For my first desert hike of 2021, in January, I went to the Coyote Mountains, of course. :) I was interested in finding a more direct approach to the “Domelands” sandstone domes, and while browsing and planning virtually with Google Earth and Gaia GPS, I noticed a flat plateau with a mesquite-lined drainage that looked interesting, so I dropped a waypoint onto it as an option before heading to the sandstone domes. Other than that, I had no plans and decided to just play it by ear and let my curiosity guide me.
I purposely went on an overcast day once more, but it was also very windy. A lot of dust and haze was in the air, and this changed the colors of this landscape to hues that I had not experienced before, even on similarly overcast days. It is really quite fascinating how the desert can look so very different solely based on atmospheric conditions — the light has to pass through all that haze and dust of course, but while we know and understand this for the “golden hour” effect, it is unusual to experience a similar warming on a rather cold, windy and overcast desert day.
The haze and somewhat muted mid day tones of the overcast led to photographs that probably do not have a lot of impact (and after reviewing the draft of this post on a small screen, I think they don’t really work on mobile, at all). I could have taken them much further easily, but first things first. A little bit more about the color rendition follows below the images, at the bottom of the article.
Over time, certain rituals have “established themselves” on my desert hikes and it begins with eating a banana after arriving at the trailhead and before I begin to hike. This sustains me long enough after the drive from San Diego to walk a good distance, and still be picky when choosing a spot to have lunch, later. :)
I began my hike uphill from the trailhead/parking area, directly on a ridge in the mud hills first, following a use trail, and then onto a steep slope with plenty of rather loose material, in which the use trail disappeared. Further up, the slope became more gentle, and I was able to pick up the use trail again.
Up on the ridge I could already see the sandstone domes, and also got a different view of the basin that separates the western ridge I was on, and the “Domelands” plateau. The view due north, below, reveals that most of this depression slopes and thus drains north-west, through Andrade Canyon. In the distance, past the low-lying Carrizo Badlands, Whale Peak makes an appearance, lit by some momentary sunlight:
To my surprise, a small use trail continued not just down on the eastern slope, but also north, and south. This was a four way junction of use trails! The one to the south led into the direction of the flat area that I had marked at home. GaiaGPS showed that this waypoint was only 0.6 miles as the bird flies from where I was, so I went to check it out, of course.
This area was indeed nice, almost like a hidden little desert garden, but due to the lack of rain, the Ocotillos were still pale and dry. It will be worth taking another look at it after the area will receive a little bit of rain. I wandered around on this slightly secluded plateau and found a few spots where bighorn sheep must have slept. They liked that place too. :) Maybe the use trail that I was following was partially worn in by sheep, actually?
Having satisfied my curiosity, I decided to head back towards the saddle, but ventured closer to the edge of the ridge this time. A “curious cairn”, improved upon an existing pile of rocks, seemed to mark nothing in particular, except for the view to the darker brown ridge and promontory, perhaps:
I walked further to the edge of the ridge until I had a clear view of “Anvil Canyon” below me, and was immediately fond of the way all the different rock layers and ridges seemed to ascend out of the canyon and the desert floor beyond, marked by the fossil reefs in the distance, and the mud hill badlands behind those:
The way the canyon entered the frame from the left looked nice too, so I went for a wider view, including Carrizo Mountain in the distance. You can also see the most prominent sandstone dome of the “Domelands” plateau at the very left, just under the distant ridge:
Well, why not go for an even wider view then? Here’s a panorama. I originally captured 11 frames for it but after stitching, found that a 2:1 aspect ratio was most pleasing, and wide enough:
The wind came from the east and was quite fierce at the edge of this ridge. I found myself a nice spot out of the wind, by walking a little bit away from this edge and down into a ravine, to have my lunch sandwich and an apple.
From the ridge’s edge I had spotted some plants — a little bit unexpected to see fresh green, considering the lack of rain and the dry ocotillos! After eating, I had to take a look of course. :) One was an Orkutt’s Aster (Xylorhiza orcuttii) that didn’t have flowers yet, the other a Bushy Cryptantha (Cryptantha racemosa) growing under and between some unidentified dead twigs. I really liked the look, and on the wind exposed upslope it took “only” something like ten attempts at 1/250 second until I had a frame where no part of the little plant was severely blurred… :P
That was enough on this ridge — after all, I really wanted to complete the approach to the Domelands from there! I backtracked to the saddle and descended down to the “basin” now, to pick up the “standard route” from there.
Since it was so very windy, I was hoping to experience the low humming vibration inside the wind caves of the sandstone dome again. I had brought the external microphone and windscreen to record it in stereo this time but I guess that, unlike May 2019, the wind wasn’t strong enough — I could hear and sense the low vibrations, but the microphone didn’t pick them up! The best recording of that effect thus remains the one I made almost two years ago: Domelands late in May (2019).
I began my way back to the car, now trying this “direct route” in reverse, across the western ridge again. The downhill section with the loose gravel where I already lost the use trail on the way up was decidedly unpleasant to walk on, descending. After a few steps, I decided to walk around it, which felt easier and safer.
Last not least, back at the car, the other part of my desert ritual waited: a thermos with hot coffee, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, before the drive home. :)
Colors (Tech Note)
The conditions that I mentioned above (warm tones due to dust and haze in the air) posed a bit of a dilemma while working on the photos: my default color temperature of ~5000K (daylight) on import gave everything a look that was much too warm already. The camera’s auto-white balance on the other hand had chosen a color temperature that was much too cool. I wanted to stay somewhat truthful to both the light that I saw, but also the colors that I know the landscape should have, and all this while trying to increase the “punch” of the photos enough for a better rendition of everything that I saw in them.
As a result, I obsessed over the color rendition of the photos below for a really, really long time before returning to a rather “non-spectacular” :P look in which I only tried to work my way around the haze, and without altering the original color rendition too much. Cutting through haze often translates to simply working with low contrast images, but increasing the contrast inevitably gives colors a boost — with the subtle desert colors, this can be quite desirable of course but in this instance, I wanted to maintain a somewhat truthful rendition of the place.
Interestingly, Lightroom’s “Dehaze” control was not useful for this. It introduced to much change of the colors. Instead, I used the normal tone controls in the Basic panel, and additionally tweaked the blackpoint and whitepoint (“stretching the histogram”) with the Tone Curve.