Entering Joshua Tree National Park from its south entrance you can’t help but wonder what is so remarkable about the place. Coming from the east, it seems to be just a continuation of the barren landscape we had been passing through for the past couple hundred miles. Just wait, I said. This park is big . . . the best is yet to come.
Heading towards the park from Arizona there are many miles of rugged and remote desert wilderness areas to pass through. The east side of Joshua Tree is low desert, the Pinto Basin surrounded by three mountain ranges, all rugged terrain. Here within the park, two desert ecosystems meet—the vast Sonoran Desert, lying below 3,000 feet with a hotter, drier climate and the Mojave “high” Desert, wetter and more vegetated. Stretching across the eastern half of the national park, it is the low desert landscape that is first seen when entering from the south.
But things pick up as you head into the heart of Joshua Tree. The scenery becomes more interesting. Increasing in elevation, hills of boulders begin to surround you, straggly trees begin to appear. The low-lying Pinto Basin is behind you, ahead the topography is picking up. Now we were getting to the heart of the matter.
The existence of this park owes a lot of credit to the efforts of one woman, Minerva Hoyt, a wealthy Pasadena widow who saw the intrinsic value and rarity in a desert landscape, especially where the stands of Joshua trees grew. She knew these places needed preserving from exploitation (cactus collectors) and development (mining and housing). In 1936, President Roosevelt rewarded her efforts by establishing Joshua Tree National Monument. An extensive mural painted on an exterior wall outside the Oasis Visitor Center commemorates her love and appreciation of this place.
Finding a campsite in this park for an RV of almost any size might be quite the challenge. Well-familiar with national park campgrounds, we weren’t expecting to find spacious sites to choose from, but this park has sites suited more for tents than anything larger. Nine campgrounds with a total of 500 sites and the vast majority are obviously sized for tenters, with many of those strictly walk-ins. Cottonwood Campground at the south entrance has large, RV sites, but you’re many miles from the scenic features of Joshua Tree. Indian Cove on the northern fringes has reserveable sites, but it has its own entrance and again, you’re miles from the action. Within the heart of the park are a handful of small campgrounds, with Jumbo Rocks being the largest. Great for tents, but few and far between are the RV sites. I had my heart and hopes set on Belle Campground—good location and great setting, but non-reserveable. We were very very lucky—we snagged the last campsite large enough to accommodate our modest Airstream. Nestled among the towering boulders, in the shadow of a small Joshua tree, it had everything the park was about. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The weather conditions during our 3-day stay were somewhat less than ideal. Those who see things more pessimistically might claim the days were more on the order of miserable and dreary. Nevertheless, there were moments of glory, when I would spring into action. Our visit would not be deterred. On an overcast and somewhat cold morning, we set out to see the sights.
Joshua Tree National Park is renowned for truly spectacular rock formations that cover a significant fraction of the desert landscape of the park. These sculpted and multi-shaped rock formations protrude from the flat desert floor like great fossilized dinosaurs.
It goes without saying perhaps, that these rocks began forming millions (actually hundreds of millions) of years ago. They oozed upward with molten liquid, and then formed and cracked under pressure. They fractured and weathered, and then became buried under ground. In more recent times, flash floods and strong winds began eroding the ground surface, exposing these huge boulders, which then began settling one on top of the other. That is how this park’s terrain has come to be filled with massive piles of rocks. Piles of all sizes—small hillocks to impressive rock mountains. Quite the unique sight to see.
Add a solid, high-quality rock surface with many pock-marks and small projections and it is easy to understand why Joshua Tree is a world-renowned Mecca for rock-climbing. We learned that the challenges for climbers are almost limitless and the documented routes fill a huge rock-climbing guidebook. Even on this dismally cold day, we saw several groups of climbers pitting their skills to the challenging rocks.
If you want to see good examples of this rock-filled landscape, there are a couple of good trails to take. We headed to the Barker Dam site on our first morning.
Many decades ago there were a few inveterate ranchers living and working in this area. In order to have water year-around for their cattle, they constructed a concrete dam to hold back and contain water from a natural spring. My research revealed this spot would be an excellent location for catching distinctive granite outcrops reflected in the clear-water pool. I was anxious to scout it out.
There wouldn’t be much of a photo-op at this sight. No rock piles reflected in still waters. No water was to be found! Nary a puddle. Dry as a bone. The photos I saw of this location filled with a substantial amount of water must surely have been taken many years ago. So much for one anticipated shoot.
We moved on to the next anticipated sight, Hidden Valley.
Hidden Valley Trail is a highlight of the park, but I read that many visitors miss this rock-ringed enclave. “It encapsulates what the park is all about,” says the park’s chief of interpretation. Take a short side road off the park’s main artery, and you come to the trailhead. Unfortunately, those same gray skies followed us here too.
Back in the early 20th century, the area around Joshua Tree got a lot more rain than it does these days. Before the land was protected in 1936, ranchers and prospectors tried to make a living in the region – and one of the most colorful was a man named William Keys. Keys built the nearby Desert Queen Ranch, improved Barker Dam, and set up a stamp mill just a few miles away. He also blasted his way through Joshua Tree boulders to let his cattle graze on the untouched grassland in Hidden Valley.
This destination is a unique area in the park—a hidden desert garden surrounded by high granite boulders. It’s something of a magical place, secreted away from the outside world. A trail winds around its inner perimeter through a great variety of cactus and desert foliage. Because rainfall is trapped in this small natural basin, Hidden Valley has more foliage, more cactus, and more spring wildflowers than the rest of the park. We ventured in.
And had a good time exploring around, over and between the rock piles.
Making a few photographic shots when light broke through.
And caught sight of some more rock climbers making their ascent up a formidable wall.
There are a few remains of homesteaders’ lives and times in this barren place. The Keyes’ Ranch tour is a popular destination. Seen only with a ranger-guided group, it’s best to make advanced reservations to insure a spot. We didn’t, and consequently missed the tour of the ranch where Bill Keyes and his family eked out a living for 60 years. Listed as a National Historic Register Site, the property is located in a remote, rocky canyon within the park. Not to be deterred, we hiked to the site of another ranch. The Ryan homestead was established a few years earlier than the Keyes’. Regrettably, not nearly as much of it remains intact today. Just a few remnants, outbuildings, and adobe walls of the main house. It was a lonely location on a high place with outstanding views. But the overcast day made it seem all the more isolated and forlorn.
Gray skies were not about to deter me from taking my first shot of this park’s namesake.
With the darkness of evening quickly moving in, I knew that my opportunity would not be improving. Along the drive back to camp, I saw a stand of Joshua trees that seemed to reflect the moodiness of the day.
So far the rocks here have taken center stage. To catch more of what Joshua Tree National Park has to offer, you’ll need to wait for the second part of this chapter to be posted. What will the coming day bring . . . an end to these heavy skies and cool temps? One can only hope.
From a really rocky park,