Joshua Tree National Park: Cacti and Isolation
White, hot, brief—
A baby mouse screams for it’s mother
beneath the cholla spines
Joshua Tree is a spectacularly unique destination. Just three hours from the west coast lives a sprawling desert boiling over with hostile temperatures, terrifying heights, misshapen rocks, and a multitude of spindly cacti.
This age-old National Park is fundamentally impressive for many reasons. For instance, it’s massive breadth of 800,000 acres acts as a crossroad between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. Consequentially, it’s ecosystem is fragile, diverse, and totally one-of-a-kind. Oddly enough, elevation plays a huge role in this environmental tango. The Mojave desert is primarily cool and wet thanks to its high elevation, but the Sonoran desert is hot, dry, and low, capping off at just 3,000 ft. below sea level. This remarkable dichotomy created a perfect home the massive and unusual Joshua Tree—a bizarre yucca that doesn't exist anywhere else on planet Earth.
To begin, I must say that this is no ordinary “Oh, the beauty of camping!” article. It’s more like a morose fairy tale, chalked full of confusion, obstacles, and invaluable take-aways. If you are planning any sort of desert vacation in the near future, I would listen closely.
On a typical spring afternoon, similar to the day that Andrew and I drove down to this popular National Park, it is very likely that there won’t be a single campsite available. It would have been prudent to have looked this up before snaking our way out into the middle of nowhere, but we’re spontaneous adventurers! (also known as ill-prepared, or dumb adventurers). We didn't think to do that. Of course, as we rolled up to the entrance with our $20 air mattress and bag full of cooked hot dogs, the sign reading “No Campsites Available” nearly gave us both a heart attack.
Pro Tip #1
Reserve a campsite online in advance. I’d plan to book a space at least one month ahead of time if you’re planning to stay in the winter or spring.
There we were—worn out after three hours of snail paced Californian traffic—extremely wary of the setting sun, with no place to stay and nowhere to go. Thankfully, for us and all of our fellow “spontaneous adventurers,” Joshua Tree is backed up to a BLM wilderness. Fifteen minutes from the park (between Sunflower Rd. and Cascade Rd.) lies a large patch of shrubby desert fitted with lumpy dirt roads and a few stray camper vans. Anyone can camp on this empty patch of desert for free, but it doesn’t have toilets, fire pits, or pathways. My mom called it the boonies when she called, terrified that we would be swept away with the wind overnight.
We finally decided that it was our destiny to sleep there. We unpacked all of our belongings: firewood, a lighter, a camp stove, snacks (such as apples, granola bars, etc.), just-add-water pancake mix, peanut butter, jelly, bread, Chef Boyardee ravioli, and hot dogs with all the proper dressings. The sun was setting quickly and we were extremely hungry, so we propped open our handy camping stove and readied a dinner of champions. Of course, we forgot to bring the one piece that connects the propane to the stove. We ate peanut butter, jelly, sadness and shame for dinner that night.
Pro Tip #2
Prepare for any possible circumstance, not just the one you planned for.
The night following was one I’ll never forget. We inflated our air mattress and made the bed while utilizing proper bug-escaping techniques. Our third mistake of the night involved only packing day-time clothing and a few thin blankets, thinking that our warm car would be enough to get us through the night. Oh, how wrong we were. After three failed attempts to pee amidst the howling of wild coyote packs, with no toilet mind you, I began to get pretty cold. Flash forward to three or four AM—Andrew and I are sardined together like two lone penguins fighting the Antarctic winter. Our mattress was deflating, the windows were icing over, and my feet were practically solid icebergs. All exaggerations aside, it was cold as hell. I didn’t defrost until the sun rose the next morning. And to put the icing on our igloo cake, once we awoke we soon realized that we didn’t even bring a spatula to flip our uncooked pancakes. There was nothing left to do but accept our failures and drive to the nearest diner for warm coffee and eggs.
Pro Tip #3
Always bring more layers than you need. If you wear too many layers, you can take them off! If you don't bring enough, you’ll be in a very sticky (or should I say chilly) situation.
If you're not interested in any of our massive miscalculations, I'll be discussing the awe-inspiring aspects of our trip from here on out. And because we pulled them off without a hitch, they should be entirely fool-proof.
- 6:30 AM: Wake up fearing possible frostbite.
- 6:45 AM: No frostbite... but we definitely came down with a gnarly case of bugbite.
- 7:00 AM: Breakfast at Crossroads Cafe and Tavern.
- 7:45 AM: Pay the $20 vehicle entry fee for a guaranteed 7 days in the park.
From there, we lost track of time entirely. We visited Skull Rock, a natural spectacle that is very popular for those classic touristy photos. I have to admit that through every fault of our own we never found the “skeleton,” but we did find some great bouldering opportunities, a twitching silkworm nest, and a zippy blue lizard. Needless to say I am still very satisfied with that excursion.
From then on we decided to throw our inhibitions to the wind and simply drive. We rolled down 29 Palms Highway towards the Cholla cactus garden for over an hour, flabbergasted by the sprawling Joshua Tree forest, the slick whale-like rocks that soared above a tumultuous dirt ocean, and the sheer largeness of that desolate landscape. Before this last trip we had no idea how massive the park actually was.
Even though Spring is the busiest time of year for Joshua Tree, we were completely alone once we drove past the main camp sites. The pavement was shimmering under the hot sun and our windows were cracked, spilling the Mountain Goats' triumphant melodies all over the arid mountainside.
We finally made it to the dense, magnificent cholla garden, and then to the seaweed-like ocotillo garden, and then the open road once more. We turned around—knowing that nothing but familiarity lay ahead—and decided not to waste our gas at what could truly be the point of no return.
Once we made it back to the main circle we visited the Keys View, which was an entirely unexpected highlight of my trip. There, on the tip of the San Bernardino Mountains, we viewed the Salton Sea, the San Andreas fault, Palm Springs, and even (apparently) Mexico, hidden somewhere in the foggy distance. With great pleasure I'll mention that we also saw a Hawk, some sparring Side-Blotched lizards, and beautiful bundles of white star gilia desert flowers. For those wishing to learn more about Joshua Tree’s vibrant ecosystem, I suggest iNaturalist’s inclusive guide to all things desert life.
As the animal lovers we are, Andrew and I saw the sign reading “Big Horn Pass” and decided to sneak up on some native Big Horned Sheep. To our great surprise, those fine creatures are incredibly elusive and are usually only spotted one out of every sixty visits (I am paraphrasing after eavesdropping on an adjacent park ranger). Despite this depressing truth, the bumpy dirt road paired with a ceaseless silence attached the Big Horn Pass to our hearts like a prickly cactus spine. We drove into no-man's land, unable to see any campsites or cars, and stopped to eat our PB&J’s and sip some refreshing Lacroix. This eerily lonesome road reminded us of a time long since past, when deserts like this were more prodigious than any civilization. We felt like true cowboys. (I’d say cowpeople, but that really doesn’t have the same ring). It was true and dirty and sweaty and proud, and I was loving every minute of it.
After indulging in this crazy and magnificent experience myself, the best advice I can leave with you is this:
Go to Joshua Tree. Pack correctly. Bring lots of water. Bring hiking gear. Bring a camera, a notepad or a sketchbook... or, just be there. Breathe the air. Climb the rocks. Watch the animals. Step on the cacti (wait, don’t do that. That was just me). Embrace the heat of the desert, and revel in the beauty of this planet. Believe in it. Also, gently touch a Joshua Tree... they’re pretty dang important.