Trek Date: January 2nd, 2014
Ok, so I enjoy wandering around the desert and finding stuff. Who doesn't? Could be giant rocks that look like sea monsters, or dried-out, sun-bleached bones of dead animals. Could be a forgotten gold mine or the remains of an old ranch truck. Could be shards of Indian pottery or a hidden petroglyph in a box canyon. Or, like today, it could be remnants of the cattle ranching days in Joshua Tree National Park. Because that's what White Tank and Grand Tank are.
Tank is kind of a general term that refers to a natural depression from which a man-made reservoir has been made. Most often (in J Tree) that's done by constructing a concrete dam across a narrow gorge, walled on each side by granite boulders. Rainwater backs up at the dam, creating small reservoirs that can store water for a long period of time.
Cattle ranchers were generally responsible for building the tanks located in Joshua Tree. In the early 1900s, the climate in J Tree was a softer, more gentle climate and cattle grazed the land. They needed water and so the enterprising ranchers in the area found many spots to trap and hold rainwater for the thirsty critters. Some of them are simple, small dams only a few feet high, while others are quite large and capable of holding back a lot of water (such as Barker Dam).
There are a couple different routes to get to White Tank and Grand Tank. As White Tank (the smaller of the two) is located roughly 100 yards south of Arch Rock, an easy route is to take the nature trail to Arch Rock, and then wind your way down the canyon to the dam. Grand Tank is also accessible from along the Arch Rock Trail. If you continue a little way past the Arch Rock stop, you'll see a trail leading up a small hill to the east. The trail to Grand Tank is basically due east. It goes through a rather narrow and rocky section, where a bit of scrambling may be required and then heads through some more open terrain.
Murbachi, the intrepid traveler, and I chose to travel the southern route. We started at a large parking area just at the end of the paved section of road that leads into White Tank Campground. Heading slightly northeast, we wove our way through boulders and small canyons for about 100 yards, and then turned north and headed up a good sized wash. The dam that creates White Tank is located about 100 yards up this wash. It's a pretty impressive site. As with all of the tanks in J Tree, a lot of sand has settled in behind the cement dam at White Tank. Bill Keys is reported to have taken in the first load of cement for White Tank in 1912. Jep Whitney constructed the dam for cattle rancher C.O. Barker.
White Tank was named after a "Captain White," who was in charge of the nearby Goldfields of America Mine. His name was also attached to the type of rocks that bring so many visitors to J Tree: White Tank Quartz Monzonite.
From White Tank, we retraced our steps south roughly one-tenth-mile, and then headed generally eastward. There are many interesting, small canyons to the north, but we held off from exploring those and continued hiking. After about two-tenths of a mile, we came to a pretty big canyon and wash, which was our landmark to head north. After a short rest, we set out for the final approach to Grand Tank. It is located about a tenth of a mile or so up the canyon. After a bit of scrambling and searching, the dam came into view. It's pretty impressive as it fills a tall "V" notch in the rocks. Below it, a cement water trough had been built which I'm sure was kept filled whenever water was behind the dam.
Grand Tank is larger than White tank, and when we climbed down into the tank area that is plainly evident. From what I've read, Grand Tank often contains a considerable amount of water, but the two times I've been there it has been bone dry. It's pretty impressive walking in the reservoir area, though, as it's very large. There are some really huge boulders along the canyon walls, and the water line on them is proof to how much water has been stored here in years past.
After spending a bit of time exploring the area, we decided to make the return trip to my truck by heading due west. It was a bit of an adventure, as the trail sometimes disappears and you just have to dead reckon it. But within about 10-15 minutes, we were back in sight of Arch Rock and picked up the trail from there.
All in all, we wandered around for a couple hours and hiked approximately 3 miles. Getting to White Tank is pretty simple and the hike out to Grand Tank was a lot of fun. I'm hoping there will be water in Grand Tank the next time I'm there, as I'd like to see the colonies of fairy and tadpole shrimp that I've read are present when there's water behind the dam. And that's part of the attraction to hiking to these places, to see what you can find.