By Bonnie & Bill Neely
We had heard of Joshua Tree National Park and seen pictures but never been there. Our son, who loves the desert, decided to introduce us to this wonderful place in which he loves to hike. I had never anticipated the wonders he helped us discover and appreciate. Most people drive through desert landscapes as quickly as possible considering the dryness, extreme heat, sand, cacti, rattle snakes too forbidding. But for three days he taught us how to appreciate the wonders of such a place during several hiking ventures and many drives in this area of Mojave Desert of California,
Being careful to wear sturdy hiking boots, cover with sun protective clothing and lotions, wear big hats, sunglasses, and take water with us, we headed out for our explorations in very early morning to return to our car before the heat of the day. At the Visitor Center we got a map and information about the best places to go. The nominal entry fees are worth far more than the cost, and year-round passes are available to include all our National Parks.
Our first hike was in a protected habitat of large tortoises and big horn sheep a few miles outside Joshua Tree National Park. Although we were early morning, we did not find any of these animals, but they are wise enough to stay hidden or go out only at very cool times. Yes, desert lands do have cool times! On the days we were there the temperatures were 100+ in mid-day to late afternoon and dropped to 60’s at night. Even in summer, temperatures can drop into 40’s after dark.
Joshua Tree National Park has dry campsites for tents, mostly first come, first serve. We loved hearing about Tom’s night searching the gigantic black bowl of stars shining brilliantly above! The big sky here has very little light pollution from towns, so the stars are so easily observed and wondrous to appreciate. Tom recommended an App on his phone which identifies specific stars and the constellations. He assured us nights in the desert are never to be forgotten.
Some large mountains and hills are covered with thousands of rocks tumbled down the sides; other mountains are a massive rock formation with gigantic boulders. Both present their own challenges to hike and appreciate varieties of desert plants. We could identify some; others we photographed to look up later. With only gentle inclines or declines on hard packed desert sand found hiking easy. However, the elevation is about 4,000 feet to 6,000 feet throughout Joshua Tree National Park.
The weirdly attractive dark green Joshua trees were scattered throughout, and some places had literally groves of these unusual trees, found in abundance here in the Mojave Desert, and only sparsely in a few other places in the Southwest. Some grow from seeds, and others from rhizomes as a colony with roots spreading underground. Everyone must respect these fragile evergreen succulents because they are very delicate, in spite of their appearance. The slightest injury or environmental stress can cause irreparable damage and the tree to die. The trees were named by the Mormon pioneers who saw these unusual trees as the image of the Biblical prophet Joshua with arms raised in supplication to Heaven. With a good imagination I could picture the trees as beings with green, shaggy-looking arms pointing upward, petitioning God to protect them. Because of global warming Joshua Trees have been placed on the California biological endangered list to be protected by law.
These trees are members of the yucca family. If a winter has had a freeze they can have beautiful large white bloom clusters in early spring, pollinated by moths. Coahuila Indians used Joshua trees’ dagger-like, pointed leaves for weaving sandals and their flowers and roots for food. The roots also yield a red dye.
Joshua Tree National Park encompasses 1,235 square miles of which 671.4 sq miles are managed by the Wilderness Act. There is a two-lane highway through the Park and many dirt roads into the Wilderness, and people must observe strict rules to protect this land. About twelve miles from the North Entrance, we arrived at Cholla Cactus Garden, where thousands of unique teddy bear cholla cacti are as far as you can see. At this merger of the upper Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert we stopped to walk a quarter mile level loop passing through these plants, which were covered with fluffy white blooms in June. We were warned not to touch the plants because they can be painfully prickly to people. When pieces of the cacti break off they grow roots and become a low forest like this garden. Many animals feed off these plants and cholla are a perfect perch for birds. There are other varieties of cholla in the Southwest, but these little teddy bears reside only here.
We continually discussed how early settlers in the dessert survived. How did they learn which plants provided sustenance and which were harmful? Could we survive in this harsh landscape? Yet many varieties of animals live here, coming out mainly at night only. 57 species of mammals, 46 species of reptiles, 250 species of birds, 75 species of butterflies, 2 kinds of amphibians, scorpions, tarantulas, cayotes and many more fauna have adapted to survive this harsh climate!
We hope to return to Joshua Tree National Park in winter, when it turns very cold, and the huge clear skies reveal wondrous stars, satellites and, who knows?… maybe even a flying saucer!