Thursday, December 3, 2015

Walking off the Turkey

Two hikes this past weekend to shed some holiday calories...

Grapevine Canyon

Map Track Link

7 miles

Owens Peak at the head of Grapevine Canyon
This obscure canyon on the west side of the Indian Wells Valley is only a few miles from home, but rarely visited. It is part of the Southern Sierra Desert Canyon IBA (important bird areas).  There are a couple of large in-holdings of land with active homes that discourage most from hiking or birding the canyon. But if you know the tricks to avoiding the private property, this interesting canyon can be explored into some relatively uncommon habitat for our desert canyons.

Diminutive cemetery (labeled Mt Owens Cem on the FS map)
We always park near the gates to the private properties, off the road in an obvious parking area. Skirting the south side of the property lines on a nice use trail, the path starts out in the typical mixture of Joshua Trees and desert sages, but quickly gains elevation to extensive stands of Gray Pine and huge oaks. After about a half mile we reached the small cemetery. After that the trail obscures becoming a mixture of game/cow trails. It is still easy enough to aim up canyon and avoid private land. 

Oak and Gray Pine stand

The sun comes up late in winter in these steep walled canyons, so birding was slow for a while. We saw the expected Bell's and White-crowned Sparrows immediately. At the first stand of pines and oaks we had a tough time finding much. But as the temperatures rose the bird activity did as well. By the second stand of trees things were hopping and remained so for the rest of the hike. Of particular note - Susan spotted a little puff ball in the top of a large pine, on further investigation with binoculars became a tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl hanging out and enjoying the warm sun on a cold day. West side Sierra Crest influence dictates some of the vegetation and species in these canyons as birds leak over and take up residence in the right habitat. Within all the large pines and oaks we found two pairs of Acorn Woodpeckers, Oak Titmice, a couple of Western Bluebirds, and many Western Scrub-Jays - all species that are tough to find outside the canyons on the west side of the valley.

Owens Peak on the Sierra Crest and magnificent stands of trees.

We worked our way up canyon along the south edge until it got very steep and explored the extensive vegetation at the head of the canyon. We pushed up a large flock of Pine Siskins feeding on the catkins from introduced Alder trees mixed in with native cottonwoods and willows. Turning back down following a slightly different x-country path along the arroyo for a while, we walked along wonderful habitat of pines and oaks, with much of the namesake grapevine hanging everywhere. A short distance later we were back at the car with a very respectable list of 26 species.

Lower canyon


Bird List

Indian Joe Canyon

Map Track Link

8+ miles

Entrance to Indian Joe Canyon
Indian Joe Canyon is located near Trona in the Argus Mountain range, an area with a rich history in mining - all the way back to the original "49ers." The springs in the upper parts of the canyon are part of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Indian Joe Springs Ecological Reserve. The Argus Range is the only home for the endangered Inyo California Towhee, a breeding range isolated subspecies. The canyon has permanent year-round water, even in the driest of years. John Searles, the founder of the borax mines that continue as a commercial operation in Trona today, planted fruit and nut trees to feed the workers around several of the springs in the 1870s. In 1904 Indian Joe Paterson moved into the canyon with his family for many years.  The "No Trespassing" signs that exist to this day date back to that era.  It is safe to ignore the historic graffiti.  

Inyo California Towhee photographed on a previous trip to Indian Joe Canyon

Much modern "graffiti" on the rocks
Go Back!

A primitive road went all the way to the lower garden springs but is long gone now with erosion and rockfalls. Thanks to the many wild burros in the area the trails are kept fairly open and navigable with some scrambling and route-finding occasionally necessary.

The first permanent water is reach after only a short distance.

I'm sure the burros and other wildlife appreciate the easy access to water
Non-native trees choke the canyon in spots

Thanks to the burros for keeping the trail open

Much of the canyon is now an Ecological Reserve
We reached the lower garden after about a mile and a half.  This spot is choked with remnant fig and other trees, and the birds did appreciate it. The place was hopping with activity. Half a dozen Chukar were spooked out of the trail in front of us. A Hermit Thrush enjoyed the cool shaded surroundings of the spring.  One each, Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers, chased each other from fig to fig. A pair of Canyon Wrens had a territory just down canyon from all the trees, an idyllic spot if you're a Canyon Wren. White-crowned, a Golden-crowned, and Sage Sparrows were seemingly everywhere.

We continued over the ridge toward the upper garden viewing it from above as we moved farther up canyon following historic miner trails now well used by the local wildlife. We passed by Allen Springs and then Bainter Spring farther up canyon. At this point we were just wandering, following the most obvious trails toward Great Falls Basin to the north. We made it far enough to see into the canyon where the road to the parking area for the Basin and called it good enough. Someday we will connect the two trailheads.

Winter flowers!

Indian Joe Spring

Indian Joe Spring

Historic Fig Tree roots

"Ancient" Fig Trees
Indian Joe Spring from above

Indian Joe Spring from the ridge

Hiking the ridge toward the north

Barrel cactus looking healthy with the fall rain

Allen Springs

Rock formations

Argus Range above Great Falls Basin

Telescope Peak (Death Valley) and the Panamint Range across the valley

The Searles Valley

More outstanding rock formations in the Argus Range
 After reversing course we diverged the route for a while just past Allen Springs to walk through the upper gardens area. There was nice open water springs with plenty of birds about. A flock of Black-throated Sparrows mixed with the other sparrows in the canyon.

We made it back before the sun had set too low. It was a fun day in an area worthy of much more exploration.

Open water near the upper garden area

A large rock cavity with evidence of occupancy in the past

Upper Garden

Bird List

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