May 30, 2023.
17.5 mi | 2250′ ele. gain | 7.5 hr.
We arrived at Hart Mountain eager to enjoy desert quiet time and relax into some natural hot springs. But nature had other plans. When we pulled up to the store in Plush to grab a couple of cheeseburgers, a sign on the door said “Road to Hot Springs Closed.” Shoot. Apparently the road needed repair after a particularly wet winter/spring season plus all the yahoos who think they can drive their vehicles up steep, wet roads. But, ready to switch plans at a moment’s notice, we angled over to Camp Hart, located at the base of the Warner Plateau. There, I had several days of exploring ahead.
Bike and hike
As you well know, I don’t like riding bikes. But, when I have a good reason to get on a bike, I’ll do it. On this day, I had a plan to bushwhack up to Petroglyph Lake. But my starting point was 5 miles away up a couple gravel roads. Hiking that would have been long and boring, but biking it…well that would be shorter and boring!
I rode to the base of a wash and ditched my bike behind a sage bush. I dropped a pin on the map on my phone to make it easy to find on the way back, then started hiking up hill. The wash began as they usually do, broad and dotted with shrubs. I followed the contour of the landscape as it gently ascended towards the plateau. Along the way, I spotted penstemon, mint, paintbrush and thistle. But the balsamroot really stood out; cheery blobs of yellow punctuated the surrounding hillsides. It felt like you would be able to see them from space.
As I approached the top of the plateau, I left the wash and headed straight up a chunky talus slopes. Using my hands for balance, I picked my way up the rocks and emerged on top to find an absolute wonderland of colorful blooms.
At first, the exuberant desert parsley caught my eye. Then the phlox, false dandelion, saxifrage, large-head clover and others. And a balsamroot variety I’d never seen before: serrate balsamroot. These guys had long, flimsy, red stalks attaching each flower head to a rosette of slender, toothed leaves. My hunch about stumbling into a good desert wildflower bloom at this time was correct; this place likely doesn’t look like this too often.
I slowly made my way to the lake, stopping numerous times for photos. I’d been there once before, in the heat of summer and in the throes of mosquito season. I did not enjoy myself much. It’s fun to read my old blog entry here, and reflect on how much I’ve learned and changed since then. I sure have adapted to bushwhacking in the desert, which was a novelty when I first stepped foot here!
With little knowledge of what the petroglyphs mean, who made them and whether or not they’re old or new, I find it very difficult to enjoy viewing them. However, I made an effort to find as many as I could. To be honest, I was more interested in discovering all the flowers that were growing in the lake basin. It was a far cry from the “brown mud puddle” that I’d seen in July 2011; I wished that I’d brought my packraft. I could have had a three-sport day!
Poker Jim Ridge
Why do an out-and-back when you can do a loop? I thought to myself, while looking between the place in front of my eyes and the topo map on my phone. I had to at least explore the ridge, and from there it appeared that I could follow another wash down to some seasonal ponds and then back down to the road. It would be a couple miles, maybe to my bike from there.
On the way to the ridge, I got to see a couple of pronghorn living their best lives out on the plateau. They’re such beautiful animals and a joy to see while out hiking. I poked around some of the rocky outcrops on the ridge to find a place to sit and paint. Mindful of the storms that were brewing all around me, I worked quickly and packed up to begin the walk down.
Exploring off-trail in new places always feels slow but fun. In fact, the slow to fun ratio is inversely proportional: the slower I go, the more fun I have. It is SO ODD typing that because I used to assess the value of my day with how fast I covered ground. Now, I’ve learned that it’s pointless to race because then you don’t see anything! You have no opportunity to connect to the place you’re in, change plans and go check out that curious thing over there or stop and soak in a special moment. I have lost all interest in trying to beat my previous times. The only reason I am mindful of time is so that I know how much I can do before it gets dark or I need to make dinner or I’m going to get run down by a thunderstorm.
And that brings us back to this story.
In my mind, I would have been happy to get back to the road before the thunderstorm arrived. I just didn’t want to be sloshing down a steep, rocky, slippery hillside with rain pouring down on me. I could handle an annoying and wet road walk. In fact, rain would have felt nice.
Back at the road, I could see the dark gray clouds in the distance. A few rumbles of thunder. I walked as fast as I could. Dang, I had to stop a few times for flowers though. What’s that? SHORTSPINE HORSEBRUSH? I had to take some pictures and look it up. Ahhh, then fields full of deep purple larkspur. Gorgeous. But I had to keep going.
Racing the rain
Pedal, pedal, pedal. It was only 5 miles. I made bets with myself: would I make it? Would I get caught in the deluge? Would lightning strike near me? I rode as fast as I could, taking breaks when I got really overheated. I am not an efficient cyclist, and every tiny hill felt like it was trying to kill me.
Drop, drop. Still a third of the way to go. I felt those raindrops and they felt like a relief. I was so hot! But the rain never came. The worst part was riding up the very last hill to the crest of the road, where the campground entrance was.
I arrived intact but very overheated and very thirsty. The storms came later that night and all through the week. We had no confidence that the hot springs road would open before we left, so I started planning some other adventures I could bike to from our camp…