(It’s for The Birds!)
By Jack Daynes
Though not truly a ‘sky island’ that one would find in south eastern 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 Range that runs 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. The position that Santa Rosa occupies is such that it is rather difficult to see from much of the surrounding countryside. This makes it even more surprising to discover its views.
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. On winter trips, we’d relish in the wonder that the snow brought to the upper elevations. We always camped at Desert Steve’s cabin at the summit of the 8,000+ foot Santa Rosa Peak. The two room log cabin was rather 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. Directly 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 particularly 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.
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′, with terrain that 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. Unfortunately, the persistent droughts of the past couple of decades have been hard on the trees on the slopes above the creek. One can see that many have died.
From the crossing, the road begins its steepest climbs through several long switchbacks. Along this section oaks give way to pines and the trail brings you to the crest line. At this elevation (7100′), it feels like a genuine alpine experience. The trees are bigger, the vistas are grander, and the world below seems very far.
In this section (7 M to 11½ M) the road mostly stays near the crest line and goes east. It passes the springs fork (7.9M), the fork that leads to the cabin site (9.1M), and goes on to Toro Peak. 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. In order to reach the summit (12.1M) one is required to ride ‘Shank’s Mare’.
Steve Ragsdale was one of the true ‘characters’ of early to mid 1900s southern California. He 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.
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. There is a story of an incident where he ‘apprehended’ a bootlegger. While out driving, Steve 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.
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, of course, mostly the ‘ultra shy’ or the difficult to photograph species of the atlas. Phil wanted pictures of birds in the County of San Diego, but agreed that those I might encounter on Santa Rosa Mountain (Riverside County) should be of the same subspecies. Several of the birds on the list were montane or alpine dwellers and I decided 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 greatly 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 had the pleasure of seeing. The springs are collected in a concrete water tank and delivered in a steady pour 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. At times, 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.