October 15, 2010
Joshua Tree National Park
Cottonwood Springs Road to Twenty-nine Palms, CA
I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park late at night, turning in off the deserted (no pun intended) highway unto a narrow, but paved, road. The turn was poorly-lit and barely signed, and I wondered for a moment if I was in the right place. I-10 carries all of the freight and high-speed traffic through the desert Southwest, but not a lot of pleasure-seekers. The main entrance to the park is in the north, near Twenty-nine Palms, and this southern access via Cottonwood Springs Road does not see much traffic, certainly not at 11 pm in the off season!
The campground was similarly quiet, and it gave me the opportunity to enjoy the desert stars. I had an excellent view of the night sky, clear nearly down to the horizon – and I had some trouble finding the Big Dipper. It was almost completely below the hills, and Polaris hovered not far above them. The last time I’d had such a wide-open and unclouded view of the heavens had been in North Dakota – and it should be no surprise that a thousand miles or so farther south, so close to Mexico, the North Star would have “sunk” significantly lower. I wasn’t sure yet how I felt about that situation, though. When I had arrived in Alaska ten years ago and saw Ursa Major high in the sky all night long, with Polaris almost at the apex of the firmament, it had been exhilarating. From my northerner’s perspective, it’s a little disconcerting to see them disappear below trees or fog.
In the morning, though, all my uncertainties about the place disappeared. The desert was awesome! The little noises I had heard in the night turned out not to be rodents or insects, but lizards of various kinds scurrying about in the agaves and cacti. The bugs that had pestered me upon my arrival, flying into my tent and my face without warning, dissipated in the heat of the day. My first little hike in the morning was around Cottonwood Springs itself, an area of greater moisture where a few trees could thrive – early miners and ranchers had planted palms, and I toured the desert, the palm grove, and some old surface mine remnants.
After that, I began my drive northward on the park road. The southern portion of Joshua Tree N. P. is in the Colorado Desert, a sub-region of the Sonoran desert. With the exception of that one oasis of palms and cottonwoods, it is hotter and drier than the northern portion of the park. Early on this mid-October day, I didn’t
particularly notice a climatic difference, but the vegetation was markedly distinct. Very little grew there, and I was soon able to identify most of the low-growing cacti and shrubs that I saw: teddy-bear and jumping cholla, yucca, ocotillo, creosote bush, mesquite, and saltbush were regularly spaced
throughout the gravelly sand.
The southern portion of the park is ringed with mountains and eventually, if you follow the park road north, you will go slightly uphill and through a pass onto a higher plateau. It is not a huge change in elevation, but apparently it is enough, when combined with other climatic factors, to put you in the Mojave Desert, which supports a little bit more life than the Colorado. Along the mountain trails, there is juniper and pinyon (and ostensibly scrub oak, though not on the trail I hiked). Of course, as soon as I got up into that northern plateau, I could see the Joshua Trees everywhere, too. They are not really trees, but just a very large species of agave that grows like a tree – each “branch” is the plant’s reaction to damage at that location.
The Joshua Trees were certainly impressive! While I found them lovely, I could see why early European settlers to the area referred to them as Devil Trees before the Mormons applied the current name, recalling the upstretched arms of a praying Joshua. The very fact that they look like misshapen trees is, in a way, misleading – not only do they not provide the same products that real trees do, but they don’t even have the same “meaning” to travelers. Usually, trees are a good indication that water is nearby, but, while the Joshua Trees require slightly more moisture than the Sonoran yucca, that water is not easily found or utilized by humans. Furthermore, trees have long been regarded as evidence of “civilization” by Europeans, especially in their conquest of the American West. By that standard, this plain looks civilized, especially from a distance. It is not. There are many references in the park to gold miners and even ranchers and homesteaders who lived in the park in the 1800s. I’m not sure I could have made it through the eighteen mild hours that I spent in that desert without the tap at the campground yielding water to my plastic bottle…