Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


Runtrails' Web Journal
Previous       2016 Journal Topics       Home       Next



"The trail starts at the base of Cap Rock, the name given to the outcropping of   
boulders topped by a balanced rock slab, before looping to the southeast
around a nearby outcropping. The trail is well-marked, flat, and
easy to travel as it explores the Joshua tree-dotted landscape."
~ HikingProject.com web page for Cap Rock

This was my third stop of the morning and on my original list of trails I wanted to hike today. Unlike the nearby Hall of Horrors rock climbing area, Cap Rock is listed in the park guide that visitors receive upon entry to the park so I knew about it before I got up to that area.

What I didn't know was a most intriguing story of an event that occurred very close by in 1973.

A little before noon today the large Cap Rock parking area was not crowded at all so parking wasn't an issue, as at some other trailheads I passed this week.

Cap Rock was visible from my hike up the west side of nearby Mt. Ryan and just a short drive away from the Mt. Ryan trailhead.

The Cap Rock parking area is located at the junction of Keys View Road and Park Blvd., the main road through the western part of the national park. There are good views of the west side of Mt. Ryan and the Saddle Rocks formation from the Cap Rock loop:

Saddle Rocks is under the red dot on the left, the summit of Mt. Ryan under the right dot.

This is a short (one-half mile or less), flat loop trail at about 4,200 feet elevation.

The trail is hard groomed sand that is stroller and wheelchair accessible, good for folks of all ages and abilities:

With its variety of plants and boulder formations, it makes a nice stop for someone who doesn't have much time to spend in the park or for folks looking for a place to picnic while exploring the area.

At the trailhead there are picnic tables, grills, and a restroom:

Note the climber under the red dot.

Most of the remainder of these pictures are in order as I examined the "cap" and walked CCW around the trail loop:

The "cap" appears to defy gravity from every direction it is viewed.

Picnic area near parking and trailhead

Beginning of loop








Above and below:  far end of the loop, with a view toward Mt. Ryan




Heading back to Cap Rock, seen in the background here



One of the benefits of my hiking this trail early in the week we visited Joshua Tree National Park was learning the identity of some of the trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers that I'd be seeing on other trails in the days ahead.

At Cap Rock there are numerous signs along the path that identify plants and explain their growth habits, how they adapt to this arid environment, former uses by early inhabitants, and other features:

A nearby sign describes the two ways that Joshua trees reproduce. This one
multiplied with underground runners; others reproduce by seeds that germinate.

Information about the symbiotic relationship between
Mojave yuccas and a type of moth that pollinates them

Even though we've spent parts of several winters in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, there are many plants that are new to me at the higher elevations in the Mojave Desert. I remembered most of the names and details as I hiked other trails in the park where plants are not identified with signs.

As at the nearby Hall of Horrors boulder climbing area discussed in the previous entry, a lot of spring wildflowers, shrubs, and Joshua trees were in bloom today.

One of the most prevalent shrubs in bloom was brittlebush:


Another similarity is the popularity of these boulders with rock climbers, although I didn't see any climbers today on these formations while walking around the well-marked trail.

As I was editing the photos I did see one climber above the picnic area and marked him on the photo shown earlier in this entry.


Here's a rather amusing (and gruesome) tale about Cap Rock that might bring back some memories for other Baby Boomers. Somehow I'd forgotten all about it until I was doing further research for this entry.

I would have spent more time looking around at Cap Rock if I'd remembered this story!

Cap Rock is legendary in some circles as the location of the impromptu amateur cremation of Gram Parsons, a successful rock singer from the late 1960s to early 1970s. He was a member of two country rock bands, The Byrds and The Flying Burritos, and influenced both the more famous (and enduring) Eagles and Rolling Stones rock groups.

In the late '60s, Joshua Tree National Monument -- before it became a national park -- was a popular hangout for celebrities and musicians from Los Angeles. Parsons would often visit on weekends either alone or with his manager, Phil Kaufman, or Keith Richards of Rolling Stones fame to relax and get inspired.

After two days of too much partying with friends at the Joshua Tree Inn and overdosing on alcohol and drugs, Parsons passed out and died in September, 1973. He was only 26.

Kaufman wasn't there that weekend but was notified quickly about Parson's untimely demise.

He remembered a pact made a few months earlier with Parsons that if either of them died prematurely, for various reasons neither man wanted a formal religious funeral and burial by their family. They each wanted their corpse to be carried to Joshua Tree by a few close friends, have a brief ceremony, have their remains burned (at Joshua Tree!!), and their ashes spread nearby in the Mojave Desert.

We can sort of identify with that. Jim and I both want to be cremated after we die and have our ashes spread somewhere out in nature that was meaningful to us. We don't want formal funerals.

Parsons' story is 'way over the top, however.

The tale of how Kaufman and a friend managed to hijack Parson's casket from an airline at LAX is worthy of the books and a movie that have been written about this incident!

Long story short, they managed to drive the casket and corpse to an area about a quarter mile from the Cap Rock formation, had a brief ceremony, opened the casket, lit the body, and quickly left when a vehicle approached that they thought was a police car -- before Parson's body completely burned.

Lots of open desert out here, most more remote than this . . .

Oh, my. Campers saw the burning casket and called the police. I can imagine the stories that swirled around until detectives figured this one out!

The body snatchers managed to escape arrest for several weeks but eventually decided to turn themselves in to police. Because laws were apparently more lax then about stealing a corpse, the pair was only charged with grand theft and fined for various misdemeanors and the cost of the "proper" funeral Parsons' family wanted (the type of funeral he explicitly told friends that he wanted to avoid).

The family was aghast at the entire incident. They probably weren't too amused, either, when a benefit party called "Kaufman's Koffin Kaper Koncert" was held to raise funds for the cost of the perpetrators' penalties.

There is no mention of this incident on the park website or in the literature given to visitors upon entry to the park. Rangers are reportedly able to answer questions about the impromptu funeral ceremony but they aren't exactly encouraged to outright volunteer the information. Apparently the park has enough of a problem removing items left at Cap Rock in remembrance by fans, and graffiti on the rocks, without officially memorializing the spot where the funeral was held.

You can read a lot more about this incident, what happened to Parson's partially cremated remains, and the continuing interest decades later in memorializing Parsons by doing an internet search or going to some links I've highlighted here:  DesertUSA.com, Wikipedia, and this Joshua Tree Visitors' Guide webpage (scroll down to the Cap Rock section).

Next entry:  Wonderland Wash Trail in the Wonderland of Rocks

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

Previous       Next

2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil