Leap Day Adventure

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Monday, February 29th, 2016

Of all the Leap Days that have come and gone in my life, I felt that it was about time to start doing something special on that rare day that only appears on the calendar every four years. There were many ideas going through my head about where I could possibly go including some places I had already been to, but that would not work. Today had to be about something “New” and “Unexplored” so I decided that I could head back to Joshua Tree National Park and visit the Hall of Horrors and the Barker Dam loop hike as a follow up after that. I had recently been to Joshua Tree last week when I focused on “Succulent Life Forms”, but today I would work on capturing more of the geology of the park. Even though the idea of visiting Joshua Tree National Park was not new, there were dozens of locations locked away within the park that I had never seen.


Hall of Horrors, Joshua Tree

GPS Coordinates: 33.996836° N, 116.1470426° W

When I arrived at Joshua Tree, I knew exactly where my first destination would be, however I was not certain as to the precise location of the rocky hallway at the Hall of Horrors. I secured all my camera gear and loaded up on water in case the trek was longer than expected and as this was my first visit here, I did not want to be unprepared. The weather was a nice 74ºF (23.3 Cº) with a slight breeze, but in the open areas the sun was still beating down pretty hard. A 30 spf sunscreen was necessary, which is great for the UV rays, but terrible if any of it should get on my glass, so I made sure to clean my hands very thoroughly. The slightest oily residue from a sunscreen lotion could wreak havoc on my glass if I accidentally smudge a finger over it.

From the parking lot, there is a large rocky Inselberg which splits the path in twain. I had the feeling that this was a loop trail and that you could get to the Hall of Horrors no matter which way you went, so I chose to take the left path heading southwest since anything that I would see to the north of the trail would be sunlit.

“The trail was marked with guide stones making the path a bit easier to follow.”


“This boulder marks the most southern end of the main Inselberg that you will hike around.”


As I hiked around the back side of the main rocky Inselberg, I did not see any clear indication of an entry point to the Hall of Horrors so I got a little closer to the rock face. There were a lot of narrow crevices and cracks between the massive boulders, but no sign of the hallway. I noticed that there was a smaller rocky Inselberg behind the bigger one that I had just navigated around so I decided to explore it. The guide stones along the trail began to disappear back here and so I just made my own path while avoiding spiny plants and cacti. You seriously need to have a good situational awareness here and a heap of common sense. Running into any cactus or thorn bush is a great way to ruin your mood and kill unnecessary time.

Some species like the Jumping Cholla are some of the worst offenders as their needles are populated with microscopic barbs that face in the reverse direction, making extraction of any embedded needles extremely painful. The natural design of these succulents make them so that even the lightest brush against one will cause a barbed pod section of the cactus to come off as a whole, hence why they are called “Jumping” Cholla, because it’s as if they literally jump onto you when you get too close.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the beautiful yet infamous Jumping Cholla of Joshua Tree.”


As I continued along the trail, I watched my step because I had a couple of close calls with some very spiny customers along the path. Eventually I found myself directly behind the larger Inselberg and concluded that this was not the place I was looking for, but it did make for a rather nice pic as the light was hitting it just right.


When I got closer to the small Inselberg off the main path, I had taken note of a small yucca that was growing near a slanted grouping of boulders that were definitely climbable. I decided to make my way up the boulders and to my great surprise, I discovered the Hall of Horrors and it was empty!, I had it all to myself! =D
I descended carefully into the hallway and took a good look around to see what sort of shots I wanted to make.

The entrance was at the southwest end of this particular Inselberg, but there was no other way out unless you climbed up and out like a ninja near the end of the hallway. The passage was not very wide, if I stuck my elbows out, they would touch the walls in some areas. The length was about 100ft (30.5 m) or so from the entry point to the end and the walls shot up about 30ft (9.1 m). The floor of the hallway was pretty flat and sandy. I could see how this would be difficult to shoot with people around, so I considered myself very fortunate. It seems that this location was a bit tricky to find for those who are just passing by and so it paid off to venture away from the trail.

“The hallway came to an end, making the entry the only exit as well.”

“Looking out toward the entrance/exit from the depths of the hallway.”


“The boulder that rests at the top of the hallway was about the size of my truck and probably weighed 10 times as much!”


“Had to get a selfie 5D MKII Style for this Leap Day and for scale.”


I was taking a few more shots on my tripod with the self timer near the entrance when I turned to get my bag and that’s when I realized that I was not alone in the hallway. I had a curious little spectator making her way into the hallway which startled me because it was very unexpected and although I did not fear her kind, I did make sure that I did not startle or provoke in any way her so I kept my distance and followed her as she turned shy and started to head back the way she came. Who was the curious yet shy visitor?

“She was a beautiful Western Rattlesnake of course!”


I stepped out to make this Leap Day something special and it sure was. This was the very first time in all 23 years that I have lived in the Mojave that I ever encountered a snake in the wild, and a beautiful rattler at that. She was just a youngster, about 28-30 inches (71 – 76 cm) in length and the circumference of a typical water hose. I never scared or harassed her once, and as she dove into the little cave she came out of, I mounted my 70-200mm lens and started firing many photos of her. She was totally chill and I soon realized that as I hopped up the boulder at the entry point into the hallway, she had turned around and wanted to get back in the hallway. I suppose I was just in her way, so I moved and let her have at it. For most, the name “Hall of Horrors” would ring accurate after an encounter like this, but for me it was a “Hall of Honors” as I had the honor to photograph this beautiful specimen up close.

“She was very curious about me as she flicked her tongue to taste the air for my scent and I’m sure her my heat signature was lighting up her heat pits.”


“Farewell you beautiful creature you!”


When she finally made her way into the now empty hallway, I started on my own way back to the parking lot. I couldn’t believe it, I was in there an entire hour without a single interruption by park visitors. I did notice that while I was in there snapping pics, I could hear people outside as they hiked by completely unaware of the hidden treasure that I was occupying. I ran into a young guy who was hiking toward me. I had asked him if he was heading into the hall and he said. “yup!” I stopped to warn him about the encounter I had with the Western Rattlesnake that was heading into the hallway especially since he was wearing small track shorts and that would make an easy target for any snake.

He was very grateful for the warning and carried on his way. I went back as well and kept an eye out along the trail for any of the snakes siblings just to play it safe. I’m sure that another rattler would not have been as calm as she was, but that’s the name of the game when you’re traveling the desert trails out here. Once I arrived, I dusted myself off, hopped in my rig and set off for my next destination with only an hour of daylight left.

Barker Dam, Joshua Tree

GPS Coordinates: 34.0300528° N, 116.146558° W

Barker Dam, also known as the Big Horn Dam, is a water-storage facility located in Joshua Tree National Park in California. The dam was constructed by early cattlemen, including CO Barker, in 1900. It was raised in 1949 by rancher William F. Keys. It is situated between Queen Valley and the Wonderland of Rocks near the Wall Street Mill. It is a gathering place for desert wildlife, including many species of birds and Desert Bighorn Sheep. Visitors can reach the dam via a short trail from a nearby parking lot and can see Native American petroglyphs a short distance to the west. There is also good bouldering on side trails near the dam. The park offers a Barker Dam Nature Hike led by a ranger. The lowest nine feet of the dam, the original portion, was constructed of concrete surfaced with stone on the downstream side. The height of the dam was raised an additional six feet with concrete in 1949-1950. The dam has several indentations. An inscription at top reads: “Big Horn Dam Built by Willis Keys, W.F. Keyes, Phyllis M. Keys, 1949-1950.” It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Barker Dam Loop trail is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) round trip and has little elevation gain. It goes from the parking lot at Barker Dam, past the dam and several good boulder climbing areas and a wall of petroglyphs. The trail offers good birding near the lake and at several spots along the trail that are surrounded by brush. It is a popular trail and is crowded midday. As of February of 2013 the dam was closed to public access due to numerous instances of graffiti and carvings on the dam itself, but is since reopened. (source: wikipedia)

“I reloaded my water container, grabbed a snack and hit the trail to Barker Dam.”


Barker Dam was a place that I had only heard of, but never actually visited as I was under the impression that it would be some crazy long hike into the desert. Little did I know that there was a paved road and parking area that puts you within a half mile trek to the actual dam. Upon arriving, I noticed that there were quite a few more folks here than I had seen at the Hall of Horrors, but nowhere near as many like on the weekends. The hike to the dam is a loop and so I took the most direct path by sticking to the right, however if you wish to see the dam in a way that does a “Grand Reveal” of sorts, you can take the left path which takes just a tiny bit longer. The shorter trail was very pretty itself though a lot of it was in shadow due to the approaching sunset, but It didn’t matter because this was going to be very short hike to what I can imagine being a great place to get some amazing photos of the sunset in the reflection of the water.

As soon as I got closer, something felt off. I was walking in an area surrounded by boulders and rocks that had obvious watermarks on them, but no water to be found. Instead of taking the trail to the left in accordance with the sign that was posted, I continued to hike my way a little further into the sandy looking basin and that’s when I realized that the place I was treading over was actually supposed to be underwater. It was bone dry, compliments of the serious drought that California has been experiencing over the last several years.

“An empty and dry region of sand marks the area where water had once been.”


I was under the impression that there was no water at all, but I was wrong, a very small remnant of the original body of water here was thriving near the dam. There was a sign posted at the top of the wall that stated, “Area Closed – All national park service area beyond this point closed to public use and travel because of emergency conditions.” This was definitely the evidence I needed to prove my ‘Drought Conjecture’ as being correct. I had seen some very beautiful images taken of this place when the water was in such abundance that all the water marks were concealed. I know it’s a long shot, but I really hope that El Niño continues to bring rain to Southern California this year so that watersheds can be replenished and help restore the reservoir at Barker Dam to it’s previous beauty.

“Even though there was a little water left, I had to attempt to get a decent photo of the reflection”


“Not too bad considering the small amount of water I had to work with, but I’d still like to see water as high as some of the marks on that boulder.”


I hung out at the dam for about a half hour and had a protein bar to satisfy my hunger. The sunset was starting and I was going to lose light fast, so I gathered up my camera gear and bag, then hit the loop trail back to the parking lot. The entire time I was running into some pretty gorgeous scenery that I had not seen since this was the other end of the loop. When I’m at Joshua Tree, the daylight never seems to last long enough, the place is just swamped with an insane amount of beauty at every turn and when that golden hour arrives, my photographer’s anxiety kicks in because all I want to do is capture everything around me at once.

“Following the loop trail back to the parking lot, you will run into some beautiful territory.”


“I love using my awesome Lee Filters to capture the scenery as the sun makes its final descent.”


When the sun disappeared behind the park’s tall peaks just west of where I was, I began to head at a slightly quicker pace to the parking lot in order to capture some great Joshua Tree silhouettes against the colorful after burst in the sky. My pace came to a halt however when I encountered a sign in the middle of a junction point which I had to follow because I would be a fool to miss out on an opportunity like this one!

“Petroglyphs you say?, why yes, I will go without hesitation!”


“I am a big fan of petroglyphs and when I can find them I will take every opportunity I can to capture them.”


“They were up high and although I could have attempted to climb up for a closer look, I did not want to out of respect, so I slapped on my telephoto instead.”


“I wonder what some of these petroglyphs could possibly represent?, Is that a fish?, regardless, they are very cool.”


After a small photo shoot with the petroglyphs, I hiked the rest of the trail back to the parking lot just before it got too dark. I was really dusty from moving at a fast pace, but it didn’t matter, I had to put most of my gear away except for my tripod, 5D MKII, 70-200, and Lee Filters. I didn’t have time to drive to another location for the sunset shots that I wanted because the After Burst was hitting it’s peak and I only had a 15 minute window to make the most of it before it turned into a traditional sunset light.

“I managed to capture the distant 10,834 ft (3,302 m) peak of Mt San Jacinto bathed in a seriously tangerine explosion of light.”


“When the After Burst settled down, I targeted a few Joshua Trees for my silhouette shots and this one became the keeper of the bunch.”

Today was the first time I actually treated myself to new and refreshing experiences during a leap day and I am so glad that I did. The encounter with the Rattlesnake was the most memorable moment for me and when I got to think about it later, I realized the amount of personal symbolism that it represented for me. It was something that made a lot of sense to me when I put it in terms of how I must handle myself through adversity and all of life’s challenges, “With a cool head and a curiosity to observe, capture, and learn from the situation at hand.”

Joshua Tree is a vast place and I am still learning a lot about all the wonders that make this park such a gem. So many years had I overlooked it, but now that I am putting it under the microscope and through the lens, the park is beginning to reveal it’s beautiful secrets for me to soak in and learn from so that I can share it with others through my travel blog.


Until the next trip, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”


©Indigoverse Photography. All Rights Reserved.

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