Joshua Tree National Park: A Prickly Trek & Exhilarating Oasis

I am awestruck by the varied landscapes on this planet.  There is so much to see, so many places to experience, so much land to set foot upon.  I’ve been to the desert in Arizona, but even the desert has its own character in different places.  Having never been to Joshua Tree National Park, I asked my cousin if she’d be game for a trip when I was out that way recently.  Ever the adventurer, she agreed right away and loose plans began to take shape.

I had zero expectations for this trip, never having been to this part of California.   We were there at a really great time because the weather was cool, not reaching higher than the mid-50s during the day, so we could explore freely without having to worry about sunburn or heatstroke.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to be here in midsummer.  There were a number of things that struck me as we began to explore.  The starkness of the desert was shocking to my system, coming from the rain forest green of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Flat expanses of tawny sand as far as the eye could see with rounded rock formations rising formidably out of their depths.  How did these stones come to be placed in here in such seemingly haphazard piles?  Piles and piles of stones.  A land of giants.

The Joshua Tree is a fascinating plant.  Its arms wend and wave toward the sky, appearing windblown and structured all at the same time.  Each plant maintains its own personal space in a landscape void of privacy.  Stretch.  Reach.  There is no overcrowding here.  As with many now-preserved forests in this country, the Joshua Trees were once extensively harvested, used for ranching fence poles.  The trees within the park are young, saved from a thankless fate during a time when humans were oblivious to conservation.  The largest tree we found was this one, and I can only imagine how forested this place must have been when all the trees were so statuesque.

KEYS VIEW

We drove through the main artery of the park, turning off to explore Keys View, which was one of my favorite places.  We looked down into Coachella Valley where the San Andreas Fault stretches.  The landscape looked formidable and barren.  Treeless mountains stood before us and one snowy peak teased in the distance. The expanse was a relief from the dry, repetition of the desert which looked more and more familiar the further we went.

CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN

The Cholla Cactus Garden was our next destination, and nothing could have prepared me for how lovely it was!  You round a bend in the road and suddenly, cholla cacti are scattered everywhere before the stark backdrop of the mountains with the moon rising above.  Do not be fooled by the fact that these are teddybear cholla.  They are not to be messed with!!!  Karen managed to brush against an arm and ended up with spines in her leg and boot soles.  They sink in easily, but they hurt coming out (her description included feeling stabbed repeatedly).  Luckily we both had first aid kits and were able to tweeze the spines out.  There is also a rudimentary first aid kit at the path entrance to the garden, but you take your chances using unsterilized combs and pliers.  I highly recommend that folks carry a first aid kit that includes tweezers.  Once the crisis was averted we walked along the path that winds through the cacti and it was quite beautiful to see these plants setting the stage in this environment.

FORTYNINE PALMS OASIS

Having felt like we got a good picture of the park, we decided to head out to Fortynine Palms Oasis for a hike.  We got there around 4 in the afternoon when the light began to change and it could not have been prettier.  The trail takes you up over a ridge, then down again as you descend toward the oasis.  The hills are covered with different kinds of plant life and cacti, and we were hoping to see some bighorn sheep, but weren’t sure when they frequent the area.  Having never seen an oasis, I didn’t know what to expect.  We both looked up and were totally surprised by the fan palms which seemed to appear out of nowhere amid the dull brown hills.  Much like a mirage, they appeared much closer than they actually were.  We walked until we stood beneath the giant wonders.

As we headed back the sun began to set and we watched the mountains change color.

There could not have been a more spectacular way to end this day.  From driving through the desert, to sitting in an oasis, and then watching the evening settle in, we were happy souls.

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