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  • Lisa Parsons

A Quick Tour Through Joshua Tree National Park

View from Keys Point at Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley

Driving from Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine we had arrived at our “free campsite” on BLM land after dark.  The description in said it is a flat area of an old lake bed with lots of space for free camping. We awoke a large dry barren lake bed.  All around us in the lake bed were campers set up at various places.  A telephone line ran across the lake bed and disappeared into the distant hillsides. All we’d see the night before were the campers right off the main road as we entered the back road leading to the lake bed.  Now we could see boon dockers everywhere.  The internet knows no secrets and landscapes now have a following.  

We headed for Joshua Tree National Park.  A park that lies above the Palm Desert and Palm Springs.  We stop into the ranger station to see what our itinerary should be.  Traveling with the dogs makes visiting National Parks difficult but we had a plan.  If there was something we definitely wanted to see we’d find a dog sitter just outside the park through and leave the dogs there for the day.

Taz with the National Parks blues. National Parks are not dog friendly.

We looked at our options and decided to check out the park and then decide what to do.  Our first stop was a dirt road to a main climbing area.  We brought our climbing gear and tossed around the idea of doing some climbing while visiting. We parked along the road and David would work on our solar system that wasn’t recharging while I took Mica for a walk on the dog approved dirt road. 

We walked along a road with Joshua Trees poking upward out of the desert on either side.  Their thin limbs sticking out this way and that with tufts of leafy spikes on them.  Behind them were orange boulders of monzogranite forming mountains.  As I rounded the corner I saw a group of slack liners with their line suspended between two taller granite pillars.  One man was hanging to one side possibly contemplating the next move.  The new generation’s sport.  

Beyond that was more Joshua trees, washes, and rocks.  It was mid day and the sun washed out the landscape.  We found critter prints on the roadside.  Mica sniffed like crazy along the road’s edges and kept wanting to go exploring in the brush just off the road into no dog land.

I returned to find David still troubleshooting the van’s solar problem.  The inverter wasn’t allowing the panels to recharge the battery.  He was frustrated and stumped as to what the problem could be.  By the Time he wrapped up his work it was getting late.  We decided to camp in the park for the night and go out to Key View in the evening for photos. 

We found a great campsite at Ryan’s camp just before the afternoon rush.  We parked beneath a good sized rock outcrop that formed a round center to the campground and gave us privacy but a view outward into the desert of Joshua Trees.

We rested and then headed out to Keys View Point.  So did everyone else.  We found a parking space and walked up to the view point.  I immediately dropped down to a lower ledge and set up my tripod and was glad I did.  As I set up and waited for the light, more and more people arrived.  It was winter break for the college kids so there were lots of young people.  There were foreign families speaking other languages, a Hispanic family speaking Spanish,  a group of young gay men on holiday, retired travelers, and other families.  It was like an evening party with lots of chatter in different languages, laughter, iPhone selfies and selfie group photos.

The air was hazy from pollution from Sanbernardino and LA.  The ranger said it was the clearest day he’d seen since he arrived.  Pollution can make for great sunsets but is a sad thing to see from a National Park. I set on of my camera on the tripod and turned on time lapse.  Then I used my handheld to take different photos from other perspectives. 

From the view point you can see the San Andreas Fault, the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, and Palm Desert. Farther to the south you can see the blue of the Great Salton Sea and on a clear day all the way to Signal Mountain in Mexico.

As I waited as the shadows drew deeper.  The light blue sky and the light sun drew down.  Along the mountains on the far side of Palm Springs the sun flared along the edge and then sank leaving golden edged clouds illumined by its falling light.  Out to the south the blue of the Salton sea lay below a deep red haze that turned to darker blue above and then eventually a dark midnight blue above.  Every step brought changes to the light that illuminated the haze and the strands of clouds.  At dusk a thin line of red lay between the ground and the sky as the last light faded.

We left the parking area and drove down the road.  Our headlights illuminated the Joshua Trees giving them a ghostly appearance.  The last little bit of light back lit their frames.  

At camp we arrived to darkness and music from the adjacent camp.  I went out and set up my tripod to take night photos of the van against the rock outcrop.  A couple walked by and greeted the dogs and stopped to talk.  They were faculty at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.  They were down for a short vacation.  David talked about climbing in the Aragash in the Gates of Arctic.  They had two Alaskan huskies and they did dog sledding.  They were down in Joshua Tree to go climbing and escape the Fairbanks winter on break.

Night at Ryan's campground at Joshua Tree

We sat on a rock and talked for quite awhile.  With time we had the luxury of long conversations without deadlines and appointments to be somewhere.  As the temperature dropped we said good night and they walked on.

The next morning we left camp just as the sun was rising and made our way down to the Cholla Cactus Garden for sunrise.  We watched as the sun rose on the higher plateau and the rock outcrops.  As we dropped down we stayed just ahead of the rising sun.  At the Cholla garden we were surprised to see an expanse of Cholla on both sides of the road.  Some of the plants were 7 feet tall.  Cholla are a vicious cactus with barbed spikes that can trap a your flesh in a painful pairing with the barbs.  Extrication seems impossible.  From a good distance they were intriguing in the rising light.  Sun catching the barbed spikes and illuminating them against their branches.  Some of the bases were dark and looked dead but at the tops and ends of the branches their was yellow flesh and healthy spikes.

For a brief moment the sun rose over the mountains an shed golden light on the Cholla garden and the distant western mountains and just as suddenly the sun rose into a layer of cloud above and the light disappeared leaving the cholla and the landscape muted under the clouds.

We moved on to the Ocotillo grove and marveled at the bright green and red leaves sticking out of the long upward pointing branches.  The Ocotillo puts out leaves when it rains and then the leaves turn red and when it is dry they die and fall off.  When it rains again they do the same thing.

David standing in front of a large Ocotillo Cactus

We left the park to the south.  Just outside the park boundary was the BLM free camping.  Another make shift town on the edge of the park. Free campers.  It makes me wonder when the government will crack down on this new craze as garbage and sewage become a problem with transient camping.  Like all good things if too many people are doing it is there is a point where someone notices it and regulates it. Hopefully not until after we come back to spend more time without the dogs and do some climbing.

On the road to Sedona...

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