Park #2: Joshua Tree National Park
I had heard the day before from the locals that there had been lots of snow up in the mountains (they said they haven’t seen snow like this in the area in 20 years), so I wondered if it might be a challenge to get to Joshua Tree National Park. But the roads looked clear online and the weather was good, so I decided to head up there. I’m staying in a 55+ mobile home community and RV park in Desert Hot Springs. Being 55, I just made it in. I had to be careful when backing up my truck, so I didn't hit any folks riding around at high speed on their golf carts.
It is good that I didn’t book RV sites in the parks as they are all closed due to COVID, although all of the National Parks are open for day use. RV parks in California are open for seven day stays. There are COVID exceptions for full time RVers. I basically stick to myself and have been able to avoid people. I’m sure in a different time, I would meet a lot of interesting and wonderful people along the way, but I’m trying to stay safe, so am fine on my own for now. At night I sit tight in my trailer, keeping my distance from my RV neighbors. You don’t see people around much except when they are working on their rigs. I have found that most people are wearing masks and being respectful about the situation. The parks have visitors, but in small numbers, so you can easily socially distance. It is the wilderness after all.
I did not have any problems reaching the park. There was a dusting of snow on the ground and in the mountains, but the roads were completely free of snow. It turned out to be a beautiful day in the park, about 50 degrees and blue skies. I entered at the West Entrance Station and was greeted at the booth with a National Park Service ranger. She sold me my annual park pass which I had been looking forward to securing and wished me well on my journey. For $80, I can visit all of the National Parks in one year. The entrance fee for each park is $30, so this is quite a deal for what I have planned.
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California, 140 miles east of Los Angeles and about an hour northeast of Palm Springs. Leading into the wilderness, you begin to see the Joshua trees dotted along the landscape. Further into the park, there are thousands of them, each one seeming to sprout up all alone in its own territory. These are solitary trees, with a unique identity and appearance. They look like something out of a Dr. Seuss children’s book, strangely angled with spiny bunches of sharp needles shooting out. After a while they started reminding me of dancers with arms stretched high above, making a high kick, striking a bended pose, hands outstretched and flexed in a Bob Fosse-esque way or leaping in an interpretive contemporary dance.
As you drive along Park Boulevard you start reaching the massive rock formations, some with giant boulders sitting precariously on top as though they might tumble to the ground at any second. I ate my lunch under one of these formations at Cap Rock and kept a close eye on that top boulder.
The landscape is stunningly beautiful at the intersection of the Cottonwood, Little San Bernardino and Hexie Mountains.The mountains stand tall in the background with the pale beige boulder formations closer in and the Joshua trees in the foreground.
I stopped in Hidden Valley and spent some time sitting and drawing one of the massive boulder groupings. I’m no artist, but a tool to use when healing in nature is to sit and draw what you’re seeing, not to create art, but to take the time to really notice the details: the shadows on the rocks, the icicles hanging below the cavern, the way the boulders seem to intertwine like a puzzle, the steadiness of the large structure, the different shades of color that have imprinted themselves through weathering over thousands of years. You begin to see differently and can feel the test of time in front of you. It can help you feel more connected to the earth and grounded in something larger than your own lifetime.
Next, I hiked the trail to Barker Dam. It’s a lovely hike through the boulders rising up on both sides. I was glad that it was chilly as there are seven types of rattlesnakes that live in this wilderness and I didn’t want to encounter any of them. It was comforting to know that this would not be a problem today!
You can get up close to the Joshua trees in this space and really explore the cactus and other desert plants. The Joshua trees made me laugh as they are funny looking trees, and at this angle I see them more as humans at different ages and stages in life, from a young child with its mother to an elderly person, hunched over and frail. These unique trees have life lessons to share. They are resilient, thriving in a land with very limited water for sustenance.
The snow added a magical feel to the place. A bouldering paradise, there were many young people schlepping their climbing crash pads in and out to test themselves against these monstrosities.
I stopped at all of the highlights through the northern end of the park, the Hall of Horrors, Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock and Split Rock and winded my way north, ending the day at the North Entrance Station of the park where I proudly got to show my annual pass again to the park ranger. He said, “Welcome Back” when he saw my annual pass, even though I was exiting the park, which I found funny.
The next day, I entered at the southern entrance of the park and stopped to eat my lunch at the Cottonwood Visitor Center. This side of the park is quieter and involves a long and lovely drive through the Pinto Basin at the intersection of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. There are no Joshua trees in this area, just wide open spaces.
I arrived in the afternoon as I wanted to hit the sun on its way towards setting to capture the best light. Driving along Pinto Basin Road, there are many interpretive signs describing some of the plate movements and the last Ice Age which had such a significant geological impact on this land. There aren’t many trails in this part of the park, so it’s mostly a leisurely drive through the desert. I took my time as I had no other place to be. As I stood outside my truck at one stop, alone in this desert, I felt so grateful to be here. The only sound was the light wind winding past the low lying brush. It was so peaceful.
I continued north to the Cholla Cactus Garden. This is a strange place, unlike any landscape I have ever been in. The teddybear cholla is a cactus plant with a brown base and yellow spikes on top and it has taken over four acres of the park. There are millions of these plants as far as the eye can see. It’s beautiful, but as you wind through the trail, you almost feel like you’ve landed on Mars and you’re surrounded by aliens.
At this point in my travels through the park, I could have returned to the entrance I came in or headed to the north entrance, but I wanted to see the Joshua trees again in the setting sun, so I traveled back on Park Boulevard again, leaving through the west entrance. Most of the snow from the prior day had already melted. I stopped a number of times to get a closer look at some of the Joshua trees. What a wonderful place to visit!
Joshua Tree National Park is known for its sky full of stars at night. I hope to come back one day and camp here to see it.