My first day at Joshua Tree National Park left me eager to go back and see more. I had a better idea of the lay of the land so I knew what I wanted to see but I would still leave plenty of time for serendipity. (Photographs from Day One are here).
It was Saturday, and the local Farmers Market was in town. But first I wanted to photograph the Jimson Weed (Datura) blooming beside an outbuilding in my host’s yard. It was so pretty in the morning sun, living up to one name – Angel’s Trumpet. But if I ate it I would likely experience another name for it – Devil’s Apple!
Joshau Tree may be a small town but the Farmers Market is choice. True to their reputation, the California-grown vegetables looked bigger than life and super fresh. Too bad I couldn’t bring some home with me, but they wouldn’t have survived the heat of the car.
The desert beckoned…
Desert Sand Verbena, Abronia villosa, a common flower on the sandy ground near the road.
The park’s northwestern side, where I entered, is Mojave desert habitat – Joshua trees, junipers, yuccas, cacti, and spectacular boulder formations dot the rolling landscape. As you head south through the park along the two lane road, over the course of 60 miles the habitat gradually morphs into Colorado desert. With its lower elevations, it’s a spare-looking landscape dotted with creosote bush and highly adapted plants like the spindly Ocotillo.
I wanted to see both habitats so I planned to spend the day slowly making my way south, returning on the same route, with a side trip to Barker Dam if I had the time.
A tough Pinyon pine casts shadows over the sensuous monzogranite rocks. The crazy rock shapes are the result of millions of years of slow erosion. Weather works its magic on old trees in the desert, too:
Everywhere, flowers bloom against a backdrop of the skeletal remains of trees that spread pale, twisted branches across the sandy ground. This is a type of Phacelia – its flowers bloom from tightly curled cymes.
This magnificent oak commands the landscape – the cars give you an idea of its size.
Deep blue desert skies behind the doughy shapes of boulder piles kept drawing me off the road. This rock has an inclusion of different rocks running right through it, allowing enough water to be retained in the crevass to allow wildflowers to take hold.
Another crevasse provided just enough water to grow a yucca, at least for awhile. Some rock faces are bright with assorted lichens.
It’s a very spare landscape, but life finds toeholds, and flourishes.
About half way through the park, an extensive patch of Jumping Cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia fulgida) draws the eye. Not only is it covered with spines, but each spine is covered with tiny barbs, making it very painful and difficult to remove. I saw a sweatshirt abandoned on a fence near the Cholla Garden – it was bunched up into a ball from a close encounter with one of these pretty but dangerous cacti.
Nearby, a bee worked its magic on a Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) flower.
Desert Bells (Phacelia campanularia) graced a dry ditch near the road. (For the botanically inclined, notice the tightly curled cymes again, with bell-like flowers arising off them – diagnostic of the Phacelias).
The road had dropped down a series of long hills, bringing me to the Colorado desert habitat. The boulders were mostly gone, as were the Joshua trees. Now, the Ocotillo’s (Fouquieria splendens) spindly branches swaying in the desert breeze were the only large feature in the landscape, other than the distant mountains ranges. It’s brilliant red flowers are hummingbird magnets – how strange it was to see a hummer out here in this harsh environment. (Wish I could have reacted in time to photograph it!)
The road through the park has no services (and often, no cell phone reception). I was running low on gas and water, and there were many miles ahead of me. The single ranger station at the south end of the park was a godsend – I pulled over, replenished my dwindling water supply, and asked where the nearest gas and food were. It was just about 5 miles out of the park – a truck stop, called Chiriaco Summit. The promise of gas, food and even a Foster’s Freeze (a local ice cream fav) sounded really, really good at this point!
After gassing up and standing in line for a fabulous thick chocolate milkshake, I wandered next door to a courtyard holding a shrine – an unexpected oasis. And strangely enough, a few steps further down there was an old airport. Built for General George Patton, it is now the General George Patton Museum.
So if you’re ever traveling between southern California and Arizona on Highway 10, Chiriaco Summit is the place to rest.
Speaking of rest, I think this is enough for one entry. Soon I will post more from Joshua Tree, including a lovely full moon that rose over the desert.