There’s Life in the Desert – A day of explorating Joshua Tree National Park

Driving out of Palm Springs, my husband, two of his Master’s students, our son, and I thought the desert couldn’t get any hotter. It was a sweltering 100 degrees outside, and the rains earlier in the week left the desert air dense with a humidity uncommon in the area. The air was infused with steam, as if you removed the lid from a boiling pot of pasta.

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When it’s hot and nearing midday in the desert, most sensible people would stay indoors. We opted to go for a hike in the heart of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, at Joshua Tree National Park.

Missing the first sign for the park, we drove to the entrance located farthest from Palm Springs – a fortuitous mistake. If it weren’t for our communal oversight, we would have missed many of the park’s most astounding views, as we’d only planned a small walk around the western end’s rock features, and a quick visit to the Joshua trees themselves.

Now before we go any further into this tale, I want to tell you some- thing about myself. I’m an avid photographer with a passion for landscapes and wildlife. We lived in Colorado for years, and I spent two months of driving daily to an area supposedly populated by one of the largest wild herds of Bighorn sheep. The result? Not a single sighting. Although I was excited by our trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I was also skeptical that we would find anything other than a few trees that looked like something out of Tim Burton’s imagination for me to photograph.

I was wrong. Let’s get back to the story…

Entering the park, we were greeted by an all too familiar sight road work. We spent thirty minutes waiting in the visitor center and learning about the park’s varied ecosystems while the asphalt dried. Those thirty minutes were priceless. We acquired a park map, learned the names of the cacti, and also asked the park rangers for a few tips on places to stop, hike, and explore. We stopped at each one, with wildly different and beautiful results.

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Joshua Tree National Park straddles two deserts, the cooler, higher Mojave and the lower, hotter Colorado Deserts. Both are a part of the larger Sonoran desert. Within its bounds, there are three ecoregions, formed by volcanic activity, plate tectonics, and stark erosion. In the lower regions of the park, the Joshua Tree doesn’t grow – a fact which surprised us all. This area is largely populated by brush and low-growing cacti. I managed to catch a glimpse of a lizard and several insects, too.

Impressive vistas of mountains, valleys, and geologic features such as faults and granitic monoliths, created a stunning impression of the park on all of us. The heat in the Colorado Desert was almost unbearable, so we spent little time exploring, stopping at small exhibits and paths along the main road through the park. A brief saunter through the Cholla Cactus Garden was followed by our  first real walk around Skull Rock, where the bouldering opportunities are incredible, the views breathtaking, and the geology remark- able. Hidden Valley was a feast for the eyes, but the real surprise came at Barker Dam.

Getting down from the car, we debated the need to trek water bottles with us on the 1.1 mile loop to Barker Dam – a small walk on an average day, but the heat was notable at well over 90 degrees, and signs advised carrying water.

The trail to Barker Dam was easy, and we were able to spot quite   a few antelope ground squirrels as they scurried away to hide. The greenery was surprising, flowers were blooming along the path, and evidence of recent rainfall was apparent. We were excited about the possibility of finding water in the desert.

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What would the dam look like?

Arriving at the end of the trail, my husband’s students stopped. They pointed. After years of desperately searching for an opportunity to photo- graph them, the bighorn sheep had found me, in the middle of the desert. And I didn’t have the right lens.

Sometimes life forces you to take a moment and enjoy the view. We did. As we sat on the rocks, out of the sun and staring at the grassy field that was once Barker Dam, a herd of bighorn sheep grazed nearby. Soon, more came down from a nearby rock pile to join them.

Our energy fading under the hot desert sun, we walked back to the car. All the landscapes leading up to this moment paled in comparison… the day was complete, and I’d finally seen the animal I’d actively sought for years, in the place I least expected.

 Each of us took away something different from that trip, but the beauty of the park will stay with us for years to come.

Entrance fees to Joshua Tree National Park are $15 per car for a seven day permit, or $5 on foot for a single entry permit that lasts seven days. A one year pass to the park is $30. For more information on Joshua Tree National Park.

Written By: Christina Boyes – Photos By: Christina Boyes

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