Friday, April 29, 2011

Hike 2011.031 -- Mt. Islip

Hiked Thursday, April 28.

In late March, I heard that CA-39 was now open all the way to Crystal Lake. It has probably been 20 years since I've been up that way, so I figured this was the time to take a hike out of Crystal Lake.

From the 210 Freeway, take Azusa Ave (CA-39) north. You make your way past the new Target in Azsua, and a largely moribund downtown Azusa. The Wells Fargo building is pretty cool, though.

(Picture: Just one of many views later on my trail, with either CA39 or CA2 visible along the way). Shortly after you leave the city, there's the San Gabriel Canyon Gateway Center, on your right. Large, striped area for trailers to pull up on the front, and a hardened but non-paved parking lot for cars in back. Small native plant display in the back, and small book store inside. If you haven't already bought your adventure pass and it's not a Tuesday or Wednesday, there's a fair chance the center will be open and you can buy it here. The snack bar up near Crystal Lake also sells day passes, though if it turns out they're closed when you get there, you're sort of out of luck.

Heading north on CA-39, I noted both San Gabriel and Morris reservoirs were practically filled to the brim. The water is now nice and blue, not muddy and brown like the last time I overlooked this area.

Far past the reservoirs, past the East Fork junction, past the OHV staging area, past the West Fork trail access, past the Upper Bear Creek trail access, past Coldbrook campground, the turn for Crystal Lake is around mile marker 38 (which is NOT 38 miles up from the 210 Freeway--I'm not sure where the zero mile point on this highway is, but it's at about mile marker 13 that it starts going into the forest). CA-39 is currently gated less than 1/3 mile past the Crystal Lake turnout, so if you miss the turn, at least you won't have to backtrack very far!

After the right at N. Crystal Lake Road, proceed carefully just over 1.1 miles. Just before mile marker 1.14, there's a small clearing on the right side of the road and (at least on the day I went) a gated road on the left. This is Forest Service Road 9N03. It's one-way, and paved.

I parked in the clearing, crossed the street, and walked up 9N03. About 1/10th of a mile up this paved road, there's a paved parking lot and vault toilet on your left. The paved road continues to the right here, while a dirt road with a hand-lettered sign points straight ahead to LAKE. If the road's not gated, you could just drive up here.

It wasn't until my return trip that I confirmed that the (Wawona/Islip) trail to Mt. Islip heads out of the south end of this lot. There is no sign near the parking lot, and the trail is far from obvious. However, if you walk south off the pavement and into the woods about fifty yards, there's a big sign announcing that this trail is maintained by the San Gabriel Mountain Trailbuilders. Some idiot wrote some graffiti on the sign. Idiot. Made me think, "Fool. If you want to have your name all over the place, why don't you actually do something useful, like the trailbuilders?"

But that's getting ahead of the story. On my way in, I walked down to the lake. I could see on my map that the trail appeared to come very close to the south end of the lake, so I figured I'd walk to and around the lake before looping over to the trail.

My expectations for Crystal Lake were low. My recollection was that Crystal Lake was sort of a mudhole. However, with the heavy snow and rain this year, and it still being early spring, Crystal Lake actually looks like a place deserving of the name. I'm sure the water will drop and the algae will bloom later in the summer, but, for now, the lakes seems relatively deep, and the water is clearish, a bluish-green, not too unlike the glacial lakes I saw up in Great Basin National Park.

I walked around the lake and enjoyed the view. Not necessarily a smart idea, as the south-eastern end is really not very easy to walk around. However, since I was, at the time, under the impression that the trail would start right adjacent to the lake, that's where I headed.

I eventually made my way up and beyond the south end of the lake, and intersected the actual trail to Mt. Islip. It's a very well-engineered trail, although falling trees and limbs from the Curve Fire occasionally force you off the trial. Despite the fallen timber and undoubtedly light usage this trail has seen over the past eight or nine years, the path is usually easy to follow. That's part of why I think this trail is so well-engineered: the path is generally level, rocks have been used to reinforce the downhill side on several spots (more aggressive retaining structures of steel and lumber were built in other spots), and the rocks are often lined up to delineate the route. When I lost the path (after being forced off by fallen timber), I could usually reacquire the path without too much difficulty.

Many of the fallen logs have florescent orange numbers painted on them. The numbers count down, so apparently the count began on the other side of the loop. The first one I ran into was about 40 or so, and the last I noticed was about 26, I think.

There are also thick wooden stakes at one mile intervals. The first one is pretty invisible on the way up, however. It's behind a large bush, so you can't see it unless you happen to look right at just the right moment. I managed to miss number 2 on the way up, too. But 3 and 4 were easy.

The area between miles 3 and 4 (after tree #29, if you're looking for those numbers) is the trickiest part of the hike. Here, you are running near the ridge in parts, while in others, the trail is mostly level. Fallen trees cross the trail in some places. Particularly where they fall near a switchback, it then becomes possible to walk around a fallen tree and miss the switchback entirely.

Along much of the way, this trail runs near the ridge line separating the tributaries of the North Fork of the San Gabriel River (to the east) from the Bear Creek drainage (to the west). This path is well north of the "Upper Bear Creek" trail, but some familiar sights were still visible. I could see Twin Peaks early. Near the start of the, trail, they were almost due west and above me. By the end, they were well below me, and to the southwest.

As I continued to gain altitude, the views to the west became more and more impressive.

At the 3.9 mile point (from the actual trailhead at the parking lot that I couldn't drive to today), a sign indicates a junction. Down and to the right is the lower portion of the Big Cienega Trail. That one descends to a dirt road, north of the Crystal Lake complex. By contrast, the left winds up to a ridge and continues towards Mt. Islip.

At about 9/10ths of a mile after the junction, the final spur to the summit breaks off up and sharply to the left. Alternatively, bypassing the spur would take you to Little Jimmy Campground and Windy Gap. From Windy Gap, you could theoretically continue on down to the same dirt road that the Big Cienega Trail leads to. Or, if feeling ambitious you could climb past Windy Gap to the east, up the PCT, and hit a number of peaks that-a-way.

Obviously, I took the spur. On this final push to the summit, I ran across a tiny amount of snow. I had to walk over snow the last 20 yards or so up.

There's the remains of a snow hut at the top. Of course, now, there's not roof, so it literally was a snow hut, with the interior filled with snow. With the empty door frame open to the east, it nicely framed Mt. Baldy. That's the picture at the top of this post.

Far to the east, between Hawkins and South Hawkins, Mt. San Antonio (Baldy) peeked over a crest, still covered in snow. Hawkins, South Hawkins, and Throop were closer by. Their north sides still had snow on their upper reaches, as well.

Far to the southwest, I could see the antenna of Mt. Wilson. To the south, Crystal Lake was also visible, reflecting the coniferous trees that line its shore. Closer by, below Windy Gap, I saw a whole lot of dead but standing timber.

It was a pretty hazy day, so I couldn't see the ocean. I could see the Santa Ana Mountains, off to the southeast. But I could not see San Jacinto, even though I'm pretty sure the geometry should have allowed me.

Returned the way I came. I gave some thought to returning via Windy Gap, but because I wasn't sure about that trails conditions that way. Figured it was safer to just retrace the path I took to get here.

Near the end, I looked across at a rock formation, where I thought a tiny bird was perched. I took some pictures. As I got closer, I realized he was actually a small rodent. Seems brave (or stupid) of him to be sitting right out in the open like that. If you blow up this picture, he's on the second point from the left. Another rodent is below the bright section of rock, just above and to the right of the center of the picture.

The map and signs say it's 4.9 miles from the trailhead to Mt. Islip. Given my walk around Crystal Lake at the start of the day, and the additional .1 mile each way to get from the trailhead to N. Crystal Lake Road, I'm figuring about 10.2 miles for the day.

Either before or after your hike, if you want to visit the snack bar, you would continue along N. Crystal Lake Road north, past where I parked, for about another mile. I actually went there before my hike. The snack bar has a limited menu that I get the feeling the proprietor would expand upon if he had the business to support it. Once the campground actually opens (and more people figure out the road to Crystal Lake is open), he might get that chance.

Currently, I'm pretty sure his main clientele consists of USFS employees, trail building volunteers, and Caltrans workers.

After I got home, showered, changed, and ate dinner, I became aware of an annoying pain on my waist, just above my left hip. Yep, another tick. That's three this year, which is three more than in my entire previous life. And although brush does encroach on this trail and you need to repeatedly climb over down logs, it wasn't like the past few tick encounters where I knew I was walking through tick habitat (deer bedding grounds) and needed to be extra observant. I grabbed my tick spoon and called my wife to remove the sucker. Grrrr.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hike 2011.030 -- Table Top Mountain, Mojave National Preserve

Hiked Sunday, April 24. This is a "cross-country" hike, meaning it is mostly over unimproved terrain. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. Because of its complexity, this post turned out super long. Just warning you!

It is listed as Hike #10 in Hiking Mojave National Preserve, by Bill and Polly Cunningham, which I bought in the preserve visitor center at Hole-in-the-Wall, last October. I also googled "Table Top Mountain Mojave National Preserve" (without the quote marks) and got this page, from And that was about it for this destination. [Edit--Now, when you do that google search, my own page comes up. Funny that way. Fortunately, my link to the other page and mention of the book will help folks plan their trip here!]

Despite being a cross-country route, Table Top Mountain (or, simply "Table Mountain," as listed on my 1996 Tom Harrison "Recreation Map of the Mojave National Preserve") is a pretty obvious landmark, visible from miles around. As long as you can keep your destination in sight pretty much the entire route, and if you have a modicum of directional sense, you can always get there and back, even if you wind up taking a different route from the one your guide book might describe, or even if you wind up having to scrub your mission. A GPS, map and compass would make this even more fool-proof, but the high visibility of Table Top Mountain and its long, east-west running structure make it very easy to maintain your bearings.

I was camping at Black Canyon Equestrian and Group Camp-ground, which is across the street (Black Canyon Road) from Hole-in-the-Wall Visitors Center. This photo here shows what Table Top Mountain looks like from where the Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center road connects to Black Canyon Road.

According to the post on this hike, the unmarked trailhead is 5.3 miles north of Hole-in-the-Wall. So I noted my mileage as I turned north on to Black Canyon Road. However, at 5.3 miles, there was nothing but a fence, posted "No Trespassing."

I continued north, thinking that I or they had the mileage off (because summitpost says "some books" have the distance off "by two miles"). Of course, with Table Top Mountain now behind me as I drove north, I was pretty sure I missed the trailhead.

Before long, I was approaching Mid-Hills Campground, which I knew was too far. But all part of the plan: I had the summitpost distance of "or 1.7 miles south of the turnoff for Mid-Hills Campground" to work off of from the other direction.

So I turned around, and again noted the mileage on my car's odometer. Just about 1.7 miles south, I came across what I eventually determined to be the parking spot: Just north of a cattle grate at the designated location, heading east from Black Canyon Road, was a dirt road and small, flat, potential parking area. A double-track jeep trail headed from this parking area further into the nearby hills. As advertised, there was no signage of any kind here, so if you don't know what you're looking for, there's no way you'd know to stop here.

I will note that, on my return drive, after my hike, my car's odometer found the distance from here to the turnoff for the Hole-in-the-Wall visitor center to be 5.0 miles (with 4.7 of those miles over unpaved road). I also noted that there was a watertank and windmill on the west side of the road, just .3 miles south of trailhead parking area.

It could be my car odometer is WAY off (understating my actual distance traveled by 6%). It could be is off by 6%. It could be a combination of these factors. However, given the lack of signage at the trailhead, knowing the correct distance is very important, so take my measured distance as an additional bit of information when you go off in search of this trailhead: If approaching from the south, start looking for a windmill and water tank about 4.7 miles north of the Hole-in-the-Wall Visitors Center turnout, and about 4.4 miles after the pavement ends. Expect your parking area to be on the right (east) side of the road, about .3 miles north of that windmill, and immediately after a cattle grate.

From the trailhead, summitpost leaves you largely on your own, to either choose "the ridge route" or "the sandy flats route." The Cunninghams are more detailed, although not necessarily more helpful with most of the route.

Summitpost accurately describes the parking area as "surrounded by low hills." In fact, Table Top Mountain is not even visible from the trailhead, despite it being visible from miles away in any direction. Also, when you do see Table Mountain, it will not appear as flat from this angle as it did when viewed from a distance, from the south.

The tracks of the jeep trail head initially to the east or northeast, up over a small rise, before turning somewhat to the southeast. At .3 mile, the Cunninghams say your trail will take you "through a gate/fence." I'm pretty sure this gate/fence burned down in a fire (2005 or later), as now, as I felt I had walked .3 mile, there were only two burned posts on the south side of the road.

By contrast, the Summitpost says you should "hike the dirt road northeast over the first hill and head towards the windmill." However, no windmill is visible from the crest of that first hill. At the very least, it definitely wasn't obvious, because there's no windmill near the direction the trail is heading.

At the time, I thought perhaps this windmill had also burned. However, later in their post, it seems clear they are referring to the same windmill as the one the Cunninghams consider to be the jumping off point for their hike. But this one is well to the left and above the line of travel, and it's somewhat earth-toned, so if you don't know where to look, you won't see it.

Instead, the Cunninghams' description of hiking .6 mile from your car, then making "a sharp left turn at the junction" seems on target. By "sharp left," they mean about 120 degrees. This junction is also unsigned.

You are now heading north or northwest, and climbing somewhat. The Cunninghams write, "The trail climbs up a wash next to an old broken waterline for another 0.5 mile to a windmill/water tank used for watering cattle." Neither part of this description was immediately apparent, although after a few hundred yards, a sandy wash did appear on the right of the trail. Also, short sections (a few feet long) of white PVC tubing or longer sections (anywhere from a few feet to a hundred feet or more) of blackened plastic or rubber tubing were atop the road.

Along the way, you may note some double-track coming in from the left. That double-track leads back to the original east-west segment of jeep trail, and would have cut off some of the distance to get here, but with a slightly steeper climb.

Just before I reached the windmill, I came across what looks like an old campsite. A fire ring. Next to that was an old rusty bucket, hung on the limbs of a dead tree.

The windmill and tank are behind fencing. However, the fencing is not posted "No Trespassing." Apparently, the "ridge route" would require you to cross this fence and head up along the ridge of the hills in front of you. However, there is no gate I could see in this fence, and no "zig-zag" opening for you to go where cattle fear to tread.

Far as I can tell, to take the ridge route, you should slide under the barbed wire fence here (the bottom strand has no barbs). Or, if you want to take the longer but allegedly easier route, you "might" be able to take the trail that heads from the water trough to the southeast. It's a very faint trail at first, but gets clearer further down. It MAY be the way hikers take a round-about approach that eventually places them on the east side of Table Top Mountain, where you'd then have a relatively steep cross-country route up a grass-covered hill. However, I didn't find this trail until I came back from my hike, so I don't know if it really is a hiking trail, or if it's just the route cattle and wildlife take to get to the water trough.

You should also note a prominent rock outcropping, to the right of the windmill and tank. That's a landmark to help keep you oriented. On your return, you can aim for this target (or south of this target) to get back to the dirt road that will return you to your car.

From the windmill, I walked south, along the fencing, and continued along the fencing when it made a 90 degree turn and headed due east. I was still looking for a break in the fence. Never found one, so I kept walking along the fence.

Although this is almost certainly not the route suggested by either the Cunning-hams or summitpost, it worked fine. The growth is minimal, so there's very little to keep you from maintain a straight line path. Every now and then, you might need to move left or right a few feet to avoid a larger shrub. A few boulders and rock piles are also along the way, but present no barrier to your direct east-west travel.

This picture here was taken from atop the most prominent of these outlying boulder fields, not twenty yards from the fence line, looking west.

With no "No Trespassing" signs posted, and evidence of cattle grazing on both sides of the fence, I surmised that this was not a property line fence, but just a fence to separate grazing allotments. So, at a point where a sandy, plant-less wash went under the fence, so did I. Hard to say how far I had gone. I'd estimate between 1 and 1.6 miles. From there, I proceeded north and easternly, approaching the rocky protrusion, then climbed upward among the sand and boulders, walking and climbing and scampering and lifting myself towards the ridge. I passed exactly one "duck" (artificial rock pile, normally used to mark a route) along the way.

In retrospect, as I read the trail description, I'm pretty sure the Cunninghams suggest a similar path for their "sandy flats" route. They would have you stay on the flats until you come across "a distinctive, duck-head-shaped rock upslope and to your left."

Meanwhile, as I managed my way up towards the ridge, I looked back down towards the desert floor and a rock structure, out by itself, 50 yards or so from the rest of the rocky protrusion, and it was shaped somewhat like a duck's head. This means I probably headed up the ridge within 1/2 mile of where the Cunninghams would suggest.

I would also note, however, that the duck head is much more obvious when you're looking from above, with the bright sandy desert as backdrop to the darker rocks. When looking from below, the rocks of the duck's head blend in with the rocks behind them, and the duck's head shape is much less obvious.

Once on the ridge, I headed eastward. On the other (north) side of the ridge, I could see several structures not far below. However, since the Cunninghams say the ridge line is the property line between public and private holdings, I stayed on the south side of the ridge.

Farther off to the south, some greenery and additional structures must have been part of the Gold Valley Ranch, another private inholding. But they're quite far to the south, and they had no property fence anywhere near the path of this trip. Beyond the ranch, the Woods Mountains rise to heights in the 5,000 foot range.

Turning back to the east, I approached the final saddle along the ridge. The western face of Table Top Mountain provides quite an impressive visage. It really is hard to believe that you can just walk (okay, walk and scramble) up this approach without any technical assistance.

Yet, the Cunning-hams's book said it was. So I headed towards that point. Yes, the last .3 miles IS tough. It's steep, that's for sure. Sandy in places, rock-covered in others. I did my best to limit my impact on growing plants.

Near the top of the climb, a section of fence separates public land (to the south, or right) from private land (to the north, or left). Taking the recommendation of the Cunninghams' into account, I trended towards the left side of this point. Yes, I needed to use my arms and legs, but no more so than scrambling up from the "sandy flats" to the ridge. The boulders here (on the northwest side of the point) were mostly large, and seemed less fractured than the rocks on the right side (southwest). (On my return trip, I descended down the southwest side).

The approach seemed generally well-protected, meaning I didn't feel exposed to risk of a substantial fall, and could always maintain 2-3 points of contact with something solid as I climbed. When I pulled myself up the last bit, I was somewhat startled to discover that this was it. There I was, at the very westernmost point of Table Top Mountain.

By the way, on my return, the wind was gusting (it had died down overnight, and wasn't blowing much when I ascended). That made the descent a lot tougher, as you're more worried about your balance and having to deal with squinting eyes and flying dust. But, more to the point, by climbing and descending CAREFULLY, there are obviously multiple rock-scrambling, non-technical routes up from this west side, as well as at least one walk-up route from the east.

Fractured and jumbled lava rocks comprise the far western "point" of Table Top Mountain. Most of the edge of the Table Top is also lava, but, on top, most of the surface is soil that supports grasses and shrubs (a lot of Mormon tea, for some reason), with some patches of tiny yellow flowers.

The area also once supported a rather thick crown of juniper and pinyon pine. Unfortunately, most of the forest was burned in a fire, and is now dominated by drying limbs of dead trees.

Even more so than when I hiked around Barber Peak, the sight of those dead trees is just heartbreaking. It's hard to imagine how long it will take the pinyon pine and juniper forest to recover. It seems like maybe it will never happen.

Only the far southern edge of the mesa top still had a small patch of forest remaining. Apparently, when this mesa burned, the winds were whipping, as they were as I hiked, strongly out of the south.

As I made my way across the mesa, I occasionally startled birds. On the return trip, I startled a jack rabbit. It hopped off between the dead trees and headed back to the remaining forested area.

The top of Table Top Mountain is not completely flat, but it is relatively level. It has s slight tilt, with the west side higher than the east side. As a result, at many points you can look and only see either a plain of grasses and flowers, or a skeleton forest, or both. The "horizon" seemed a little truncated, but you can almost forget you're 1,000 feet above the surrounding desert.

That is, until you reach the edge. There, the ground often drops vertically a dozen or a score feet, then slopes steeply the rest of the way down. The far eastern end of the mesa has a less sudden drop, and is mostly covered in grasses and dead trees. That's why the "easy" way up to the summit is supposed to be from the east.

At the east end, I looked towards (and, I am sure, into) Arizona. From the south, I looked towards Joshua Tree. It was a spectacular view.

While admiring the view to the south and east, I looked for the trails that I thought would lead to the east side. I saw several things that looked like trail segments, but they might have been washes. I also saw a foursome of large mammals. From my perch at the top of the mountain, I couldn't be sure what they were. I thought maybe desert bighorn. Still can't be sure, but the pictures I shot of them (with the animals blurring and small in the distance) makes me think they were mule deer. A sequence of pictures that illustrate the dimensions of the view from up here is at the end of this post.

After probably an hour enjoying the solitude, I dithered about which return route to take. My initial inclination was to return via the "sandy flats" route, but I still wasn't sure if I saw the whole trail leading me back. And that route was going to be further, since you start off heading away from the trailhead and need to trace a circuitous route to get back. Instead, I just headed back to west, where I first got to the top of Table Top Mountain.

Just before I went back over the edge, I located the peak registry. It's just a few small notebooks in a plastic bag and a tin can. The last entry was from January. The one before that was from last October. Don't know how many people summited without finding or writing in the registry, but even if most do not register, that still means this is a pretty rarely-visited summit.

Once off the mountain, I trended towards the southwest, looking for a wash to follow to where I would again slide under the barbed wire and head, due west, back to my car.

Total distance covered is hard to be sure. The Cunninghams say it's a 7 mile hike, but obviously the specific distance must vary depending on which route you take.

The summit is listed as 6,174, making it somewhat taller than Mt. Wilson. The Cunninghams given an altitude of 5,180 for the trailhead, for a net vertical gain of just 1,000 feet. However, 350 of those feet are gained in the last 3/10ths of a mile, and, unless you take the eastern approach, much of the rest of those feet are gained by rock scrambling. It's a hard 1,000 feet, that's for sure.

From my perspective, I don't quite understand why you'd want to take the ridge route on your approach to Table Top Mountain. It seems to me that the going eastward is much faster if you just stayed on the "sandy flats" to the south, rather than navigating the ups and downs of the ridge. However, I say this having traveled only the far eastern end of the ridge route. Perhaps the going along the ridge was not as up and down-y along the rest of the way? Perhaps there is less boulder hopping and climbing involved in making your way up along the ridge from east to west than there is when you are going south to north?

Now, for some fun with deer.

First, here's a shot from the top of Table Top Mountain, near the east end, looking due south. Twin Buttes is the nearest rise. Woods Mountains are the next rise. Then it's downhill towards I-40, with the mountains on Joshua Tree's northern boundary in the far-off distance.

Now, imagine you've panned your camera down and to the right a little. That's the next picture, below. Match up the rocks to see how we've shifted. Don't be thrown off by the cloud's shadow. I'm not sure if I may have also zoomed in a small amount in one versus the other, but they seem somewhat comparable in scale.

The deer are actually in there, some-where, but I can't find them, which is not surprising, given the size they would be in this picture. That'll become obvious as we walk through this picture series.

I took this one as soon as I saw the four-legged creatures, running far below. It's probably close to 1,000 feet down, and maybe 300 yards horizontally away. Now take that picture, and crop it so you're left with just the top left 1/4.

Here's what's left. The deer may or may not be in this picture, but they're definitely not at the same point as in the "original" deer shot, which you'll see somewhat further below. That one was taken several minutes later.

Next, I took the cropped view above, and cropped it again, to now show just the bottom right quarter of the previous shot. Got it? That's the bottom right quarter of the top left quarter of the original, wide-angle view. That means we've looking at just 1/16th of the original. At least that's true, roughly. I didn't use a ruler to crop.

Now, looking at this 1/16th crop, draw an imaginary line, cutting from left to right, about 1/3 of the way from the top. See that cluster of rocks, just above your line, and near the center?

Compare them to the cluster of rocks that's at the far upper right corner of the photo here. We'll call this one the "original deer shot." The coloring is off somewhat because it's several minutes later, and the lighting has changed, as well as the zoom. But all the rocks and trees in this "original deer shot" can be matched up to what you can see in that small portion of the 1/16th shot that is itself a small portion of the wide angle view of the deer area. And the deer? One is just left of center, and three more are a bit to his left.

Yeah, that's small. But it's already zoomed about as far as I could go.

So I took the "original deer shot" and cropped it tighter. That's this last shot, here. The result is a very fuzzy shot, but one where the deer become large enough that their body shapes can be more easily made out. Definitely not cows. :D Probably not desert big horn. Almost certainly mule deer.

Kinda puts the scale of the desert into perspective, doesn't it?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hike 2011.029 -- Amboy Crater

Hiked Saturday, April 23, 2011. Previously hiked on Sunday, April 11, 2010.

I was heading out for the semi-annual "star party" in Mojave National Preserve. Last year, the party was a few weeks earlier and I did this hike on my return leg. This year, I was not expecting the crazy flower bloom of last year, but I did look forward to another bit of leg-streching to break up the long drive to Black Canyon Equestrian and Group Campground, where we've had the star party regularly for the past three years.

The trailhead is just off of National Trails Highway, which is also known as "Historic Route 66." It's a few miles west of the town of Amboy. From the west, you can take I-40 and exit at Ludlow, head south, then take a quick left to go east on National Trails Highway for about 27 miles. Amboy Crater will be on your right. Turn into the recently-paved road and park in the recently paved parking lot. A vault toilet and picnic tables are here, but no running water.

Alternatively, you can exit at Kelbaker Road and head south about 11 miles, then turn right (west) on National Trails Highway. Five miles later, you'll pass through the town of Amboy. One and a half miles later, you'll see Amboy Crater, on your left.

The trail starts at the far western end of the parking lot. Walk the sidewalk to one of the shaded pavilions at this end of the lot, then walk past them, to the trail that is indicated by a symbol of a walking man. If you walk to and from the volcanic cone, then up and around the rim of the crater, it's supposed to be three miles, roundtrip.

At least, that's the distance I've seen quoted on various sources. But the only distance marker on the trail is one with arrows that claim 1/2 mile to the crater and 1/2 mile to the parking lot, which would mean 1 mile total distance between them, plus what ever distance to circumnavigate the crater's rim. The time it takes for this hike (even with the many pictures I take) seems far longer than 1 mile each way, that's for sure.

The volcanic cone rises about 150 feet above the desert floor. Dark lava flows are all around the area. On some of these lava intrusions, chuckwalla and other lizards make their homes. Rodents and birds also appear, although usually not long enough for me to photograph them.

The trail meanders across the desert, with several shaded benches along the way. On the day I hiked, in mid-afternoon, it was in the upper 80s, and I was the only one on the trail. Well, me and the lizards.

Last year, when it was showier, I had more company on the walk.

Once the trial reaches the volcanic cone, it runs to the west end of the cone, where there's a break in the rim. You first climb about 75 feet to the height of the floor of the crater, then have the choice of several alternatives to continue another 75 feet to the rim. The breeze is often flowing pretty hard from the top of the rim.

There's usually a pretty expansive view from up top, with distance mountains in all directions, and desert between you and the mountains. The town of Amboy is to the northeast. A military artillery range is to the south.

There's a little bit of muddy soil on the bottom. I'd wager it's just the sand and clay that has blown into the cone over the years. Lava rocks are scattered on top of the clay, and occasionally get rearranged into shapes or messages. Sparse vegetation is scattered within the cone.

As expected, there were fewer blooms to enjoy this year. Around one particular type of flower, nearer the cone, was a ubiquitous black-winged insect. Because I wasn't sure if it was the stinging or biting type of insect, I didn't get too close, so my photo attempts were mostly unsuccessful.