Joshua Tree National Park (1/59)

Joshua Tree was the first national park that we visited on our trip to see all 59.
We spent a month on the BLM lands directly outside the southern entrance of the park (read about this here). This location was beautiful and serene on its own, but it was also a perfect launching point for expeditions into the park.

It was sunset when we arrived at the BLM site outside of the park, and I remember how excited we were to wake up the next day and head into the park to explore.

Joshua Tree encompasses two distinct regions of southern California desert. The Colorado Desert (below 3,000ft elevation) covering the eastern area of the park, commonly referred to as the “low” desert, and the higher Mojave Desert (above 3,000ft elevation) commonly known as the “high” desert, covering the western portion of the park. The Mojave Desert is also the habitat of the magical Joshua Tree, from which the park takes its name.

Our first day in the park, we set off along the scenic Pinto Basin Road towards some of the park’s western attractions. The road offers some amazing panoramic views of the park along its route, so it made for a very enjoyable (hour-long) ride.

Our first stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden, right along Pinto Basin Road. The garden is a naturally occurring cluster of tightly packed Cholla cacti. A short stroll takes you out into and through a portion of the garden.
Unbeknownst to us desert newbies at the time, the Cholla is known as the “jumping cactus” as it propagates by launching spike clusters outwards. This “launching” occurs when a limb of the cactus is moved or disturbed.

“Caution, do not touch” signs were posted regularly in the area. Knowing more about Cholla now, we are glad that we heeded them at the time.

After the Cholla Garden, once we entered the higher Mojave desert, we began to see the namesake Joshua Trees. We stopped for further inspection and photo-taking.

The Joshuas are a very distinct member of the plant community. With their distorted, twisting limbs; short, spiky tips; and strange shape which is neither tree nor cactus, they are certainly a sight to behold. Sam aptly described them as having a “Dr. Seuss-like” quality.

We enjoyed seeing them growing in tighter clusters among the Lost Horse Valley area, where they resembled a “Joshua Tree forest.”

After inspecting some of the Joshuas up close, our next stop was the infamous “Skull Rock,” one of the park’s more prominent attractions. Skull Rock is a rock formation so named as it exhibits the appearance of a skull. (two hollow eyes and a nose)

I climbed up into the skull’s left “eye” for the obligatory tourist photo, and nearly got stuck climbing back down!

Next, we drove to Keys View, a southern vista point in the park which offers brilliant views of the Indio, Coachella, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs areas.

It was a windy day, and the wind was particularly fierce up at the view. At the higher elevation, the wind was blowing up from the valley below and over the top of the mountain. It was so forceful, that we were actively exercising caution to not be knocked over. Luckily, I removed my hat before climbing up to the highest vista, or it surely would have blown away. We did not end up staying long.

After Keys View, we retraced our steps towards Barker Dam and Hidden Valley.
By this time, it was well into the afternoon. After the short walk from the parking lot to Barker Dam, we spent the late afternoon and sunset hours clamoring around the surrounding rocks and enjoying the gorgeous sunset over the nearby valley. It was a perfect ending to our first day in Joshua Tree.

After seeing many of the major sights in the park, our objective for the next voyage into the park was to get into the park and really experience it. The following weekend, we set out for a much closer destination to where we were staying: the Lost Palms Oasis trail. We read some good things about the trail, and the name certainly grabbed our attention.

Lost Palms Oasis is a 7.4-mile out-and-back trail with moderate up-and-down elevation change.

The trailhead lies very close to the Cottonwood Springs visitor center and Campground. The 3.7-mile hike out traverses some awesome areas of the Colorado desert. The up and down elevation could be a bit strenuous at times, but it made the hike more enjoyable to us.

The trail gets its name from the large, naturally occurring, Fan Palm oasis at the end of the trail. Having known that we were hiking towards an oasis, once we arrived, it was still more impressive than we had expected.

The oasis rests in a narrow valley, with three separate groves of towering, wild Fan Palms at different elevations along the canyon walls. I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to explore each of the amazing groves, so I continued on to the other side of the canyon, scrambling up to the aptly-named “Victory Palms,” which are the second and third rounds of palm trees located higher and further than the first ground-level grove.

For me, the Oasis was a larger-than-life experience. The wild, rugged nature of the area and the palms made for an incredibly genuine experience of an untouched, natural environment. It was well worth the 7-mile round trip!

Our next venture into the park was in the company of our (then) very new friends, Lindsey and Gerrit of “Living Life In Between.” On this trip, we hiked the Mastodon Peak Loop trail, which breaks off of the Lost Palms Oasis trail early on. The trail ended up being much shorter than we were expecting. After finishing up, we drove into Coachella for a delicious meal at a local Mexican restaurant with rave reviews (read more about this trip here).

Once again, we journeyed into the park with Lindsey and Gerrit a few days later. This time, they wanted to take us climbing, as Joshua Tree is well known as a top-notch climbing destination, and Lindsey and Gerrit are avid climbers. We headed towards some routes that Gerrit had located off of Geology Tour Road.

I had previously never climbed before, outside of the occasional carnival or boardwalk rock wall. I was excited to try my hand at actual rock climbing, as I love trying new things. Other than excitement, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After a quick (and very insightful) lesson from Gerrit, it was my turn to run the route. Once I was on the rock face I was immediately having a blast. It ended up hooking me far more than I was expecting.

We did two routes on our trip, and as soon as we were done I was already wanting to do more!

I am currently looking forward to getting some climbing gear of my own and getting started in the sport for myself.

After our climbing adventure, we headed to Ryan Mountain for another hike. We picked Ryan Mountain spontaneously, as it was not terribly long and very close to our present location in the park. We should have paid closer attention to the elevation change when we were choosing the hike. Once we set out, we realized that the trail was essentially over a mile of continuous steps up the face of Ryan Mountain.

While the climb was definitely strenuous, it was made very enjoyable by conversation with great company, not to mention, the view from the top was breathtaking. It was late afternoon golden hour when we reached the summit, so the 360-degree views of the park were all the more beautiful.

Joshua Tree is known for its impressive rock formations, and for good reason. Gazing out from the vista of Ryan Mountain, from that elevation certain sections of the park, with their uniquely distinct formations, looked like another planet.

After saying goodbye to Lindsey and Gerrit, we drove into Twenty-Nine palms to end the day with a hot pizza.

We found Joshua Tree National Park to be a tremendously beautiful park that offers awesome experiences of the southern California desert. We are looking forward to returning to see more of the sights that we missed and more of its magical trees, the next time that we pass through the area.

About Brendan Binger

Brendan BingerI’m Brendan, the other 50% of Life Among Pines, and a self-taught designer and marketer. I enjoy the singular privilege of waking up each day to spend my time doing what I love. Recently, I have been applying my time towards growing my freshly founded web design and digital marketing agency: Quarry Design Group. When not working, you can find me riding triple fins or seven-plys, face down in the pages of a new book, or exploring the wilderness of the US.