Vacations are funny creatures. They are so jam packed with fun activities, it seems as though they will never end. Then…poof! You are home. Visiting Joshua Tree National Park was like that. After wonderful short hikes at Hidden Valley and Barker Dam, we’d had a pleasant drive to Key’s Point, the highest spot in the park. Our next destination was uncertain.
I had no agenda in particular, but I knew we had miles to go before we slept. We didn’t have time for more significant hikes. Still, there was a vast range of desert sights to enjoy. Skull Rock sounded interesting, so we stopped there. And what do you know, close to the road, there was a rock with concavities which, when seen from a certain angle, lent it the appearance of a skull. An alien skull, perhaps, but a skull nonetheless. Fellow touristas were scrambling around the base of it, posing for silly photos. Not me. I am too dignified for that. Oh, wait…
Denise and I wandered around the Skull Rock area with Jackie Chan, finding cool rocks to climb on and bumping into dead end spots from which we couldn’t continue. It was a seemingly endless maze of rocks and sandy troughs with scrubby desert flora. Navigation was a challenge, but from any high point we could see the road. I could have stayed there for hours, happily getting lost in the afternoon shadows.
Alas, we needed to move on. The drive trended downhill soon after we turned towards the south entrance of the park. Major rock outcroppings became rarer, but the views extended further. It was a stupendous shift between the immediacy of rock piles near Skull Rock and vastness of views stretching dozens of miles across a desert without roads. My eyes shifted from focusing on a handhold right in front of me to ridges ten miles away.
The Joshua Trees disappeared, but now we saw cholla and ocotillo dotting the landscape. We had made the transition to the Colorado Desert, a sub-region of the greater Sonoran Desert. It reminded me of the brief period in my dreaming early adulthood when I lived on a ranch in Arizona, wanting to be a cowboy. I’d got more than a few barbs in my skin through curiosity then. Not this time. We found pullouts designed to look at the views and plant life. The pleasures of these spots were very different than those at the mazes of rocks above but equally enthralling.
The wide open spaces were gorgeous, punctuated with occasional rock piles or bumpy ridges alongside smooth looking plains. We surmised that the smooth part had been the bottom of the ocean in another geological era. A few times, we got out of the car a few times to stretch our legs and soak up the solitude. In this part of the park, cars might pass on the road every five minutes or so, but there was nobody else around.
Eventually the dramatic scenery tailed off as we approached the southern entrance to the park. A couple motorcycle riders sped around us, stopped roadside, then sped around us again ten minutes later. I can’t help but think they missed some of the beauty of this desert world by focusing on the mundane pleasure of speed. Maybe I am just getting old, but I wish I had missed nothing. Joshua Tree National Park is an amazing place, and I hope I am lucky enough to return, perhaps with climbing gear and a tent, perhaps with a four wheel drive rig to check out some side roads with mining history. So many places to go! Our drive back to Palm Desert was filled with smiles.
I highly recommend a trip to Joshua Tree. If you visit, carry plenty of water.
When my wife and I drove to Bob Hope’s old stomping grounds in Palm Springs, I arranged to meet my friend Evan for a hike. I knew it would be a far cry from anything in the Northwest due to the combination of precipitation that needs to be measured over years, and the abundance of palm trees.
When we arrived at the parking lot which serves as trailhead for Murray Canyon and Andreas Canyon, it felt like I was on the set of The Flintstones. The palm trees just seemed like something out of another era in botanical history when trees had beards.
The hike started out casually across the sandy desert, skirting low hills. In all directions we had views of rugged, barren mountains and hills in varying shades of brown. Not the sort of place to be in August. Indeed, if it were hotter, the trail would not have been too pleasant, but 80 degrees in the sun felt fantastic to me. Plenty of people were walking, mostly coming back. Many seemed around retirement age and sported hats and wore sensible light hiking shoes.
After a mile or so, the trail dropped into a canyon entrance that looked like a green daub from a paintbrush splashed across the landscape. With tall palms lining a pleasant stream, it was a veritable oasis. Silt piled up on the banks suggested flooding in recent years. We followed the path upstream, crossing the stream a dozen or more times in the canyon’s winding course, hopping rocks, checking out the amazing cliffs and ridges that loomed above us.
At one point, the trail rose fairly sharply over rock, then descended almost as steeply in an area that was quite exposed, meaning a slip on the ball-bearing-like dusty gravel would send one plummeting to injury or worse.
The reward was the tighter upper canyon. As it got narrower, there were a few spots where the trail went multiple ways, but it all funneled toward a series of small waterfalls, beyond which the way was impassable without technical gear. In the shade of the steep walls, the temperature was very pleasant. We poked around, sipped some water, snapped some photos, and enjoyed the setting.
This is a great hike, and I felt bad for a couple women who stopped short where the trail got steep. In some places a handrail of sorts might be installed, but that generally detracts from the experience for me. A little scrambling in a couple spots lets you see more of the waterfalls. I would endorse this hike with a big fat thumbs up.
If you go, know that Murray Canyon is part of the Indian Canyons complex just outside Palm Springs. There is a $9 entrance fee per person.