Joshua Tree National Park: Going to the Desert

After flying to Orange County on Wednesday, a four-plus hour flight after work, we crashed with Aunt Judy and Uncle Tom, who had taken me to my first National Park over nineteen years earlier.

The weather forecasts for earlier and later in the week at Joshua Tree had called for daytime highs of 95 degrees, but the two days we planned to be the desert saw forecasted highs in the mid-70s and lows in low-50s. Although intellectually we’d been prepared for cooler than expected temperatures, we were still surprised that we were to have the same weather in Joshua Tree as at Isle Royale. It was all the more unusual considering that many of the campgrounds at the park, closed throughout the summer because of soaring temperatures, had just reopened for the season a week earlier.

Thursday morning we left our suits and such for the wedding behind, filled our water bladders, and headed out on the two hour, twenty minute drive to Joshua Tree, California. Geographically, we had to head north around the Santa Ana Mountains, of which my aunt and uncle have a commanding view.

We went “the back way” through Trabuco Canyon and part of the Cleveland National Forest. Then we headed toward Riverside and on toward the desert. Although we knew, obviously, that almost everything about a trip to Joshua Tree would be different than one to Isle Royale, the sprawl of Southern California is something else again compared to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Freeway ramps near Riverside, California. Image: Sean M. Santos

Our final gateway to the desert was the San Gorgonio Pass between the San Bernardino Mountains and the San Jacinto Mountains. The pass, one of the windiest spots in California, is littered with wind turbines.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Not too far to the east after going through the pass, we pulled off of I-10 and onto the Twentynine Palms Highway, which led straight north toward the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

Image: Sean M. Santos

After climbing into the mountains and passing through Morongo Valley and our first sight of a Joshua tree, we leveled out in the town of Yucca Valley, where the highway turned east and continued in a straight line across the southern expanse of the Mohave Desert, the California high desert.

We arrived in the town of Joshua Tree at lunchtime and sat down at Crossroads Cafe for a lunch of hearty sandwiches and coffee.

After lunch, we still had some time before we could check into our motel, so we decided to hike the nature trail at Hidden Valley. But first, we drove around the corner to the Joshua Tree visitor center to pay our $15 fee, good for a week of entry to the park. We also picked up some souvenirs, including a patch that commemorated 2011 as Joshua Tree National Park’s 75th anniversary. Although Joshua Tree was only upgraded to National Park status in 1994 (in the same act that upgraded Death Valley to National Park status and created the Mohave National Preserve), Joshua Tree National Monument was established in 1936 by Franklin Roosevelt.

Some German tourists were inquiring about a seasonal pass for all the parks, but we couldn’t tell to whom the Ron Paul 2012 camper in the parking lot belonged.

We pulled out of the parking lot and headed south on Park Boulevard, rising steadily through the outskirts of Joshua Tree and into the ridge above the town, past a mix of desert shacks and long driveways.

As we rounded a curve, we came upon an impossibly old man struggling with his bicycle in the middle of the road. I’m sure that if I’d been going as fast as the 55mph speed limit I’d have hit him. We stopped dead in our lane until he was able to get situated and continue on his way.

Sean came up with the fanciful idea that he was really an old desert tortoise who’d been granted his wish to become human for a day and would turn back into a tortoise at sunset.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Finally we were in Joshua Tree National Park. The road continued to rise, and civilization disappeared behind us. Although we were heading to the nature trail, we couldn’t help but stop and pull over at a little turn off just to step out of the car and take in the view, and some of the flora and fauna as well.

A magnified view back down to the town of Joshua Tree below us.
Image: Sean M. Santos
Image: Sean M. Santos

We climbed back into the car and continued on Park Boulevard toward Hidden Valley.

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