A day at Joshua Tree National Park
Posted February 19, 2017 by Bailey Mareu
After we settled at our RV park in Southern California in mid-January 2016, I was excited to see we weren't far from Joshua Tree National Park.
I really didn't know much about Joshua Tree NP but it was a big park and a national park so I knew we had to see it. The Monday after we arrived was Martin Luther King Jr. Day AND one of the free entry days to any of the U.S. National Parks. We'll eventually buy a year long National Parks pass (just $80!) but haven't invested yet so we decided to take advantage of the free day.
We planned on driving to the north part of the park and driving south through the park so we'd exit closer to where our RV park is. It took us about 90 minutes to get to the Joshua Tree Visitors Center near the West Entrance Station of the park via Interstate 10 and Highway 62.
I underestimate how many people have MLKJr Day off because the visitors center was FULL. We heard a park rep tell someone it would take two hours to get through the park (plus stops) because of all the traffic. We watched a little bit of the educational video, admired the quilts celebrating the National Parks' Centennial, bought some postcards, used the bathroom and off we went into the park.
As we entered the park Phil made this brilliant observation about Joshua Trees: "it's like a cactus had sex with a regular tree". They are pretty funky and just such an interesting product of the desert. Joshua Trees are found in the mojave desert which covers parts of California, Arizona and Nevada.
In the park, we stopped at a pull-out to take some photos (and learned about the huge fire in '99 started by 4 lightening strikes and accelerated by non-native grasses now present in the area).
We stopped for lunch at Hidden Valley, a picnic area with some rocks that seemed to be popular place for novice rock climbers. We briefly talked to a couple from LA - it was her first time climbing - and there was a dad with two kids doing some climbing. A couple more climbing groups arrived as we ate.
We decided to do the 1 mile loop hike to see the Booker Dam - a leftover of when the area was used for cattle ranching. It eventually got too dry for grass to grow; the grass was needed to feed the cattle and ranchers moved further west. There was actually a bit of water here - the only place in the park where there's usually water. We took lots of photos on this little hike. There were a whole lot of rocks and cool views to capture.
We decided to take advantage of the Geology Tour Road - a 16 mile side trip that they advise should only be accessed by vehicles with 4 wheel drive. They also claimed this had the most interesting geology in the park so we had to go - we needed to take advantage of the 4Runners 4WD capablities! This road took us down into Pleasant Valley and we took a little video (see below). The map said this road would take us 2 hours round trip. This assumes you stop at every possible place, which we did not. It only took us a little over an hour.
At this point, it was about 3pm and we still had most of the park to drive through in about two hours (so it wouldn't be dark on our way out). We decided to just enjoy the rest of the park views from the car. We drove through the Cholla cactus garden (insert CHOLLLLA jokes here, though actually pronounced chȯi-yə) and the Ocotillo patch as we headed towards the south end of the park. We also drove through three of the campgrounds to see what they were like (sorry people camping there, that was us being creepers).
Maybe it was the sun low in the winter sky or mountains everywhere you looked, but the southern 2/3rds of the park, while mostly absent of actual Joshua Trees was still just stunning. The 25 or so mile drive from where we ended the Geology Tour Road to the south end of the park took about an hour and a half - winding roads and brief detours through the campgrounds and all. We were only about 100 miles from LA and 25 miles from the suburbs and communities surrounding it, but Phil said, and I agreed, "it felt like we were a thousand miles from anything".
As you exit JTNP, you hit Interstate 10 which can take you west to Indio, LA, etc. Since we were low on gas and preserving miles, we decided to take the shorter route back to the Salton Sea area via Box Canyon Road which took us through the Mecca Wilderness Area. This road lead us through a beautiful area we wish we had the time (or really, daylight!) to let us explore more. Looking at the map of this area, there's some hiking in the Painted Canyons area so we will definitely have to go back to explore this area better.
I would have liked to do a 3-5 mile hike in Joshua Tree NP but our short Booker Dam hike and Geology Auto Road took up the time we could have had for the hike, especially since the sun set about 5:30 (boo January). The driving through the park took longer than I expected - it is a big!
We didn't do any real hiking but I realized I didn't have quite enough water - even in the middle of winter. My bottle only holds about 22 ounces and for 6+ hours in Joshua Tree NP, that wasn't quite enough (and I'm pretty bad about drinking enough water). We only noticed water at one of the campgrounds - it is the desert after all. Multiple signs advised having one gallon of water per person per day. So be sure to bring some back up.
Local story about how climate change is threatening Joshua Tree National Park.