TWENTYNINE PALMS, California – Although we’re a nature-loving family, the natural splendor that my partner, youngest kids and I experienced at Joshua Tree National Park was unlike any we’ve encountered before.
Indeed, the Rhode Island-sized park, although a couple of hours east of LA or NORTH PARK just, is really a sere, starkly lovely – and incredibly pointy – side of California that lots of visitors never experience. (Fortunately, the park has avoided the recent rash of California wildfires.)
The visit to the desert was the initial for my 12-year-old twins. They’re experienced explorers of the fields and riparian forests of Ohio and of the shores and semi-tropical wetlands of south Florida. But Joshua Tree gave them a glance at not just one, but two great desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Sonora, which are stunning to more capable travelers even.
During our spring visit, crisp skies delineated the other-worldly landscapes of boulder fields sharply, dry arroyos and vast plains of spiny, spiky, desert-loving plants.
The park’s namesake tree – a huge yucca – thrives actually, along with anything thrives, in the Mojave Desert.
The tree was named by Mormon settlers who thought it resembled Joshua from the Old Testament, lifting his arms toward heaven. They look more Dr. Seuss-ian than Biblical if you ask me; odd lanky characters dotting the desert, sporting furry green cuffs.
The trees, covered with stiff, dagger-like leaves, are beautiful but, like the majority of desert plants, aren’t very huggable.
the teddy-bear cholla cactus
Even, which appears soft and cuddly almost, possesses razor-sharp spines that may cause severe injuries – even severed arteries – to those foolish enough to be deceived by desert appearances. (A particular cholla first-aid kit can be acquired, in case just, at the trailhead of the Cholla Cactus Garden Trail.)
But that doesn’t that the desert denizens mean aren’t lovable. My bird-watching, gardening, animal-loving family was besotted with the unfamiliar nature absolutely, sufficient reason for the park’s harsh beauty.
The easiest way for a family group to explore the 1,200-square-mile park is really a mix of driving and short hikes probably. The park has many hiking trails, but a lot of Joshua Tree is drivable, with a wide selection of habitats, geological scenery and formations to be observed from pull-offs and on easy walks.
I recommend arriving as soon as possible, throughout the day because traffic can back up behind the entrance gates and temperatures can climb quickly.
After a early morning;s drive from NORTH PARK, my children entered the park from the West Entrance Station. Our first stop was ahead a few miles, near Hidden Valley, where boulders lie strewn such as a spilled bag of giant marbles. Scrambling on the boulders is simple fairly, and fun for several ages. In addition they provide a great vantage point that to admire the Joshua Trees that fan out over the dusty flats stretching from the rocky outcroppings.
We took a detour north to the Oasis Visitor Center at the city of Twentynine Palms to look at the displays there and grab park information and maps. At the loop trail there, we saw a colorful, wrinkly chuckwalla, a big desert lizard; and a cactus wren, a complete life bird for the whole family.
We made a decision to stop for lunch and in addition, at the recommendation of a park ranger, found the 29 Palms Inn. The pretty motel and restaurant – something of a throwback to a youthful age of motor travel – was an ideal place for a family group lunch.
Heading back to the park, we made several stops across the main north-south artery, Pinto Basin Road.
We did more boulder-scrambling at Arch Rock, another magnificent section of granite outcroppings and natural formations, like the 15-foot-high arch; an ideal setting for a grouped family selfie.
Continuing south, we begun to cross the transition zone between your Mojave and the Colorado Desert, an arm of the fantastic Sonora Desert that’s drier, lower and cooler compared to the Mojave. We also, sadly, began abandoning the habitat well-liked by the Joshua Trees.
Cactus, though, were abundant still. We had to avoid, needless to say, at the Cholla Cactus Garden and walk its lovely, spiny and, yes, dangerous nature trail. Many beautiful and fascinating types of cholla along with other low-growing desert plants thrive here. Wear closed-toed shoes just. And don’t leave the trail. Seriously.
Next we visited the “Ocotillo Patch,” where many of the large, thorny ocotillo shrubs grow close to the road, many of them a lot more than 20-feet tall. In dry weather, the ocotillo looks as though it were dead. But with a little bit of rain, the shrub sprouts tiny green leaves among its huge thorns quickly.
We were luckily enough to visit even though many ocotillo were also revealing their yearly bloom of bright scarlet flowers. The clouds of hummingbirds feeding at the flowers appreciated them apparently, too.
Our last stop was close to the southernmost point of the park at the easy Bajada Nature Trail, a quarter-mile loop through many plants which are common to the Sonoran but nonetheless thrilling to us: Ocotillo, palo verde and ironwood trees, and indigo and creosote bushes.
Just at night south entrance, we hopped onto I-10 for the visit to the megalopolis back, refreshed by our immersion – figurative, fortunately – into nature’s spikier side.
Steve Stephens could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@SteveStephens.
If You Go
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
The national park in southeastern California may be the size of Rhode Island, but much spikier and drier. Two great deserts, the Mojave and the Sonora, meet in the park. Visitors will dsicover fascinating geological formations and the wide selection of desert-loving fauna and flora that inhabit the ecosystems.
For more info about visiting the park, call 760-367-5500 or www visit.nps.gov/jotr.