Thursday, January 8
Yesterday was a travel day: waking up, readying the Casita, saying goodbye to Julie’s relatives, and then driving east for four hours. First through heavy Los Angeles traffic, and then along much emptier stretches of road as we left interstate 10 and got on highway 62 to skirt north of Joshua Tree National Park. As the land opened up and the traffic fell away my spirits rose. It’s back to the desert!
We arrived at the park at dusk, making it my first ever unhooking of the RV in the dark. It takes a little longer than usual, but I’m familiar enough with the routine now to be able to do it in low light.
Today the sun is shining and I can better view our camping spot. We’re at Indian Cove campground, just off of 62. This campground has no direct access to the rest of the park without first leaving it and driving further down 62 which is kind of an odd setup (there are mountains in the way) but it’s one of only two campgrounds that advertised as fitting a RV of my size, and from the pictures online Julie and I liked the looks of this one better.
There are no Joshua trees at the site, but there are a lot of unique rock formations. It reminds me of the campground in Valley of Fire down in Nevada. There are no hookup sites in Joshua Tree, and the site we reserved is pretty unlevel, but the views are great. I snap a picture of the rocks from in bed and put it up on Facebook.
Now it’s time to explore! We leave the campground and re-enter the park at the West entrance off of 62.
Joshua Tree park contains two different desert ecosystems. The northern part of the park at a higher elevation is part of the Mojave Desert, the southern part at a lower elevation is the Colorado. All of today’s hikes take place in the Mojave, which is where you find the distinctive Joshua trees the park is named for.
Before it gets too warm, we decide on Ryan Mountain as our first hike of the day. This trail is 2.8 miles round trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain to the top of… yep, you guessed it, Ryan Mountain (5457 ft).
There aren’t many Joshua trees along the Ryan Mountain trail, but there are some nice panoramic views. On a clear day like today, you can see for miles out over the park. Ridges, plains, and hills are all brown this time of year, but the tallest peaks in the distance are capped with white. Closer to home, yucca cling to the rocky hillside and a few of the low bushes still have some green color. Interspersed with the hibernating bare bushes are a bushy cactus that is a lighter straw color. I later learn that these are called Cholla cactus.
Back on the park road, a thick forest of Joshua trees comes into view. I pull over to get a picture of a particularly impressive specimen.
These things are neat looking. Joshua trees are actually another species of yucca, but they really do look tree-like, with multiple gnarled “branches” and heights of up to 40 feet. 40 feet may not sound tall for a tree, but you need to remember this is a desert where most vegetation doesn’t get taller than your waist. The leaves are spiky, and the bark reminds me more of a palm tree than a regular tree. If you visit the park in February or March, you might be lucky enough to see the Joshua trees in bloom, which I hear is quite a treat. The flowers are large and milky white. We’re here too early for that, but it’s still a pleasure to see these unique desert plants.
Our next stop is the aptly named Jumbo Rock campground. RVs are allowed inside this campground too, but the maximum length is 25 feet, including trailer + tow vehicle together, so while Cas is only 17 feet and could fit in the sites, I wouldn’t be able to unhitch or turn around because Bertha and Cas together are 35 feet and there just isn’t enough room.
We’re not here for camping though, we’re here to see Arch Rock. The trailhead starts at the campground, and is a short little 0.3 mile loop through a landscape littered with huge boulders. The arch itself is a large boulder that the bottom fell out of, creating the arch. Julie and I scramble up through the arch to the back side, and sit down to have wonderful lunch. It may only be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but everything tastes better when you’re on an adventure.
Next we leave the park through the North entrance, and turn west on 62 to complete the loop back to our campsite, but the day isn’t over yet.
Along 62 is one last trail that heads into the park, Fourty-nine Palm Oasis. I’ve never seen a natural oasis before, so I’m really looking forward to this hike. It’s 3.0 miles round trip with 450 feet of elevation gain going in, and 300 feet of elevation gain coming out.
By the time we start, the afternoon is already wearing on. It’s 2:30 pm, and the sun will be going down in less than three hours. The signs at the parking lot say that the hike should take 2-3 hours to complete, so we have to be quick.
The ridges and valleys have the same dry bushes and smaller yucca that we saw earlier in the day at Ryan Mountain, but the star of the show here is the Barrel cactus. While averaging a foot tall along this trail, it’s hard to miss them because of their bright red color in a landscapes of browns and dull greens.
They prove a sufficient distraction from the fast march, until the palms come into view.
Wow. On the side of a rather unassuming dry hillside, sits a thick stand of very large palm trees. They look extremely out of place here in the middle of the desert, and yet they were not planted here by man. Nature really is amazing. A natural spring comes out of the hillside here, providing the water that the palms need to survive. The valley is already in shadow by the time we arrive, but on the plus side, all of the more responsible hikers have already left for the day to beat nightfall. The oasis is all ours.
Or not. Small birds send up a chorus, protected from view by palm fronds. Julie reaches out a hand to stop me and points ahead of us, a quail darts across the path. There is an incredible amount of life here, all of these plants and animals drawn to the rarity of open water in the desert.
It takes some time, but we finally do find the water, in the form of a small stream following gravity’s course. The water is clear and inviting, but deep down in a gully and inaccessible to people, which is just as well. This is a treasure that deserves protecting.
We beat sundown back to the truck, and complete the drive back to camp. What a good day.
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