On my southern California trip last month, the place that I looked forward to the most was Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree doesn’t have the same spot in the American culture as a Yellowstone or a Grand Canyon does, but its unique habitat and relative closeness to such a major city made it a place to look forward to. We headed out from the Los Angeles area on a hot morning and made it to the Joshua Tree area in about four hours.
Our first stop was the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, which was one of the odder visitor centers I’ve been to as it was located in a small shopping mall. As a national parks passport stamp collector, I quickly got my stamp, entrance pass and map before we left to go get breakfast nearby. After our meal, we went through the West Entrance of the park (which is a bit of a confusing drive if you are not used to the dirt-filled back roads of the desert terrain) and headed out for Barker Dam. The Barker Dam area features a nice 1-mile hike and is known for its frequent desert bighorn sheep sightings. It was also a nice introduction to the park for us as we got to see a little big of everything that makes the park great on such a small hike. We saw boulders of all shapes and sizes. We saw tiny bits of history whether it was the remnants of the eponymous dam or petroglyphs. We saw the desert bighorn sheep (we found a pretty good sized group of them about halfway through the hike as the terrain became more level), and, of course, we saw a lot of Joshua trees.
By now the temperature in Joshua Tree was well into the nineties so the rest of the day was mostly spent touring the park on Park Boulevard (the park’s main road). We started off by taking the road to Keys View, a 5000-plus foot mountain that gives you a great view of the surrounding valleys. We then headed towards all of the park’s boulder stops. I was able to stretch my legs at the Skull Rock area (named for a rock that sort of looks like an alien head) as I tried some rock scrambling. Our next stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden, which is about as close to the center of the park as you can get without leaving the main roads. Here was another short hike through a field of cholla cactus (also known as the jumping cactus). The hike is one of the most beautiful you can find in the park as the cactus have such a unique look (they look like a cross between a cactus and a teddy bear accidentally dropped in neon goo) and it’s located at the top of an entry way to a valley. From there we wrapped up our day in Joshua Tree by heading to the Oasis Visitor Center, a much more visually pleasing place than the previous visitor center. The center has a nice garden, another small hike, and an architecturally interesting design.
After checking into our hotel and grabbing dinner, we headed back into the park to get a sense of the area at sunset. We followed some back roads into the park as we came to the Covington Flats area. This felt like an authentic slice of the desert as we were able to enjoy a lovely sunset while occasionally hearing the howls of coyotes and see a jackrabbit hop by.
The next morning we were able to get one more adventure in at Joshua Tree as we took an early morning drive to the Split Rock area to take a hike on an unmaintained trail to an abandoned mine. This ended up being one of my favorite hikes that I have ever done as we had to stay really focused on the trail as it meandered through boulders and all sorts of cacti. The trail then ascended into a rock scramble before a brief extension of the trail at the top of the scramble finally led to the abandoned mine. As I came to the flat area in which the mine was located, it felt like I was the only person in the world as I checked out the remnants of the mine. It was such an exhilarating experience. After climbing up a couple more boulders on the way back to the car it was time to say goodbye to Joshua Tree.
As my first introduction to the desert habitat, Joshua Tree National Park will be a hard place to forget. With numerous places to hike and climb as well as a lot of opportunities to view a wide range of wildlife, it’s hard not to see this as one of the best national parks that we have.
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