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
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
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
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
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.
BODY SNATCHERS & THE INFAMOUS CREMATION OF A ROCK
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
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:
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
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup
© 2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil