After saying goodbye to Joshua Tree, we drove out to Trona Pinnacles for an evening of camping and casual exploring. As we drove down a washboard road and crossed into BLM land we caught sight of the tufa pinnacles off in the distance.
It was an alien landscape, as expected. About a dozen blockbuster movies were filmed, at least in part, out there. But I wasn’t interested in that. I did want a free place to crash for the night and a chance to watch a pretty sunset. I hoped that there wouldn’t be too many people out there and I was sort of right.
There was enough space among the rock formations for people to spread out. Lee Ann and I picked a spot with no other campers in sight and set up our tent. Then, we walked the road encircling the largest cluster of rock spires to look for wildflowers.
We saw lots.
I was amazed at the swaths of color that carpeted the sandy soil. It was no Joshua Tree superbloom, but it was still mighty spectacular. We walked slowly and stopped any time we saw a “new” flower. Although I couldn’t identify most of them, they still took my breath away.
We also collected trash along the way, which we disposed of in our car garbage bag or repurposed when possible (a binder clip came in handy).
LeeAnn was on dinner duty that evening, so she prepared a warm and hearty meal as I wrote in my journal and watched the sun go down. We had a small campfire, because we could, and got to sleep shortly after dark.
While the Trona Pinnacles is not a great destination, it makes for a great rest stop if you’re in the area.
Although we knew the Lost Palms Oasis would be a sea of humanity, we decided it was a unique enough experience that we wanted to check it out. So we hit the trailhead bright and early. There were only a few cars in the parking lot, and much to my surprise, palm trees stood just feet away from the pavement. I guess we didn’t have to do any hiking to see an oasis, after all.
The trail was very well-graded and lined with a dense profusion of flowers. We stopped frequently to assess our finds. Now in the Colorado desert, there were many new shapes and colors to see. The northern half of Joshua Tree sits in the Mojave desert. Each desert encompasses different ecosystems with their own characteristic flora and fauna. It was is we were hiking in a brand new park.
Partway up the trail, LeeAnn stopped in her tracks. Just to our left she pointed out a desert tortoise, tucked securely in his shell. I had never seen a desert tortoise. We stood there for many minutes, as groups of hikers passed by seemingly unimpressed by the lowly reptile. Eventually he crawled away slowly, stopping every other step to munch on the flowers surrounding him. Imagine what it would be like to wake up and walk through an endless salad bar…
The day quickly warmed up and we happily descended into a canyon to sit in the shade at the oasis. Several groups had set up shop under the trees so we explored around to find a quiet patch of sand near a few giant boulders. In the shadow of the rocks we ate some food and planned our next move.
The oasis was pretty sweet but the day was young, and it felt like too soon of a turnaround point. A few continuations were described in the book so we attempted to follow the directions. We quickly got off the route and decided to just ramble around until we got tired of it. That led us to a few cool discoveries: scattered bits of a sheep skeleton, huge canyon views and our own private oasis. The palm trees were massive; I appreciated just how big they were as I walked right underneath them, touching the bark and crunching my feet on the fallen fronds. After ambling through a lovely ocotillo garden we decided to go roughly back the way we came. Our path took us through a massive boulder pile, requiring some tricky maneuvering. And I got to walk across a fallen palm tree just for fun.
The hike back was very hot and by the time we got to the car we thought we’d seek shade for a quiet afternoon of book reading and napping.
With bellies full of taco salad, the dinner we made in the parking lot, we walked cross country in the direction of the sand dunes. Now, “dunes” is a bit of a misnomer. Compared to the sand dunes I’d visited at Mojave National Park, Death Valley National Park and the Oregon Dunes, these were nothing. As we walked closer and closer to our purported destination we wondered if we even had the right place.
As we approached, however, something magical happened. At our feet we identified a new variety of plant life—flowers that only grew in sand dunes! Sand verbena, sand lilies and dune primrose put on a glorious show.
The most spectacular bloom, by far, was the sand lily. Standing tall in the fading daylight, they barely budged in the strong wind. Their stout, trumpet-shaped flowers looked like they belonged in a fancy bouquet, not growing out of the dust.
While the dunes themselves were nothing to write home about, the wildflowers provided a pleasant surprise.
The following day we decided to take one more hike before leaving Joshua Tree behind. Again, we arrived early at a quiet parking area and set off into the desert.
We had a route in mind but got off course immediately (we wouldn’t find this out until much later). It was no matter, though, because we were immersed in the continued beauty and intrigue of what we discovered. At the parking area we saw one little caterpillar crawling along the ground. As we hiked, we saw one more. Then another. Then swarms of them, covering particular flowering shrubs; the shrubs convulsed under the weight of the bugs. Around us, boulders and wildflowers dotted the landscape. More unfamiliar trees, shrubs and flowers appeared: smoke tree, desert lavender, wishbone bush.
As we hiked in, several hikers passed us on their way out. Early risers! The last couple we passed asked if we’d been on that route before. They ended up turning around because the route disappeared. Ha! They’re not as savvy as us, I thought, as we bid them good day.
We approached a rockpile that must have been where that couple turned back and we walked straight over it. On the other side, when we stopped to assess our location, we noticed that we could see a road to our left. That shouldn’t be! I took out my phone and looked at the map. Ah, not only were we off-route, so were all the people who had come before us. We re-oriented ourselves to get back on track and aimed for a notch on the horizon that would put us in the correct canyon.
Our mistake led us to a wonderful, sandy walk among cactus, sage and desert dandelion. Jackrabbits occasionally exploded out from behind a bush and ran off into the distance. The sky overhead was blue and clear. Getting temporarily re-routed in the desert is generally very forgiving, as long as you know how to get back on track and are carrying enough water.
Our return hike got us back on the planned route, where we found blooming beavertail cactus, caterpillar-annihilated shrubbery and petroglyphs. It was a fantastic way to end our visit to this incredible national treasure.
On the drive back through the park, we noticed something remarkable: people were pulled over everywhere, and crowds were randomly tramping across the flower beds within fifty feet of the road. I couldn’t believe it.
If you want to get away from the madness, all it takes is the ability and desire to hike a half mile away from any road, ranger station or popular trail. The solitude is yours if you’re willing to put in a tiny bit of effort. Much of the park’s true beauty is found just off the beaten path. Remember though, especially for off-trail travel: Leave No Trace.
After four days of attending a movement festival on the outskirts of LA and being around a ton of people, LeeAnn and I were ready for spending quiet time in the desert.
We arrived early Monday morning at the Visitor’s Center in the little town of Joshua Tree, armed with questions for the staff. I already had a good idea of what I wanted to do in our precious few days in the park, but having local knowledge never hurts.
The ranger immediately squashed our dreams of blissful hiking in solitude. “There’s no camping available in the park, don’t even try. It’s busy everywhere. You’ll never get away from the crowds. Good day.”
I stormed out in a huff. Was it worth being there? The parking lot was already swamped at 8:30 am and our camping options seemed limited to a big gravel parking lot full of RVs outside the park. Should we just move on? But, I’d done all that research!
We had a brief chat outside and weighed our options. There were a few off-trail routes nearby that I wanted to try, so we angled for those first.
I pulled into an empty parking area and got out of the car. My jaw dropped. We were surrounded by a vast array of wildflowers that displayed every color of the rainbow. They sprouted from the sand, filling the gaps between the rocks and spreading across the broad washes. It was incredible! Surely we were in paradise.
As we packed up for the hike, a man wandered over and asked, “so where have you seen good wildflowers in the park?” I looked at him aghast. Did he not know he was in the middle of wildflower central in that very spot?
We left him behind and set out on our cross-country route. It would be short but steep, just the way I liked it.
As we scrambled over the sticky, granite boulders we left all semblance of civilization behind. We spotted occasional boot prints in the sand but we were otherwise on our own. I stopped frequently to admire the flowers: desert chicory, Mojave yucca, desert dandelion, creosote bush, desert Canterbury bells, wild heliotrope and many others.
And the barrel cactus. I don’t know why, but those stout cacti just bring a smile to my face. They stood tall among the rocks and I wandered from one to the next, taking pictures and soaking in every little detail. We chased cacti all the way up to a saddle and I checked my GPS track. Nope, that was not our route.
We took a snack break and contemplated our descent to get back on track. It wasn’t too challenging and soon found ourselves in a sandy wash that led to the second half of the loop. There, yucca plants dominated. Each spiky stalk was topped with a huge cluster of cream-colored flowers. I’d never seen so much yucca in bloom at once.
During the entire four-hour hike we saw exactly zero people. Suck it, ranger.
We moved the car to a second off-trail hike. This one was a bit more popular, as we started seeing people right away. But the hike led us up a canyon toward a steep slot. To our surprise, a trickle of water streamed down the canyon floor and we had to hop from one side of the stream to the other a few times as we approached our destination. We did some creative scrambling to avoid the wet, slippery rock and along the way LeeAnn found a rattlesnake! I just caught up to her as is slithered beneath a rock. Exciting.
The slot was not in a great viewing position so we clambered up the rock slab to the side of it to get a closer look. Above the slot, the terrain opened up and I could see endless possibilities for exploring.
But, it was hot and we were tired from our morning adventure. We decided to follow the water towards the slot and sit in the shade for a bit before returning.
“Croak, croak.” A huge sound reverberated off the rock walls. A frog? Up here? We scanned the edges of the rushing water to find our loud amphibian friend. Where was that sound coming from? I was at a loss. We took off our shoes to soak our feet in the water. And then, LeeAnn spotted it.
A tiny frog blended in perfectly with the smooth, speckled granite near our feet. We inched closer to watch him. He entertained us for the next twenty minutes. I was impressed with his ability to jump and stick to nearly vertical rock.
I had not expected to encounter water, let alone frogs, in the hot and arid Joshua Tree desert. Day one was already full of surprises.
As we drove through the park to our planned campsite, we made one quick stop at the side of the road. We had to: we discovered our first octotillo. This unusual plant is made of tall, thick stems that reach 10-20 feet into the sky. Each stem is covered in small leaves and intimidating spines. Some of the stems were topped with a drooping cluster of bright red flowers. It was a remarkable sight, and well worth the stop to examine these wild-looking plants.
The takeaway lesson here is: if you want to find solitude, read a book. Most park visitors will go online to search for hikes and use the park’s official map. If your route isn’t on the map, you’ll likely find a little peace and quiet.
We arrived early at the dock, excited for our foray to Santa Cruz Island. We decided to camp for a night on the island in order to have more time to explore and not feel rushed by a ferry schedule.
The boat ride to the island was the first part of our adventure. Along the way, we stopped to watch wildlife: sea lions, whales and dolphins. The dolphins seemed to enjoy swimming and playing in the wake of the boat. Everyone staggered to the railings to watch the scene unfold in the water. It was more exciting than I thought it would be. There were so many dolphins, so close to the boat!
Upon our arrival, we lamented the amount of time it took for them to unload our gear. We stood around, watching time tick away, as every last item was unpacked from the boat. It was nearly lunch time.
We decided to hike into camp and set up our tent, then eat lunch, before starting our hike for the day. The initial plan was to do the long hike on day 1 and a shorter hike on day 2, but after some thought we flipped our plan around.
With full bellies, we began the 8-mile out and back hike to Smuggler’s Cove. The route follows a dirt road all the way across the island and ends at a small beach on the other side. As we walked, I admired the delightful flowers and grassy meadows that lined our path. We hiked at a comfortable pace in the heat of the day. I felt as if I was walking through a postcard because all the colors were so bright and clear. The road wasn’t nearly as charming as a trail would be, but the scenery was mesmerizing enough to take my mind off the road.
Along the way we passed many hikers on their way back to the ferry. We were passed by one couple rushing along, hoping to make it to the beach before they had to catch their boat. A few minutes later, they passed us again headed the other way. “We ran out of time,” the lady said. I was immediately glad that we’d decided to spend the night on the island. We casually finished the walk to the beach, where we spotted our first island fox.
A descendant of the mainland gray fox, the island fox is a species unique to the Channel Islands. In fact, six of the eight islands have resident fox populations, which are all distinct from each other. We first spotted a fox sniffing around a picnic table, looking for scraps. It was lethargic, moving slowly and without a care in the world that we were nearby. I admit I was a bit disappointed on seeing this animal. It had clearly become acclimated to humans and didn’t behave in a fox-like manner.
LeeAnn and I found a spot on the sandy beach to lay out our towels and sit down for a snack. Before getting too settled I suggested taking a dip in the ocean. We had to, it was right there! We stripped down to our underwear and ran into the ice cold water. It took my breath away. I fought the waves for a few minutes and reveled in the fact that just a few days ago I was complaining about the cold and wet spring we were having in Bend and now I was making the choice to freeze my butt off in the California sun.
Back on the beach we dried off and watched another fox rooting for bugs among the rocks behind us. After a relaxing rest we packed up and sauntered back along the dirt road to our camp.
As the sun began to set, the wind picked up and we retreated to the shelter of our tent for a long sleep.
The following morning we got up early to eat breakfast, pack up and stashed our gear near the dock. We planned on a ten-mile day to the highest point within the National Park boundary on Santa Cruz island.
Our hike began under partly cloudy skies. Tall plants closely lined the singletrack trail we followed through Scorpion Canyon, the thick dew soaking our pants and shoes. But the pretty wildflowers and colorful rock distracted us from the slight discomfort. Besides, I was really excited to climb a mountain today, my first since I injured my hip nearly 2 months prior.
Our route took us up the canyon, past some old oil extraction machinery and up a rutted, old road. We ascended to a saddle where the official trail dropped down the other side, heading towards Prisoners Harbor and the Nature Conservancy land. At that location we turned straight up the ridge on a well-defined use trail to the summit. Along the way we were treated to a lush alpine rock garden. Succulents, unusual wildflowers and native shrubs spread out as far as the eye could see. And that wasn’t too far; the clouds had steadily rolled in as we made our way towards the summit.
We arrived at the radio tower and looked at the ridge ahead. “Is that bump higher?” I asked. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I hadn’t come all that way to stop a few feet short of the summit, so we kept on walking. At the next bump, we sat down for a snack and some summit victory photos.
After a long rest we started hiking back. Out of nowhere, it started pouring rain. We dashed beneath the solar panel array at the radio tower and put on our raincoats. But it was all for naught; the rain cleared just a few minutes later and the humid air felt stifling. We wrestled with layers for the rest of the day as rain intermittently spattered down from the sky.
We saw no one on our way up the mountain, but suddenly we passed several groups headed in the opposite direction. The day hikers had arrived.
My hip was sore those last few miles. I was a little thrilled when we were finally done. We had some time before the boat arrived so we hunkered down near our pile of overnight gear and dozed in and out of sleep.
The ferry ride back was just as thrilling as the ride in. Again, a huge pod of dolphins surrounded the boat. We stopped for quite a while to watch whale spouts far off in the distance; I didn’t move from my seat. Whale watching is not my favorite thing to do. But the dolphins— those were exciting.
All in all, I had a lovely visit to Santa Cruz island. I was amazed by the diversity of plant life across the island. From coastline to canyon to meadow to alpine zone, there was so much to see in such a small place! I’m now very curious what the other side of the island looks like…
On our second day at Pinnacles National Park, we were prepared to get an earlier start on the trail. That meant one important thing: fewer people.
Our route would overlap some of the ground we covered the day before, but we didn’t mind. The running joke was that we’d have to see the High Peaks vistas AGAIN, OH NO! That was one of the prettiest stretches of trails around and it was even better in the cool morning sun with no other people around.
This hike began at the Bear Gulch parking area, just a couple miles away from where we began the High Peaks Loop. But it felt like a world of difference between the two trailheads. We discovered different flowers and shrubs there. Bright red Indian paintbrush stood out among the leafy greens and soft brown rocks. The orange petals of California poppies were furled tightly in the early hours of the morning.
We climbed and climbed up to the high peaks ridge and again looked upward for condors. The trail felt desolate, deserted. Yesterday there was an abundance of human life all over these pathways. Today it was just the two of us. I breathed deeply, peacefully as we strode along the well-worn trail. Less than 24 hours before, on this same patch of ground, I felt suffocated by the crowds. It’s amazing the difference an early start (and a Monday) can make.
Again we walked up the stairs blasted into the rock faces. Hanging on to the sturdy, metal rails we admired the thought and craftsmanship that went into building this beautiful trail network in an otherwise inaccessible place. It’s no wonder people flock to these trails.
Occasionally we’d nod a hello to a couple passing by. The questions we got were always the same: “have you seen the condors?” Everyone seemed excited to catch a glimpse of the rare birds. We had a short conversation with one family who was hoping to see them. As if on cue, a huge condor soared close above our heads; the white feathers on the bottom of its wings were really obvious. We all gasped. “Wow!”
Wildlife encounters are always special. I didn’t know much about the California Confor before visiting Pinnacles so I enjoyed reading about the birds in the park brochure. Fun fact: condors can fly up to 200 miles in one day.
Luckily we only had to walk about 5 miles today, since there was an afternoon of driving ahead. On the second half of our loop we enjoyed more new views and plants, including a very healthy sprig of poison oak! I was not expecting to see that. Near the bottom of the loop, the trail character changed significantly. There was lots of shade, moss and water. We were close to the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir but we didn’t have the energy to explore either.
Instead we opted for a picnic near the parking lot to fuel up for our drive to Ojai and tomorrow’s adventures on the Channel Islands.
After a full day of driving and a cold, windy night of camping, we finally arrived at Pinnacles National Park. This was the first stop in a two-week road trip filled with opportunities to camp, hike, explore, dance and play Capoeira. Today’s adventure would be simple: hike a popular loop through the park in search of wildflowers and California condors.
The trip came at a challenging time. About a month an a half prior, I injured my hip to the point that I couldn’t walk without crutches for a couple of weeks. Continued pain and lack of mobility limited my activity levels and speed; I was feeling not like my usual self. I left Oregon with a swirl of emotions and fears. Would I be able to hike? Would I be able to participate in all the activities I’d planned? This first outing would serve as a litmus test for the rest of the trip.
It was 10:30 am by the time we were ready to hike; a late start, for sure. The parking lots were full and we anticipated National Park size crowds along the trail.
At once, I was struck by the warmth of the sun’s rays and the palette of colors at my feet. We’d emerged from winter’s snowy cloak in Bend and transported ourselves right into springtime. Crowds or not, I was thrilled to be out in the sun.
With poles in hand I methodically slogged up the trail behind my roadtrip buddy, LeeAnn. We stopped frequently to admire and photograph the many wildflowers we saw along the way.
The trails were busy, so we did our best to ignore the crowds and noise and focus on the incredible vistas around us. As we neared the upper ridge, we kept our eyes peeled for California condors. Looking up we saw large birds circling overhead. Were they condors? Hawks? Crows? Most of the birds we found were crows. However, we learned to identify condors in flight by looking for a broad, white stripe underneath their wings.
It was cool to see these birds. Brought to extinction in the wild in 1987, they are making a comeback thanks to captive breeding programs. With only 170 wild condors presently in California, we were grateful for the chance to see these majestic birds in their native habitat.
But our attention was often drawn downward: thousands of colorful wildflowers, which couldn’t fly away from us or leave us guessing, captivated my curiosity. I took dozens of photos. Each time we found a “new” flower, we’d exclaim, “over here!” and excitedly observe the details of our discovery. My favorite flower was Pedicularis densiflora, commonly known as Indian warrior. These funky flowers grew profusely in the shade beneath larger shrubs. The deep red color of their petals seemed to bleed right into the toothy leaves at the base of the plant. These fierce looking blooms commanded attention when they grew by the trail. Unlike the delicate, ephemeral poppies that put on the big shows, these punk-rock beauties quietly hid in the shadows of the manzanita.
About halfway through the loop I paused to assess my progress. Less than two months prior, I fell and injured my hip so badly that I was resigned to walking on crutches for a few weeks. My hip function had suffered as a result and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to get out and enjoy hiking on this trip. Although at that moment I felt soreness and weakness in my hip, I mostly felt grateful that I was able to get around under my own power. And I knew my friend wouldn’t get on my case about slowing her down. She enjoyed the slower pace, knowing that we had a lot of activity in store over the next couple weeks, and appreciated the reduced speed for her own self-preservation.
As we wrapped around the second half of the loop we experienced the many different flavors of Pinnacles National Park: the high-elevation vistas, the craggy rock formations, the cool forests and the flowing streams.
Near the end of the hike we walked through an area littered with massive pine cones. I didn’t know what they were at the time, but a little post-trip Googling brought me to the Gray pine, the only conifer in the park. If tree identification was always that easy…
That evening, we retired to the campsite we’d reserved for the night. Our site was set back from most of the other ones, which were all cozied up next to their neighbors. While it wasn’t my favorite campground in the world, I was glad we didn’t have to drive around searching for somewhere to sleep. Tomorrow we’d continue our exploration of the park.