The.Best.Guzzler.Ever! Joshua Tree National Park

February, 2016

Note: In this writeup I’m not mentioning any specific locations or other possibly identifying information. There are just too many assholes in the world who’ve learned to use the Internet and trash things like this. This I have learned the hard way…..

OK, I know. I spend too much time on Google Earth.

I blame this addiction on several things. First, I’ve always loved flying back to when I was very young. I could peer into remote areas I’d never have a chance to visit. Even after I became a pilot, I’d still rather someone else fly so I could just peer out the window.

This love also drove my interest in maps, both new and old, to find weird shit in the desert (and mountains). Carrying it further, aerial photos are the perfect, ultimate maps, although they do lack a legend. But what you see is what you get. And aerial photos are much safer and cheaper than flying yourself. But in the past, aerial photos were hard to come by, especially those of remote areas.

My “perfect storm” arrived in 2001 when Keyhole Inc. starting making available aerial and satellite photos online for a somewhat affordable subscription. What evil magic is this? I spent a fair amount of money with those good folks and had a lot of fun.

Then in 2004, Google purchased Keyhole, it all became free and everybody’s world changed a bit. It was now possible to examine remote areas, looking for old mines or other weirdness, from the ease of one’s home. That was a phenomenal game changer.

While clearly this opened up a whole new world for me I was surprised at a couple downsides. First, just about any goober could use Google Earth, find remote stuff, post about it online resulting in over visitation and site trashing. Prior, one had to track down and possibly visit a number obscure data sources, lengths to which I was willing to go (the joys of the UCLA old map library….).

Second, a lot of the fun and mystery of tracking down and visiting odd locales was eliminated. You want info on someplace obscure? Just Google it. You’ll find site pictures, trip reports and even coordinates. In the 1970s it took me a couple of years and many attempts to find the Stanley-Miller Mine deep in the San Gabriel Mountains and much of the joy was in the hunt. It’s very rare to find really obscure places these days, at least in my general neck of the woods. Now, by the time I’m done researching a spot I’m interested in, I feel like I’ve already been there! So it’s very unusual for me to go after something I know nothing about. This was one of those cases.

I occasionally get emails from people pointing out interesting things they’ve found on Google Earth. Many of these people can’t get into the field themselves to check out what they are seeing so they’ve never developed a sense for what’s “real” in Google Earth, and what might just be a photo artifact or natural formation. Me, I’ve sadly gone on far too many wild goose chases after things I’ve seen on Google Earth so I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what’s real and what’s not.

So a while back I got an email about a possible aircraft crash site inside Joshua Tree National Park. The finder had identified a number of spots across some rugged hills that they thought might be scattered aircraft parts. Humans are excellent at finding patterns, even where none actually exist! I had a close look at the locations in Google Earth and was able to dismiss them as natural features…..all except one. And it was sorta weird…..

The location was in the bottom of a narrow canyon. There was a linear feature crossing the canyon ending at a rectangular shape that seemed non-natural. These weren’t artifacts as they were still visible in older images on Google Earth (use the Time Slider to see older pics). It also looked like the linear feature was casting a shadow, which suggested an elevated pipe. Huh?

This was in a very remote area of Joshua Tree National Park that gets little visitation. Hell, I hadn’t even been there. I could find no record of mining activity in this vicinity and mining is the reason people usually build stuff in stupidly remote places. Access is, umm….difficult, so it seemed unlikely someone would live there by choice.

I considered it might be some sort of small, old hydro power generating facility (a pipe leading to a rectangular structure-like object) but the damn wash was dry unless it was raining, and there seemed no destination to send to power to.

I thought about a wildlife guzzler, but it matched nothing in my experience. Usually guzzlers have some sort of mat or other type of water collection area that’s pretty visible from the air. And also some sort of water holding tank. There was nothing like that here, and the thing was in the bottom of a canyon, a location I’ve never seen a guzzler placed.

Googling only added to the mystery. Checking the canyon’s name turned up essentially nothing, which in itself was really odd as Google is all-seeing. The single item I came across was a reference in some surveying notes that mentioned a “rock house” in that part of the canyon prior to 1930. Beyond that, nada.

It might end up being nothing, but hey, it was a real unknown and I haven’t had anything like that for years. Time for a desert trip!

As I mentioned, this is a very remote spot to get to. Just to get to the nearest jumping off point requires 4WD. Then it’s a slog up an unremarkable canyon for a few miles without any sort of trail. Not a bad hike, just sorta mindless.

That all stopped as I was within about a quarter mile of my destination when I turned a bend and came upon a stinkin’ dry waterfall. Now it wasn’t a big one, maybe only 25′ tall and there seemed to be foot and hand holds. But it was polished smooth and the hand holds petered out near the top. I thought I could probably make it up, but getting down without a rope was going to be damn terrifying.

A nice little 25' obstacle. Either the picture doesn't do it justice or I'm a pussy. Or both.

A nice little 25′ obstacle. Either the picture doesn’t do it justice or I’m a pussy. Or both.

Were this just a casual hike, this would be my turnaround point. No way I’d try that waterfall unbelayed. But hell, I was within a quarter mile of….something. And I also realized this waterfall protected whatever was there from casual access, greatly increasing its attraction to me. Well, crap, I’d have to find a way to make this work.

The canyon I was in had very steep walls. But backtracking a bit, I found a route I could probably do a Class 3 scramble way up the side slope of the canyon, then get across the waterfall area before descending. This in itself wasn’t a route I was especially comfortable with, but was a damn sight better than tackling the waterfall. It was very sphincter-tightening, but I eventually landed on the good side of the waterfall. Walking over to the top edge of the waterfall and looking down, I realized there was no way in hell I’d ever attempt going down that sucker. It was good to have an alternate route, sucktastic that it might be.

Continuing along the canyon just a bit further, I kept my eyes open for any sort of “rock house”. Nothing, just rocks. Turning a bend, right in front of me and above was a suspended pipe, maybe 4″ – 6″ in diameter. Hey, something WAS here! But it didn’t look….old. I was anticipating pre-1930s, and this looked like more recent aluminum.

What the hell is this pipe doing in the middle of nowhere? I'll bet it goes somewhere interesting.

What the hell is this pipe doing in the middle of nowhere? I’ll bet it goes somewhere interesting.

Looking to the right, the pipe went to the top of another damn dry waterfall. I wasn’t going that way. To the left the pipe went up into the rocks on a low ledge in the canyon bottom which I had just walked past. I decided to follow the pipe in that direction.

As I approached the end of the pipe I found it terminated into a white tub. The tub material looked like fiberglass, so it couldn’t have been that old. One end of the tub had steps going down into it, so clearly it was a wildlife guzzler after all. I leaned against the large boulder on my left as I took pictures of the tub. and tried to make sense of how it worked.

Well I'll be guzzled! I was so intrigued by this I didn't bother to look behind me.

Well I’ll be guzzled! I was so intrigued by this I didn’t bother to look behind me.

It wasn’t until I started to move around the tub that I noticed the doorway in the rock I had been leaning on. Like an idiot I was standing right next to it, but fixated on the tub. Duh!

My mind immediately flashed on similar structures I had seen like Carey’s Castle or Eagle Cliff Mine where someone had fitted a doorway into a crevice in a rock pile, filled in the gaps and created a shelter. But there was no crevice here…the door just went right into the side of the big boulder. Wait…..Huh? WTF?

After finally turning around this is truly a WTF? moment. But hey, what's inside?

After finally turning around this is truly a WTF? moment. But hey, what’s inside?

I then stepped back and suddenly realized the huge boulder I had been leaning against was completely fake! I now noticed a few damaged areas where metal lath was exposed, but the thing had been colored and sculpted to look like real rock. This was worthy of Disneyland!

The “door” was a somewhat bowed wooden access hatch. I pulled it open and peered inside. The sucker was huge! There were three large white plastic tanks with listed capacities of 2,000 gallons each (although the 2,000 was crossed out and 1,200 written by hand). There were also shovels, buckets and other gear presumably used to maintain the guzzler. The internal structure consisted of small steel beams supporting a framework of metal lath onto which the mortar had been spread, shaped and colored.

Had I wanted to it was easily tall enough for me to have stood inside. However since the access hatch had been partly bowed open and there a lot of unseen areas between and behind the tanks I wasn’t comfortable entering. It would have made a very inviting den for any number of critters I’d rather not meet. I settled for sticking my camera just inside the hatch and taking a lot of flash shots.

A small part of the "rock's" interior. If I were braver I'd be standing inside to given a sense of scale. But who knows what's behind those tanks?

A small part of the “rock’s” interior. If I were braver I’d be standing inside to given a sense of scale. But who knows what’s behind those tanks?

Looking right, inside the hatch. That foundation wall MAY be part of an older structure. Dunno.

Looking right, inside the hatch. That foundation wall MAY be part of an older structure. Dunno.

Backing out of the hatch, I circled around the “rock”. It was amazing! It looked just like the real deal and I had walked right past it without noticing. There were a few small spots of damage which appeared to have been caused by rocks falling from the canyon walls above. I found a date of 1993 put into some wet concrete so that’s when it was built. I’m not certain but it appears the tanks may have been placed on some older foundation, perhaps the “rock house” I found reference to.

There were a few bit of damage that may have come from falling rocks. The water feed pipe is visible behind the faux boulder.

There were a few bit of damage that may have come from falling rocks. The water feed pipe is visible behind the faux boulder.

As I climbed the slope above the guzzler to get a better view of it I could see where the other end of the pipe ended above the dry waterfall. It looked like it delivered water from a natural depression by flow of gravity into the white tub. The bottom of the tub was directly connected by piping to the three large plastic tanks inside the faux boulder. As the tub filled, so did the large tanks. So if the tank capacity notations were accurate this facility could store 3,600 gallons of water for animals. Impressive.

A side view showing the coloration and workmanship used to hide the massive structure. The top surface has been fully textured and shaped.

A side view showing the coloration and workmanship used to hide the massive structure. The top surface has been fully textured and shaped.

Looking down on the guzzler showing the pipe, access hatch and water trough.

Looking down on the guzzler showing the pipe, access hatch and water trough.

Another higher view of the site.

Another higher view of the site.

Beyond the intake end of the pipe I noticed a metal stake on the canyon side slope with an object at the top. From a distance it looked like a trail camera, which now made it worth getting across the slope to above the dry waterfall to check out.

Nope, not a camera, but it was….something. The metal stake had a short piece of 2″ x 2″ rectangular tubing attached to its top. The open top of the rectangular tubing had some screen pressed into it, forming a little well. It looked like a science experiment of some sort. On the side was written, “Do not disturb, property of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep”. Ah, the culprits at last!

The post placed by Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. These are hard-ass people.

The post placed by Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. These are hard-ass people.

Later, when I returned home, I checked out these folks. Really a rather impressive group. They are volunteers who work with the California Department of Fish and Game and the BLM to build and maintain Bighorn Sheep guzzlers in some godawful areas in the California Desert. Since the 1960s, they’ve built over 70 guzzlers. Looking through some of the newsletters on their very good website , many of their sites are something of a challenge to just hike to, much less haul tanks and construction material to. This guzzler was built by them, but with a date of 1993 predates the info they have posted online.

I’m going to guess that the material for this particular guzzler was all helicoptered in. I suspect there must be an interesting story behind why such an elaborate and well hidden installation but I don’t know what it is. However I am truly impressed. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife guzzlers in my adventuring, but nothing comes close to this Disneyesque creation.

And no, I won’t tell you were it is, so don’t ask.