9th – 12th February 2015 – Joshua Tree National Park protects 794,000 acres , nearly 3/4 of which is designated vast wilderness. It’s a land shaped by extremes of climate, sparse and unpredictable rainfall but also sudden torrents and strong winds. Two great deserts meet together in this park, the Mojave and Colorado deserts dividing the park into two very different ecosystems. For these two contrasting ways of desert life, survival is an art and the genius of plants and animals for locating and conserving water, adapting to the extremes of temperature and escaping predators, is always amazing!
The western half of Joshua Tree is Mojave Desert habitat, considered ‘high desert’ with elevations above 3,000 feet, wetter and slightly cooler and with more vegetation in comparison to the park’s eastern side. There, the hotter and drier ‘low desert’ of the Colorado, slopes away across the huge, arid plain of the Pinto Basin edged by the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains.
We enter Joshua Tree at its western entrance and choose a camping site at the Black Rock Campground. Here, in this Mojave Desert habitat, giant Joshua trees thrive amongst huge boulder stacks and massive granite formations……a living symbol of the desert.
According to legend, these large, branching yuccas were named by early Mormon settlers who considered their limbs to resemble the up-stretched arms of Joshua, leading them to the promised land. It is possible for Joshua trees to reach a height of 50 feet during a lifespan that could exceed 200 years. We are too early to see their large clusters of white blossoms that bloom in early spring but their short, spiky leaves however, are useful for providing protected nesting places for many species of birds.
Still on the western side, the Hidden Valley is worth a visit. Piles of granite rocks ringing the valley help to create a special microclimate to support many plants and animals by blocking strong winds and collecting moisture, as rainfall runs through their cracks. Amongst the jumble of rocks and boulders, there is enough moisture to support oaks, junipers, cacti, yuccas and pinyon pines, these latter trees having been one of the most important plants used by early Indian settlers. It is also said that long ago, a hidden ‘corral’ amongst the rocks became the perfect place for rustlers to hide their stolen cattle.
The thick leaved Mojave yucca was also valued by desert Indians for its strong leaf fibres that could be woven to make mats and sandals.
Camping allows us to appreciate the stars that fill the sky at night and hear coyote howling clearly in the distance. In the morning we have a little cactus wren singing in a nearby tree against a cloudless, blue sky.
On our second day we drive to Twentynine Palms where a short walking trail takes us to what remains of the Oasis of Mara. Now just a small cluster of fan palms, it was once a place where early Indian settlers found abundant water, shade, food and game. However, as gold hunters, cattlemen and homesteaders began to arrive, they slowly displaced the Indians and with the growing population, the natural water of the oasis was also slowly depleted. Today, due to the shrinking water table, the National Park Service has found it necessary to pipe in water so that oasis plants and animals can survive.
We have noticed on our map of the park, that there is a back country 4×4 dirt road that would take us through a pass in the Old Dale Mining District in the mountains, before dropping down into the Pinto Basin on Old Dale Road. After crossing this basin, it finally meets up with a tarmac road going south to the Cottonwood area of Joshua Tree. It sounds remote and very interesting and the Rangers think it possible with our high clearance vehicle, pointing out however, that the track is not maintained and that some drivers have got into difficulties when crossing the pass, as rains can create gullies and wash down rocks and boulders. They would rather 2 vehicles travel together but if we make it, they would like us to let them know of the condition of the route.
We decide to give it a go but first have to find the unmarked track that leads off from Highway 62. There is no sign to indicate the beginning of this dirt road named The Gold Crown Road which leads into the Old Dale Mining District but after driving 15 miles east from the 29 Palms Visitor Centre, we notice a piece of pink tape tied around a post by a track leading off on our right. Within a short distance, we discover a board showing a map of the area with a maze of numbered tracks but which all appears very confusing and impossible to remember. But we are in luck, as a vehicle suddenly appears on the dirt road and we flag him down. A really helpful guy who has been checking out one of the old closed mines as someone wants to re-open it again. He has local maps of the area and gives us lots of good advice on which numbered tracks to take, at least as far as the mining area.
The sand track stretches off into the distance with a conveniently painted arrow on a rock to show us the way……25 miles to the Old Dale Road and it’s an easy beginning.
Tracks lead off in every direction and we have to be careful that we take the right one as there is no room for turning around once we begin to climb higher. We are very glad of our new tyres as we pick our way over and between many rocks and sharp stones.
The chase for gold here began in the 1880s and wagons and trucks would have bumped along these tracks carrying supplies and ore. We take a short detour to explore one of the old, disused mines. It must have taken an amazing effort to get all that machinery there.
As we near the pass, the going gets tougher and I’m holding my breath at times guiding Bill through the gullies and rocks. With a heavily loaded vehicle we can’t afford to make a mistake and there is now always a steep drop on one side as we reach the pass. The light is also beginning to fade but we want to complete this difficult section before we make camp.
Suddenly around a bend, we see the Pinto Basin spreading out below us and a sign to say that we are once again back inside Joshua Tree.
It has taken us three and a half hours to do approx. 12 miles but safely, thanks to our vehicle, Bill’s driving and also probably our new Firestone tyres. We have not seen a single vehicle since we started and this latter part of the track over the pass is obviously rarely used.
We find a flat area free of rocks to camp for the night, as the final descent into the basin tomorrow does not look too difficult. We can’t see the moon, but the sky is studded with stars…….not a sign of light pollution in this wonderfully remote and peaceful spot overlooking the vast Pinto Basin….not even a coyote calling.
In the morning the sun reaches us quickly. We clamber down into a nearby, completely dry river bed and wonder how long ago it was that water flowed through there.
We make our way slowly down the last, stony stretch into the Pinto Basin. In more verdant times when it was once crossed by a sluggish river, it provided a home to possibly one of the Southwest’s earliest hunter-gatherer inhabitants, the Pinto people. Today, this inhospitable, flat and sandy section of California’s Colorado Desert, sweeps east toward the Coxcomb Mountains. Because much of this desert is at, or below sea level, it is one of North America’s hottest and driest places, with temperatures often reaching 120 degrees F in the summer. Although dominated by creosote bushes, there are many other interesting desert plants and a roadrunner dashes in front of us as we continue on this last 11 mile, sandy stretch through the basin.
We stop to look at the old pump and Mission Well. Drilled in 1934 to a depth of 449 feet, it provided water to nearby mines.
Eventually, we join up with the tarmac road that will take us to the Cottonwood Springs and Campsite. This backcountry road has been a real highlight away from the organised trails and it is times like this, that we realise how lucky we are to have a vehicle that is capable of crossing this sort of terrain.
It’s first come first served at the campground but we manage to find a quiet site. Whilst Bill has a break, I take the trail to the Cottonwood Spring. A very relaxing and interesting walk amongst ochre hills and fan palms…..just me and the trail, the rustling fan palms and perfect weather!
Arriving at the oasis, I am standing atop a crack in the Earth’s crust. Geological faults criss-cross the park. When groundwater hits a fault, it rises to the surface and creates conditions for an oasis, providing welcome vegetation and a refuge from the extremes of the desert. Cottonwood Spring with its beautiful Californian fan palms, Cottonwood and Mesquite trees, was used by the Cahuilla Indians for centuries. Mesquite was one of their most valued food sources. The beans from the tree’s long pods were sometimes eaten raw but more often dried, pounded into flour and then stored in large baskets or pots. Stone mortars and broken pottery have been discovered at the site. Later, prospectors and miners established gold mills here due to the abundance of water.
We have Minerva Hoyt to thank for this park. A community activist and desert lover, she recognised the threat from humans in this fragile environment, where she saw beauty in in all the flora and fauna. In 1936 she persuaded President Roosevelt to designate more than 800,000 acres in the area as the Joshua Tree National Monument. It was later named Joshua Tree National Park.