms, dying as its lakeshore recedes due to increased irrigation efficiency. To many, the Imperial Valley is life: the Salton Sea is wintering grounds for cormorants, pelicans, and many other birds and the lush, irrigated fields provide salads across the continent and a robust agricultural economy in one of the driest and hottest spots in the country. Yet there are more than passing reminders of death and decay here, too. Winds scouring newly-exposed portions of the Salton's former lakebed lift clouds of pesticides and other toxins into the Valley's air. Across the border, south of Mexicali, the once thriving and biodiverse wetlands and riparian forests at the Colorado River Delta are now shrinking in size with no flow in the Colorado.

After admiring the view from the summit of Mastodon and contemplating the role of water in this landscape, I scrambled from the summit back down to the trail. I continued forward on the loop and very quickly arrived at the ruins of the Mastodon Mine. This gold mine was operational during much of the mid-twentieth century and operated until 1971; the remaining structures include a small shack and a mining shaft dug into Mastodon Peak that is now sealed off by a grated gate. Quartz veins in the monzogranite here hold gold, the catalyst for gold prospects at many of the abandoned mines that litter the park.

Mastodon Mine
The presence of gold in the mountains of the park is linked to the region's complex geology. Joshua Tree sits at a unique position on the boundary between the Pacific and North American Plates. While the park itself is firmly on the North American plate, the geology of the area results from both the long transform plate boundary that has resulted in the San Andreas Fault and an area of active continental rifting between the the plates that has opened the Gulf of California. The below sea-level elevation of the Imperial Valley is explained by the fact that two tectonic plates are actively diverging here. Further south, that has resulted in the separation of Baja California from mainland Mexico and the formation of a narrow sea; the Imperial Valley exists because sediments from the Colorado River Delta form a barrier that prevent the Gulf of California from flooding the valley to the north. The San Andreas Fault starts near and runs along the southern boundary of the park, representing a transition from divergent to strike-slip motion between the two plates. Uneven distribution of tectonic stresses along this fault has led to localized areas of crustal compression or extension. Compression has created the Transverse Ranges, which includes both the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles and the Little San Bernardino Mountains in Joshua Tree National Park. Extension has resulted in basins such as the one that holds the megalopolis of Los Angeles.

Past the mine, the trail continued briefly on the ridgeline of Mastodon Peak before crossing to the north of the ridge and dropping into a wash. The plant life here was incredibly varied. One of the more fascinating plants found here was creosote, a very unassuming bush that carries the Spanish nickname "gobernadora," or governess. The first notable aspect of the creosote bush is its smell: lean in and breath on its leaves and you'll smell a distinctive and not unpleasant aroma. This smell is released in the presence of moisture; come to a creosote-laden desert after a rainstorm and the pungent wafts fill the air. The more impressive aspect of the creosote is its ability to compete with other desert plants for water: its nickname comes from its ability to monopolize land and water. Creosote's shallow and extensive root system allows it to draw up water from a wide area while also releasing chemicals that prevent other plants from growing. Humans, it seemed, were far from the only organisms engaged in underhand tactics for securing water in the desert.

Cholla, yucca, creosote
The trail followed the sandy bottom of a wash for about a third of a mile, passing by piles of huge boulders. The trail exited the wash to the right at an unsigned but reasonably well-marked point at which large rocks were laid across the width of the wash marking a change in the direction of the trail. After crossing a low ridge, the trail descended into a second wash, following it briefly before climbing out to the right once again.

Joshua Tree's interesting rocks
The trail descended into a third wash near a spring that nurtured a small oasis. Just north of the wash, a few cottonwoods and a palm tree rose at the head of a small canyon. This was the former site of the Winona Mill: water from the spring here was used to process gold mined at the Mastodon Mine. The mill is entirely gone now.

Small oasis near Winona Mill site
At the bottom of the wash near the Winona Mill site oasis, I came to a trail sign. Across the wash, a clearly defined trail climbed uphill towards the Cottonwood Campground. I turned left here, following the sandy wash itself back towards the Cottonwood Spring Road. Upon reaching the road, I made a left turn and followed the road back to the parking lot at Cottonwood Spring.

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