I am a city girl to the core and love my concrete jungle, but California has such a bounty of natural beauty with its mountains, water bodies, hiking trails and national parks, that it is hard not to be enticed by Mother Nature. Although mollycoddled by all comforts of urban living, I absolutely abhor cruises and resorts, anything that blatantly scream “lazy” and love putting on my walking shoes to explore my surroundings when on vacation. Add to it my disdain for all things water, so beaches bore me to no end. But mountains, mountains I love and I absolutely romanticize deserts and arid landscapes. There is something magical in their desolation which fascinate me to know end. Thus when I found out about Joshua Tree National Park, which is acres of federally protected wilderness in the Mojave desert of Southern California, I couldn’t wait to get there. And, get there we did, on our weekend getaway to Palm Springs a few days back. This post is thus an ode to the desert beauty that is Joshua Tree National Park and the mysticism that it evokes in its stillness. Read my complete guide to Palm Springs here and meatless dining options in Palm Springs here.
To begin with, what are Joshua trees? These are a type of plants unique only to the ecosystem of the Mojave desert and are not any kind of cacti, but belong to the agave family. Their funny, gaunt look with tufts of leaves protruding from randomly spread out branches of different shapes are a delight to behold and they are distinctly different in appearance from other cacti and desert flora. The national park is named after these very trees, which were also immortalized in popular culture when the celebrated pop group U2 released an album by the same name, which went on to become their biggest hit. The trees grow abundantly in some parts of the park, and not so much in others and are not restricted only to the park, but grow all over in the Mojave desert. You will see them all over in the Joshua Tree city and county. More fun facts of the National Park to follow, but the one thing that you must absolutely do is visit the park in the wee hours of dawn to catch a breathtaking sunrise over the desert. This experience parallels none other and the ever changing colors of the arid landscape as the first rays of the sun strike it, are a vision of pure beauty and bliss. The Park remains open 24/7, but there is a fee to go in during operational hours ($ 20/vehicle and $10 /pedestrian or cyclist). Just go in super early before the sun rises and you will have the park all to yourself. There are so many great view points and trails in the park that its best to experience them or go on a hike in the early hours to avoid the beating sun and crowds. The campgrounds were full that weekend (you need prior permission for camping) and the incoming visitors plus campers can really make you jostle for space during the day. It is therefore best to arrive very early to enjoy the solitude and go on an exploratory hike.
First things first-there are several entrances to the park, but you should enter from the northern entrance which is east of the Joshua Tree Visitor center. Enter the park through the Utah trail and make your way towards the Arch Rock and further down the Pinto Basin road to the most beautiful section of the Park which is the Cholla Cactus Garden trail. Rows and rows of fuzzy cacti will greet you with shimmering golden borders if you arrive as the dawn breaks and that in itself is a breathtakingly beautiful sight to behold. This part of the park is off limits to pets and you are advised to stay on the makeshift trail between the cacti taking care not to venture too close to them or touch them since these are “jumping” cacti and can easily penetrate skin and cause injury. Since we were there at sunrise, we had the trail completely to us with no other living being in sight. The stillness in the air, the golden rays of the sun bathing the rows and rows of cacti around us, painted a surreal scene like no other. A scene so romantic, so worthy of being a subject for a Matisse or Van Gogh painting, a scene totally worth the pains of waking up at 4 AM!
After the sunrise, came the hunger. Famished to the core, we left the park and got some amazing breakfast at the Country Kitchen, a pint sized family owned diner run by a very friendly Cambodian couple, which was put in the spotlight when featured on Anthony Bourdian’s “ No Reservations”. You cannot leave this place (btw, it is cash only) without having their melt in the mouth, fluffy chocolate pancakes which are to die for! We made our way back into the park to explore the trails and lookout points, but this time picked up a handy map from the visitor center where we also paid for the park entrance fee. We started off with a 0.5 mile hike around the Arch Rock, a rocky landscape dotted with Joshua Trees and piles of boulders stacked atop each other.
Next, we made a quick stop at the Skull Rock (a huge overhanging rock shaped like a skull) but found it too crowded and quickly moved on to our next destination-the iconic Keys View point from where you can see the famous San Andreas fault, the city of Palm Springs, the looming snow capped Mount San Jacinto and the Salton Sea. The road from Arch Rock to Keys View as well as the Black Rock Cayon further up north and west are the two best spots for viewing Joshua Trees. Most trees in this part of the park are full grown, mature ones unlike those in sparse southern entrance.
The view from Keys View lookout point is jaw-dropping. Stair lead to the viewing area where its best to sit for some time and take in the serenity of the desert valley with the majestic mountains overlooking Palm Springs and Coachella Valley. On a clear day, the shimmering water of Salton sea is also visible. After Keys View you can either retrace your path toward Arch Rock too hike at Ryan mountains or make your way up north towards Barker Dam and Hidden Valley. We drove out of the park following the Park boulevard path towards the west entrance station and bid adieu to this beautiful landscape since it was getting too hot for further exploration. On our way out, we saw a long line of cars waiting to enter the park and thanked our lucky stars that we had managed to get in early.
Joshua Tree National park represents a geology, ecosystem, flora &fauna habitat like no other and is unique in its beauty. It is unlike any other North American National park that you’ve visited, with a wilderness that is magical and captivating. The beauty of the desert is understated, yet unparalleled and the only way to experience it is to lose yourselves in the land dotted with Joshua trees, piercing the stony, barren soil. The trails and hiking spots of interest to catch more of the breathtaking vistas are listed in this website here. Since Joshua Tree National Park has changing weather conditions and can get chilly in the early morning, it is better to dress in layers if you are interested in a sunrise. Joshua tree looks splendid at sundown as well, with the ghostly silhouette of the trees against a burnt orange-red sky. In addition, the park is also a great spot for some star gazing owing to the sky above being least polluted by the light from neighboring cities. So what are you waiting for? Get your cameras, tripod and hiking gear ready and come explore this park today! As usual, be responsible while enjoying the national parks and play your role in conservation by leaving no trace behind of your visit, i.e. disposing off all kinds of trash, respecting the flora and fauna and following all posted signs. Post our second outing at the park, we had lunch at CrossRoads Cafe and Tavern, serving delicious grub with lots of vegetarian/vegan options.