FINDING THE PROMISED LAND OF THE JOSHUA TREE
Riding through an alien landscape lets the imagination run wild
From my rocky perch at Keys View in the Little San Bernardino Mountains, a panoramic view of the Coachella Valley opened up below me. The city of Palm Springs was visible on the other side of a massive ridge of rocks cut longitudinally along the floor of the valley. This was the notorious San Andreas Fault, which stretches approximately 1300 km through California, and in this area forms the southwestern border of Joshua Tree National Park. Bizarre trees, wild rock formations and hundreds of kilometres of desert surrounded me. My vantage point in this surreal setting was formed when tectonic plates along the fault line pushed the earth up to create what geologists believe are among the world’s youngest mountains.
Traversing these mountains and entering the desert, I immediately got the sense of both the strength and fragility of nature. I wondered how anything could exist, let alone thrive, in this hot, arid, seemingly barren and foreign land. Yet this land is far from barren. Closer examination reveals this to be a fascinating ecosystem, shaped by climatic extremes, strong winds and torrential rain.
To back up a bit, the idea of a trip to the American Southwest began taking root when I learned that a course in my energy medicine program was being held at a retreat centre just outside the park, I was sorely tempted to go, just to experience this area I’d never been to. When my friend, author, adventurer and writer Carla King, who lives in San Diego, insisted I come and borrow her KLR, my fate was sealed. After the course and an amazing visit with friends, I set off on this trusty motorcycle, which had already accompanied Carla on countless adventures.
Although I started my ride from San Diego, right at the Pacific, it didn’t take long on Interstate 15 north to get through the city and out into the mountains. Joshua Tree National Park was only about 280 km away, but we all know motorcycles don’t take the direct route. Mountains mean twisties and the area is full of them, with small towns scattered occasionally throughout the hills. Road surfaces are generally excellent, but mountains are always trying to reclaim their land, which means construction. In sunshine and moderate weather with spectacular views, I didn’t mind stopping to take it all in. And keeping in mind this is desert after all, I was always on the lookout for sand on the road.
After a lively ride, which ended all too soon, I arrived at my destination. As the first order of business, I checked in and then set up camp in a tent also loaned to me by Carla. I’d never camped in the desert and was delighted to find a secluded site, flanked by strange-looking trees and guarded at the front by large cacti. It was perfect. At the first opportunity, I was off to explore the park named after the legendary tree.
Joshua trees are actually a species of yucca with waxy, spiny leaves that conserve water. They blossom in February through April and can grow over 12 metres tall. Inspired by the tree’s outstretched arms and the stony landscape described in the Old Testament book Joshua, Mormon pioneers named it after the biblical character who led an army attack on a desert city.
Joshua Tree National Park is an enchantment at the convergence of two deserts. The Mojave occupies a significant portion of southeastern California, smaller parts of central California and southern Nevada. With elevations generally ranging between 914 and 1828 metres, it’s referred to as the High Desert. The Colorado, or low desert, which is mostly below 300 metres, is part of the much larger Sonoran Desert, which spans southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.
Although nearly 800,000 acres, most of Joshua Tree is accessible only by foot. There is a small network of well-maintained, gently curving roads that weave through the park and the speed limits are low. That’s okay. The awesome and distinctive surroundings make this a place you want to savour, not race through.
A well-laid-out map identifies the most interesting sites, some a modest hike in from the road. I entered through the western entrance and headed generally east on Park Boulevard. Each of the three park entrances has a visitor’s centre where you can pick up maps and all sorts of interesting information on what you’re about to experience.
Even though it’s a beautiful ride, you’re tempted to stop often and take in the surroundings. The landscape, while ever changing, always appears alien. Soon I was riding through Hidden Valley, a highlight of the park. Reputedly a favourite hideout of cattle rustlers, a one-and-a-half-kilometre trail winds through massive boulders and seemingly back in time. Rocky walls ring the valley, their solid surface with plentiful handholds and footholds making them a prime destination for climbers. I imagined the ghosts of those long-ago cowboys watching perplexedly from below at people scaling high rock faces and wondering, “Why?”
A right turn from Park Boulevard directs visitors up Lost Horse Valley to Keys View. It was from this 1580-metre vantage point that I took in Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault. The elevation changes sharply at this overlook, dropping steeply into the valley below and resulting in an unobstructed view. Were it not for the almost constant haze, created mostly by winds carrying air pollution up the valley, you’d be able to see Signal Mountain in Mexico from here.
It’s a fascinating view and a must-see if you’re travelling through, but after a short visit, it was time for me to move on. There’s only one road back to Park Boulevard, and that’s the one I came in on. Lost Horse Valley is home to the best stands of Joshua trees in the park, and the site of the fabled Lost Horse Mine. Given the desert landscape, I already felt as though I’d dropped into a western movie; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see dust clouds raised by the galloping horses of cowboys and gunslingers charging across the land.
Once used to haul ore and supplies, a modest six-kilometre round-trip trail that follows the road takes you to the mine that, between 1894 and 1931, produced 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver. Although not safe to stand in, the mine’s mill is considered one of the best-preserved mills of its kind.
Arriving back at Park Boulevard, I continued east, over Sheep Pass to Jumbo Rocks. Not only are the wild-looking Joshua tree groves a staple in this part of the park, but huge boulders, scattered singly or piled haphazardly around, suggest a scene from Dr. Seuss, or perhaps a playground for aliens. Skull Rock rises from a sea of boulders and stares hauntingly as you approach. A favourite stop of many travellers, it marks the Jumbo Rocks area and one of the park’s campgrounds. Your imagination gets just as wild as the scenery. Continuing on Park Boulevard, you can choose to turn left to the north entrance at Twentynine Palms and exit the park, or turn right onto Pinto Basin Road and enter Wilson Canyon.
Here you’ll experience the abrupt change in landscape between the great Mojave and Colorado deserts, and say farewell to the Joshua trees, which are not found in the Colorado desert. In this desert basin, the prolific teddy bear cholla flourish on the slopes, along with other varieties. Make no mistake: although they resemble their namesake cuddlers, you want to keep your distance from these prickly hitchhikers. Their easily detached barbed spines catch the inattentive observer, earning them the nickname “jumping cholla.” The Oasis of Mara at Twentynine Palms, now park headquarters and a visitor centre, is one of five spring-fed oases in the park. Geographical fault lines that criss-cross this vast area provide opportunities for groundwater to reach the surface and offer relief from the hot, dry desert.
Used for centuries by American Indians, they’ve sustained prospectors who arrived in the 1800s, the homesteaders who followed and now travellers. What stories must be held in these silent desert rocks. There’s a magic created when a first impression of a barren desert transforms into a vibrant ecosystem, rich with history and rife with lore. Joshua Tree National Park is a perfect weekend destination and a great place to travel through. If you’ve never slept under the desert sky, consider staying a night in the park. The stars are absolutely stupendous.