Desert Talk
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Head of June Wash Hike Report

by Frank Colver

May 26, ‘08 (Memorial Day) was the tail end of some unusually cool weather for Canebrake. We had some rain on Thursday and several days of very high winds. This day dawned calm and the predicted high for the area was 72 degrees. After breakfast I started thinking that this would probably be the last weather like this until sometime in October and I ought to do a hike, or else wait five more months.

Earlier that morning I was using my powerful binoculars to look up at June Wash from my front yard. The reason I was doing this was because I could no longer see, with the naked eye, the ironwood tree up there that I had named the Sentinel Ironwood. With the glasses it looked as though it had dropped its leaves and was starting to flower, but I couldn’t be sure. Then I spotted something I hadn’t seen before!

Up at the mouth of the canyon, where June Wash leaves Whale Peak, there was a big old ironwood and what looked like some smaller ones nearby. I thought that must be the source of the seed that started that lone tree, out on the high alluvial fan, that I had named the Sentinel. I wanted to go see!

Big Daddy Ironwood at June Wash

This gave me one incentive to go up there but I also had another reason. Back a few years ago my son Marty and I had joined some other volunteers to help the park install a sheep guzzler in a saddle between Whale Peak and the peak they call Flat Top. From the saddle we could look westerly, down a steep side canyon, into the head of the June Wash canyon. June Wash itself starts, just “upstream” of this point, in a huge bowl steeply carved in the flank of Whale Peak. We had hiked to the saddle location from the east. Starting in upper Fish Creek it is fairly easy hiking and only about two miles from the vehicles.

I was told by one of the other volunteers that to get to the saddle from the west, out of June Wash, was very difficult because down there (out of our sight) was a vertical drop, or dry waterfall. Over the passing years, since that time, I had also heard of that drop from a couple of other people. Native American sign and a sheep trail in the saddle said that not everything was stopped by this obstruction. So, my other reason for hiking to the head of June Wash was to see this ledge for myself.

Since I had never hiked up beyond the sentinel ironwood I wasn’t sure of the location of the main stem of June Wash, where it comes out of the canyon. I had the mistaken idea that the main wash had cut down the side of its alluvial fan (due to uplifting of Whale Peak) and that the fan was abandoned thereby making it a bajada. So, doing what any modern explorer would do, I got on my computer and opened Google Earth. Lo and behold! The wash section I had been following, near the end of my hikes to the Sentinel Ironwood (bringing me close to that tree), was the main stem of June Wash. It not only leads to the mouth of the canyon on the alluvial fan but I could also see the big ironwood that I had spotted from my house, right in the center of it, at the mouth of the canyon. Now I knew the best route to follow, beyond the sentinel tree, to take me to the other big tree and ultimately into the canyon itself. Unfortunately, I had not brought my GPS out to Canebrake with me, so taking waypoints off of Google Earth wouldn’t do me any good.

I parked my truck and started my hike from the point on the June Wash road where the “real” June Wash intersects the road that continues on into the false June Wash. This point is 2.0 miles from highway S-2.

I didn’t do the short detour, out of the wash, to the sentinel tree on the way up; figuring I’d stop there on the way back down. Passing the point that marked the furthest I’d ever gone before is always a little exciting, looking forward to new sights and experiences. Following the wash, as I remembered it from Google Earth, I came to the other ironwoods in about a half mile. I quickly realized I was looking at the nursery for all of the ironwood trees in the entire length of June Wash. I counted seventeen ironwoods ranging from a height of under two feet to the big one I had seen, all in an area of several acres. My count may be off by one or two because it is difficult to spot the smaller of the trees, now that the cat claw acacias, which are numerous in the area, have leafed out for the summer. The big tree stood out because of its obvious old age. Parts of it were dead but other parts look healthy. Since it appears to be the sire of all the others, I named it the Big Daddy Ironwood. After hanging out here for a short while I continued on up the wash. I didn’t see any more ironwood trees above this point.

The next feature I came to is a place where June Wash has almost cut through to the Sandstone Canyon drainage. There is only an elevation of about fifteen feet separating them. Of course if it ever did get cut through it would send a lot more runoff down Sandstone, instead of June, but that could be a thousand years from now, if ever.

Ledge and Saddle at June Wash

Just past this point I started seeing very fresh bighorn sheep tracks. Then I saw where they had scrambled up the side of the canyon and I realized that they had been running from me and I had not been aware of their presence. I scanned the rocky mountain side but didn’t see any of them. I thought they were probably right there, in “plain sight”, watching me.

Around a few more bends in the canyon I came to “Cholla Ball Alley”. This is a narrow section of wash where the steep slope above was “forested” with teddy bear cholla. When the balls break off they roll down onto the wash bed, which was literally paved with them. I walked through there very carefully!

Around another bend I came to the first of the red-brown rock that I had seen from the saddle many years before. There was a very healthy looking coyote here. I thought this might be where the vertical ledge was but the wash had cut a slot through the rock creating a narrow and beautiful little gorge. Just beyond this, on the right, is the steep side canyon that descends from the saddle where the guzzler is located. I saw that the vertical ledge is at the bottom of that side canyon, not in the main wash itself. Someone with good rock climbing skills could ascend the ledge which is about twenty-five feet high and has many small ledges and cracks. Back in the main wash, there are easier possibilities to climb rocky chutes and get above the dry fall. I expect this is what the Native Americans did and the sheep do now, as well as other hikers, but not me, not this day.

Upper Slot at June Wash

Just beyond the ledge/saddle canyon, in the main canyon, is another narrow slot cut through the red-brown rock. That was a nice shady spot to sit and eat my lunch. Above this, June Wash climbs steeply up to the bowl that forms its head drainage on Whale Peak. I did not continue beyond the second slot gorge. Also, at the time I arrived here, I turned and looked back down the wash and laughed when I realized how steep it was. These desert washes get steeper and steeper as they approach the head of their drainage and without good visual references it is easy to not realize just how steep it is getting. I suddenly realized why I was stopping to catch my breath so often in the last couple of miles.

On my way back down I did go over to the Sentinel Ironwood and it has dropped most of its leaves and replaced them with flower buds. There will soon be a big crop of the good tasting seeds that I’m sure saw many a Native American gatherer in days gone by. At this point I got a nasty leg cramp that made me immobile for awhile. I increased my intake of water for the rest of the hike and that helped.

The total elevation gain from the truck was 1600 feet. The mileage from the truck to the end (the ledge/saddle canyon) is approximately 4.8. I had measured the mileage to the Sentinel Ironwood with my GPS on previous trips at 3.3. Tracing my route on Google Earth from there to the end, I measured an additional 1.5 miles. Remember, I didn’t have my GPS this trip. June Wash is a typical desert wash terrain; sandy in places and very rocky in others which increases hiking effort.


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