Coso Junction Pictographs at Ayers Rock

Do you know the difference between a petroglyph and a pictograph? Both are forms of rock art, usually prehistoric, that use two different methods of leaving marks on rock. Petroglyphs are carved on or pecked into the rock face using other rocks, whereas pictographs are painted on the rock surface with naturally occurring pigments in a less durable art form. Petroglyphs are found all over the southwest at many famous sites in America, but pictographs less so. However, in the Mojave Desert of California, north of the town of Ridgecrest, you’ll find a pictograph site maintained by the Bureau of Land Management with beautiful examples that may actually have been created in the early 20th century. But despite their newness, they are a fine example of using colored pigment to create designs and patterns on the boulders of the Mojave.

In the Coso Range of southern California, located on the property of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, the greatest concentration of petroglyphs in the United States can be found in several canyons designated as the Coso Rock Art District. Over 20,000 petroglyphs are protected at this National Historic Landmark maintained by the military. At Coso Junction – the intersection of CA Highway 395 and Gill Station Coso Road west of the Coso Rock Art District – you won’t find petroglyphs, but the dirt road will take you first to the entrance of a mine, and then to a small dirt lot with a short trail that leads to Coso pictographs. Red and orange figures populate a large boulder known as Ayers Rock, including humanoid figures, deer, bighorn sheep and possibly a ringtail cat! These pictographs represent the Coso Painted Style and may have been created by the Tubatulabal of the Kern River Valley or the Kawaiisu of the Tehachapi Mountains. It is rumored that they were created in the 20th century by the last Kawaiisu shaman, Bob Rabbit.

Obsidian flakes litter the ground in these parts, and it isn’t difficult to find examples worked into projectile points. The obsidian found here originated at Sugarloaf Mountain, some four miles away from the pictograph site, and has been catalogued at sites reaching all the way to the Pacific coast.


Camping in Mojave National Preserve

It’s like Death Valley, but with even less visitors. The dirt roads that crisscross the Mojave National Preserve offer the same backcountry roads and camping experience as Death Valley National Park in the same desert landscape. And unlike Death Valley’s developed campgrounds – which often seem like parking lots – Mid Hills and Hole-in-the-Wall Campgrounds are situated in the desert landscape with scenery to spare. Both campgrounds have sites with picnic tables, fire rings, pit toilets, and water. No reservations are available for camping in Mojave, so the roadside camping that is available throughout the preserve provides options when the developed campgrounds are filled. Keep in mind that Mid Hills is situated at more than 5000 feet in elevation and can be chilly in the fall, winter and spring. Hole-in-the-Wall is conveniently located near the visitor center that is open weekends only with access to hiking trails and ranger programs.

Why is Mojave a National Preserve instead of a National Park? In the National Park System, different designations come with different regulations and unlike national parks, national preserves allow use of resources such as mining and hunting. Be prepared to hear gunfire in the preserve if you visit during hunting season, and be prepared for campgrounds to fill on weekends. The Mojave Desert has a long and colorful mining history, with some sites still active today. The preserve is also home to a very active railroad line, where the lonely sound of trains passing in the night is easily discernible from campsites at Mid Hills.

For those who enjoy nature by gentler means, the preserve offers hiking and plenty of opportunity for photography. Two easy hikes include the Rings Loop Trail – which offers visitors the chance to descend a slot canyon via iron rings mounted in stone walls – and the Rock Spring Loop Trail as a one mile trip to Rock Spring and its boulders carved with petroglyphs. Kelso Dunes rise 700 feet above the Devil’s Playground, a system of moving sand originating in the Mojave River Sink to the north. Look for animal tracks in the sand and a rosy glow at sunrise and sunset. Ancient lava tubes are accessed via the Aiken Mine Road, and a stop at the Kelso Depot Visitor Center will put the  history of the railroad into perspective.

Summer is considered the off season in the Mojave as the desert temperatures reach well over 100 degrees. Spring can bring a show of wildflowers if the precipitation conditions have been favorable, with fall and winter featuring gloriously sunny days and chilly nights – perfect camping weather!

Where the Streets Have No Name: U2’s Joshua Tree

If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, perhaps you are looking in the wrong place. In 1987, Irish band U2 released their fifth album titled, “The Joshua Tree“, a sort of love letter to America represented images of California’s Mojave Desert. The album artwork included photos of the band in various desert locations including Zabriskie Point at Death Valley National Park and a strikingly solitary joshua tree – chosen for its unique situation since joshua trees normally grow in forests. The location of the joshua tree became a pilgrimage for U2 fans, though the tree was difficult to find. Many believed the tree was located in Joshua Tree National Park – a logical assumption – when in fact the tree was located just outside of Death Valley National Park, a few hundred miles away.

For those who did find the location of the joshua tree, the site became a shrine to the band and the album with rock art, visitor logs, offerings of booze and momentos, and a bronze plaque that reads, “Have You Found What You’re Looking For?” The joshua tree itself died in 2000, but the remains of the tree and the shrine still exist in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Located on Lower Centennial Flat off CA Highway 190, the site is near the Darwin Road – turnoff for the mysterious desert community of Darwin. Visited infrequently, the shrine still marks a gathering place in the desert, as even the few hearty souls who make the trek leave an impression on the fragile landscape.

The Joshua Tree in 1994 by Joho345

The Joshua Tree in 1994 by Joho345



The Strange History of the Mojave Phone Booth

mojave-phone-booth lara hartley

The Mojave Phone Booth captured by Lara Hartley for Barstow’s Desert Dispatch

Do you know the history of the loneliest phone in America? If you traveled to California’s Mojave National Preserve in the 1990s, on a dirt road off the Cima Dome Road you would have come across an old-school phone booth – the kind that Clark Kent used to change into Superman – that no longer exists, but served many years as the only communication line for miners in the Mojave desert. Literally in the middle of nowhere, the phone booth served its purpose as a locals only line for decades before going viral thanks to the early days of internet influence. The original phone line was installed for local miners in 1948, but the booth was installed in the 1960s. Eight miles from the nearest paved road, the booth changed area codes twice before settling on 760-733-9969.

Back in the mid 1990s, a guy in Phoenix named Godfrey Daniels – better known as Doc – read about a phone number for a remote phone booth in an underground magazine and became obsessed with calling it. Repeatedly. He kept a Post-It note in his bathroom that read, “Did You Remember to Call the Mojave Desert Today?” After endless ringing for a month, Doc caught a busy signal and redialed frantically until a lady named Lorene answered the phone and confirmed its existence. Doc was ecstatic. He had found his calling. A summer road trip to locate the booth in the Mojave National Preserve resulted in the phone ringing loudly in the dark desert night once Doc paged a friend to call him at the booth. Afterward, back home in Phoenix, Doc gave the Mojave Phone Booth a webpage at (still available in vintage 90s format) and a shot at infamy. As quiet as the internet was in 1997, it didn’t stop the story of the Mojave Phone Booth from reaching far-flung corners of the globe and people began calling the booth on a regular basis. When Doc traveled back to the booth a year later, the phone rang incessantly and they talked to people from all over the world. Others traveled to the booth’s location to be on the receiving end of calls. The booth even inspired a Hollywood film, “Mojave Phone Booth“.

400px-Movieposter_MojavePhoneBooth2006The party line lasted until May 17, 2000 when the National Park Service decided that the pilgrimage to the booth was inappropriate for a national preserve and had the booth removed. NPS issued the following statement:

“After weighing the environmental concerns and the public need, Pacific Bell and the National Park Service agreed to remove a pay phone in a remote pocket of the Mojave National Preserve. While the phone and its location proved to be a novelty for some in recent months the increased public traffic had a negative impact on the desert environment in the nation’s newest national park.”

But the booth lives on in both legend and soon-to-be-literature. Doc is authoring a book about the phone booth phenomenon entitled, “Adventures with the Mojave Phone Booth” that is scheduled for publication in May 2015 – fifteen years after the booth’s demise. Today, the Mojave Phone Booth number – 760-733-9969 – has been resurrected by phone phreak Lucky225 as a permanent conference call for whoever would like to join. Well, is it ringing?



Eureka Dunes Dry Camp in Death Valley National Park

A dry camp is defined as a campsite without water resources – including flushing toilets. When the dry camp is located in Death Valley National Park, dry may already be a familiar state to park visitors – as well as hot – but it takes on a more urgent meaning if you plan to stay a few days camping in the Mojave Desert. Death Valley is home to several dry camps in addition to developed campgrounds, with the main differences being the aforementioned flush toilets and the fact that the dry camps are located in some of the park’s most fascinating landscapes. The Eureka Dunes dry camp is no exception.

Found in the northern end of the park after a long drive on flat, wide, but bone-rattling dirt roads, the second-highest sand dune site in the United States boasts its own ecosystem and a spectacular spring wildflower show if the conditions are right. The dry camp itself is more than a wide flat spot to pitch a tent. Four designated sites include the comforts of campfire rings, picnic tables and parking spaces. Nearby, you’ll find a pit toilet and further down the road you’ll find dispersed campsites that are popular with groups and those who prefer privacy to a short stroll to the toilet.

The Eureka Dunes are nestled in a rock amphitheater of the Last Chance Mountains, rising 700 feet above the floor of Eureka Valley at an elevation of 3000 feet above sea level. The unique and isolated nature of the dunes has caused several species of plants to evolve distinctively, including Eureka Dunegrass and Eureka Dunes Evening Primrose. Blooming in March and April if the previous winter brought significant rains, the primrose is deceptive in its display. As an evening bloomer, the flowers close completely during the heat of the day and lay flat against the plant’s starburst of green leaves that barely rise above the sand. Campers are most likely to catch the showy yellow, pink and white flowers in the cool of the morning and may never notice them at all during the heat of the day. Many other kinds of wildflowers are found in the land surrounding the dunes, providing a rainbow of color against the browns of the desert in a good wildflower year.

Another unique characteristic of the Eureka Dunes is the ability to sing. Singing sand dunes occur when the conditions are just right in summer – a certain amount of heat and strong winds allow cascades of sand to create booming noises. The ‘singing’ is most likely to occur in the keys of G, E or F.

Despite being isolated in the north end of the park, the desert of Eureka Valley may not provide silence and solitude during your visit. Death Valley’s proximity to several military installations in California and Nevada means that fighter jet fly-bys are frequent. Many visitors to the dunes experience their closest encounter with America’s military might as the amphitheater surrounding the dunes proves irresistible to pilots who circle the dunes several times a day. The flight restrictions at the southern end of Death Valley do not apply here and jets often perform fly-bys at a mere 300 feet above the valley floor. The effect is thrilling and deafening.

The easiest access to Eureka Dunes Dry Camp is via the Death Valley Road from Big Pine, California. High clearance vehicles with 4 wheel drive are best. Check road conditions at Death Valley Backcountry Roads before you travel.