Joshua Tree National Park, CA Part 2 (Traveled Feb. 2013)

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

I awoke to freezing temperatures and relentless driving wind.  I drove about 15 miles to the park’s Cholla Cactus Garden.  Here, a dense stand of chest- high teddy bear cholla covered an area somewhat larger than a football field.  There were several conspicuous signs warning visitors of the especially dangerous nature of the cholla cactus and the potential for painful injuries.  I walked the trail through the middle of the cactus garden, stopping at several points to observe the nuances of each section.  The setting was relaxing and beautiful.  Trail signs explained that the black sections on some of the plants did not indicate death; they were in fact alive and healthy.  Another sign explained that cacti in general will only grow in sections of desert that receive regular hard rains.  This is why much of the desert southwest is devoid of cacti.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

I spent the afternoon hiking to the 49 Palms Oasis on the northern end of the park.  Roughly 3 miles from the parking lot I arrived at a grove of 40+ foot tall palms growing along a trickling stream.  The scene starkly contrasted with the surrounding barren, brown desert.

The Marines have a large base several miles to the north called Twentynine Palms.  The road to the 49 Palms trailhead passed through a residential area in which many homes flew American and USMC flags along with other patriotic memorabilia.  This was a heartening scene in a time when so many Americans don’t appreciate their country.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua trees near the center of the park

Joshua trees near the center of the park

49 Palms Canyon Trail

49 Palms Canyon Trail

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

Joshua Tree National Park, CA Part 1: Land of Discontent (Traveled Feb. 2013)

Cottonwood Spring, Mastodon Trail

Cottonwood Spring, Mastodon Trail

While I ate in the parking lot, an angry, seemingly nervous man yelled at his young son for picking a rock up off the ground.  A man who appeared to be the boy’s grandfather told the dad to take it easy, and they argued.  “Welcome to the great outdoors, kid,” I sarcastically thought.  Then an elderly couple walked out of the visitor center with glum looks their faces and drove away in a minivan.

I strode into the visitor center and asked the first ranger about the best places to see in the park.  She became tense and flustered.  She told me she didn’t recommend places to people because what she liked, others might find ugly.  I was surprised, as I had previously worked with NPS rangers who were eager to recommend hikes.  I tried to reassure this ranger that I wouldn’t hold her feet to the fire, and she apprehensively pulled out a topo map and started showing me trails at random.  I asked her what condition the Jeep trails were in, a

Cottontop Cactus, Mastodon Trail

Cottontop Cactus, Mastodon Trail

seemingly innocuous question.  She replied that she had no idea.  “You all don’t go out into the park?” I asked.  “We go into the park,” she fumed, “but nobody takes the four-wheel drive roads.  Not even the LE’s (law enforcement) go out there.”  “That’s funny,” I said.  I was losing patience.  It is the rangers’ responsibility to know the trail conditions.

Just then, a friendlier and more competent ranger made eye contact and recommended some nice places.  Armed with her detailed instructions, I set off to make camp and hit the trails.  Had it not been for the second ranger’s warm assistance, the prevailing negative mood may well have afflicted me.  The mood in this area was palpably tenser and less social than the laid back Texas and Arizona from which I had come.  I felt culture shock.  At the ranger’s recommendation I made camp ½ mile south of the park boundary on free BLM land.  I

Mastodon Trail

Mastodon Trail

four-wheeled my Xterra ¼ mile to the edge of a deep, dry wash to enjoy a secluded camping spot.

My first hike took me past a palm-tree lined oasis, through the desert to the top of Mastodon Peak.  This would barely be considered a hill in my native Rocky Mountains, but it was in fact the highest point in the area.  The hilly terrain primarily featured brown rocks one to six feet in diameter on a base of light tan sand.  Cacti, short grasses, woody shrubs, and a very few deciduous trees decorated the land.  This area, like much of Joshua Tree National Park, did not actually have Joshua trees.