Joshua Tree National Park is absolutely the kind of place I was hoping to visit when we decided to set sail on America’s interstates. Foremost of its delights are the dramatic rock formations scattered throughout the park. They are the result of lava pushing up through surrounding material, hardening, and then being scoured by flash floods. They are rough to the touch, like a super coarse granite sand paper thanks to limited winds and rain while very stark thanks to the limited water and vegetation. The sandy chunks that do erode from them make for a loose light soil to which a limited but unusual set of desert plants find shelter.
There is a wonderful contrast here between the grand and imposing granite rocks and the small rugged, yet in many ways delicate plant life. One can enjoy the grand spectacle and in the next moment intimate detail. The combination of the two I think is one of the more powerful spiritual juxtapositions and always gives me a feeling of peace and completeness. Though it is a place almost utterly inhospitable to human habitation, it is none the less feels like a place you would want to stay if you could.
One thing that sets California parks apart from many of those in Washington is a hands-on attitude. In Washington, the parks strongly encourage you to stay on the designated paths and frequently admonish you not to touch or interact with the natural wonders. In California, at least at the parks, I have been to, you don’t see much of this outside of some warnings not to stick your hands in dark crevasses or molest the local animals. In Joshua Tree, it is expected people will climb on the rocks, wander off the trail and generally explore as they see fit. Certainly, there is an understanding you will not mess the place up, leave trash or intentionally damage the wildlife. I get the feeling, slowly but surely, they are moving in the direction of more restriction. Apparently, some trails have been closed due to graffiti on rocks where the native artwork is preserved. It takes so few bad apples to depreciate everyone else’s enjoyment. None the less, I have to say I appreciated very much the ability to climb, touch, and explore and did by best to respect that privilege and do as little damage as possible.
The park is home to a range of interesting plants and animals. We visited in early January when much of the wildlife has packed it in and gone into hiding. There were remarkably few insects, mammals or reptiles to be seen. Birds, on the other hand, were in some abundance as the park is a haven to a goodly number of migrating species in the winter months. Most of those we spied were small songbirds hopping through the underbrush in the higher elevations of the park. We did see evidence life in the form of many desert wood rat nests. Known commonly as pack rats they collect dried vegetation in fairly large mounds around a central tree or bush. From what we read active wood rat nests have been found with material as much as 10,000 years old. It gives you an idea of how still the desert environment is much of the time. Time in a way moves very slowly here.
What it lacked in animal activity it more than made up for in unusual plant life. One of our stops was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Here conditions are perfect for the Teddy Bear Cholla, a plant that is near the antithesis of cuddly. Conditions in one part of the park are perfect for these plants and they have taken over that part of the park as a result. It’s quite a remarkable area and one where we saw the most woodrat dens and bird nests. Of course there are the Joshua Trees, which are in fact Giant Yucca plants. They are unique in appearance and in parts of the park grow in great sparse forests between the low mountains and rock outcroppings. It makes for a striking and to my northwest sensibilities, alien landscape.
There are lots of ways to enjoy the park. You can simply drive through it stopping at various locations to take in the scenery. You can get out of the car and go on various hiking trails much as we did on our day trip to the park. You can also camp in the park, either with a tent or RV. Trail (Anne) and I decided we’d be back to spend at least one night in the park amidst the stars and the stones.