Joshua Tree National Park; Strange, alien landscape yields desert treasures!

This fine Joshua Tree speciman is typical of many that dot the park's north and western portions

Author’s spouse Susan stands next to spindly but beautiful Ocotillo
The Jumbo Rocks area is great for exploring/climbing and contains a nice campground
Chollo cactus stand as eerie sentinels inside the park
Skeleton of old travel trailer is part of the “ghost resort” at Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea, an hour’s drive south of Joshua Tree.

Next time you are discussing vacations with your significant other, suggest your family spend four days in the California desert.  My wife, a few months ago, looked at me as if I were crazy!  However, we just returned from exploration of Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, along with the Grand Canyon, and we thoroughly enjoyed our desert experience!

Joshua Tree National Park is a good day’s drive from the Stockton area; we did not know what to expect, merely how to get there.  We entered the park through its southern entrance (we were returning from a visit with friends in Yuma, AZ), very dry with a wild and alien assortment of plant life.  From 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, to Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – we never imagined such creations.

Fortunately, we stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center, which explained all of these plants thrive in the “Colorado Desert” that is the park’s south and east side – dry desert at 3,000’ elevation  and below.  We initially thought the Mojave yucca in this part of the park was the Joshua Tree for which the park is named – wrong!  Turns out it is a close cousin, but not the Joshua Tree.

Our route north through the park slowly climbed in elevation, past old mining roads, patches of Ocotillo, the Cholla Cactus Garden and through the Jumbo Rocks area (very scenic campground at the Rocks).  Here a jumble of boulders and rock slabs is thrust into the sky like pick-up-sticks – a kid’s wonderland of climbing opportunities (though rangers warn you the park is home to six species of rattle snakes)!

We climbed through Sheep Pass, where in early morning we saw Bighorn Sheep through a distant binocular scan.  A side trip took us to Keys View, almost a mile in elevation, with a panoramic park view (one can see the San Andreas Fault in the valley below).  At elevations above 3,000’, the park begins to transition into the “Mojave desert” – and Joshua Trees begin to appear. These tall, rangy trees can reach 40’ tall and are actually a species of yucca adapted to high, arid lands.

We took a short hike to the old Lost Horse Mine, which produced well over 10,000 ounces of gold (worth about $6 million today) between 1894 and 1931.  The trail to the Lost Horse Mine offers remnants of both the mine and its adjacent stamp mill; it’s one of 300 mines that once prospected in the park.  Who knows if another fortune lies under foot?

Heading further north, take the short side road to Barker Dam, built in the early 1900s to capture rainwater.  Wildlife, depending on time of day, and birds frequent the watery oasis!  The park offers viewing, if lucky, for exotic species such as Chuckwallas, Desert tortoise, Greater roadrunners, Desert iguana, Bighorn sheep and many more.  In this part of the park, Joshua Trees are almost everywhere!

The park headquarters is located at the Oasis of Mara, long settled by American Indians, with another visitor center than offers insights into ancient peoples who made the park their home.  Another place in the park where Native American history is interpreted, with evidence of ancient pottery and mortars carved into rock, is at Cottonwood Spring near the visitor center.

Plan a trip to Joshua Tree National Park; with Death Valley a few hours north, and the Salton Sea just south, you might want to link all three into an incredible desert adventure!

How to get there: From Stockton, the park is 460 miles and eight hours.  Take I-5 south to the LA area, then take I-10 eastbound. For the park’s north entrance, go north on Hwy. 62; for the south entrance, remain on I-10 to the park’s south side.

When to go: Spring and fall are best, though the park gets many visitors in the summer (however, the desert can be hot in summer).

What to see while there:  Stop first at one of the visitor centers for displays that offer the flora and fauna notes on this alien landscape.  Then make several stops in both versions of the desert, walk into this strange land, and look at these wonderful plants and listen to the disquieting sound of utter silence!  It’s a picture-takers and bird-watchers paradise, as well.

What’s nearby: The Salton Sea, a huge, inland sea caused by ecological and man-made disasters in 1906 and surrounded by “ghost resorts” caused by floods in 1976/77, is just 40 miles south of the park.  For highlights of this most remarkable side-trip, or Death Valley National Park, about 200 miles to the north (you might want to link the two parks in one journey), see my blog, below.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course, good walking shoes or boots, sunscreen and sunshade hat, and water bottles or a canteen if you plan to hike the park’s spectacular trails.

Where to stay (including camping): Yucca Valley on the north side of the park, and Palm Springs, Indio and Coachella on the park’s southwest side offer lodging and dining options.  Camping is offered at a number of sites within the park.

For more info: Joshua Tree National Park, www.nps.gov/jotr; or phone 760.367.5500 for insights into the park as well as hiking and camping. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.

For additional travel destination inspiration (including recent pieces on Death Valley and Salton Sea), see my blog: http://blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valley travel; to contact me, tviall@msn.com.  Happy travels in the west!

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