So why would my good friend Jeremy Long and I venture into Joshua Tree National Park in the afternoon heat? Chasing down arches would be the reason. See below for a gallery of images taken in the Coxcomb Rocks area of Joshua Tree National Park.
Jeremy and I decided to explore some other areas of Joshua Tree National Park that had we had not travelled to extensively in the past. We knew there also arches in the area, one of our favorite things to photograph.
The largest arch in the area has been popularized by Chip Morton and Bodhi Smith. They call it Scorpius Arch. This is an incredibly interesting area because of the geology and the fact that there just isn’t a lot of visitation to the area.
That arch was almost immediately recognizable and was barely a 15 minute walk to it. It faces a nice direction for night photography and sunsets.
We knew from reading elsewhere that there was MUCH MORE in the area besides the arch. Indeed, the granite pilings show extensive evidence of erosion through wind and other elements. Many “holes” were profiles in the rock piles. Many alcoves, caves, and shelters were easily recognizable. Some were huge. A number of rocks showed evidence they will be future arches.
Areas of the Coxcomb Rocks
There were a number of smaller arches throughout the area as we made two loops around. In an echo chamber area we called “The Amphitheater,” there was another beautiful small arch that framed some of the mountains North in Mojave Trails National Monument. I called that one the Dinosaur Window because it looked like a T-rex chomping on some prey.
Did I mention cave shelters? Everywhere we turned, we could find potential spots for the migrating Mojave, Chemehuevi, Serrano, and other Native Americans who would season between the Colorado River and the San Bernardino Mountains. There was a lot of patina, but alas, we failed to locate any rock art. Jeremy climbed into several of the caves, many looking like perfect cave shelters. One had a rock outcrop that appeared to be purposely placed by humans. Whether that was vintage or modern is not clear. That shelter did appear to have some evidence of a campfire, but again, no rock art was located.
It could be that the area’s position and possibly not being a regular water source (it did not appear to have a spring nearby) could be a contributor to the lack of rock art. Or, we simply did not locate it.
I must say, despite doing two loops of exploring, we must have visited about 5% of the entire Coxcomb Rocks area. In a cooler climate, this entire area must be extensively studied.
Beat The Heat
This hike is not for everybody. As far as the terrain, the Coxcomb Rocks hike is very easy. We traversed a large portion of a multi-channeled wash with little up or down. There is some bouldering getting good vantage points of the rock outcroppings. There are very good and long sight-lines, with easily identifiable landmarks to help you from getting lost.
The heat was stifling. The Summer isn’t here yet, but it was 97 degrees when we parked. It stayed that way for several hours before finally cooling down as the sun got lower. We each packed over 4 liters of water despite a short walk. We drank a significant portion of it. This is not a great area to visit in the heat, and not a great area to visit alone. If you go, take every precaution and be sure somebody knows your itinerary. Go with a group!
Don’t Bust The Crust
One concern I have for this area is the stunning amount of cryptobiotic soil. This soil is alive! It helps control erosion, and provides a very narrow layer of organic soil for plants and trees to grow from. The topsoil in this granitic region is very slim, the crypto is so important. With the expected increase in foot traffic, it is likely that a large portion of this organic soil in the area will be trampled and killed. Crypto takes years to grow back.
Throughout the Southwest, they have a famous saying, “Don’t bust the crust.” Crypto is famously prevalant in Southern Utah, but can be found throughout the Southwest. I rarely see it in the deserts of Southern California. That could be because it simply isn’t as dispersed, or it could be that the last 150 years of travel, mining, ranching, and other activities have extirpated it from the area. I don’t know what is accurate.
What is true is that this is a special place that is going to see much more traffic in the future. I am hopeful that those who travel to enjoy the Coxcomb Rocks area do so with care.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.