Mojave Desert Adventure Part IV
On the fourth day in the Mojave Desert we got off to a slow start and left our hotel room rather late (8:30AM) and we decided to explore Pahrump’s own Discovery Park in earnest. Discovery Park is interesting because it is an open space that has been restored from an old golf course. Furthermore, most of the restoration has been done by adjacent land owners. The park has a ~2 mile paved loop trail around it, but there are several informal trails throughout the reclaimed golf course.
The park lies in the middle of a residential neighborhood and offers views of Mount Charleston to the northeast. There is an odd mix of open bare earth, invasive grasses, towering cottonwood trees and pines. There is also a small stream complete with various riparian willows. The centerpiece of the space includes two unnatural looking ponds situated at the halfway point on the trail and there is a bright white fence bookending the trail. It is clear that this space was once a human designed landscape, but it is actually very interesting to watch it being reclaimed by the desert.
The main focus of our walk was birding – we identified several species including: American Widgeon, Canada Goose, Mallard, Snow Goose, White-fronted Goose, Swan Goose, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Costa’s Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Common Raven, Phainopepla, European Starling, Common Yellowthroat, Great-tailed Grackle, and White-crowned Sparrow. Most of these birds naturally occur in the area, but the pair of Swan Geese was a unique surprise and were likely domestic escapees. In one of the backyards there was a feeding tray which the Swan Geese appeared to be utilizing along with several dozen other waterfowl. Even though this was not a natural setting, I will still count the Swan Geese in my life list of birds.
After our morning birding, we traveled back to Red Rock Canyon for some more trail running. I was so impressed by the beauty of the area on the first day of the trip, that I thought it warranted further exploration. So we made our way entrance of the 13 mile scenic drive and Apryle dropped me at the Turtlehead Peak trailhead. Turtlehead Peak stands 6324 feet and is the highest non-technical summit of Red Rock Canyon. It was a beautiful route that started in a wide dry creek-bed and gradually ascended into a rocky gully. Route finding was a little difficult but ultimately I had my course set for a distant saddle which proceeded the final pitch to the official summit. The slanted final slope had a slight snow accumulation over the red and gray rock. The earth tones were punctuated by barrel cacti, juniper, and manzanita. I reached the summit in 31:33 and felt as though I could have gone a few minutes faster if I had not lost my way on a few occasions. The whole out and back was 4.7 miles with 2000 vertical feet.
Following my summit of Turtlehead, Apryle joined me on the second run which circumnavigated White Rock Mountain. This was in my top five favorite desert loops of all time due to its stunning scenery, vegetation, trail conditions, and historic importance. The route started with a quick jog up a gravel road to the White Rock Loop trail and we elected to go in a counterclockwise direction. The opening two miles gradually ascended from 4600 feet to 5400 feet and passed around the northeast corner of White Rock Mountain. The smooth crushed gravel path meandered through a naturally maintained garden of bitterbrush, sagebrush, cholla, and yucca with the occasional pinyon pine.
As the trail descended southwestward along the mountain the plant life changed once again and the pinyon pines were joined by dense stands of juniper. The understory was dominated by sagebrush, bitterbrush, yucca, manzanita, prickly pear and beavertail cacti. The soil turned from crushed gray gravel to red claylike earth and multicolored pebbles. The mountain slopes of the La Madre Wilderness mountains to the northwest looked like prime Bighorn Sheep habitat, but we saw none. The vermilion and beige cliffside spires towered above the pale green juniper stands creating picturesque views to our southeast.
The loop trail dove southeastward into a gap in the rocks and turned into a much wider trail near a parking area. Here we deviated from the loop to find some petroglyphs carved into the cliff-side. The petroglyphs are estimated to be 800 years old and though Apryle is typically not a fan of art in parks, for these ancient drawings, she made an exception. We got back on the main trail and decided to add onto the White Rock loop by taking the Willow Springs loop trail. This trail passed by more wall art and then split to the Lost Creek trail.
The Lost Creek trail was an unexpected twist to the high desert loop. The trail was under heavy tree cover and straddled a clear running stream. In this riparian ecosystem it was a greatest hits of Red Rock Canyon plant life, the manzanita poked up through bitterbrush, while prickly pear cacti occupied all the spaces in between. Desert willow, western redbud, skunkbrush sumac, and turnbinella oak hugged the rocky shore of the stream while pinyon pine and juniper reached for the sun. The vegetation created a narrow tunnel along the stream and opened up to a shallow basin at the foot of a 20 foot waterfall. We felt very fortunate to see this waterfall in the desert, and assumed that there were very few days throughout the year that water even trickles over the ledge. Water tumbled over the precipice and sprayed mist into the air creating an experience more akin to our home in western Washington.
We returned to Willow Springs loop trail and emerged onto a long wooden boardwalk that overlooked the vast desert below. From here we crossed Rocky Gap Road and got back onto the White Rock loop trail and began an ascent back to the initial trailhead. The southeast side of White Rock Mountain had a completely different look and feel from the northwest side. There were no trees; cholla cacti, yucca and bitterbrush attempted to fill the vertical void, but fell short. The crushed gravel trail snaked along, passing by reddish tan sandstone rock in various stages of decomposition strewn across the undulating landscape. Barrel Cacti emerged from the most inhospitable crags, while ghosts of sagebrush stood in memory of their former photosynthesizing selves. The sun set behind the towering mountains to the west as we completed the White Rock loop (8.5 miles 1545 vertical feet).