My first introduction to Joshua trees had very little to do with the trees themselves (though actually they aren’t even trees but agave plants) and much more to do with an Irish rock band. At first this may seem like a bizarre way to learn about them, but when that band is U2 it makes a little more sense.
One of their albums from the ’80s was named “The Joshua Tree” and the strangely-shaped trees whose arms seem to go in every direction appeared in some of the band’s photos.
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered there was an entire park in California dedicated to these odd gems and then only recently realized with delight that the park happened to be a mere 2.5-hour drive from where I now live. (Which is not bad by US standards, especially compared to living in Colorado where everything seemed to be at least a 4- to 5-hour drive from Denver. You’d be whizzing along for a few hours thinking you’re making progress only to realize you’re still in Colorado.)
We recently decided to take a last-minute trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and while I had hoped to get lucky and catch a more rare desert “super bloom” when a gazillion flowers in the park all appear at once, there hadn’t been sufficient rain for this. I was at least content to know the Joshua trees would currently be in bloom (which doesn’t always happen).
It was mid-March and the weather was just about ideal. The sun hung out with us for most of our two-day trip and during the day the temperatures were in the 60s and comfortable. But as is typical for a desert, the moment the sun dipped behind the mountains, the temps dropped significantly and it felt like winter (which technically it still was).
Come summertime though? That’s a different story. Deserts are of course notoriously brutal and daytime temperatures can easily get above 100. The literature cautions you about the risk of dehydration and you better be sure you bring more water than you think you’ll need (usually a lot more). And in case you don’t take it seriously enough, the National Park’s website even has a sign that reads:
You’d think warnings like this would be enough to scare people into bringing tons of water, but still some people don’t heed the advice and their stories end tragically. So obviously the moral of the story is to bring lots of water unless you want to end up like poor ol’ Riley.
We planned the weekend so we’d hit the less-explored regions of the park on the first day (which included most of the sights on the east side accessed more easily by the North and South entrances), and then visit the more popular areas of the park on our final day (accessed by the West entrance). This arrangement worked out well and we had just enough time to hike the majority of the nature trails and a couple of the longer hiking trails.
Weekends during the spring are some of the most popular times of the year to visit the park. And there were definitely quite a few people around, but we never felt the park was overly crowded and it certainly didn’t rival the insanity that is Yellowstone in the summer. Sometimes the latter almost feels like you stumbled into an amusement park of sorts in the middle of nowhere (less the cotton candy and funnel cakes, of course).
On Saturday, our first day, we saw barely any Joshua trees (evidently they’re more prevalent in the western parts of the park which is perhaps why the Western Entrance seemed more popular). It was okay, though, because while the trees are great there’s much more to the park. And I was happy to correct my mistaken impression that the main purpose for going to Joshua Tree was for the trees.
Looking back I think the rocky landscapes might have almost captivated me more. There were so many massive boulder piles arranged in such unique and visually attractive ways that I felt I could wander among them and admire them forever (or at least for a good few hours). Which is exactly what the many spider-like rock climbers come here to do.
The Cholla Cactus Garden also captivated me. While these fuzzy cacti were scattered throughout the park, this particular area was stuffed full of them and it was fun to stroll along the short, well-groomed loop that immerses you within the prickly things.
Just down the road from the Cholla Garden was the sparsely populated Ocotillo Patch which was worth a quick stop. We then ventured down into the Pinto Basin slightly to get a better look before turning around and ending the day at the White Tank campground where we did a quick hike to Arch Rock.
We saw exactly what we expected – a rock that created a natural arch. This quick trail was one of my favorites not because the arch was anything special (it wasn’t, really – go to Arches National Park instead because that is amazing) but because I enjoyed scrambling on the boulders and investigating the narrow slots created by the rocks.
Night was now fast approaching and it was time to head to the Airbnb I’d booked for the night. I pulled up the address on my phone and found it was outside of Yucca Valley, the larger, more populated town to the west of the town of Joshua Tree. As we exited from the main road in Yucca Valley and headed north, the darkness was settling in around us and the number of houses started to thin considerably until there seemed to be none left.
“Where are we going…?” T asked me.
I had been wondering the same thing but had kept it to myself. We were now a good distance outside of town and I began to worry I didn’t spend as much time as I should have vetting this Airbnb prior to booking it. The girl sounded nice enough in her bio, I thought, and the pictures of her place made it seem somewhat upscale… But shit, where were we going?
When we finally turned off the quiet and dark main road, it was onto an even quieter and darker one. And then shortly afterwards we were on a bumpy dirt road that appeared as if only a handful of cars ever traveled along it.
“Um, I think you go down that way and it should be on the left,” I directed.
It was now very, very dark. The moon was but a mere sliver and our headlights provided the only illumination. With some effort we managed to locate the address across the street from our Airbnb and then finally stumbled upon what we thought was the driveway for our destination.
“I think this is it,” I said without confidence. The house was pitch black. “Get closer so you can shine your headlights over there. I think I see the number on that post… Yeah, this is it. We’re here.”
With help from our headlights I located the keys where she said they’d be, and after unlocking the door I groped around for a light switch, finally finding the one that illuminated the front porch. We unloaded our things and hauled everything inside.
The interior was compact, but the house was very nicely decorated. Except for one little thing.
“Huh. That’s kinda weird,” T said.
“What?” I asked, sensing a strange tone, but hoping I was misreading him.
“Well, there’s a bunch of live bullets sitting on the table here by the couch.”
What? I stopped whatever it was I was doing and hurried over to see what he was talking about. My hitherto tamed imagination wrestled loose and all kinds of crazy ideas began flying around my head.
Why would anyone have bullets just sitting out in the open like that? I wondered. Are we gonna get shot in the night? Didn’t she realize that might look kinda weird to strangers in her house? Did she put them there as some kind of warning?
I decide not to outwardly freak out and said, “That’s odd. They must just be some kind of decoration.” But then I thought, Who is this girl, anyway? She told us ahead of time she’d be out until late that evening, but maybe she was just hiding in the shadows waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
So yeah. Maybe just a slight overreaction on my part. But hey, it was dark, we were in the middle of nowhere and it was the perfect place to bury dead bodies never to be found again. This is the kinda shit you see on the news and hope it never happens to you (which is why I never watch the news anymore, but those murder-mystery books I read all the time probably don’t help, either).
The night passed uneventfully (big surprise) and when my alarm went off I drowsily reached over to my phone planning to hit the snooze button and fall quickly back to sleep since we had just lost an hour due to daylight savings time and an extra 9 minutes sure sounded good. But luckily I opened my eyes long enough to notice our bedroom wall had been painted a fiery orange.
I peeked out of the east-facing window and was greeted with one of the best sunrises I’d seen in a long time (though admittedly I’m rarely up early enough to see a sunrise so I’m easily pleased).
“Honey,” I shook T vigorously, “wake up! You gotta see this.”
So we watched, half awake, as the sun illuminated the desert landscape in rich reds and deep oranges. It was a great way to start the day, and it would only get better.
As I was munching on my morning granola, our host appeared and offered us coffee. The mere mention of coffee was all I needed to hear and any previous apprehension melted away, the bullet incident practically forgotten.
We fell into easy conversation and I learned we actually had a lot in common. We talked about traveling and living in the desert and major career changes. We chatted about what we’d seen already in the park and what we still had on the list.
When I mentioned the ocotillo patch, at first she wasn’t sure what kind of plant I was referring to. But after she gave it a quick thought, she pointed out her front window and said, “You mean like that?”
We turned around to look. “Oh, yeah, like that one!”
She also had tons of Joshua trees in her yard and she’d later tell us that she often takes photos of these and tells her friends they were taken in the park. I agreed it was probably close enough.
After years of working a corporate job in L.A., she left that life behind her and had been living in the desert for about 5 years. She showed us around her house and 5-acre property which had expansive views in all directions, the best being the snowy mountain peaks to the west and the sunrises to the east. She had fully gutted and transformed the standalone shed into her workspace and I found myself charmed by the life she had created for herself there. It’s certainly a major change of pace from life in Los Angeles and I was happy to hear the change suited her.
It would’ve been fun to chat longer, but we still had a lot to see in the park so we said our goodbyes and headed out.
This time we entered the park through the West Entrance and the terrain seemed to more quickly impress than the North. The windy road led us through rocky hillsides and put us among far more Joshua trees than before. We were instantly charmed by the scenery.
We stopped first at the highly recommended Hidden Valley Nature Trail. The easy hike headed up a small incline and then into a protected area surrounded by towering rock formations. We walked the loop around the valley and the views were ever-changing. This trail was definitely a highlight of the park.
After a drive out to Keys View, which provided a great vantage point for looking out over Palm Springs and Coachella Valley, we headed back into the heart of the park and hiked up Ryan Mountain (3 miles roundtrip). The view from atop this 5458-foot mountain provided a much different perspective as we could now see more of the interior of the park itself.
The rest of the day we filled with shorter hikes around Skull Rock, Jumbo Rocks and Barker Dam. We tried to finish with a visit to the far northwestern corner of the park, Black Rock, but were turned away when we reached a random police blockade partway up the road that would have led us there.
The highlights for me included (in no particular order):
- Hidden Valley (1-mile loop)
- Keys View (.25-mile loop)
- Cholla Cactus Garden (.25-mile loop)
- Split Rock (2-mile loop)
- Barker Dam (1.1-mile loop)
- Arch Rock (.3-mile loop)
- The drive into the park from the West Entrance
Be aware that some of the trail distances listed in the park’s brochures didn’t always agree with the trail’s signs (but they seemed to differ by less than .5 miles).
We also went to the places below, which were good to have done but weren’t my favorites:
- 49 Palms Oasis (3-mile out and back. You first hike up a ridge then down into the valley to the oasis. Then you retrace your route back up the ridge and down to the parking lot. I thought this trail was good mainly for the exercise.)
- Ryan Mountain (3-mile out and back with about 1,000 feet elevation gain. Good views and centrally located.)
- Indian Cove (.6-mile loop. Not really worth a detour but good if you’re staying in this campground.)
- Skull Rock (1.7-mile loop. Decent, but too close to the road for me and I found the Split Rock hike much more interesting but with similar terrain.)
Joshua Tree was unlike any national park I’ve visited so far and two days seemed like a good amount of time to see the best parts (with a bit of time, too, to get some additional hiking in).