SCORE has a spectacularly beautiful place to launch rockets. The area surrounding the launch site is wide open and relatively flat with few trees. Everything east of the launch site, where most of the prevailing breezes drift your rocket, is a recovery dream.
Having said this, there is an area northwest and west of the launch site that can be tricky for recovery. I call it, “the cedar maze.”
On a September launch day, the wind directions were variable. My rockets ended up drifting in a west-northwesterly direction right into the maze. During this visit, several Level 1 attempts were made with small rockets launched on H motors, and they ended up there, too. Some of the Level 1 attempts did not get recovered. While helping some of them look, I found someone’s rocket that was hanging in a cedar tree. It had been there for a while.
The following is a description of what you may find in the maze and how best to navigate to find a rocket.
Walking west or northwest of the launch site it’s relatively wide open for the first 200-300 yards. When you reach the cedar trees, the terrain starts to break downhill. The trees become much more dense.
At this point, the trees will hide a rocket. You could walk right past your rocket if it is on the other side of a cedar tree from your chosen path and you would never know it.
Word to the wise: it is essential to keep an eye on your rocket and make sure to mentally note landmarks with which to reckon so you can start on the right trajectory into the maze. This will improve your chances greatly of getting at least close to where your rocket lands.
As the terrain continues west and northwest, the slope becomes more steep, eventually dropping into Dry Wash #1.
The left/south end of Dry Wash #1 is relatively shallow. As the wash continues its path north, the banks of the wash steepen, eventually becoming cliff bands which are tricky and not recommended navigating.
If you need to look in this first dry wash, I recommend starting on the southern end, which is shallow. Once there, you can start heading north to search for your rocket. It’s easier to start there and work your way north, looking up at the slopes that define the wash. As previously mentioned, these slopes become more steep and cliff-ridden as you work your way north. On one of my launches recently, I had a rocket land on the east slope of the wash, just before the cliff bands. Once I found the rocket, I had to double back and descend from above for safer access. Again, I do not recommend trying to climb down, up or through these cliff bands. Getting injured back there will not be a pleasant experience, and it’s a long way back to the launch site.
Further west and northwest of Dry Wash #1 is Ridge #1. The top of the ridge is about 40 yards wide. It continues to be a cedar maze and will hide your rocket well. The northern point of Ridge #1 eventually spills into the confluence of Dry Wash #1 and #2. It is a rugged drop down. Again, I suggest starting from the southern, more shallow parts of these dry washes if you need to get to this point.
If your rocket drifts further, it will end up in Dry Wash #2. Again, if you need to get into this terrain, start at the southernmost part of the wash for shallow access. There is a rock bridge that defines the top of a waterfall on the south end that can be used to cross this dry wash and continue to Ridge #2.
On the day of the launch I found my first rocket on the slopes of Dry Wash #1, I had a second rocket drift further west and end up on the slopes of Ridge #2.
If you head for Ridge #2, again I suggest starting on the southern end of this ridge to ascend. Anything further north will be a gradually steeper climb, and eventually become cliff bands. I found my rocket just below the crest of Ridge #2 hanging in a cedar tree. GPS tracking was crucial for finding this rocket. It was my first successful use, after several misfires, of GPS to locate my investment. What a huge relief, elation if you will, when I found this one. I would have never found it without GPS tracking.
The top of Ridge #2 is broader than the top of Ridge #1, but it eventually slopes into Dry Wash #3. If you end up this far, again I suggest starting from the south end, working your way north. This wash eventually dumps into the confluence of Dry Wash #1 and #2.
Heaven help you if you have to head further out than Dry Wash #3. I have not ventured past this point… yet. This should not be an issue on a normal day, but if the winds are variable and blow from the east, and you are launching big motors, be prepared.
A word about the terrain in the dry washes: they are rugged and will require climbing over boulders, fallen trees and a variety of other challenges. Better than working your way through a cliff band, though.
Safe Rocket Recovery in Challenging Terrain
The SCORE launch site is in high desert terrain. As a consequence, it is hot and dry. Add to this the aforementioned challenges and proper preparation for navigating desert terrain is essential.
I’ve tried to find rockets back there without water. Not a good idea. You can spend hours back there looking. Exhaustion sets in quickly as you hump up and down the terrain and around the cedar trees. Heat stroke is a distinct possibility. I now at least carry a bottle of water with me. I also carry a Camelbak that includes first aid gear. There is a possibility of injury while navigating this terrain. Better safe than sorry.
The desert sun is intense. Cover all exposed body parts with sunscreen. Failing to do this will hasten sun stroke and sunburns from the desert are intensely painful.
Again, this is rugged terrain. It is also a prime habitat for rattlesnakes. Wear hiking boots with high tops. This type of footwear is also better protection if you accidentally step on a cactus. Even though it gets hot, long pants for additional protection against these creatures and to limit direct sun exposure is recommended. I also wear long sleeve shirts to protect my arms from the sun. I cannot recommend wearing a broad brimmed hat enough. Keep the sun off the top of your head and neck. Keep your face in the shade. Lastly, you may be using your hands to pull yourself around and over boulders, etc. I take a pair of gloves with me to protect my hands.
Additional Search Suggestions
Zig Zag Search Pattern
If you are back there and can’t find your damned rocket, I suggest working your way from south to north in a 40 to 50 yard wide swath. Zig zag your way back and forth in this swath as you work your way north. This will give you an opportunity to view more terrain… and more hiding places.
Search with a Team
If you come out with your college rocket team, or have others in your company, invite them to come explore what is incredibly beautiful terrain. Spread everyone out in a line, start on the south and work north as a team. Use the aforementioned zig zag search pattern.
Usually, Level 1 rocket motors, H and I, come back down within the open area surrounding the launch site. Not too much to worry about, but again, on variable wind days, even H motors may end up in the cedar maze. Level 2 motors are more susceptible to upper level wind issues. The rockets I sent up and recovered in the cedar maze exceeded 4000’ and 5500’ respectively and were flying on J motors. I will never fly again without GPS. It is a must have for Level 2 launches. Practice with your set up before you launch, so you know how to use them. I did not, and had to learn on the fly. A frustrating experience as you are trying to find rockets in the cedar maze.
This article was not meant to deter you from launching with SCORE. Most days are clear, sunny and windless in the middle of summer. I’ve had launches over 4000’ that have come straight back down and were in the running for “closest to the pad.” I’ve had the majority of my launches end up in the wide open spaces east of the launch site. My Level 2 certification launch ended up about 200 yards east and was easily recovered in one piece.
One of the joys I have experienced launching rockets with SCORE was not only the thrill of punching holes in the sky, but also hiking around spectacularly beautiful terrain. In the spring, the cactus are in full bloom. I have never seen an 8’ tall cholo cactus, let alone one that is festooned with deep purple blossoms. I was staggered with how beautiful this cactus could be.
So, come join us! If you need help finding your rocket in the cedar maze, I would be happy to come help you look because I really enjoy hiking around in the maze.
See you there!