Friday, August 25, 2006

FAVORITE PLACES #3 - JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

Joshua Tree National Park is a spectacular place. It's located east of Palm Springs and a little south. Desert plains and hills are punctuated by giagantic boulders that have pushed up out of the earth. It is such a unusual landscape that people often say it feels like another planet - and indeed many Star Trek episodes (and SUV commercials) used Joshua Tree as a film location (as well as Vasquez Rocks to the northwest). Many of the boulders push up at an angle - you can hike up the backside of them and then, perched on top of the face, look out over the valleys. Or you can climb the face of the boulders - Joshua Tree is a popular destination for rock climbers.
The place is named for the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia), pictured here on the left. Its native habitat is in the deserts of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, but they thrive in Lost Horse Valley and Queen Valley - both located in Joshua Tree National Park. The tree was named by the Mormons in the mid 1800's. It grows slowly - in the first year it will grow from about 4"-8" - after that, the Joshua Tree averages only about 4" of growth per year and can live for a couple of hundred years if it survives the harsh desert conditions. The trees can reach about 50 feet tall, but I have never seen one that big. My favorite time to visit Joshua Tree is in the spring, during a full moon. The desert blooms with miraculous color in the springtime. The Joshua Trees get the big, pointy stalks of white flowers; the California Poppy washes the hills in profuse orange; the cacti bloom flowers as varied as the species. There are even the tiniest flowers beneath your feet, blooming from a ground cover type plant that gives softly when you walk on it, and sprigs back as soon as you move on.
You can also see a lot of wild life in the springtime, but you have to find a place to sit quietly for awhile. One day as I sat on a hillside I saw, lizards, snakes, jackrabbits, coyotes, hawks and Desert Bighorn Sheep.

Visiting the park on full moon days is the way to go. It is so bright on a full moon night that you can hike without a flashlight. The first time I camped there, it was a full moon weekend (not by plan, just by luck) and it was my first experience of seeing my moonshadow. Up until that night I thought a moonshadow was a fanciful, fictional idea invented by Cat Stevens.
Desert flora and fauna are all very nice, but the rocks are the real draw of the place. How did they come to be here? I've never researched it, but my theory is that from the freezing of the earth at the last ice age to the warming of the earth in our present age, the rocks were pushed up through the ground by pressure. How does that sound? Or maybe it has something to do with the fault lines and tectonic plates. Whatever the cause, they are here and they are magnificent. But as you hike around you'll see that other forces of nature have been at work - mainly water and wind. On the tops of the boulders you will come across perfectly round depressions. If you are there shortly after a rain, they may be filled with water. There are also many little caves in the side of the rocks, some only big enough for a person to sit cross-legged inside.
If you are ever in California and you have the time, or opportunity, Joshua Tree National Park is definitely a worthwhile detour or destination.

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