13 Mar Desert Flora and Beyond: 10 Tips for a Surreal Joshua Tree Experience
For the weekend we headed east — traded our cushy garden sofa and aloe hammock for a campsite in Joshua Tree National Park. Objective: to see clear skies, to clear our minds and to bond with friends we barely ever get to see. And to check out the funkiest tree in town!
And so many beautiful rocks, wildflowers and cacti…
We’re relative newbies to camping. The last time we went camping was five years ago, which was supposed to be a “beach camping surf trip” to Mexico that instead involved pitching tents in a gravel parking lot 500 feet away from a restaurant that became a danceclub (!) at night, all perched on a cliff above the beach. So instead of roaring waves and blinging stars, we heard the oonze oonze of the sound system for most of the night.
Not this time. This time in Joshua Tree National Park, which is slightly larger in size than Rhode Island, we pitched tents in a campsite surrounded by towering granite rock formations. Golden sand was everywhere. At night with all the uplighting against the rocks, it felt like we were camping on the moon.
The namesake tree, Yucca brevifolia (alt names include yucca palm, tree yucca, and palm tree yucca), is alone worth a day trip. This species is native to this area of the Mojave Desert between 1,300 and 5,900 feet elevation and is famed for the way its branches thrust out and bend in Seussian shapes. Joshua Tree Park is a natural collision of high and low deserts, the high Mojave Desert to the west and the low Colorado Desert to the east. It’s northeast of Palm Springs and Coachella Valley.
We joined our friends midday on a recent Saturday and headed home on Sunday evening. The 36 hours in between were filled with hikes of varying difficulties, wildflower spotting, exploring an extraordinary outdoor museum, going to a concert, trying not to get stung by a sinister cacti, and pulling over often to Instagram. A busy schedule, but also a restorative one. We went to sleep under a sky that was foamy with stars and woke up with the peak of a rock formation peeking through the top of our tent. Temps went from down-jacket-and-fisherman-sweater cold at night to boiling, tank-top-and-bandanas hot as soon as we could see the sun.
It was heaven! Here’s what we did, and some tips we learned along the way…
1. Figure out how to get where.
Pick up a map and use it. Like we said, Joshua Tree is huge. The three visitor centers (Joshua Tree, Oasis and Cottonwood) located near the park’s three main entrances offer free maps and also great guides for purchase. We picked up a park map, a “Wildflower Report” (available online too), and purchased a pamphlet, “Wildflowers of Joshua Tree National Park.” Most of the park’s campsites are located in the northwestern portion of the park, along with most of the trails. We recommend visiting Cottonwood Spring in the south, either on your way into the park or on your way out. Cottonwood Spring is home to some of the park’s earliest-blooming and most abundant wildflower shows.
2. Book in advance.
Fortunately, our close friend/group leader John reserved several campsites three months in advance. Individual campsites hold up to six people and are relatively inexpensive at $10-15 per night, and group sites can hold up to 60 people at $40 per night. October through May are the most popular months, so book a couple months ahead.
We stayed at the Indian Cove campsite, which is desirable for its proximity to drive-up bouldering routes and nighttime stargazing against the boulder skyscrapers.
In addition to the nine drive-up campgrounds, there are 13 fee-free “backcountry boards” for more experienced campers, located throughout the park and requiring only same-day registration.
3. You may do some bouldering between wildflowering, so bring the right shoes…
When we arrived at our site, a few of our camp-mates were already out on a bouldering hike. Nothing that advanced, but we were out of luck because we were in running shoes with worn treads. And on the second day, we found ourselves climbing Mastodon Peak for a breathtaking view, and could have used some better traction. Bottom line, even if you’re not planning on climbing, you’re probably going to climb something. So bring along hiking shoes at the least, and bouldering shoes if you really wanna get high. (…) You could also link up with a bouldering tour like Uprising at your skill level.
4. Mind the cholla cactus! But carry a comb just in case…
It’s not a good idea to touch any cactus during your Joshua Tree trip, but brushing against a cholla cactus is a one-way ticket to pricksville. The plant breaks off easily, and implants itself into your skin for pure agony. Just YouTube “jumping cholla” to see what we mean.
Along with the Joshua tree, the cholla cactus or jumping cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is among the region’s most recognizable plants. Walking the park’s cholla cactus garden is a twisted wonderscape for plant lovers as it shows the deceptively cuddly looking plant (alt name: teddy bear cactus) multiplying out toward the horizon, sinister desert vibes along a 1/4-mile trail.
The silvery-white spines of the cholla cactus have multiple microscopic barbs that will cling to anything that taps it. Got one stuck to you? Use a comb to get the stem off, and soak the spines to loosen. For obvious reasons, pets are not allowed on the trail. During our visit, we saw one guest surrounded by people trying to help her extract a cholla from her palm.
5. Do take Park Boulevard…
Driving down Park Boulevard is like driving into a different world. Where rocks join with sky and a special kind of silence. If you have only one day to explore the park, this drive alone will explain why this alien landscape defies description. Here you will find one of the largest Joshua Tree forests on the planet. (The largest happens to be in another high desert region of the Mojave at Cima Dome, 120 miles to the north).
6. It’s not just about the wildflowers.
Besides wildflowers and the ubiquitous JT, there are many memorable plants in Joshua Tree. We arrived a bit early (late February) in wildflower season, so much of our focus ended up on plants that weren’t in bloom.
Here are some of Joshua Tree’s most fabulous native plants that we discovered during our hikes:
7. When you do come for the wildflowers…
Learn which trails are the showiest for the week of your visit; wildflower status is reported weekly here. If you want a hard copy of the weekly report, they’re available at the three visitor centers. The low desert (Colorado Desert) in the southeastern portion of the park is home to the earliest wildflower shows due to its proximity to desert washes flowing down from the high desert. Peak wildflower season in Joshua Tree is normally in April in the western higher elevation areas. Based on the final 2014 wildflower report, popular trails for viewing wildflowers February through May are:
Cottonwood Trails: Cottonwood Spring Oasis and Mastodon Peak trails. Earliest wildflowers appear as early as February and March. We parked and started our hike at the Cottonwood Springs Oasis trailhead, hiked 0.75 miles to the Mastodon Peak trailhead, and hiked 2 more miles along the Mastodon Peak loop back to Cottonwood Springs Oasis. This 2.75-mile hike took us about two hours because we climbed Mastodon Peak (optional) for some sweeping views. There is also an abandoned goldmine just below the peak.
If you have time, venture down to Lost Palms Oasis Trail (7.2 miles roundtrip) for a stunning display of spring wildflowers like desert globemallow, the pink/purple blooms of prickly pear cactus, and Mojave mound cactus.
High View Nature Trail. A 1.3-mile walk along Black Rock Canyon, home to spring bloomers like Fremont’s phacelia, Hall’s suncup and desert fiddleneck.
Indian Cove. A 0.6-mile loop located at the west end of Indian Cove Campground. Expect to see bladderpod scattered about, lots of pincushion, and desert chicory.
Barker Dam Nature Trail. A 1.3 mile loop of moderate difficulty. Look out for blooming bishop lotus, Canterbury bells, wingnut forget-me-not and desert dandelion.
Hidden Valley. A 1-mile loop surrounded by big beautiful boulders and filled in by birdcage evening primrose, Joshua trees, and purply, curling flower clusters of scorpion weed. We spotted a desert rock pea in bloom during our hike.
Covington Flats trails. These trails are longer, and perfect if you’re backcountry camping in the area. If you’re there at the right time, expect to spot golden gilia, white-stemmed blazing star and bearded cryptantha (ghostly hazes of white flowers) in bloom.
8. Look out for bighorn sheep! Prominent signs as you enter the region warn you of bighorn sheep crossings. We were on the lookout, but didn’t see any. (Actually, spotting one in the wild is rare due to their superior blending capabilities…) You’re more likely spot a wide array of other wildlife, like birds, lizards, jack rabbits, tortoises and even kit foxes.
Oh, and western diamondback rattlesnakes too — so be careful when they are active in the spring and summer.
9. Visit the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture
A colleague strongly recommended we see the works of Noah Purifoy while we were in the region, and our visit became one of the highlights of the entire weekend. When you come to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, be sure to bring sunscreen and water, and prepare to be deeply moved by these emotionally charged structures and super-objects made of found objects. The effect is breathtaking against the desert landscape.
Born in Snow Hill, Alabama, in 1917, Purifoy moved west as an adult to Los Angeles, where he became a leader in the postwar Assemblage movement; his sculpture using debris from the 1965 Watts Rebellion was central to the groundbreaking 66 Signs of Neon (1966) show. He later moved to this incredible 10-acre space in Joshua Tree where he lived for the last 15 years of his life, creating large-scale sculpture among the yuccas and chollas of the desert floor. Purifoy’s work — which has been featured in museums and galleries like the Whitney and Corcoran — will be on display at LACMA June 7, 2015 through February 28, 2016.
But seeing these pieces in their desert home is a singular experience. In fact, we’re going to dedicate an entire story to our visit to the museum — so stay tuned!
10. Save stuff for later.
The Joshua trees weren’t widely blooming yet when we were there. The springtime flowering is an event, not only for the blooms but also for the yucca moth that coevolved with the plant; what’s so remarkable about the pollinator is that it deliberately deposits the Joshua tree pollen onto the floral stigma so that the plant will create seeds for the moth’s offspring to eat. Charles Darwin called it “the most remarkable fertilization system ever described.”
It would also be nice to see a bigger show of wildflowers and to experience a “sound bath” in the Integratron, which can get booked up months in advance. On Saturday night we caught a show at Pappy & Harriet’s, the well-known venue in Pioneertown that draws popular artists to its intimate space. We went to see a singer-songwriter in a more “friends of friends of fans” capacity, so next time we might plan a trip around an act we’re following.
Below, check out some more scenes from our desert adventure!