Have you ever noticed your skin audibly crackling right before your ears? I have and I’m going to recommend you have exactly the same experience. Because being in the desert was awesome.
The story begins like a real contrast. Imagine beginning your day amongst the littered and loud streets of L.A, only to end it with the sun setting against the foreground of one of California’s greatest pieces of art: Joshua Tree National Park.
You may or may not have heard about Joshua Tree National Park and rightly so. Although it wasn’t officially given ‘national park status’ until 1994, the park’s notoriety began back 1987 when U2 famously named their fifth album after it.
Legend has it that it was the Mormons who, in the 19th century, made their way across the Mojave Desert, and shortly after named it Joshua Tree. In whichever way it reached its notable status, the scenery there is like no other. Imagine giant prehistoric boulders, jagged mountain ranges and desert flats as far as the eye can see – all freckled with lonesome and curious looking Joshua Trees.
This is indeed an odd piece of landscape. And really, I hadn’t been to a desert before nor had I seen anything like this. You can probably understand why I was impressed. It was also the first stop of many during the Geckos Adventures tour I was on.
For reference, I was part of the L.A to San Francisco highlights tour: https://www.geckosadventures.com/en/united-states/la-san-francisco-highlights-102342
The park has many geological wonders to observe but of course, its signature ‘product’ is the needle-like Joshua tree. With its thick, twisting limbs which end with what looks like a handful needles, the J.T looks like a kind of still-in-progress 10 year old’s art project. It’s not a tree nor a cactus, but it certainly looks strangely like both. For the record, our guide informed us, it’s a yucca tree: one of which can only grow 915 metres above sea level.
The funny thing about these trees is that they’re all unique. I never once saw a tree which looked like another. Often, their limbs grow in random directions, spurting off to one side. Others grow in the direction of the sky while their neighbours grow towards the ground. All of this is done in clusters: these odd separations are apparently a sign of having been through a cold winter. Often referred to as a ‘lonesome’ tree, they grow so far apart it’s easy to see why it’s a tough and lonely life for them.
My description of the Joshua Trees didn’t do it for you? Try the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm
Not so interested in vegetation? There are some geological sites in the park which can’t be missed. I studied business and English so I cannot for one minute pretend that I am a geologist. However I can easily tell you the boulders here will not disappoint. If you are particularly interested in the formation of these, the National Park Service has a page dedicated to how these boulders were formed.
You’re welcome: https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/geologicformations.htm
Our first ‘rock’ inspection was Skull Rock.
‘Wow – weird!’ I believe were my first words at this spot. This is an enormous piece of land which is absolutely packed with granite boulders of all shapes and sizes. Funnily enough they all look really smooth from a distance but up close, they have quite a sharp grip to them.
Bring adequate climbing/playing around shoes and do what we did. Jump from rock to rock, taking photos of the landscape from every angle. Run around amongst the little narrow rocky shelters. Just don’t do what I did. I got lost from the group because I couldn’t remember my way back through the rocks. (It’s like a maze). I ended up running back to the van while they were patiently waiting for me. Hardcore running in 45 degrees and blazing heat isn’t too cool.
It began long ago when rain drops accumulated in tiny depressions and started to erode the granite. As more rock eroded, more water accumulated, leading to more erosion until, as time passed, two hollowed-out eye sockets formed and the rock began to resemble a skull.
Located along the main east-west park road, Skull Rock is a favorite stop for park visitors. A parking spot is located just across the road from the rock.
Next up was Arch Rock.
You don’t need to drive all the way to Utah to see those mesmerising, perfectly cut-out archway rocks – Joshua Tree National Park has one too! This is a tiny walk – I won’t even credit it with the word ‘hike’. It’s something that you can save for the end of the day when everyone is sweaty and you just want to see one more thing.
To reach Arch Rock, head from the J.T visitor centre towards White Tank Campground, following the main park road.
While I didn’t stay in the area for the night, I have read about a pretty cool house available to rent out. I am in no way affiliated with this business but from my perspective, it looks like it could be a real winner: http://www.thejoshuatreehouse.com/book/
In the town centre, I was pretty surprised to see some stylish boutiques, antique stores and a speciality coffee shop. When you drive from L.A, you drive past nothing, nothing and more nothing. This place is indeed right in the middle of the desert but nonetheless, these businesses have opened up and seem to cater nicely to the tourists who make their way through.
Looking for a couple of extra activities in the area? I haven’t visited either of these places but I have read about them & people seem to give them nice reviews.
And finally, if you’re still feeling like you need some extra information on Joshua Tree National Park, these sites should be helpful.
My final word on JTNP is that it’s a must-see if you’re in L.A and looking for some diverse and interesting scenery.
I’d say it’s possible to do this as a day trip so long as you leave early in the morning. There are however some general things to consider about the park before you go:
- It’s 3200 square kilometres. This is a huge piece of land so don’t underestimate its size.
- Drinking water is almost non-existent in the park. DO NOT forget to bring ample supplies of water.
- This should be a no brainer but just in case… it’s the desert after all so expect higher than 40C-100F temperatures. Peak season is October to May as I suppose going in the summer season causes heat related problems. We were there in September and it was definitely scorching hot – over 45C.
- There are (obviously) not going to be toilets here, nor much shade/escape from the sun.
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