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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

Box Canyon SMASH

Date Recovered: November 6, 2021 Total Marks Recovered: 16

Confirmed Lost/Destroyed: 0

Not Found: 1

Discs Recovered: 8

Non-Disc Type Recovered: 7 (6 Pipe Cap, 1 Cairn)

The Third Time Is The Charm

The Great Overland Stage Route of 1849, or County Road S2, is simply loaded with survey marks. I have made several drive-by recoveries as I would go to and from hikes that originated from the S2 roadside. A couple of weeks ago I completed a dedicated S2 SMASH, recovering 45 marks, and I didn't come close to finding all the ones on my list!

Last weekend I returned to the S2, explicitly to explore Box Canyon and re-visit Little Blair Valley. There were a lot of short hikes that I wanted to complete and I had another full day of recoveries planned. I made it as far as Quake Benchmark when that trip was cut short as I impaled my leg on an agave spine on my way back to the truck. 🙄

So today I returned, yet again, to see what I could find.

Drive-By Recovery: S 580 (PID: DX0220)

It never ceases to amaze me when I finally notice a witness sign that I have driven past a hundred times without previously seeing it! I only have a few main routes that I take to reach the desert, the primary being through Julian on the 78 to Scissors Crossing. Like many State Routes, this stretch of the 78 has a second name, Banner Road. As I was cruising down Banner Road, I just happened to glance off to the right and saw a witness sign by a barbed-wire fence, bisecting a boulder. I quickly pulled over and hopped out to make the recovery!

The next stop on my journey was a pull-out area at mile 24.8 of the S2. There are no post-mile markers to identify it, but this is the approximate mileage from the northern terminus of the S2 in Warner Springs (a "T" intersection with SR 79). From this parking area, I headed north to recover a section corner, then turned south to cross over the S2 and hike up to Seyer Benchmark.

Box Canyon SMASH - Part 1

SEYER Benchmark (PID: DX4930)

This was another station that was close enough to the road to make an easy recovery, but I'd always put it off with the thought "maybe next time", usually because I was passing by it on my way home after an already full day. Today I made it a priority to be one of the first marks on my list.

The entire hike (including the corner mark recovery) was only 1.5 miles, and it was generally an easy walk picking up just over 100 feet of vertical gain, Seyer being little more than a bump on the landscape. In the GAIA screenshot above, this trip was the orange track.

Following my topo map to the summit, I quickly spied a witness stake and cairn in the area marked by the Horizontal Control symbol on the map (the triangle with a dot in the center). I scoured the immediate area around the stake but was unable to locate the station disc, given that this was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) disc that was described as being set in cement, I wasn't too hopeful about locating it, however, based on the given coordinates, I knew this was the correct location for the station.

As I worked outward from the station I found a reference mark set in a small rock, the datasheet described RM 1 as being set in a small rock, so even though this disc wasn't stamped, it fit the description of RM 1. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate RM 2, very likely set in cement as the primary station disc was. I spent a fair amount of time wandering around the summit area searching for leftover cement or other evidence of RM 2 but couldn't find any trace of its original setting.

BM SP 3 (PID: AI4534)

A little further down the road, the topo map indicated a benchmark that appeared to be on the side of an old unimproved road. Rather than follow the original road, I opted for a more direct "overland" route, not that it was very challenging, the short roundtrip was less than a half-mile and was basically flat (the red track on the GAIA screenshot above).

This mark provides a good example of the full scope of a concrete monument setting. Usually, only 6 to 8 inches of a monument can be seen above ground, with the disc mounted on the top. Due to erosion of the embankment, most of this monument has been exposed. These monuments can be 3 - 4 feet in overall length, with a center rod driven deeper into the ground, often to refusal, the disc attached to the rod.

Box Canyon - A Critical Route

Running slightly parallel to the S2, Box Canyon connects Blair Valley to the North with Mason Valley to the South. As noted on the roadside historical marker for Box Canyon, a Mormon Battalion of the U.S. Army, led by Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke passed through Box Canyon on January 19, 1947, less than two weeks before the Battalion ended its 2,000+ mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego.

According to the history of the Church, escaping religious persecution and violence in 1846, the Mormons fled Illinois heading west over the Rocky Mountains to settle in the Mexican Territories. Before they began their journey, Brigham Young directed that a letter be sent to President James K. Polk seeking financial assistance for their emigration adding that if the U.S. government declined assistance, they would be willing to accept help from rival governments. As the U.S. was engaged in the Mexican American War. and in a move to prevent them from taking up arms against the U.S., President Polk ordered the Army to recruit a battalion of Saints, forming the first and only religious battalion in the U.S. Army.

The Battalion never saw combat during their journey since most of the fighting in the Mexican-American War had ceased by the time they arrived in San Diego. However, their journey was still marked with hardship, not the least of which was having to manually chip away at the canyon walls with hand tools in order to get their wagons through and cut a new route to circumvent this dry waterfall they faced in Box Canyon.

Perhaps the current Use Trail follows the original by-pass route blazed by the Mormon Battalion. This route was the first road into the interior of Southern California and became known as the Southern Emigrant Trail. Beginning in 1849, Gold Rush miners and numerous others, including the Butterfield Overland Mail used this route, earning the name The Great Overland Stage Route of 1849.

Onward, Upward

Once out of the canyon, the trail all but disappeared, however, it was easy enough to pick a route through the sparse cactus, agave, and brush. Almost to the summit, I turned around and had a great view of the canyon, the red circle in the image below is my truck parked in the turnout by the historical marker, and the rock funnel is in the white circle. Looking back up toward the summit, I could see I was almost there!

Full Station Recovery: BOX (PID: DX4931)

I am always excited to make a full station recovery, in this case, the Triangulation Station Disc and two Reference Mark discs. All were recovered in good condition and were easy to locate. Out-and-back, this short climb was only 1.35 miles total and offered some great views of the peaks and valley to the south (see pano shot below)

Panoramic View From The Summit

Looking South over Mason Valley to familiar peaks: Monument Peak, Garnet Peak, Garnet Mountain, and Roost BM.

Moving on...

The next stations on my list to recover were Agua and Guard Benchmarks, I pulled off to the side of the S2 midway between the two peaks and opted to take the flat route over to Agua first, then head back to Guard. It was an easy walk until I reached the slight slope heading up to the mark and a maze of Cholla! 🤣

AGUA Benchmark (PID: Not Assigned)

Carefully navigating the prickly sentinels, I made my way to the clearing where I found the pipe cap marker within a cairn, marked by an old witness stake. This was an easy recovery and a pretty mellow walk across the desert floor, looking west-northwest, I could see the hill that was my next destination.

GUARD Benchmark (PID: DC1947)

The hike across to the base of the hill where Guard Benchmark sat was another easy trek, I angled towards the hill after Agua and it worked out perfectly to ascend up the gently sloping ridge. Arriving at the summit, I spotted the register can at about the same time that I saw the disc mounted on the concrete monument. The datasheet wasn't particularly helpful in locating the reference marks, identifying RM 1 as being 45 feet south of the station. If that description was accurate, RM 1 has long since been lost as that portion of the summit has eroded away. RM 2 was identified as BM SP-8 and was located "on level line 71, about 100 feet west of the cattle guard and road" so clearly not on top of the summit.

Still, I spent some time looking around the summit in hopes that the datasheet wasn't accurate (it happens!). Sure enough, 50 feet due west of the station I saw a standard concrete monument with a disc, confirming my suspicion that the datasheet was off on its description of RM 1. As I knelt down to prepare the mark for photos, I was surprised to see that it wasn't stamped GUARD RM 1, but VALLE RM 2 instead! Oops! It seems like the USACE goofed when they set the reference mark.

When I got home, I checked a few different trip reports from people that had bagged this peak, and they showed pictures of VALLE RM 2 as THE reference mark for Guard. Hmm. 🤔 My curiosity peaked, I researched VALLE Benchmark and saw that it was about 8 miles or so SSE of GUARD. I tagged it for a subsequent trip to resolve the mystery. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Three months later, on February 6, 2022, while doing a "Clean Up" mission to find previously overlooked survey marks, I recovered the VALLE Benchmark and reference marks; finding GUARD RM 1 set on top of VALLE! Check out my post Tying Up Loose Ends, for that story 😉

Public Land Survey System (PLSS) Section Corners

The desert is perhaps THE. BEST. PLACE. to look for PLSS Section Corners. My experience has been that they are generally in very good condition and well marked with cairns and/or witness stakes. I use the USGS topo map and PLSS grid overlay in GAIA to identify potential corner recoveries, usually selecting marks that are less than a mile from the roadside in either direction. Some of my more involved PLSS SMASH trips go deeper into the desert following township or range lines, recovering the corners as I go, but these "roadside" recoveries are fun and relatively easy to find, today I added 6 more to my database, one rock cairn and the rest Pipe Cap markers set in the 50s and 60s.


Today was a day well spent! It brought a measure of closure to my last outing but opened up new questions about the placement of the VALLE Reference Mark on the summit of GUARD. Digging into the history of the Great Overland Stage Route of 1849 and its beginnings with the Mormon Battalion's passage was fascinating. I was able to mix in a handful of short little hikes with a solid day of survey mark recoveries, a Win-Win in my book! 😊

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