I’ve now lived in California for 3 years and feel as if I’ve barely seen all that there is to see. California is such a diverse state. You can drive 2 hours in any direction and feel as if you’re in a completely different world. Orange County is absolutely beautiful but I wanted to see all that California has to offer. So, I made a bucket list. First off that list was to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The only other national park I’ve been to is Acadia National Park in Maine, so I needed to get moving if I wanted to see all fifty-eight.
This past April, my friend Stacy and I spent 24 hours in Joshua Tree. Without traffic, it’s only a little over two hour drive from Orange County (but who am I kidding, there is always traffic). Joshua Tree is spread across both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties and is east of Palm Springs.
We stayed in an AirBnb in the town of Joshua Tree, a very small, rural town with a city center that brings to mind an old Western (with a major highway running through it). When we arrived where we would be staying, we began to settle in, only to realize about 20 minutes later that there wasn’t any power. We quickly deduced that the 40 mph winds outside probably had something to do with it. We texted the homeowners to let them know (and hope that they had a generator) and they apologized saying that this happened last week as well and they were without power for 24 hours (!).
We were a little shocked but then realized that both of our phones were about to die and I didn’t have a car charger. So we went back out and found a Wal-Mart, where we purchased a car phone charger and stopped at a grocery store to get food for dinner. There still wasn’t any power when we returned however we did see an electric company truck in the distance, so we were hopeful. As it started to get dark, we ate dinner by the light of a flashlight. Thankfully, the power turned back on around 8 that night.
We rose early the next morning and after a quick stop at Starbucks, made our way to our first hike at the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail. It was a moderately strenuous, 3-mile round trip hike ascending only about 300 feet. Joshua Tree is in the desert, so we were lucky that it was only in the 60s and slightly windy the whole day. Since we were out early, we only came across about 10 other hikers, so it felt very peaceful.
We were expecting the end of the hike to open up to a pool of water with lots of trees and shade. I even kept thinking that I heard running water. However, since California is in the middle of the worst drought it’s ever experienced, there was no cool water in the end. There was some shade and large boulders to sit on and take in the beautiful views. After resting for a short time, we made our way back to our car. Tip: The Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail is the only trail that you can hike without actually entering the park, so it’s free.
It was interesting to learn that Joshua Tree National Park is made up of two deserts and two entirely different ecosystems. The Colorado desert is at a lower elevation and is characterized by the cholla cactus. It makes up the eastern half of the park. The western half of the park is part of the Mojave Desert. This half is at a higher elevation, is wetter and coolor, and is characterized by the Joshua tree. All life in the park, both plants and animals, depend on these two ecosystems coming together in order to survive. We spent most of our time in the western half of the park. Looking at the map, there is a large section of the eastern half of the park that is not accessible by car.
After the first hike, we headed towards the north entrance to the park, which we had heard wasn’t as busy as the West entrance. We knew the park itself would be busy this weekend as it was the 100-year celebration of the National Park Service and entrance to the park was free.
We followed the main road down to a fork where we decided to take Pinto Basin Road south towards Arch Rock. It was on this stretch of land that I remarked that we should stop soon because I wanted to make sure I got a picture with a Joshua tree, to which Stacy replied, “Rachel, these are all Joshua trees.” I realized we had already driven by hundreds of Joshua trees outside the park the day before. Oops 🙂
Quick fact: according to legend, the Joshua trees were named by Mormon pioneers who thought the limbs on the trees resembled the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them into the promised land.
Joshua Tree is known for its camping and bouldering, of which Stacy and I did not attempt on this trip, although it would be fun to do on a return trip. The stars were unbelievable in the night sky and I can’t imagine how clear it would be in the middle of the park. Arch Rock is a large campground so it was full of families and climbers. It was basically a field of hundreds of large rocks, with loads of people climbing all over them. I wasn’t as adventurous about climbing on the rocks as Stacy was (she boulders pretty regularly). But I did find one rock I could climb!
It was truly amazing to think about how these rocks came to be in the first place, millions of years ago.
From there, we continued south towards the Cholla Cactus Garden. At one point, we were driving down a steep hill and the whole park was wide open before us. There were “fields” of cacti and Joshua trees as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful. (I wish I had a picture but there wasn’t anywhere to pull over.)
Walking through the cactus garden, there are multiple signs warning people not to touch them as “at the slightest touch, the spines will penetrate your flesh and are extracted only with difficulty and pain.” Eek. They really don’t want people to touch them. They looked almost fuzzy, which makes them dangerous because if they get stuck on you then the whole cactus stem will detach. Some were black, appearing as if they were burned when actually they were dead cacti. This is apparently a natural process. They are in reality healthy, but as stems become older they detach and are replaced with new stems.
After leaving the cactus garden, we headed back north, driving by Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks campground (another popular area for bouldering).
We continued on through the park and headed to Keys View (elevation >5000 feet), where it was much windier and cooler. From there, you can see all of the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. The Coachella music festival took place on the same weekend so I hoped to hear some music. I was disappointed when I realized we were way too far up and about 20 miles away.
From the top of Keys View, you are supposed to be able to see the San Andreas Fault line. The same fault line that we keep being told needs to release energy or we will have a massive earthquake, a la San Andreas (the movie). It felt a little eerie being that close to it.
As it was getting later, we decided to take one more shorter hike to Barker Dam. This dam was built around 1900 as a way to hold water for cattle. Today, it is meant to be a rain-fed reservoir for wildlife in the area. I assume there is usually water but again considering the drought, what little water was there was unfortunately green and murky.
We were sufficiently tired at this point (and had walked almost 20,000 steps per our Fitbits), and started our drive out of the park. As we headed toward the main West entrance, we enjoyed the last bit of no cell service and quiet before we headed back to the craziness of Orange County. We remarked on how few animals we encountered in the park, although we know that there is a large amount of wildlife. I’m certainly glad we didn’t run into any rattle snakes.
Although overall, the landscape felt very much like a desert, I was surprised at how much it changed from one area to the next. We usually think of a desert as being flat, sparse, and monotonous, going on for miles. But the park was inconsistent; there were hills and it was green and flowery (and I assume there is water sometimes). It was a pleasant surprise and made it more visually interesting.
It was a wonderful trip. Stacy and I agreed that we would do another day trip to try another one of the longer hikes. I sometimes take it for granted that I live so close to such incredible parks and hope to return again soon.