It’s been two weeks since my short but intense trip to Joshua Tree National Park, a desert reserve a few hours east of L.A. (or if you’re really unlucky, 4 and a half grueling hours from L.A.).
The California desert is about as far away, climate-wise, as you can get from where I live. If you only have a few days and a limited budget, it’s a welcome, dramatic change of scenery. And it’s only a quick plane ride to L.A. followed by that (rather nasty) drive.
I was lucky with the weather on the flight south – skies were clear and I was treated to an iconic West coast punctuation: major mountains of the Cascade Range. First up was Mt. Rainer, our lovely, clear day companion, then Mt. St. Helens, the rascal volcano, followed by Oregon’s severely sculpted Mt. Hood, and many more. Geological drama! I love it. (phone photos below are Mt. Rainer & Mt. Hood)
Eventually, L.A. sprawl took over. After landing I made my way to the rental car counter. I had brilliantly secured my GPS in the very bottom of my bag, so I rummaged around and pulled it out. Touching “CA” for state, and then typing in my destination – “Joshua Tree” – I was ready to roll.
Quickly the drive became tedious; at only 2:30 in the afternoon it was too early for rush hour, but it was stop and go traffic with nothing to look at but ugly walls and suburban malls.
After a few hours of that I HAD to stop! The choices were limited but I noticed a sign for In ‘n’ Out Burger. That rang a vague bell. It would be fast. I went for it.
Pulling off the freeway, I found myself at not just any In ‘n’ Out Burger joint, but at one sharing a lot with – are you ready? – the In ‘n’ Out Burger University! How cool is that? I caught the sign reflected in my windshield, California palm trees included free of charge.
And the In ‘n’ Out University! How irresistible! Gotta get a shot of that. It turns out that the original In ‘n’ Out was just down the street. That’s my order sitting on top of the car…
Back on the road, burger in my lap, I suffered through more traffic. But it was made bearable by a fabulous, crunchy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside burger.
Traffic finally improved as I came to a narrow section of highway between mountain ranges, where the wind whipping through the pass has prompted the building of innumerable wind turbines. For $35.00 you can treat yourself to a windmill tour of these monsters and learn all about them. Amazing, huh? But I had other ideas…
By the time I cruised into Joshua Tree on scenic Rt. 62, the sun was setting behind the mountains.
I grabbed a bite to eat at a Mexican restaurant in town and found my airbnb, a low slung home on a dirt road a few miles from the park entrance.
OK, that’s not the airbnb, it’s one of several outbuildings on the property. I like those simple structures.
And I’m not a fan of angels but this one, secured to the fence that surrounds the property, was pretty photogenic, I thought:
Not to mention that outdoor tub, seen in an earlier post. Altogether it looked like a decent location, and after exchanging pleasantries and discussing breakfast with my host, and I collapsed into a clean, firm bed.
The next morning I was eager to get into the park but first, my host took me on a quick walk around the property – her cacti were just beginning to flower:
A big Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant bloomed next to the shack. This is the plant indigenous people used medicinally and ceremoniously to contact dream helpers.
On to the park, after a quick stop at the local gas and grocery store for snacks and water.
Joshua Tree National Park is a large desert basin that encompasses both Mojave Desert terrain and the hotter Colorado, or Sonoran Desert lands. I entered on the northern side and spent my first day exploring the Mojave. What struck me most powerfully were two things: the Joshua Trees and great piles of monolithic rocks.
The gritty, dry surface of the rocks makes them ideal for climbing.
Joshua Trees are not trees – they’re overgrown yuccas with deep roots and trunk-like, fibrous stems. Some live hundreds of years.
In spring, they bloom:
Wildflowers at Joshua Tree are scattered about and best seen while walking amongst the rocks. This tiny Wooly daisy is easy to step on; the pretty desert dandelion is taller – enough to sway in the slight breeze, but I put a stop to that!
Flowers can blend into the arid landscape, but a closer inspection often reveals intense color. Desert globemallow:
A pretty red flower blooming on a cactus was reason enough to climb up for a closer look…I climbed up,
…and found the gorgeous Claret cup cactus, Echinocereus triglochidiatus. (Echino- means prickly or spiny, like the Echinoderms, or Sea urchins).
Another cactus, which is more common in the southern part of Joshua Tree, is the very photogenic Teddy Bear Cholla, Opuntia bigloveii.
There’s my car in the distance, on the main road through Joshua Tree. The rocks were really fun to clamber around on – you can see that rough texture – very grippy!
Off in the distance, a snow-capped mountain made me think about climate extremes. Here in the desert, annual rainfall averages 4.5 inches/yr. Where I live it averages about 37 inches/yr. It must be cold up on that mountain, but it was pretty hot in the sunny dessert, even in March.
On the way out there were more crazy-beautiful rock formations. This one had me thinking of dough, or potatoes :
I drove back into town for a break from the sun, picked up a brochure about the area, and learned that only a few miles away there was a vast sculpture installation. It’s the work of artist Noah Purifoy, who died at his home out here from a fire in 2001.
It definitely sounded like something I would like. I set my GPS for the coordinates of two named roads near where the installation was supposed to be. Around and around I drove on dirt roads in the desert, until I finally came upon this sign:
Turning down the dirt road, I located the site, and spent the next two hours spellbound by this man’s work – but that’s a story for another time!
Well OK, just one:
After a dinner in town I saw this on the way home: the full moon rising over the desert: a fitting end to the day.