Archive for the ‘california’ Category

wildrose charcoal kilns   15 comments

row of ten kilns as seen when approaching from west end of Wildrose Canyon (click on all photos for larger views)

After leaving Lone Pine, a photographer friend and I followed 136 south past Owens Lake – a vast dry lake bed lying between the Inyo Mountains to the east, and the Sierras to the west. Stopping to tour the small town of Keeler, we shot a few photos of older buildings, then continued on our way to the junction with 190. From there, we made our way east, stopping numerous times to photograph the landscape, building ruins, and quite a few rocks (one of my favourite subjects). Deciding to knock off early, we spent the night at the small RV park and campground at Panamint Springs. Once again, we were the only campers, but just before dusk, a lone motorcyclist pulled in to set up his tent. It was a cool but tolerable night. Splurging on an RV spot, we spent the evening recharging batteries for cameras and other gear, and used the wifi connection to catch up on email to those back home. In the morning, I filled the tank on the van, then turned us south onto Panamint Valley Road. At the Trona-Wildrose Road junction, we turned northeast and began the slow climb into the Panamint Range where the highest peaks in Death Valley are located. I’ve decided to spare you my collection of rock photos and limit this post to the main highlight of our small foray into the Death Valley region.

front side of kilns as seen from west end

At around 6,800 feet, the Wildrose charcoal kilns are considered to be the best preserved of their kind in the western states. No doubt, their survival probably has a lot to do with their remote location. They are accessible by car as the road is paved most of the way up, but turns to somewhat bumpy gravel a couple of miles before arriving at the parking lot. From that point onwards, it’s recommended that only higher clearance vehicles should attempt the road on up to the Thorndike and Mahogany Flat campgrounds, and the trail head for Telescope Peak (elev. 11,049 ft). We did drive up to Thorndike (7,400 feet) to take a look around at the campsites, but decided that it was too cold and windy on that day, so spent the night down at the Wildrose campground (4,100 feet). Good decision as, even at the Wildrose campground, we watched someone’s improperlyl secured tent get blown up into the air and float away like a hot air balloon while the owners were off hiking somewhere. Not such a fun surprise to return and find that your tent has blown off to who knows where.

Although I’d seen photographs of these kilns, I must admit that, as they came into view, I was entirely blown away by their size, shape and state of preservation. Regardless of how one may feel about their significance as industrial artifacts, they are really quite beautiful in a very organic sense – seeming almost like over-sized bee skeps set within a wash of sage and rabbitbrush. Ten in number, they sit arrayed equidistant in a line between the road and the base of the mountain slope. They are made of local rock which has been mortared together. Remnants of the lime kiln, used to make cement for the mortar, may be found a short distance behind the charcoal kilns.

back view of the kilns with openings near the top

I spent a good hour shooting many photos of the exterior and interior of the kilns from many angles, all the while marvelling over the incredible precision of the workmanship. The interpretive signage in the parking lot states that the kilns were designed by Swiss engineers and built by Chinese labourers. They were constructed in the mid-eighteen-seventies in order to produce charcoal which was then used to fuel the silver-lead bullion smelters operated by the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company, located approximately twenty-five miles west in the Argus range.

After some searching around on the net to find further information on the kilns, I believe that much of what I’ve read must originate with a booklet entitled Wildrose Charcoal Kilns by Robert J. Murphy, former superintendent of Death Valley Monument (Death Valley Natural History Association, 1972). Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:

The kilns are approximately 25 1/2 feet high, and 32 feet in diameter. The walls are about 24 inches thick at the bottom, thinning to 12 inches near the top. There have been two major restorations of the kilns – the first by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, and the second in the early 1970s, when Navajo masons with expertise in working on ruins, came from Arizona to fully restore the stonework. It took 42 cords of wood to fill each of the ten kilns. After a week of burning and a few more days of cooling, each cord would have produced about 45 to 50 bushels of charcoal – or about 2,000 bushels of charcoal per kiln. The charcoal was then moved by wagon by the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company owned by Remi Nadeau. Just a bit of interesting trivia about Remi Nadeau. He was a French-Canadian, born in Quebec in 1821. After working in the eastern U.S., he traveled west in 1860 in an attempt to cash in on the gold rush. He started up his Cerro Gordo Freighting Company and became one of the principal operators in eastern California, one reference stating that he operated 80 freight teams. I’ve always found it interesting how much people got around the continent in spite of the slowness of travel in those days.

one of the kilns with its arched doorway – note pointed stones near the peak

According to a website that, sadly, no longer seems to exist, the ten kilns averaged 3,000 bushels of charcoal per day. This was transported to the above-mentioned Modoc Consolidated Mining Company smelters owned by George Hearst, father of the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. At the smelters, the charcoal was used to fire furnaces to produce silver-lead bullion. The kilns appear to have been active between 1876 and 1879, at which time the mines began to run out and became unprofitable. It barely needs to be stated that it required a massive supply of wood to produce charcoal for the mines. It took a team of about 40 woodcutters to keep the kilns supplied with pinyon pine and juniper, cut and carried or skidded from the surrounding area. Talk about environmental impact. It never ceases to amaze what lengths mankind will go to when there’s a buck to be made.

circular stonework in the ceiling of a kiln

Well, enough about the history. As artifacts, the kilns are beautiful structures. There’s something about them that seems almost monastic. It might be the vaulted ceilings and the acoustics when one is standing inside. It could be the way the golden desert sunlight glows in the arched doorways and the single high opening to the back. It could also have much to do with the secluded location. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine them jammed full of smouldering pinyon logs. When active, it must have been a busy place, with people loading and unloading wood and charcoal. Now, there is just the sound of wind circulating through the kilns and the occasional echo of a voice or footstep. I must admit to being a somewhat surprised at how little time the visitors who trickled in and out would spend examining the kilns. Most drove up, snapped a few photos of themselves by the front door of a couple of domes closest to the parking lot, jumped back in their vehicles and drove away. While several groups came and went, I wandered slowly in and out of each kiln, examining the workmanship, finding many wonderful stones laid in the mortar, and thoroughly fascinated at how often the air vents along the bottom lined up with a vent on the opposite side of the dome. I have no idea if the pointed stones protruding near the peaks of the domes have any practical purpose, but they add just a touch of whimsy to the overall appearance.

One of the vent holes in the three rows near the bottom of the kiln walls

I should make mention of the Wildrose Peak Trail which departs from the parking area for the kilns. It is 4.2 miles one way to the 9,064 foot summit. We didn’t do the hike as dogs are not allowed on trails within Death Valley Monument. On our return from the kilns to the campground, we stopped at the section of pipe mounted next to a sign describing the Skidoo water pipeline. It reads: The Skidoo Pipeline can be seen either north or south of this location. The pipeline, which ran from Birch Spring in Jail Canyon, to the Skidoo millsite 23 miles away, was completed in 1907 at a cost of $250,000. There is some speculation that the slang phrase 23 skidoo may have had its origin in Death Valley:

Death Valley National Park Service interpreters have sometimes given as an explanation that the early 1900s mining town of Skidoo, California required that a water line be dug from the source of water on Telescope Peak to the town – a distance of 23 miles. Most thought it would be easy, but the immensely hard rock along the course made it very difficult; it was eventually accomplished by a determined engineer. The term “23 Skidoo” was then used as a statement of irony, something like “duck soup”: a reference to something ‘apparently easy,’ but actually very difficult.

Whatever, the view down Wildrose Canyon with the Panamint Range beyond is really pretty stunning.

Skidoo Pipeline through Wildrose Canyon with the Panamint Range beyond.

Written by bev on January 27th, 2010

lone pine   17 comments

Posted at 9:31 pm in california,geology

snowstorm over Glass Mountain Ridge near Mammoth Lakes (click on all images for larger views)

After spending the better part of a week camped at Mono Lake it was time to move on. Once again, the late autumn weather pushed us further south. Snow was forecast for the next couple of days, so we struck camp in the morning just as the first flakes began to fall. Soon we were headed south on 395, the wind slamming us about, making for some very rough driving. Somewhere around Independence, towering dust clouds blasted down the Owens Valley parallel to the highway. This did not bode well for our plan of camping somewhere within Death Valley.

Stopping at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center just south of the town of Lone Pine, I made some inquiries about the weather. That was barely necessary as, outside the building, tumbleweeds and broken branches were swirling about, while parked vehicles rocked crazily from side to side. The rangers were advising everyone not to venture into Death Valley that afternoon as the winds were so fierce and the temperature dropping quickly. My friend, who was doing this leg of the journey with us, asked about campgrounds in the area. We were given directions to a few sites around Lone Pine, so we turned back up the road to check them out, but not before stopping to have a couple of vegetarian pizzas and a salad made up for us at the Pizza Factory. With the wind blasting as it was, setting up the camp stove would be out of the question that evening. Perusing the collection of framed news stories and autographed photos of movie stars who had worked on shoots around Lone Pine, kept us amused while waiting for our pizzas to bake. They turned out to be quite good and were well appreciated later that evening as the temperature began to dive below freezing.

sunrise at Lone Pine campground – Mount Whitney is at the center of this photo

After checking out the Tuttle Creek and municipal campgrounds closer to town, we decided that they weren’t our style. Instead, we headed up the road toward the Lone Pine campground at the foot of Mount Whitney. At 14,505 feet, the summit is the highest point in the contiguous U.S. states – the peak is visible in the center of the above photo. The Lone Pine campground is at about 6,000 feet, so about 2,000 feet higher than the campgrounds closer to town. Needless to say, we were the only campers at Lone Pine that night. Even the camp host was gone. There was just a handmade sign saying that the host was “away for awhile” and to deposit fees at the self-pay station and obey the campground rules.

my van at Lone Pine campground, sometime after the sun began to melt frost off the windshield

Lone Pine is one of those old style “classic” campgrounds, designed for tenting or smaller trailers rather than RVs, and laid out in such a way as to preserve many features of the landscape. Most of the sites are nestled between massive Sierra white granite boulders bigger than my van. Far above, long banners of snow curled off Whitney and the surrounding peaks, providing an ethereal backdrop.

After wandering around shooting photos and investigating the campground, we dined on almost-cold pizza, salad, and some of the baklava cooked over the camp stove a couple of nights before. Without the dogs, it might have been a cold night in the van, but once zipped into good sleeping bags, with two collies curled up to fill the gaps, and a blanket tossed over all, we were warm enough. I awoke at dawn and rose to shoot photos of the sunlight spreading across the Sierras. The air was frigid, and even with good gloves, my hands were soon beginning to freeze. Gallon jugs of water, tossed up on the van roof for the night, were frozen rock solid by morning. We would have liked to stay another night at Lone Pine, but the wind had dropped off and we we were anxious to get to lower (and warmer) elevation, so we set off for Death Valley once more.

road through granite boulder formations near the town of Lone Pine

On our way back to town, we stopped to explore the incredible rock formations of the Alabama Hills, a low range at the foot of Mount Whitney and the other high peaks to the west. Jumbled heaps of oddly shaped, weathered granite boulders break through the sloping sagebrush covered earth. The landscape immediately put me in mind of the Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona. They feel similarly ancient and mysterious.

granite boulder formation near the town of Lone Pine

During the heyday of movie and tv westerns, The Alabama Hills were a popular “on location” site. At Movie Flats Road, there is a plaque that states:

Since 1920, hundreds of movies and TV episodes, including Gunga Din, How The West Was Won, Khyber Rifles, Bengal Lancers and High Sierra, along with The Lone Ranger and Bonanza, with such stars as Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, Glenn Ford, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne, have been filmed in these rugged Alabama Hills with their majestic Sierra Nevada background. Plaque dedicated by Roy Rogers, whose first starring feature was filmed here in 1938.

“Gunga Din” monument near Lone Pine

Elsewhere, a plaque affixed to a slab of white Sierra granite identifies an area used in the shooting of the movie, Gunga Din.


In 1938, this hill area, among many others in these Alabama Hills, served as a stand-in for the hill country of northern India when RKO made the classic adventure film, “Gunga Din,” on location in Lone Pine. Hundreds of horsemen raced across the hills and elaborate sets were built here and nearby while the cast and crew lived for weeks in a tent city off Movie Road. Directed by George Stevens, the epic starred Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen and Joan Fontaine with Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din, the waterboy who wanted so much to be a soldier.

This looks a bit like the cone of a Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri), but maybe a little different. Please leave a comment if you know.

At the information kiosk for the Alabama Hills, we noticed several pineapple-sized pine cones scattered on the ground (see above). Upon closer inspection, we found that these cones were both very weighty and heavily armed, having long, curving, claw-like scales. They somewhat resemble the cones of a Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri), but the scales seem a little different and with longer “claws”. Whatever, they are really quite wicked looking and it isn’t difficult to imagine how much damage one of these could inflict if it happened to fall from a tree and hit an unwary passerby. I looked up information on the Coulter Pine and found that the cones are referred to as “widowmakers” due to their hazardous nature. These cones are certainly right up there in the same league.

Passing through Lone Pine, we decided to stop and buy a couple of more pizzas and a salad to take with us into Death Valley. It seemed like a good way to provision ourselves, and besides, by this point in my travels, I was definitely feeling the need for a break from camp cooking. At the East Sierra visitor center, we were told that the weather was somewhat better – colder than normal, but at least the winds had subsided. More about that part of our trip coming up sometime soon.

Written by bev on January 21st, 2010