April 1, 2019.
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.