Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fish Canyon Falls Trail Restoration - January 17, 2015

Fish Canyon Falls, Angeles National Forest, January 17, 2015
On December 17, heavy rains caused a major slide covering Fish Canyon Trail prompting the Forest Service to close the trail until it could be repaired. The San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders got the assignment to restore the trail and scheduled the workday for January 17. When I got notice, I was eager to lend a hand.

We gather at the Vulcan Materials gate in Azusa at 8:30 and connect with Jeff Cameron from Vulcan. He opens the gate for us and escorts our caravan of three vehicles through the quarry to the beginning of the trail at the bridge. This saved us a half-mile walk with our equipment. There are eight of us, including Fred, Bryan, Bob, Alan, Roland, Jason, Adam, and me (and Jeff and his son accompanied us to the slide location). San Gabriel Mountain Trailbuilders staging on Vulcan property at the beginning of Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest We distribute tools, which includes shovels, pick-mattocks, McLeods, gloves, and hard hats.

Trail damage en route to a work project on Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest
8:58 - Begin hike. The creek is flowing nicely. It’s brisk in shade and I put on my long sleeves. Just around the bend we encounter the first issue where the creek had overflowed and caused considerable damage to the trail. It’s passible but will take some work. There is some also minor damage along the trail. The canyon is green and fresh since the last time I was here on October.

Trailbuilders arrive at the slide blocking Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest
9:08 - Arrive at the slide. This is a portion of trial where it transverses an extremely steep section of mountainside. The trail is completely covered with rock and earth and is impassible. We decide that there is only enough space for a few guys to work here since the trail is so narrow. We divide into several groups to work on different portions of the trail. I am assigned to hike with Jason all the way to the falls to make sure the whole trail is in passable condition, which I am more than happy to do. We retrace our steps a short distance back and find a place to climb down to the creek. We then scrabbled up the creek to bypass the slide area, View from creek toward slide blocking Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest then climb back up to the trail.

Deciduous trees stand bare, as seen from Fish Canyon Trail en route to Fish Canyon Falls
9:30 - Jason and I leave the slide and head up trail. Shortly we arrive in the sun and the long sleeves come off. This is Jason’s first time out with the Trailbuilders and we enjoy getting to know each other as we soak in the beauty of the canyon. Heading north on Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest The deciduous trees, like white alder and big-leaf maple, are mostly bare of leaves. The only things in bloom are a few occurrences of wild cucumber, oxalis, vinca, everlasting, milkmaids, and Douglas nightshade. Virtually all the poison oak is dormant expect for a few small leaves on several plants. We stop numerous times along the way to remove branches and debris from the trail.

10:28 - Cross the creek and begin our climb along the east canyon wall. Shortly Alan catches up and the three of us head to the falls.

Fish Canyon Falls, Angeles National Forest, January 17, 2015
10:44 - Fish Canyon Falls. It’s flowing and beautiful. This is Jason’s first time here and Alan hasn’t been here in 20 years. We have the falls all to ourselves…a rare treat. On a previous workday, the Trailbuilders were able to mitigate the graffiti that had defaced the rocks around the pool, which had disheartened me in October. The black willow, which dominates the pool area, is covered with yellow leaves and adds wonderful color to the setting. Alan heads back while we do some clean-up work on around the falls area. I love this setting. So many memories here.

11:20 - Leave falls. We enjoy the beauty of the canyon in full sun. We cross the creek at 11:34. A side jaunt to Darlin’ Donna Falls reveals it flowing nicely. Darlin’ Donna Falls, Fish Canyon, Angeles National Forest, January 17, 2015 We arrive at Old Cheezer Mine site (the location of the Matilija poppy/Dudleya densiflora interpretive sign) and see that Alan has done an amazing job of cutting and clearing the fallen tree that has blocked the trail and caused a detour. After a bite to eat, we finish clearing the trunk and limbs and restoring the trail tread. Trail restored by the Trailbuilders at the Old Cheezer Mine site on Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest, January 17, 2015 Looks great!

Trail restored by the Trailbuilders, Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest
12:57 - Arrive at the slide site. I’m elated to see that the crew completely cleared and restored the trail. As we continue walking, there are several other places where crews did good work. When we arrive at bend with the washout, the crew is working on it and has made good progress. We jump in and join the task and in a little while the trail looks great.

BEFORE - Trail damage on Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest
AFTER - Trail restored by the Trailbuilders, Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest

Conclusion of a San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders workday, Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest
1:53 - Arrive back at the bridge and cars for our 2:00 end time. We put away the tools and enjoy chatting.

A group of one man, two women, and two young children arrives coming up the access trail. We ask if they knew the trail was closed. They say they did; they had jumped the fence unto Vulcan property. We remind them that the reason for the closure is that the trail was damaged and impassable. They just shrug us off, cross the bridge, and continue up the trail (and not knowing we had restored the trail). We are sad and angered to see these adults modeling lawless and dangerous behavior to the children. Hikers who illegally trespassed on Vulcan property to access the closed Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest

The security guard from Vulcan arrives to relock the gates and to escort us back through the quarry.

Dudleya densiflora on Fish Canyon Trail, Angeles National Forest
Epilog - What a productive and enjoyable day! I love Fish Canyon. I had resigned myself to just working on the slide all day without really venturing far up canyon. So to be able to hike all the way to my beloved falls and be useful along the way was a treat. It is disconcerting to me that the Forest Service is quick to close trails yet seems so lethargic in getting them open. But I am thankful for the army of volunteers in various organizations throughout the Angeles who give countless hours in maintaining trails and facilities, patrolling, picking up trash, manning visitor centers and campgrounds, searching and rescuing, and much more. A hearty thank you to volunteers! icon

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NEXT > Fish Canyon Falls Plants Hike - March 13, 2015
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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Joshua Tree - Indian Cove to Mount Mel - January 4, 2015

View west toward Mount Mel (3814’), Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
Having experienced the amazing Joshua Tree National Park for the first time over the holidays, I had time for one more short hike before heading home. I’ve now hiked to an oasis and climbed a 5,000-foot peak. This time I’ve found a peak on the Sierra Club Lower Peaks list that seemed ideal. It’s only about 2 miles round trip with 600 feet in elevation gain, and the trailhead at Indian Cove is close to where I was staying. Mount Mel (3814’) is not in the park literature or in my two new books, so I turned to some trip reports on Peakbagger. Topo - GPS track by Matt Kelliher, Indian Cove to Mount Mel (3814’), from  |  Aerial - GPS track by Matt Kelliher, Indian Cove to Mount Mel (3814’), from The route is primarily cross country, and after I studied the topo and Google Earth, I was ready to go.

View west from Indian Cove Nature Trail trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park
On Hwy 62 (29 Palms Hwy) about half way between Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, I turn south on Indian Cove Road. In about a mile I pull into the ranger station to see if there is anything helpful. The ranger was out but I picked up a campground map. Back on the road I continue south for another couple miles (past the junction for the group campground) to the campground. At the intersection, I turn right (west, toward campsites 40-101) and navigate my way to the trailhead for Indian Cove Nature Trail. There are just two cars here, which is a big difference from my last two hikes. My route will follow the first portion of the nature trail. I can see cone-shaped Mount Mel due west. Zoomed-in view west from Indian Cove Nature Trail trailhead toward Mount Mel, Joshua Tree National Park A split-rail fence and an interruptive sign mark the beginning of the nature trail.

View west from the wash en route to Mount Mel, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
11:46 - Begin hike heading west on the nature trail. It’s a brisk 51 degrees but I’m comfortable in my t-shirt. I snap pics of the interpretive signs along the way. At about 0.15 mile, the trail drops into a wash and begins to curve back to the north and east. At this point (just past the packrat sign), my route veers left, leaves the nature trail, and begins to head west in the broad wash. There are many footprints in the soft sand. I don’t have line of sight to Mount Mel from here as it is now hidden behind an outcropping. The jumbles of huge rocks are surreal. The wash gets narrower and soon I regain sight of my peak. It kind of looks like a giant candy kiss covered with nuts.

View north en route to Mount Mel, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
12:14 - I reach a drainage that runs north separating Mount Mel from the huge jumble of boulders to its east. I’m really enjoying the rugged scenery and solitude. My first target is the saddle on the south flank of Mount Mel. The amount of footprints in the sand has thinned out considerably, but route finding is pretty easy. The massive pile of rocks called Mount Mel begins to look daunting. View west toward Mount Mel (3814’), Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park

View south toward Mount Mel from the saddle, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
12:26 - Saddle. Ok, that was the easy part…now for a crazy climb. I pause to study the mountainside and look for the best line. I’m feeling intimidated by the sheer mass of huge boulders. I run the timing in my mind: I have to be back at the house by 2:00, which means back to the trailhead by 1:45, which means climb this peak and back to this saddle by 1:15, which means I have about 45 minutes to climb up and down this monster. Is that doable? Is it safe? In my planning, I had grossly underestimated the demands of this ascent. I decide to at least test it.

I follow a sandy path for about 50 yards to the start my first set of boulders. I successfully conquer the first big obstacle to find me staring at the next one. And it does not look safe. Wow, this could take a while. And these boulders look smooth from a distance, but their surface is incredibly course Granite boulder on Mount Mel, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park ...very different from the rocks in my San Gabriels. I have some knit gloves in my pack to keep my hands warm, but I’m not outfitted with suitable groves for this challenge.

Granite boulders on north flank of Mount Mel, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
I stand on a massive boulder and must make a decision. I break out singing the chorus from Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” I hate failing to summit, but good judgment says it’s time to walk away. Bagging this peak will have to wait for another day. My feelings are mixed. I feel good about my decision to abort the ascent, but also feel sad. Rarely do I fail to complete a hiking objective. But as a solo hiker, I always weigh the risks and use wisdom to keep from triggering a search and rescue operation. And I told the family I’d be home by 2:00, so I need to keep my word.

View northwest from near the west flank of Mount Mel, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
I climb back down to the saddle and decide to explore west a little. I descend the draw a couple hundred yards to the edge of the canyon along the west flank of Mount Mel. I can see a couple portions of Boy Scout Trail far below. In my pre-hike research, I saw a trip report on Peakbagger that shows a GPS track connecting this point with Boy Scout Trail. I don’t see an obvious route but the terrain looks possible to navigate, howbeit, rough, with about 300 feet in elevation change. View northwest toward Boy Scout Trail from near the west flank of Mount Mel, Joshua Tree National Park Hoof prints Animal tracks near Mount Mel, Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park and scat are present, but I don’t know if they are from deer or bighorn sheep. Looking at the west flank of Mel, it seems to be as challenging as the south side from the saddle.

View east from the south flank of Mount Mel toward Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
I arrive back at the saddle at 1:05 and begin my descent. For the most part I retrace my steps but in some spots I improve my route. I Iook back over my shoulder a few times at the boulder pile called Mount Mel. I reflect on the bizarre and amazing features of this desert landscape. In some ways it seems peaceful and welcoming. But in reality, behind its serene fa├žade is a hostile and treacherous environment with little forgiveness and mercy toward its human visitors. Virtually every plant is armed to inflict pain. Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima), Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park Ragged rocks, blistering sun, deceiving distances, poisonous snakes, blinding sandstorms, stinging ants, and the absence of water and cell reception. Oh the drama of the desert! But oh beauty!

View east toward Indian Cove Nature Trail trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park

Walking down the broad wash, I climb the steep bank on the right to get a better perspective. I follow the route down and arrive at the nature trail in the wash at 1:35 and veer left to continue along the trail. I enjoy the signs and learn about desert willow, desert almond, lizards, and bighorn sheep. I leave the trail and walk across the desert back to my car.

1:45 - End hike. It’s 56 degrees and there are no cars in the lot.

View east from the south flank of Mount Mel toward Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park
Epilog - What a pleasant hike to conclude my first set of adventures in Joshua Tree National Park. And it was nice having solitude compared to the other two hikes amidst a throng of park guests. I was treated to beautiful weather, stunning landscape, fascinating plants, and the fun of some cross-country travel. The summit of Mount Mel eluded me today, but I am growing to respect the unique challenges of desert hiking. I am eager to return. icon

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NEXT > Joshua Tree - Warren Point & Panorama Loop - April 4, 2015
PREVIOUS > Joshua Tree - Ryan Mountain - January 3, 2015

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Joshua Tree - Ryan Mountain - January 3, 2015

View north from Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
After my first adventure in the amazing Joshua Tree National Park last week, I was eager to return. In taking my daughter back to her home in Twentynine Palms at end the Christmas season, I knew I’d have one or two more hike opportunities. My hike to 49 Palms Oasis last week was enjoyable, but I need to climb a mountain. In our drive through the park last week, we stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center, and a park ranger suggested Ryan Mountain. I then reviewed the Sierra Club Hundred Peaks (HPS) and Lower Peaks lists. Finally I consulted my two new books, Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide by James Kaiser, and Best Easy Day Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park by Polly and Bill Cunningham, and reviewed the park literature. I decided that 5000-foot Ryan Mountain would be the ideal hike. It’s only 3.0 miles round trip, fitting well with my limited time. It’s at heart of the massive 800,000-acre national park, giving me a great perspective of the park’s central core. And I get to cross it off the HPS list as one of nine peaks in the park.

On Hwy 62 (29 Palms Hwy) in Joshua Tree, I turn south on Park Blvd. and take an immediate right into the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. After buying a map and a plant guide, I swing over to Circle K and grab a couple hot dogs. Back on Park Blvd. I head into the park. As I approach the park entrance, I’m somewhat disconcerted about a long line of cars. I’m not fond of waiting in lines, but to wait in line to go hiking is just stupid. I reflect on the National Monument status that was recently imposed on the Angeles National Forest. I can’t help but to wonder if it will eventually lead to congestion and blockages.

View east on southeast on Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree National Park
Once past the long line at the entry station, I enjoy a pleasant drive through open desert with its gangly Joshua trees and fanciful jumbles of rocks. A dusting of snow adorns the mountainsides. As I pass Ryan Campground, the scenery begins to look familiar. I had flown around the area quite a bit with Google Earth, so now it seems I’ve been here before. I immediately recognize the ridgeline of Ryan Mountain and experienced a little of what a WWII bombardier might have felt when sighting a target that had become familiar to him by studying the aerial recon photos. Thankfully, I’m not being rocked by flack!

View south from Ryan Mountain trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park
I pull into the large Ryan Mountain parking area and it is packed (approximately 65 cars). Thankfully a space opens up immediately. I’m feeling excitement as I gear up and get ready to go. Trail users are coming and going. It feels more like an amusement park than a hiking trail. I snap some pics of the information kiosks. Unlike my hike to 49 Palms Oasis last week where I was just wearing civvies and a fanny pack, today I’m outfitting for hiking and have appropriate layers for weather. Temps are in the mid 50s, but it could get windy and frigid on top.

Rock climbers near Ryan Mountain trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park
2:12 - Begin Hike. The trail gently climbs south toward the mountain as it passes between two massive outcroppings. Rock climbers are practicing their tight-wire acts between the huge boulders on the right. Patches of snow add variety to the barren landscape. There are many sets of rock steps along the trail. I have a fundamental philosophically difference with the NPS in now to build a trail. I believe a good trail flows with the topography and has as few manmade features as possible. Keep it natural. Oh well, maybe some of these tourists will discover the joy of hiking and graduate to less accoutremented trails as they grow in their outdoor acumen. And I don’t want to diminish the challenge of this trail, after all, it does climb more than 1,000 feet in elevation gain in 1.5 miles, which is more than a walk in the park.

View south on Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
At about 0.1 mile the trail reaches a junction to Sheep Pass Group Campground to the east. I turn right as the trail begins its earnest climb. The warm sun feels good and I shed my long-sleeved shirt. The expanding views are stunning. To the north I see rock formations that I recognize from photos. As the trail contours left around the mountain, the round mass of the south end of Ryan Mountain ridge looms above. At its base, a massive rock formation with four distinctive knobs entices the imagination. I’m never by myself for long as parties of park guests come and go (more coming than going since I’m staying ahead of those who may be behind me). Even though I’m not fond of all these rock steps, I have a great appreciation for the huge expense of hand labor to build this trail. View south on Ryan Mountain Trail approaching the saddle, Joshua Tree National Park The route steadily climbs to a saddle. A thin layer of patchy snow lingers on the shaded mountainside. Plants are anything but the story on this barren landscape…unless you get stabbed by one. Nothing is in bloom. I’m really enjoying myself and taking lots of pictures as I try to capture the remarkably strange beauty of the desert. View north from Ryan Mountain Trail above the saddle, Joshua Tree National Park

View southeast on Ryan Mountain Trail above the saddle, Joshua Tree National Park
2:46 - Saddle. To the left, a faint user path heads northeast up the broad mountainside to high point 5238’. I’m hoping to climb this peak on my way back. I’m now in the cold shade as the trail contours along the east side of the mountain. The route bends east and shortly I arrive at a hip with great views out over Queen Valley. View southeast on Ryan Mountain Trail toward Queen Valley and Malapai Hill, Joshua Tree National Park To the southeast, the black mound of Malapai Hill rises distinctly from the valley floor, the only feature in this vast landscape that I recognize (by book knowledge at this point). The trail cuts back southwest and heads to the broad summit ridge. Patches of snow glisten in the sun. Patch of snow on the east flank of Ryan Mountain, Joshua Tree National Park A man poses next to a Joshua tree while his woman companion snaps his picture. I’m feeling anticipation as I approach the ridge. The trail bypasses a couple mild bumps as it heads south to the summit. I now have some views west.

View southeast from Ryan Mountain summit, Joshua Tree National Park
3:07 - Ryan Mountain (5457, 58, 60, or 61’ choose*). Wow, what a splendid 360-dergree panorama! And what strange landscape! Tan desert with rocky formations stretches into the distant haze as far as the eye can see. It’s so very different from my San Gabriels, where a 5,000-foot peak would be covered with pine trees and/or thick chaparral. This feels more like the broad, barren summit of Mount Baldy (10,064’), only dotted with desert plants. And unlike Baldy, there is virtually no trace of human habitation anywhere aside from the highway cutting across the desert floor. And like Baldy, both San Jacinto and San Gorgonio are in view, only from the opposite direction.
View north toward the cairn on Ryan Mountain summit, Joshua Tree National Park Zoomed-in View north from Ryan Mountain summit, Joshua Tree National Park
View northwest from Ryan Mountain summit, Joshua Tree National Park View south toward Ryan Mountain summit, Joshua Tree National Park
There does not appear to be any direct line-of-sight west to the San Gabriels; the massive San Gorgonio mountain range blocks it. It’s strange being on a mountaintop where virtually nothing of the surrounding geographical features is recognizable to me. It’s like starting over again in the San Gabriels (and by the way, 2015 marks my 20-year anniversary hiking in my beloved mountains towering over my home in Azusa. And I guess 2035 will mark my 20-year anniversary of hiking in JTNP, God willing).

There are 15 people here on the summit, in parties of one through five. I’m thankful there’s virtually no wind and I’m comfortable in a t-shirt. A large cairn (a man-made pile of rocks as a memorial or marker) stands on the summit. I stand on it to fully realize the panorama.

West-to-east northern panorama from Ryan Mountain summit, Joshua Tree National Park

The late afternoon sun creates warm light across the desert and adds definition to the rock formations. Looking at the map and I can identify Queen Mountain (5677’) to the northeast and Quall Mountain (5814’) to the northwest. To the southwest is Keys View (5193’) and Mount Inspiration (5560+). This is a huge park to explore.

View east from Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
I leave the summit at 3:35 and take a short side jaunt to the first bump on ridge. Others are here on the outcropping of dark, jagged rock. After enjoying some varied views, I head north along the ridge and in a couple minutes arrive at the next bump and enjoy a few minutes of solitude and more amazing scenery. I am aware that I won’t have time to hit high point 5238’ on my return trip, so I don’t have to rush. I leave heading due east and in a couple minutes rejoin the trail. I arrive at the hip to catch the last rays of direct sun upon it as the orange ball dips below the ridge. The desert scenery is so picturesque. I put on my long-sleeved shirt as I descend into the deep shade.

View north from the saddle on Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
4:03 - Saddle. I ponder the side path to high point 5238 but I’ll have to leave it for another time. Warm sun blankets the desert to the north, framed by V-shaped mountainsides on both sides of me. I’m eager to emerge into the sun again. There are still hikers heading to the peak and flirting with nightfall. At eight minutes from the saddle, it feels good to step from the brisk shade into the warm sun. I’m enjoying snapping pictures of the golden desert in the magic hour. Soon the trailhead parking lot comes into view far below. I’m eager to capture the sunset.

North from Ryan Mountain Trail toward the trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park

As I round the north flank of the mountain, the near-full moon comes into view rising in the east. My pace is intent now to ensure line-of sight with the setting sun and I’m rewarded with a superb Kodak moment (4:39). Sunset as seen from Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park Instantly the lighting changes from vibrant gold to muted gray. I now focus on the rising lunar globe framed by massive boulders and lanky Joshua trees. Rock climbers are still perched on the gigantic monoliths and balancing on high wires. Rock climbers after sunset near Ryan Mountain trailhead, Joshua Tree National Park I saunter at a crawl as I savor the beauty of desert dusk.

Moonrise as seen from Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
5:00 - End hike. There are about a dozen cars in the parking lot and it’s a brisk 52 degrees. I wander over to look at an Indian cave as noted by the sign. I linger in the twilight reluctant to say good-bye to this extraordinary place. As I drive through the park I am treated to spectacular silhouettes of Seussian features against an azure blue sky. Unfortunately, a thoroughly enjoyable outing is somewhat marred by having to wait in a long line of cars to exit the park. This is ridiculous! The line apparently serves no purpose as the ranger at the entry station simply waves each car through as it stops. I hope to God that this absurd practice doesn’t show up at the newly named San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.

Moonrise as seen from Ryan Mountain Trail, Joshua Tree National Park
Epilog - What a great first hike for the new year! Spectacular scenery, a fine trail (except for all the stair steps), an impressive peak, pleasant weather, a picturesque sunset and moonrise, and a splendid introduction to the interior of this amazing national park. And I get to cross off an HPS peak. I’m eager to return to this desert wonderland for more exploration. icon

*Elevation Note: Usually a peak has a standard published elevation. For a peak as popular as Ryan Mountain, it’s surprising that there are at least four different elevations attributed to this peak:
5457’ - Sign on summit, USGS topo map, Sierra Club Hundred Peaks
5458’ - Official park map Joshua Tree National Park map, Ryan Mountain Trail area
5460’ -
5461’ - Park map (online and kiosk) and National Geographic map (rev. 2005)

FUN FACT: The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is not really a tree. It has no tree rings. It’s a member of the yucca family. Joshua trees have shallow roots and grow slowly, taking hundreds of years to reach a mature height of 30 feet.

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NEXT > Joshua Tree: Indian Cove and Mount Mel - Jan. 4, 2015
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