Memories of Santa Rosa Mountain

(It’s for The Birds!) 

By Jack Daynes

Garnet Queen Creek Headlands - n/a
Garnet Queen Creek basin on Santa Rosa Mountain, Southern Riverside County, California.

Unique Features

Though not a ‘sky island’ like one might find in southeastern Arizona, this mountain has the feel of one. With it’s dramatic drop offs on all sides, it is isolated from its neighbors. It is part of the Peninsular Ranges that run through much of southern California and through the Baja peninsula. Its back is broken by the San Andreas fault system between San Gorgonio on the north and San Jacinto to the south. These mountains can both be seen from Santa Rosa, and appear as islands to the north. Santa Rosa occupies a position that makes it rather difficult to see from much of the surrounding lowland countryside. This makes it even more surprising to discover its views.

Personal History

Santa Rosa Sunset
Evening view from over 7000 feet, with the Marine Layer encroaching on Santa Rosa Mountain. Southern Riverside County, California.

I first met Santa Rosa Mountain in 1971 while camping with my dad. On summer trips, the upper elevations would bring relief from the scorching temperatures found in the surrounding country below. On winter trips, we’d relish the magical wonder that the snow brought to the upper elevations. We always camped at Desert Steve’s cabin at the summit of the 8070’ Santa Rosa Peak, though the highest peak on the mountain is Toro Peak (8,717′). The two room log cabin was large and featured a wonderful stone fireplace that was about five feet high, seven or eight feet wide, and four feet deep. We always made sure that we brought firewood so that we could enjoy great evenings playing guitars and singing by the fire.

Desert Steve had constructed a lookout tower and platform outside the front door of the cabin. There were split log steps leading to the platform. In ten of them he’d carved one of Moses commandments. One could conclude that the laws of Moses were important to him.

From the platform were the most wonderful vistas. Below the summit are the valleys of Coachella, Borrego and Anza. The mountain peaks that are in view for many miles include, San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, Palomar, Hot Springs, and if the air is clear enough, many more. I remember the winter views, with snow and ice decorating all the needles and branches on the trees and the backdrop scenes of the distant mountains and valleys. There was nothing I could compare with this magical “top of the world’ experience.

Ragsdale Homestead - Scenery
All that’s left of Steve Ragsdales log cabin home on the summit of Santa Rosa Mountain, Southern Riverside County, California.

Sadly neither the platform nor the cabin remain. They’ve been victims, I believe, of government bureaucratic policy to protect us from ourselves. The tower was dismantled in the late 1970s or early 1980s and the cabin was later burned to the ground. All that remains is a slab and the stone fireplace.

The Road Up The Mountain

Travel up the Santa Rosa Truck Trail is not for the timid. It is an adventure in and of itself. It starts out from SR74 at an elevation of about 4600’. Milages stated below are given as measured from the junction with SR74. Here the terrain is covered in dense chaparral. In various forms, chaparral dominates the land for about the first 4½ miles where it crosses Garnet Queen Creek (6165′). The Garnet Queen drains the steep north face of the mountain. It has dependable, year round surface water above this crossing to about the 7300′ level where the springs originate. The water supports a great variety of plants and trees in this section. The persistent droughts of the past few of decades have been hard on the trees rooted on the slopes above the creek and many have died.

From the Garnet Queen crossing, the road begins its steepest climbs through several long switchbacks. Along this section oaks give way to pines and the rough road brings you to the crest line ridges. At this elevation (7100′), the journey feels like a genuine alpine experience. The trees are bigger, the vistas are grander, and the world below seems very far away.

Along this section (7 miles to 11½ miles) the road mostly stays near the crest line and heads east. It passes the springs fork in the road at 7.9 miles from SR74, and then the fork that leading to the cabin site at 9.1 miles. The road then goes on to Toro Peak about 2 miles further. At 8716′, its summit has a commanding view that includes the Salton Sea, which is not visible from Santa Rosa Peak. At 11½ miles (8115′), the road is gated. To reach the summit (12.1 miles) one is required to ride ‘Shank’s Mare’ up the steep rocky road for the next 0.6 miles.

Desert Steve

Steve Ragsdale was one of the true ‘characters’ of early to mid 1900s southern California scene. He once owned much of the land on Santa Rosa Mountain. He was born 6/16/1882 and past away on 5/2/1971. It is said that he was an itinerant preacher from Arkansas.

Prior to living on the mountain, he founded the town of Desert Center east of Palm Springs, CA. In the 1920s he settled in the Chuckwalla Valley and ran a gas station and lunch counter. After the I-10 was built, the place came to be known as Desert Center.

Stevie Graffiti - n/a
Signs painted originally by Steve Ragsdale between 1930 and 1970 on Santa Rosa Mountain, Southern Riverside County, California.

During the 1930s he moved to the Santa Rosas. He built his cabin and his lookout tower. He painted the rocks with the warning: “Rocks Don’t Burn, But Men And Trees Do”. In the burned out hollow of a cedar tree he inscribed: “To Man And Tree I Say To Thee Beware Of Fire It’s Killing Me”. I believe some of his admirers repaint these signs from time to time. I like to call the them “Stevie Graffiti”.

Ragsdale also spent some time working as a deputy sheriff in the Coachella Valley during prohibition. There is a story of an incident where he ‘apprehended’ a bootlegger. While out driving, he came across a man in a truck stuck in a ditch. After pulling the truck from the ditch, the grateful man offered to ‘pay’ him with some moonshine. Steve convinced him to follow his vehicle back to town and he led the man to the sheriff’s office where gave up without a struggle.

The Birds

About two years ago in 2003, I was working on a project for the San Diego Natural History Museum, called “The San Diego County Bird Atlas” (ISBN 093479721-8). Phil Unitt, who headed up the project, provided me with a list of bird species who’s pictures were missing from those he’d already collected for the book. These birds were mostly the ‘ultra shy’ or the difficult to photograph species of the atlas. Phil wanted pictures of birds from the County of San Diego, but agreed that those I might encounter on Santa Rosa Mountain near Riverside County border with San Diego should be of the same subspecies. Several of the birds on the list were montane or alpine dwellers and I took advantage of the opportunity to get reacquainted with the mountain.

I knew that Santa Rosa Springs, at the head of Garnet Queen Creek, was where Desert Steve would have collected his water when he lived in his cabin. At about 7400′ on this dry desert mountain, such a water source would be a sure place to find birds. In fact, it exceeded my expectations. I discovered what I like to call my ‘Magic Meter”, a place about one cubic meter in volume where I found I could photograph about 15 species of birds without moving from a single photo setup.

There is enough water underground to support large pines and some of the most amazing giant cedars I’ve ever seen. The springs water collects in a concrete water tank and then pours in a steady flow from a galvanized pipe. This water forms a small stream that drains down to a culvert and is carried under the road that brings you in to the springs and the adjacent picnic areas. Where it leaves the culvert is a brushy thicket that many birds come from all around the area to drink and bathe. Sometimes there are mobs of birds, including nuthatches, woodpeckers, juncos, chickadees, hummingbirds, vireos, warblers, wrens, bluebirds, creepers, finches and jays. Often warblers ‘argue’ over who should get the best bathing spots. Even if I did not enjoy the photography, I’d be entertained for hours on end without leaving this spot.

Addendum: The flow no longer finds its way to the culvert, but now crosses the road surface on its way down the mountain.

For a small sample of the scenery and other subjects, click <here>. Scroll down to the gallery below to meet the birds.

Click map markers to reveal further information