Our second tourist trip in California was a bit less clichéd than Disneyland: the place where the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert meet, in Joshua Tree National Park.
About a hundred miles from Los Angeles, it’s immediately North West of Palm Springs and the San Andreas Fault. As you drive towards it, the fairly dry Californian countryside becomes drier still. Turing off just before Palm Springs, we passed through Yucca Valley, where we ate and did some last minute shopping; for serious amounts of water, apart from anything else. You’re recommended to carry a minimum of a gallon per person per day, or two if it’s hot; plus more for cooking and hygiene.
A few miles down the road, we arrived at the town of Joshua Tree. A right turn took us out of town past the visitor centre there, and we started to climb towards the park proper. $15 at the tollbooth allowed the vehicle in for up to a week, and then we were driving through increasingly striking rocky hills, before arriving at the first place of note, Hidden Valley, where we were also able to get up close to the first of many Joshua Trees.
Joshua trees are the most notable vegetation in the western end of the park, which is part of the Mojave Desert. The eastern end, which is in the Colorado Desert, seems to be equally dominated by creosote bushes.
Hidden Valley is a good place to start; a one-mile loop trail through what was once a place of concealment for cattle rustlers. A more substantial entrance was blasted in the early 20th century, although I couldn’t spot obvious signs that this was what had happened. In a fairly short walk, you get an introduction to the great granite outcrops, the vegetation and, if you’re lucky, some of the native beasties, such as lizards, snakes and chipmunks.
Having been suitably impressed by Hidden Valley, we hopped into the car again and made for the boundary line between the two deserts, heading through a landscape filled with impressive lumps of rock. Just inside the Colorado desert, the natural conditions are just right for a breed of cactus called cholla (pronounced choya). A well-drained slope with a view over the wide Pinto Basin (a sea of creosote bushes, sand and gravel) brings just enough seasonal water to produce what’s referred to as the Cholla Cactus Garden, a patch a few hundred metres wide dominated by cholla.
Most of the cholla are “teddy bear” cholla, so called because the pale bristles make them look fuzzy and cuddly. Be careful though – they’re also called “jumping cholla” because the spines are barbed and so vicious that you can inadvertently take a chunk of cactus with you as you walk past. The leaflets say they can only be removed with difficulty and pain. I chose not to put this to the test! We saw a humming bird here.
After touring the cholla garden, and passing a smaller campsite that was already full, we decided we’d better bag a place in the Jumbo Rocks camping ground, one of several in the park. Once we’d done that, we drove along some of the unsurfaced roads through the Joshua tree forest, and took our last walk of the day around the Barker Dam trail.
Barker Dam is pretty much what it says; there’s a dam, with precious little water behind it, originally built in the early 1900s by the Barker and Shay Cattle Company. When full, it covers 20 acres, but we walked across much of the lake bed. Here’s what you can see from the top of the dam:
Walking further round took us past a disused cattle trough, through more scrub and cacti to a rock with Native American petroglyphs, unfortunately refreshed by presumably well-meaning modern idiots. By the time we’d finished, nightfall was approaching, so we headed back to Jumbo Rocks.
Maybe you’ve heard that deserts can be cold at night. Well, it’s true. The temperature dropped noticeably, and it wasn’t helped by a strong, steady wind that blew through the rocks and didn’t give up – to the extent that we nearly failed to get a fire lit at all for breakfast, though the wind had helped the fire catch the previous night.
Apparently it can be hot overnight too, in the summer – but if you’re going yourself, be prepared for all conditions. I’ve been warmer camping in Scotland at a similar time of year.
We had good intentions for doing lots more the following day, but as it turned out we just fitted one more walk in – a four mile round trip to the Lost Horse Mine, a disused gold mine. This involved a bit of a climb too (somewhere between 800 and 1000 feet), and was described as “moderately strenuous”. The trail climbed up one side of a range of hills, over a pass and down the other side, before winding upwards once more through the undulations of the hillsides to come upon the mine from below.
The man who developed the mine came into the area searching for his family’s lost horses – as it turned out, not so much lost as half-inched by those rustlers that appreciated Hidden Valley so. Buying the rights from the actual discoverer of the claim, and bringing in partners to see off any strong-arm attempts, he named the mine Lost Horse. It stayed in use, on and off, for about forty years.
Some of the pit-head machinery remains, in pretty good shape considering it’s at least a hundred and thirteen years old (it was moved here from another site in 1896). I can’t see it faring nearly this well in the soggy UK. It’s fenced off (photos taken through the mesh) because the ground is unstable around the 500 foot mine shaft.
The site seems popular with the wildlife; we saw a snake (later identified as a rosy boa) and a chipmunk in quick succession here.
Despite other walks in the area – and other mines, giving rise to The Dirty Sock Camp shown in the postcard below – by the time we got back from Lost Horse, we were ready to head back to civilisation.
On the way, we passed a curious attraction which, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s hard to say, we didn’t have time to visit properly; a creationist dinosaur museum: