Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea; other-worldly tour destinations for spring-time

Sunrise's glow settles on Pinto Mountains, seen from the Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree NP.

Seeking a winter/early spring get-away in other-worldly scenery? A camping Mecca, surrounded by strange plants, alien landscape, hiking, biking and climbing opportunities and warm winter climate?

Take in the intriguing stretch of California desert from Joshua Tree National Park to the Salton Sea. They’re all on your way to either Phoenix (for spring training games through the end of March) or Yuma, AZ.

We were on our way from touring the wild flower bloom in Death Valley National Park, to Yuma to see friends and elected to camp in Joshua Tree National Park. We entered the park from the north side, adjacent to Twentynine Palms. The parks nearly 800,000 acres are at the confluence of three of California’s ecosystems. With more rainfall on the higher, northern part of the park, the Mojave Desert prevails – the habitat of the park’s namesake Joshua Tree.

Joshua Trees, with San Gregorio Peak in distance, the highest point in the southern Sierra range.

As one moves south through the park, steadily dropping in elevation, the Colorado desert prevails, with 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, to Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – we never imagined such creations. In the park’s westernmost section, above 4000 feet, the Little San Bernardino Mountains offer habitat for Pinyan Pine and Juniper.

We had been to Joshua Tree before, for day trips – but never camped in the park’s campgrounds. Entering the park we asked the Ranger about the campground “with all the rocks” which we remembered from a previous visit. He said “all the campgrounds have huge rocks”, gave us a map, made several suggestions and noted we needed to carry water into most of these campgrounds.

Climbers at Hidden Valley, also surrounded by campground that attracts both climbers and watchers!

We made our way to the campground called Jumbo Rocks, largest of all with 120 campsites, settled in and watched a marvelous sunset over the Pinto Mountains; with the darkest of desert skies, the stars in the Aurora Borealis were remarkable that night.

With nine different campgrounds and about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers plenty of options. Most are first-come, first-served throughout the year; reservations are available for Black Rock and Indian Cove campground during the busy season through recreation.gov or by phone at 877–444–6777.

The park abounds with hiking and biking options (plenty of low-traffic paved and dirt roads).  At our Jumbo Rocks campground, 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 the park is home to six species of rattle snakes)!

We took a drive 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’, Joshua Trees thrive. These tall, rangy trees can reach 40’ tall and are actually a species of yucca adapted to high, arid lands.

Native American pictographs (and, some grafitti) found on the hike to Barker Dam.

The next day, we took short hikes to both Barker Dam, built in the early 1900s to capture rainwater and now an oasis for birds, and 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 10-stamp mill; it’s one of 300 mines that once dotted the park.  Who knows if another fortune lies under foot?

The park offers viewing, if lucky, for exotic species such as Chuckwallas, Desert tortoise, Greater roadrunners, Desert iguana, Bighorn sheep and many more.

Chollo Cactus Garden, in the southern portion of Joshua Tree NP.

From Joshua Tree we followed CA Hwy. 111 down the east side of the eerie Salton Sea. We soon reached Bombay Beach, a former resort community almost completely destroyed by huge floods in 1976 and 1977. Skeletons of houses and trailers, abandoned and ruined homes and businesses located blocks inland from the current seafront make for a very spooky, depressing visit.

In the late 1800s, the California Development Company built  canals to take water from the Colorado River to irrigate the desert region to the south of the Salton Sink (the Sink was much like Death Valley, 275 feet below sea level, dry, arid and almost no precipitation).

The Salton Sea was formed in 1906 as a result of a huge flood of the Colorado River – the entire volume of the river ripped down those silted irrigation canals and poured into the Salton Sink, unimpeded for over 18 months, forming a 25 x 35 mile inland ocean, 55 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level!

View of Salton Sea, looking west from northeast shore; 25 miles wide, 35 miles long, 220' below sea level!

In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, fish were introduced into the Sea and the advent of air conditioning brought big resorts to several of the Sea’s towns: Bombay Beach and others on the east shore, Desert Shores and Salton Sea Beach on the west shore.

The great floods of '76 and '77 inundated resort towns, leaving trailers buried in mud.

Tropical storm Kathleen pounded the Imperial Valley in 1976, quickly followed by tropical storm Doreen in 1977. Rainfall had nowhere to go but into the Sea – inundating these resorts and ruining the local economies. By the 1980s, these towns were barely hanging on, property values collapsed and owners abandoned properties and left the area. If you are looking for modern day ghost towns, the Salton Sea is your destination.

Today, the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, north of Bombay Beach, offers marina, visitor’s center and pleasant camping on the shore of the dead sea. Further south down 111, the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge is home to incredible populations of wild birds.

Bombay Beach travel trailer skeleton, evidence of the ruined once-grand resort.

How to get to Joshua Tree: 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.

What’s nearby: The Salton Sea is just south of the park; the Mojave National Reserve and Death Valley National Park are to the north. About two hours east of the park, Phoenix beckons (home of major league baseball’s Cactus League, active through end of March).

For more info: Joshua Tree National Park, www.nps.gov/jotr; or phone 760.367.5500. Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777. For the Salton Sea, saltonseamuseum.org.

Stray dog stands guard over flooded, now abandoned business in Bombay Beach Resort.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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