JOSHUA TREE NAT’L PARK—When Once Just Isn’t Enough

Occasionally, you get a taste for something that seems intriguing, and then all too soon it’s gone.  Something that you received just a small dose of, and ended up wanting more.  Perhaps the full appreciation didn’t develop until after the event.  Or, in this case, the place.  So it was with Joshua Tree—at least for me.  It might have been the rainy, overcast conditions of that first visit that overshadowed the potential of this park.  It could have been our short time there—only 3 days—that didn’t provide enough time to explore its full value.  Whatever the case, I was giving Joshua Tree a second look .  .  . its location being a mere 50 miles or so from the outskirts of Palm Springs.  A short drive away, by noon we were pulling into the park’s south entrance.

RV camping in Joshua Tree isn’t ideal.  Although having just under 500 campsites spread over 8 campgrounds, the 200 sites that are reserveable are located within two campgrounds on the northern fringes of the park; one not having direct access into the park (it has its own entrance), while the other is reviewed as having terribly rutted roads.  The remaining campgrounds have sites more sized for tents and very small campers, leaving a precious few sites large enough for medium to large RVs.  Therein lies the need for early arrival time, most certainly in the prime spring months as well as all weekends.  We were among the few fortunate who were able to find an adequate site, privately tucked away among the rock formations in Jumbo Rocks Campground.  Once again proving that Airstreams come with assets not readily apparent.

The weather gods seemed to be blessing us on this second visit of ours.  Instead of dismally damp days, we arrived to sapphire skies filled with billowy clouds.  Glorious, spirit-lifting sunshine.  Okay, maybe with some blustery conditions (something more common than not here in the Southwest, we had discovered) to make the day slightly less than perfect.  Nevertheless, with high expectations we set out to reacquaint ourselves with a park we hadn’t seen in two years.

The Joshua Tree is the significant hallmark of the park (naturally).  Not the only outstanding park feature, but certainly the most iconic. Distinctive in its appearance—is there anything that compares to it?—many adjectives have been used to describe it.  Unique.  Gnarled.  Grotesque.  Something out of a Dr. Seuss book.  From my standpoint, Joshua trees have great photogenic potential in both their character and their shape.  I had big hopes for coming away with some unique pictures.  Joshua trees just don’t grow in many southwest desert locations.

They are native to the Mojave Desert.   Situated between the Great Basin Desert to the north and the Sonoran to the south, the Mojave is an arid, rain-shadow desert, the driest in North America. Elevations of the Mojave are generally between three to six thousand feet, although Death Valley (found within the Mojave boundaries) includes an elevation of 282 feet below sea level.  Joshua Trees only grow in elevations between 1,200 to 6,000 feet, the High Desert of the Mojave.

On this splendiferous day we soon discovered a rare event—the trees were in bloom!  Not a given in just any year of the Joshua trees’ life, to produce blooms require the perfect conditions:  well-timed rains and a crisp winter freeze.  So their stars must have been in perfect alignment (as were ours) and we were witnesses to this special occurrence.  Big clusters of white-green flowers were popping from the tips of their branches.  A great photo op on the first day of our visit.

Although our first trip to Joshua Tree wasn’t under such great conditions, I did come away with a few good photos.  You can find the collection as well as more information on these trees (that are actually yuccas) in my Airstream Travelers’ post of two years ago.  Without being redundant in this current post, I’ll let my photos give you the whole picture.  In contrast to our last visit, this time I had abundantly clear skies, unfortunately so.  Proving you can have too much of a good thing, a few clouds would have helped give more photographic interest.  But, be things as they were, I never missed a sunrise or evening shot.  And let the trees work their magic in the landscapes.

As much as the trees, another feature of the park is equally difficult not to notice.  The boulders.  The mountains of rocks.  Everywhere are piles.  In all sizes .  .  .  some quite overwhelming.  If you care to learn more about their origins and the appeal they provide to rock climbers, just read more in another post previously written.  Suffice it to say, on this trip we also took advantage of their scenic potential.

Driving through the backcountry to trailheads.

The trail to Barker Dam is filled with rock formations.  Literally towering above the well-worn path, crowding in on both sides along the trail.  Weaving your way through passages, it’s tempting not to go astray, to take a climb up some of those piles.  It tends to bring out the kid in you.

Back in the ranching days when cattle grazing was a way of eking out a living here, a dam was built within these rocks to contain a water supply for the cows as well as the mining operations nearby.  Bone dry as it was two years ago, this time it was a veritable lake (giving proof the California drought had taken a turn).

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the take from the mines in the Sierras petered out, miners fanned out into the deserts. Here hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging environment in which to operate a mine. But a few hardy adventurers persevered and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park—although few were.

An old windmill rises from the desert floor.  This relic of the old west is trapped in time, a rusting site in an arid landscape.

The trail to Desert Queen Mine leads to an overlook directly above the ruins of this mine.  One of the more productive mines, it produced 3,845 ounces of gold from 1894 to 1961.  Along the way you’ll see evidence of equipment left behind.

Curious Chris takes a closer look.

You might even be surprised at what you’ll find half buried in the shifting sands.

One of the most scenic spots in the whole of Joshua Tree is found on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.  With the overcast, socked-in conditions of our last trip, we didn’t even attempt to check this place out.  This time it was a different story.

The scenic road to the top leads through one of the thickest groves of Joshua trees in the entire park.

It is an awesome view.  The panorama before you takes in the glimmering water of the Salton Sea spanning west to snow-capped Mount San Jacinto rising above the town of Palm Springs.  Slashing across the valley floor is the San Andreas Fault—the whole landscape of the Coachella Valley.

After soaking in that view, one last memorable sight can be seen far to the right.  There, beyond the rolling ridges of the San Bernardino Mountains rises 11,499-foot Mount San Gorgonio, the highest point in Southern California.

Between the trees, the rocks and the all-encompassing views, how could this not have been a memorable visit?

And the hiking wasn’t too shabby either.

Hitting the high notes in Joshua Tree,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris


About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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