Joshua Tree National Park: Sunrise in the Sonoran Desert

Our alarms went off at 5:30am so that we could pull on clothes and hats and jackets (it was 46 degrees) for the 45-minute drive into the park to the Cholla Cactus Garden in Pinto Basin. Sunrise was at 6:48am, but we didn’t want to have to rush through the dark desert.

We turned off of Park Boulevard onto Pinto Basin Road, which was closed due to the wash out not much further than our destination. The road turned east, and we stopped at a pullout above Wilson Canyon as the first light hit the granite formations and flooded the sky beyond.


We continued on. The road twisted through Wilson Canyon as we descended from the Mohave Desert into the Sonoran Desert, which is lower, hotter, and drier. Shortly, we emerged from Wilson Canyon into Pinto Basin, a vast valley surrounded by mountain ranges. It is the largest single geological feature in Joshua Tree National Park.

We parked in the pullout for Cholla Cactus Garden, a naturally occurring garden of “teddy bear” cholla halfway down the gentle slope into the basin. A short nature trail twisted through the cacti, so we got out to watch the sunrise.

Cholla cacti have microscopic barbs, which hook into clothing or skin, on their exceptionally sharp needles. The ends of the cholla branches break off and are carried away by unfortunate people or animals, growing roots and forming a new cholla when they eventually fall off. As Sean says, “You can’t hug a cholla.”

Cholla Garden with the Pinto Mountains beyond
Sunrise over the Eagle Mountains
Image: Sean M. Santos
Image: Sean M. Santos

After we’d watched the sunrise and finished walking the nature trail, we decided to continue a little further down Pinto Basin Road to where it was closed just beyond Ocotillo Patch. Like the cluster of cholla at a slightly higher elevation, this part of the gentle slope of Pinto Basin supported a garden of tall ocotillo cacti.

Barricades mark the end of the accessible road. Pinto Basin Road is closed until further notice from this point all the way to I-10 some 30 miles on.
Although they are brown most of the year, ocotillos are able to sprout green leaves whenever there is enough rain. The floods that destroyed the road also brought greenery.
Image: Sean M. Santos

After seeing the ocotillos, we turned around and headed back toward Wilson Canyon and the Mohave Desert above it, passing some Sacred Datura (below) growing along the side of the road and spotting a huge red-tailed hawk hunting for his breakfast.

There was still plenty more to see in Joshua Tree, but our time was growing short.

Leave a Reply