“The one thing I would recommend is to keep your tent zipped up,” the ranger at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms told me in an overly polite voice. The tone reminded me of a calm librarian, pointing out that there were thirty-two volumes to the last ever printed Encyclopaedia Britannica, not thirty. It was infused with an air of wisdom but, in general, concerned about educating me or, in the case of the park ranger, my well-being.
I told him I had already planned to keep my shoes inside my tent overnight to avoid any bugs, scorpions, or snakes crawling into them. For this, I earned a nod of approval and an “I would suggest that” from the park official. With that, I picked up the guidebook I had bought about a month earlier, pages bookmarked with neon-colored stickers as well as copies and a sheet with itinerary notes from the counter, wished the chubby ranger with his square, horn-rimmed glasses, and grey hair a good day and headed back outside into the eighty-five-degree weather to begin my extended weekend in Joshua Tree National Park.
“Quite hot for a big ride,” I mentioned to the older gentleman in a tight yellow bike jersey and black bike shorts who was taking a breather in the shadow of a tree. His road bike leaned on the tree trunk; I assumed he had just taken a quick rest stop by the Visitor Center to fill his water bottles. “This? Or this is nothing. You should see this place in the summer. We get 100, 110”, he explained.
If you don’t like driving, then “road trip” most likely does not quite exist in your vocabulary either. Yet to realize the vastness of the United States of America, driving a car through it is still the best way. I left the San Francisco Bay Area around 5am on a Thursday to make it to the main entrance of Joshua Tree by 1:30 in the afternoon. Driving through central California for eight hours, down I-5 past sheer endless farmland (further north) and sandy desert (south), is as exciting as it sounds. I knew that I was getting close to my destination when about two hours out, I drove through the small town of Tehachapi when a bush of tumbleweed was blown across the road by the wind, a scene I had previously only encountered in Westerns.
After the session with the ranger, I set out to do a short three-mile roundtrip hike to the Fortynine Palms Oasis, where I would encounter firsthand what it meant to hike in the desert. I was met by an arid landscape dominated by mountains and hills that looked like massive piles of brown and red-hued boulders. Barrel Cacti dotted the slopes with numerous spikes pointing defensively in each direction as if to say: “There is no water, and the little that we have, we won’t give to you!”. I encountered about a dozen people during my hike to the enormous palm trees, a somewhat surreal scene considering the dry surroundings.
A one-hour drive on Covington Flats Road later, which thoroughly tested my car’s suspension, I found the backcountry board at the head of the California Riding and Hiking Trail. I registered, unloaded the car, and found a camping spot just over the next mound, surrounded by Joshua Trees. And yes, I snuggled with my hiking boots for the night.
Hiking to the highest point in a National Park sounds like a significant achievement, but only if you neglect to mention that it is desert terrain you are talking about and that said mountain is a mere 5,800 feet high. Not high by any means, but high enough to overlook a good portion of the entire park.
I hiked for nearly six hours and did not encounter a single soul, on or off the trail. Even wildlife sightings were kept to a minimum; the most dangerous animal I encountered was a black-tailed jackrabbit, dashing away from me as soon as he sensed my footsteps. What the hike lacked in fauna, blooming flora made up for it. I sighted blossoming beavertail pricklypear, cushion foxtail as well as Mojave mound cacti. Seeing these plants flowering gave this barren landscape a much friendlier demeanor.
Bill and Polly Cunningham, whose instructions I followed while making it to the summit, and I did not become best friends during this hike. The main reason for this was simply that either one of them had gotten their details wrong about when one was supposed to leave said California Riding and Hiking Trail and turn north towards the rocky slope of Quail Mountain. I dutifully made it to mile marker twenty-three, the alleged turn-off point; however, on the approach to it, I had already noticed that I was moving away from the mountain, not towards it. Looking at it later, it seemed I had gone half a mile too far. In any case, no harm, no foul, I turned north and made my way cross country, first to the base and eventually to the top of Quail Mountain. The dry as dust desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park was spread out beneath me, with visibility decent enough to make out San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain in the distance.
My initial plan was to turn the hike into an out-and-back adventure. From my elevated vantage point on the summit, I figured why not take a shortcut back to the main trail by simply heading west along the ridge and then down to the desert floor, eventually reconnecting with the main route. My limited desert hiking experience notwithstanding, I headed along the ridge, which turned into a descent into a valley, followed by another ascent back up to 5,600 feet and, eventually, after a few more ups and downs in between, to a rock scramble down to the familiar sandy bottom. After six hours, I was back at the car and ready to head deeper into the park, on four wheels.
A night at Juniper Flats
Coachella, the music festival, plus the fact that the park was still “in the thick of spring break,” as one ranger put it, forced me to stay another night in the backcountry. All the campgrounds were filled to capacity in the northern part of the park on Friday. Not that I hadn’t planned on doing that anyways.
Juniper Flats, about twelve miles southeast of the main park entrance on Salton View Road, with zero hills as the name indicates, provided more exposure than my previous camping area, but not enough for it to be an issue. I walked about five minutes from the parking lot and found a spot off the trail, next to two dead tree trunks arranged in an “L” shape. Before going to bed, I kicked the rotten trunks a few times and waited for crawling sounds of insects hiding in its innards, but nothing. The wind noise would have kept me awake at night had I not brought a pair of earplugs for this reason. I still woke up occasionally, unaccustomed to the lack of comfort compared to my IKEA bed at home.
Keys View and a lost horse
On Saturday, it was time to put the mountain bike I had brought on my bike rack to good use. I kept south on Salton View Road, enjoying that I did not, for once, have a windshield between me and the environment around me while moving forward. The sides of the road were lined with the iconic Joshua Trees left and right, with mountain ranges reaching up to 5,500 feet in the distance. After about 4.5 miles, I reached Keys View, an overlook easily accessible by car that gives a westwards view into the Coachella Valley. Besides the familiar peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, I could see Palms Springs as well as a part of the San Andreas Fault.
I enjoyed the view for about twenty minutes before heading down and making a right from Salton View Road onto the Lost Horse Mine dirt road. While I had been riding on a regular paved road before, this was much more fun on the mountain bike, with the sand so deep at times that it made progress and steering difficult. The road eventually dead-ended in a small parking lot at the head of the Lost Horse Mine Trail. Legend has it that cowboy Johnny Lang discovered the mine while looking for his lost horse. In operation from 1893 to 1908, it eventually closed down in 1936 with the establishment of Joshua Tree National Park.
Since mountain bikes are not allowed on the trail, I temporarily stored my bicycle at the trailhead behind some bushes and started hiking up the trail, which turned into a trail run because I wanted to get some additional exercise. The sight of the mine instantly transported me back in time, imagining how dozens of workers in the unforgiving heat tried to wrestle a few ounces of gold from the desert dirt. I was not planning on staying too long, for the mine was fenced in anyways, and a big group of about twenty-five hikers was just about to arrive at the site. It was time to head back to the bike and explore more of what the park had to offer.
Stop and stare
I followed the park’s main roads towards its Cottonwood Springs entrance in the southeast. Along the way, I stopped where I felt there was something noteworthy to explore. Given that short hikes and overviews are easily accessible, I had to throw the idea of ongoing solitude out the window, like on my first day. Barker Dam Nature Trail, a 1.3-mile loop with interpretive markers giving information about vegetation, plants, and local animals, was well visited, indicated by a full parking lot of about thirty cars. Its natural highlight, Barker Dam itself, however, was marked off limits to the public because of vandalism that had damaged the 113-year-old structure.
Would you stop at a sign that says “Skull Rock”? I thought so. And naturally, did a lot of others. Part of the 1.7-mile Skull Rock Nature Trail, the distinct looking, about ten feet tall rock resembling a human skull is a magnet for visitors to take group pictures with it from all angles. Not the biggest fan of crowds when in the wilderness, I looked around for half an hour and then decided to continue and leave it to others to find a resemblance to something familiar in a rock and get excited about it.
The further along I went on now Pinto Basin Road, the more unsatisfying it got. The construction work along this main thoroughfare contributed a big piece to that. Long sections of pure gravel road and people in Lincoln Navigators that find the idea of adhering to the speed limit foreign (and keeping a minimum distance) started to stress me out. One spot I was curious about and wanted to stop at was the Cholla Cactus Garden, about 20 miles north of Cottonwood Visitor Center. A literal garden, occupying about the size of half a soccer field, allows the visitor to walk amidst human-sized cacti, examining their bright spikes and cucumber-shaped branches that protrude from their trunks up close. A short .25-mile loop that, depending on your love for cacti and taking pictures, can take you between five to thirty minutes. It took me about four.
Exit through the visitor center
The last thing to check out was the Cottonwood Visitor Center at the park’s southeast entrance. Unfortunately, the name promises more than the structure can really deliver. About the size of a more enormous shipping container, the place was packed with visitors inquiring about hiking options and campgrounds. Outside, families with young kids seeking refuge from the ninety plus degrees temperatures occupied a couple of camping tables covered by a roof to provide shade. I quickly looked around the visitor center and decided I had seen enough of the desert. Backcountry camping would have again been possible by registering at another backcountry board. Still, the terrain made it somewhat impractical to do so given the park’s rules (1 mile from the road and 500 feet from any trail or water source) in this quite hilly and rocky terrain in this corner of the park.
It was time to head back to the Bay Area, but not do the drive all at once. I explored the trails of Red Rock Canyon State Park, about eighty miles east of Bakersfield, on the way back. While Joshua Tree seemed dry, the vistas at Red Rock reminded me more of Mars than any other landscape I had seen on Earth. Soaring, jagged cliffs with layers of rock in different shades of red provided plenty of reasons to stop and take pictures. Unable to procure a proper map and the fact that many of the “roads” in the park are not worth the term, I eventually got lost while looking for an overlook point. It was then that I finally decided that the moment had come to head home.
Little known fact about The Joshua Tree, the album
I did not listen to a single U2 song throughout the weekend, but I did inquire about the Joshua tree depicted on the Irish rock band’s fifth album. Quite surprised I found out from a ranger that said picture was actually not taken in Joshua Tree National Park, but rather more than 250 miles north off of Route 190, just west of Death Valley National Park.