Tuesday, March 17, 2015

California, Part 2: Joshua Tree National Park

Mrs. Tires gave me an amazing gift for my 34th birthday in December of 2014: a visit to Joshua Tree National Park. While I have spent significant time around San Francisco and Los Angeles, I had never been to this part of California before.

Our adventure started at the Joshua Tree Inn, a quirky hotel just a few minutes from the park's west entrance. If you're visiting the area, I strongly recommend this place. The rooms are charming and include private patios. What's more, the grounds feature a beautiful outdoor common area decked out with desert flowers and cacti, a fire pit, a coy pond and other delights.

We relaxed on the grounds until after sunset, and then went to dinner at a hippie pizza joint called Pie for the People. Recommended! It looks like the town of Joshua Tree has a lot to offer, including old west bars, funky restaurants and other spots. We didn't explore much as we were determined to make it an early night, but we'll definitely be making more of an effort if we make it back to JT again. 

We woke up early the next morning - my birthday. Normally we are not early risers, but we were excited to hit the park. After some quick expert packing, we were off. The visitor center was just two minutes away from the inn. We stopped and had a nice chat with one of the JT employees, who was eager to point out some must-see attractions within the park. Then it was into the park...though we had to stop to take the classic shot in front of the sign at the entrance first. 

As we made our way into the park, we were immediately acquainted with the park's namesake, the bizarre and intriguing joshua tree. It would be some sort of joshua tree faux pas if I didn't compare these trees to something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Our rough estimation is that there are 872,952,239 joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park. All of the joshua trees are on the west end of the park, which is part of the Mojave desert, also known as the high desert because of its higher elevation. They're odd and spectacular, the true stars of the area. 

I attempt to fit in with my surroundings
Second to the joshua trees are the numerous clusters of boulders that jut out of the landscape. These piles are just as impressive as the trees, though I suppose Cluster of Boulders National Park doesn't have the same ring. 

Between the trees and the rocks, the scenery really is something to behold. It is remarkably mountainous for a desert, and we caught the occasional glimpse of a snow capped mountain in the distance. 

Our big mission of the day was to hike Ryan Mountain, a popular trail that winds around one of the highest peaks in the park. While it is only three miles round trip, its steep elevation earned it a label of "strenuous" in the guide books. This rating turned out to be accurate. We were able to handle it, but only by taking several breaks along the way. We were glad to do so, as the sky was clear and the view was grand. 

After about an hour and fifteen minutes, we reached the summit, where we enjoyed 360 degree views and chatted with others who had completed the journey. 

With the hike in the rearview, we hit a couple more attractions on the west end of the park, including the tallest joshua tree in the world and the aptly named Skull Rock. 

At forty feet, this is the largest joshua tree in the world.
Skull Rock
At that point we had thoroughly covered the high desert, so it was time to move on to the east side of the park. The difference between the two sections was noticeable immediately. The terrain is noticeably less hilly. There are plenty of cacti, but they're different varieties than we had seen. It was also about 10 degrees hotter on the east end, bringing temps into the low 80s. Not bad for December! I was fascinated by these bizarre plants, which seemed to exist on a stretch of the park only about two tenths of a mile long. 

Our first stop in the Colorado desert side of the park was the Cholla Cactus Garden. This nature walk is home to a completely different kind of cactus called the cholla cactus. Ironically, there were several cholla chicks touring the grounds. These cacti were quite different than the cacti we had seen thus far. We were equipped with a pamphlet that told us about the different variations of cholla cactus, but to be honest, they all looked the same. 

Moving on, we encountered some interesting formations that sprouted up along the mostly flat landscape.

Eventually we made it all the way to the southeast end of the park. After a quick stop at the visitor center, we drove to Cottonwood Springs. This area greeted us with a few different types of palm trees, as well as a couple of trailheads. These trails looked promising, with one leading to an arch-like rock formation and another leading to an actual oasis that houses a small body of water during the rare wet seasons. However, we didn't feel like we had the energy for these hikes, so we lingered near the palms for a while and shot a few photos before getting back into the car to head back to the high desert.

We were determined to head back to the west side because we had staked out a special view for the sunset. This meant driving a good 35 miles back in the direction we came. It being my birthday and all, Mrs. Tires did the driving while I enjoyed the scenery. Fortunately there wasn't much traffic on the east end of the park and the road was recently paved and smooth, so we made great time getting to Keys View. We chose this location because it is known for spectacular views and brilliant sunsets.

When we first arrived at Keys View, we found a view that included the peak of a mountain that was separated from us by a wide valley. The rocky valley was blanketed by a thin layer of white haze. We weren't sure if it was low-laying cloud cover or smog. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference when you're in California, even when you're in a national park.

Whatever it was, it made for a decent sunset. We were really lucky to have such a clear day, but the result was a cloudless sky and therefore a less impressive backdrop. However, the haze did provide a medium for some coloration as the sun went down behind the top of the far mountain range. Mrs. Tires and I sat on a bench at the edge of the walkway, snacked, chatted and enjoyed the show. It was a great way to end the day. 

Darkness and cold descended upon the park quite quickly after the sun disappeared, so we made our way to the exit shortly thereafter. After a stop at the gift shop, we were on the road again. 

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Joshua Tree National Park. The desert landscape, unique plant life and rock formations were true marvels, and the park can be covered in one day. It was an awesome way to spend a birthday, and I recommend a visit to anyone who loves the outdoors. 

Coming soon: California, Part 3: Los Angeles

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