Half Aimless in the Coyote Mountains Wilderness

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:

This basin lies between the western ridge of the Coyote Mountains and the Domelands ridge. The Carrizo Badlands and Carrizo Marsh are visible beyond, and sunlit but in haze right under the clouds, Whale Peak.
This basin or depression lies between the western ridge of the Coyote Mountains and the Domelands ridge. The Carrizo Badlands and Carrizo Marsh are visible beyond, and sunlit but in haze right under the clouds, Whale Peak.

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:

This cairn seems to serve no particular purpose, other than being erected upon the natural pile of rocks that form its base. It doesn't appear to mark any particular peak or anything else, but perhaps a route?
This cairn seems to serve no particular purpose, other than being erected upon the natural pile of rocks that form its base. It doesn’t appear to mark any particular peak or anything else, but perhaps a route?

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:

"Chaotic Ascent" — sandstone ridge, canyon and fossil reefs of the Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.
“Chaotic Ascent” — sandstone ridge, canyon and fossil reefs of the Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.

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:

Canyon and Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.
Canyon and Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.

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:

Panorama of canyon, sandstone ridges and Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.
Panorama of canyon, sandstone ridges and Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.

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

Cryptantha racemosa (Bushy Cryptantha,  Woody Forget Me Not) growing between dead twigs of a shrub, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.
Cryptantha racemosa (Bushy Cryptantha, Woody Forget Me Not) growing between dead twigs of a shrub, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.

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.

"Two Domes" — sandstone dome and Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.
“Two Domes” — sandstone dome and Carrizo Mountain, Coyote Mountains Wilderness, California. January 2021.

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.


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7 thoughts on “Half Aimless in the Coyote Mountains Wilderness”

  1. These images have so much beautiful detail and subtlety of tone. The notes about the haze, wind and colors are interesting. The least contrasty images, like the first one, need more than a two-second attention span to appreciate the beauty in the colors. When I enter into these I see a nice balance of warm and cool tones (desert/sky) and again, I like looking at the detail – e.g. each rock is complete in itself. I usually am not very big on panoramas but I like this one a lot; the 2:1 ratio works really well. As you’d guess I’m very drawn to the Cryptantha growing through those dried branches – I like that you kept the vertical stretch of the branches going by not cropping the frame off at the bottom. I looked up the plant – I always enjoy that family for the flowers (when they really look like classic forget-me-nots) and the cool “scorpiod cymes” as Wikipedia says of the Boraginaceae. The multitude of rock formations in the distant views is interesting, too. Love hearing about the rituals of banana before and hot coffee/PB&J after!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Lynn! You’re right, the images need a longer look — I was really happy to read this, and also that you see the subtlety of tone (guess I did something right by NOT pushing them too far;-).

      I think the problem with panoramas is often that in favor of the sheer width and amount of detail, the composition is neglected — and that’s difficult of course because it’s not easy to see what it will actually be like while capturing the individual frames on location. Probably one reason why I stick to rather simple, single-row panoramas when I do them.

      Glad to hear also that you like the Cryptantha photo. This “more inclusive” way of showing plants and flowers in their environment is more my kind of thing right now (after trying endlessly to get macro sharpness and DOF right, and for such a long time, in the past!).

      And hot coffee and PB&J after a windy & cold desert hike are the best! ;)

      Reply
      • What you say about panoramas makes a lot of sense. Personally I like to have a context photo that shows me the plant – or anything – in situ. But as you know, I love closeups with nice bokeh, too. Both are good! The one with the plant growing through those branches has a special beauty becasue it was an unusual situation that you really captured well. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of hot coffee with a PB&J but I hear ya! My favorite thing is to do half PB and half almond butter, and of course, to find a nice jam and good bread. I’m getting hungry now….

        Reply
  2. Alex:
    Your love for the Carrizo badlands and dome lands area is awesome. I too share this passion. My first trip to this area was back in ~1989, the film days. I have been back many times, lugging my old Pentax 67 and now digital. I have even camped by the domes long before most people knew they existed. I have also seen the degradation over the years and it is very upsetting. This is the reason its location was left out of earlier Anza Borrego guide books. It is simply a singular place, the most tortured, rugged land I have ever seen. Breath taking in the right light. Only enjoyed by those like you, willing to put in the sweat to get there. Your photos of this area are amazing! I have not been there now for several years and am getting a bit to old to go solo like you do. However, I may head out there in the next few days just to see what I can do. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Thank you very much, Edward! I wish I would have been able to see this area when it was still more of a secret, as you describe. I’ve brought a few of my friends out to the domes and they’ve been fine with the ~5 miles out and back. The trail is quite well worn in nowadays, I’m sure you’ll have no problem to get there, and back!

      Reply
  3. I really enjoyed reading the story while viewing the photos. It almost felt like I was hiking these areas, seeing the sights, feeling the wind. I’ve mentioned this before, but I love the variety of scenery available in desert areas, and particularly the area you’re in. At just a very quick glance someone might think it all just looks brown, but if you spend even just a little time looking there is so much more to see, shape, texture, color, plant life. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day than getting lost (metaphorically) in nature.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Todd. It means a lot hearing that I was able to take you (and hopefully, others:) “along” for a hike, through my words and photographs. I struggle more with the words than the photos! ;)

      Reply

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