One of 51 earthquake fault lines in Southern California, the Blue Cut fault extends for about 50 miles through the Little San Bernardino Mountains, under Pleasant Valley, and into the Pinto Basin. Most of the 50 mile length exists within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), one of my favorite desert hiking environments.
Note: This is not a guide to Hiking the Blue Cut Fault, it’s more an October day photo journey through the region.
In the mid 1800s, there was a wagon mule trail that traversed through the area, providing passageway for miners transporting gold and mining equipment to and from railroads (in the Coachella Valley region) to the Lost Horse Mountains, the Hexie Mountains, and other nearby mining sites.
I’ve hiked Pushawalla Canyon (see photos) numerous times over the years, but this was my first time along the Blue Cut fault line and wash loop. The location is extremely remote (4×4 high clearance vehicle strongly recommended for access to dirt pullout area) and fairly good navigational skills are required if you’re planning on hiking the region. Other than a sign marked “Wilderness Boundary” near the pushawalla trailhead, there are no signs or markers (other than a few rock cairns) in the region.
Inside the pushawalla region, it’s a Day Use Only area, created to allow wildlife (such as the endangered Desert Bighorn Sheep) to reach scarce water resources without interruption by humans. I arrived at the trail head just before sunrise, and while inside my Jeep packing peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (and some turkey jerky) into my pack, a group of coyotes approached, and made their presence known (Sorry, no photos. Was still dark and I prefer not to disturb their activities).
When available, wildlife utilizes the water sources at the Pinyon Well site, a historic mining and milling area first developed in the 1800s. On this visit there was lots of evidence of animal activity in the area, and I could again hear coyotes barking nearby as I explored this former mining site. Nature has long reclaimed nearly all evidence of human use of the area, but there are several interesting milling and mining remnants (several not on maps) to be discovered on the surrounding hillsides.
The remains of a big horn sheep are a reminder that coyotes are not the only predators in the area. While I’ve yet to encounter a mountain lion in Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve come across the remains of at least a half dozen desert big horn sheep while on hikes in the Pushawalla area. I’ve kicked up more bones in this region than any other in JTNP. While different from the nearby Eagle mountains, it’s still an unforgiving environment.
Near one of the open wells, this green hummingbird paused long enough so that I could take its photograph. Other than birds, coyotes and jackrabbits, I saw very little wildlife during the day I did this hike. Even though the early October weather was perfect for animal activity, it wasn’t my lucky wildlife day. During this trek, I took mostly photographs of things that don’t move too quickly (like rocks).
It would be easy to miss it, but the above photograph identifies the remains of an asphalt section of road that was built along the pushawalla trail. Once upon a time there was Jeep access to this area (it’s long been closed to vehicle and bicycle traffic) and before that, mule pulled wagons worked their way to the top of the Pushawalla Plateau and into the canyon that leads to what is now Indio Hills.
Near the top of Pushawalla Plateau are a series of iron pipes cemented into the ground and roped off in cable (here is another view), which was likely installed several years ago to prevent vehicle travel through the canyon. There are some amazing views to be seen from this point, and there’s several well hidden and quite historical mine sites close by. To my knowledge, a few abandoned mine shafts remain open and pose potential life-threatening risks, stay out and stay alive.
When you’re eyes are trained for spotting mine tailings (oftentimes areas of grayish color pulverized rock), you begin to see evidence of them on several mountainsides in this region. Veins of white quartz can be spotted along some of these hillsides as well, but they’re not as easy to see from a distance as mine tailing piles. I think old-time miners left behind sardine tins and other trash, just so we could more easily locate their historic sites of gold and silver glory.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I haven’t many times thought about stumbling across a chunk of gold while hiking Southern California deserts, inspired by a story about a miner that one supposedly found a gold nugget the size of his fist, on nearby lost horse mountain. It was on the surface among the rocks. Thanks to the terrain, you can’t just leisurely walk around this area looking for gold nuggets without the risk of being stabbed numerous times in the process (by a cholla).
There are few Joshua trees across the blue cut landscape, but the silver cholla cactus (Opuntia echinocarpa) is abundant, and the spines can be sharp as daggers. Sometimes worse than the live ones (like shown above), are the millions of needle sharp spines from dead cactus, lying on the ground and waiting to puncture the flesh at your ankles. Even the most innocent appearing desert plants can be sharp enough to cut into our clothing and/or skin.
Plant eating wildlife in the region appears to find plenty to provide themselves with nourishment. Although rainfall is infrequent in the region, both plants and animals have learned to adapt to the harsh environment. Temperature before sunrise on the day of my trip dropped to 36°F and it was over 86°F when I was leaving the area later in the day. A 40° swing in temperature is not uncommon for these parts.
Rock formations in Joshua Tree are fascinating and some of the rocks along the blue cut fault are estimated to be over 1 1/2 billion years old. Rocks like the one shown above crumbled just by my stepping onto them. Ascending one of the hillsides to get photos of other mountain ranges, I thought the ground would avalanche underneath my feet, if there were strong seismic activity.
The San Jacinto mountain range can be seen in the left side of the above photo. There are some spectacular hikes to be had on that mountain as well. Much closer (and still mostly within the borders of JTNP) are hills of the Little San Bernardino range. I intended to stop for a break at the nearby rock pile, but moments after laying down my pack, red fire ants had ascended on my gear. while shaking off all my gear, I again heard nearby coyotes curiously making their way towards my location. Time to move.
Once back into the wash, navigation becomes less difficult, but it’s nearly an all uphill 3 miles to the blue cut wash plateau. After already hiking 9 miles, I’m reminded how much I dislike hiking uphill in the sand. Why was it that I decided to hike 16+ miles along an earthquake fault line? The old man didn’t have any answers.
From my experience, there’s far less old man prickly pear cactus (Opuntia erinacea var. erinacea) growing in the region compared to the silver cholla, which was quite abundant throughout my hike. Due to the time of year, there was near zero desert wildflower blooms, but there was still plenty of rock, and lots of brush to make my way through.
The blue cut fault is named for the blue granodiorite that is exposed on the mountainside to the southwest and marks the main branch of the fault. On one side the land was uplifted to form steep and straight mountain edges of the Hexie Mountains, and on the other side the land drops to create Pleasant Valley.
The Hexie Mountains are scarred with scattered abandoned mine sites, and there’s some exploring of historical sites that can be done near the Pleasant Valley backcountry board, a good place to park. In the above photo, Joshua trees can be seen growing in the distance, we are entering back into the Mojave Desert region.
Vegetation gets much thicker and greener as I cross the blue cut pass plateau and into Pleasant Valley. Those mountains (coxcomb mountains) far in the distance are still within the boundaries of JTNP. At nearly 800,000 acres, it’s not uncommon to go hours (and sometimes days) without seeing another human being, especially in the more remote regions.
Along Geology Tour Road is Malapai Hill. It’s not that difficult to hike to and the area is quite significant archaeologically. The double humped hill was the result of volcanic activity in the area, with piles of monzogranite and basalt talus occurring on the mountain’s steep slopes. The hill is also my marker that I’m only a couple miles away from my Jeep Rubicon, and lunchtime is near.
Is it your birthday? It is a good day when I can hike nearly 18 miles in desert wilderness and only come across a single piece of trash (now properly disposed of), aside from the rusted tin cans and other historical artifacts left behind from area mining days. This is never a place I’d recommend someone hike for pleasure, it’s moderately strenuous and the hazards are numerous, but the solitude makes it worth the journey for me.
Pinyon Well, prospects, ruins, and an old guzzler site can be seen on the topo map above. Us USGS Malapai Hill, Calif. map for the region and don’t feed the coyotes.