A Couple of Desert National Parks (Part One)
As we prepped and planned for our winter trip we finished just this past week, we looked into several national parks to visit. Every time we travel in the states, we make it a point to at least visit a national park(s) if not spend a few days exploring and connecting. This trip we only had the ability to visit. So, we looked at two specific national parks: Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park. In both instances, the parks are too hot to visit in the summer, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to see and experience them. Ultimately, though, we decided on Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southern California about 150 miles or so east of Los Angeles. It is almost 800,000 acres of desert park. In the summertime, it can seem, well, aggressive. As the Joshua Tree National Parks website words it:
“It can seem unwelcoming, even brutal during the heat of summer when, in fact, it is delicate and extremely fragile. This is a land shaped by strong winds, sudden torrents of rain, and climatic extremes. Rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. Streambeds are usually dry and waterholes are few. Viewed in summer, this land may appear defeated and dead, but within this parched environment are intricate living systems waiting for the opportune moment to reproduce. The individuals, both plant and animal, that inhabit the park are not individualists. They depend on their entire ecosystem for survival.”
What are some of those animals and plants? Well, birds, lizards, insects, and ground squirrels dominate the day sightings, but at night, visitors can see the park come to life with snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and rabbits. Because of the brutality of the desert and the heat, nocturnal animals dominate this national park.
And what about plant life? The park gets its name from the absolutely gorgeous Joshua Tree. If an oak and a yucca were to have babies, they would be the Joshua Tree. The picture accompanying this article comes from my visit. I took it as I walked around one of the exhibit areas. These tress are both majestic and gnarly. I dig them. In fact, they were the entire reason we decided to go to Joshua Tree National Park over Death Valley. And what a sight they were to see. All we could say was no wonder U2 made an album about them!?!
But Joshua Tree National Park offers more plants than just the namesake tree. One can find several varieties of cacti, bryophytes, shrubs, lichens, and other rare plants. It truly is an ecosystem that works with each other. Magnificent.
Beyond what a visitor can see when in Joshua Tree, there is much to do. Like most national parks, it has an abundance of established campgrounds as well as backcountry camping (with a permit). Plus, it has great activities from hiking, horseback riding, trails, birding, rock climbing, mountain biking, stargazing, and geology motor tours. A week in this park would not be enough to do it all. However, if you do not have that much time, the website has a nice breakdown of stuff to consider with different amounts of time availability:
“If you have four hours or less, begin your tour at a visitor center where park staff will be happy to help you plan your visit. With limited time you may want to confine your sightseeing to the main park roads. Many pullouts with wayside exhibits dot these roads. There are 12 self-guiding nature trails. Consider experiencing at least one of these walks during a short park visit. On clear days the vista from Keys View extends beyond Salton Sea to Mexico and is well worth the additional 20-minute drive.
If you plan to spend an entire day, there will be time to sample one or more hiking trails. A ranger program will add enjoyment and understanding to your visit. Or, October through May, call ahead and reserve a spot on the popular Keys Ranch guided walking tour. If solitude is what you are after, plan an all-day hike into the backcountry. If you would like to experience the desert from the seat of a mountain bike, the park offers an extensive network of dirt roads that make for less crowded and safer cycling than the paved main roads. Joshua Tree is a popular rock-climbing area. Many visitors enjoy just watching the climbers in action.
With more than one day in the park your options increase. There are nine campgrounds and backcountry camping is permitted. For “peak baggers,” the park has ten mountains greater than 5,000 feet (1,524 m) in elevation. Or make it your goal to hike to all five of the park’s fan palm oases. Other trails lead you to remnants of the gold mining era, a colorful part of the park’s cultural history. Whatever you choose, your time will be rewarding. The desert holds much more than what is readily apparent to the casual observer.
Though we fell into the four hours or less group this time, we have vowed to make a trip back to really explore and experience much more. The vistas we saw on our visit definitely made it worthwhile. They whetted our appetite for more Joshua Tree National Park.
Image Credit: Thinkstock