Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Road trip: Joshua Tree National Park

August 14, 2013


Start from the beginning of our road trip.

The highlight of our trip was definitely the three nights we camped at Joshua Tree National Park; it was the most out-of-the-ordinary part of the trip and the most unlike other vacations we've taken. We had no running water and it was summer in the desert.

A little background on Joshua Tree National Park: The park is named for the native Yucca brevifolia tree, better known as the Joshua tree; the layman's term comes from Mormon pioneers who thought the tree resembled the outstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land. The park straddles the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts and only became a national park in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act, which also created Death Valley National Park (Yellowstone, the first national park, was established in 1872). And most importantly in this history lesson, the Joshua tree is also often cited as an inspiration for the Truffula trees in the Lorax (though the internet cannot turn up any direct link — just the repeated observations of visitors).
Joshua trees, in the Mojave desert; Cholla cactus, in the Colorado desert
The park is quite popular in the spring, when daytime temperatures hover around 70 degrees; in the summer you don't even need a reservation because only crazy people camp in the desert in the summer apparently. We could have camped at one of the campsites near the park entrances, one of which was described with this rousing endorsement: "Flush toilets and running water make it a hit among half-hearted participants." Half-hearted we are not, and seeking the serenity of the desert, we decided to camp in the park interior. In the 800,000-acre park, however, there isn't a drop of water for drinking; we had to carry in all the water we would need (and on a motorcycle no less). This was complicated by the fact that our waterproof bag leaked, so Ben had to make two trips to town to fill up, but it was well worth it. Our awesome campsite in Hidden Valley:


One of our biggest concerns initially was the heat. We almost planned to only come for a day because Ben was so worried that I wouldn't be able to handle it (he grew up in a desert; I, on the other hand, had never been to a desert before we went to Israel). It wasn't looking good the first night when we arrived and I had such a bad headache that I curled up in the tent and fell asleep while Ben unpacked and cooked. Happily I felt better the next morning and for most of the trip (with the exception of an ill-advised afternoon hike to a dried-up oasis). Surprisingly, I even liked the heat. In Boston, 100 degrees means humidity (in San Francisco, 100 degrees probably means the world has ended) but the dry desert heat was almost refreshing. And it was downright pleasant to curl up with a book in the shade. The best part? Sleeping outside at night when it was about 80 degrees, with no need for a rain cover over the tent.

The biggest problem we didn't anticipate: chipmunks. The park advises storing food in vehicles (not an option for us) or in a secure metal box (how are we supposed to carry one of those on a motorcycle?). The first night we put our food in my backpack, put it on the motorcycle and covered everything. And by the next morning, my backpack had a hole in it, part of our tupperware had been chewed away and our chocolate-covered espresso beans had been thoroughly nibbled. (We hadn't realized chipmunks were the main danger here — most of the time, raccoons and bears are a bigger hazard.) This spurred us into action and we did what we should have done the first night: jury-rigged a bear bag (or I guess a chipmunk bag in this case). Check it out in the photo above, hanging off the rock on the left. Chipmunks vanquished.

We made it to the top.
The first morning we got up with the sun and hiked Ryan Mountain, a 1.5-mile climb to the summit at 5,461 feet. We had great views of the park. We rested for a bit and then tackled the 49 Palms Oasis trail. The hike was supposed to culminate at a fan palm oasis, where palm trees tower over clear pools of water. We arrived to find palm trees but no water; nonetheless, it was a nice place to sit and read (I couldn't put down Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben was rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

Ben made dinner while I photographed the Joshua trees at sunset (I'm a lucky girl — Ben cooked and did the dishes every meal).


Back to cool history lessons: In the late 1800s, a band of cattle rustlers known as the McHaney Gang found a perfect hiding spot for their stolen herds — a valley in the California desert, surrounded on all sides by impassable granite boulders and filled with lush, green grass. Known today as Hidden Valley, the natural corral houses one of the most interesting walks in the park, which we did on the second morning of our trip.

In 1936, desert pioneer Bill Keys blasted a hole through the valley walls to make it easier for his cattle to reach the green pastures — with the unintended effect of completely altering the valley's climate. Today this serves as Hidden Valley's main access point.

Hidden Valley — the grassy pastures have completely disappeared

The boulders that ring Hidden Valley and that form much of the park's defining landscape are the product of volcanic activity and stark erosion. Millions of years ago, molten liquid pushed its way toward the Earth's surface, where it cooled and solidified. Groundwater erosion weathered the rectangular stones into spheres and flash floods washed away the surrounding soil. The huge boulders settled on top each other, leaving the rock piles that exist today.

Skull Rock is one of the park's most famous examples of that weathering process.









We toured through the park on the bike to check out the different exhibits, before making dinner and driving up to Key's View for our last sunset in the park. On the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the 5,185-foot lookout offers views of the San Andrea Fault, Mount San Jacinto and the Salton Sea. On clear days, you can see Mexico.

We were sad to pack up the next morning but we'll definitely be back. Joshua Tree turned out to be a much better vacation destination than we ever would have guessed. It was challenging, certainly, with the heat and lack of water. But these weren't downsides; they were essential parts of the experience. They forced us to slow down and take in our environment, to respect and enjoy it. It made for a surprisingly serene few days, a time to unwind, punctuated by our repeated amazement at our surreal surroundings.


- Steph

Unsurprisingly, I found it hard to suppress my urge to take photos constantly. I narrowed down my favorites to the slideshow below (in addition to the ones contained in this post).



Odds and ends about Joshua Tree:
  • The tallest Joshua tree in the park measures 42 feet high, with a crown width of 34 feet and a trunk nearly 9 feet round.
  • The average life span of a Joshua tree is 150 years, but some are believed to live as long as 300 to 500 years.
  • Fan palm oases, like this one, sit atop faults in the Earth's crust. When groundwater hits a fault plane, it rises to the surface and creates conditions for an oasis. 
  • Joshua Tree National Park receives on average 4.06 inches of rain per year; the limited amount of water available in the park is reserved for wildlife.

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