Joshua Tree National Park

This past weekend was my last in Los Angeles and I decided to spend my final Sunday in Southern California (for now, at least) at Joshua Tree National Park. I’d never been before and it seemed I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t seize the opportunity now.

Joshua Tree is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Hollywood. Traffic depending, of course, because this is LA. We navigated to the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, which is near the West Entrance to the park and the best place for noobs like us to start. The ranger gave us an itinerary for the day and, after paying the $15 entrance fee and being told we had “seven days to find our way out” by the second ranger, we found ourselves driving through the joshua tree-studded high desert with rock monoliths for landmarks.

The rock formations at Joshua Tree are made from compressed sand.

The monoliths at Joshua Tree are made from a granite rock called monzogranite.

There are two areas of the park developed for visitors with a large portion of the park being a designated wilderess area. There certainly were other people about, but we never felt crowded and often we were almost entirely alone. This was especially true towards the end of the afternoon as we wound deeper into the park.

Joshua Tree is a major destination for rock climbers. We should them everywhere we went in the park.

Joshua Tree is a major destination for rock climbers who enjoy giving very serious monoliths very silly names. The alien civilization from 2001 would so not approve. Or maybe they would enjoy burritos?

Hidden Valley

Our first stop in Joshua Tree was Hidden Valley, a one-mile loop that’s the most popular site in the park. The entrance to the valley had to be blown open with dynamite (hence the name) and was originally used as a grazing spot by cattle ranchers. Another visitor explained to us that some ranchers would even steal cattle from neighbouring Arizona and bring them over state lines to California, to this valley, in fact. The legend of the larcenous cattle ranchers is alive and well in Southern California.

Hidden Valley used to contain lush grass but, due to prolonged drought and overgrazing, it's ecology has changed dramatically.

Hidden Valley used to contain lush grass but, due to prolonged drought and overgrazing, it’s ecology has changed dramatically. Note the people on the tall rock formation to the left. Casual.

We did a bit of scrambling up to a nice flat rock and stopped for lunch. One of my favourite lunches for a chic hiking day trip (I’ve tried to come up with a trite portmandeau for this a la “glamping,” but have been entirely unsuccessful) is to either make or buy a prepared salad and put it in a Zip-Lock bag with a fork and some dressing in a container. I then pair that with tortillas to make tasty wraps. I will admit, it does feel odd tossing a salad in a Zip-Lock bag, but the results are delicious. Pro-tip, if you’re going to do this, it’s best to prepare and eat these things within a few hours otherwise your greens will wilt. Except kale. Kale is immune to the forces of nature.

Also, if you have never brought Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix from Trader Joe’s on a hike, you have to amend this posthaste. It has actual mini peanut butter cups in it. There are some nuts and dried cherries too, but again, I repeat, mini peanut butter cups.


A view of Hidden Valley from our lunch spot.

I’m a real sucker for a succulent so I thoroughly enjoyed photographing the various cacti in the park. The best moment for cacti photography, a photographic genre to which I would happily dedicate my life, came at the end of the day in the Cholla Cactus Garden, but I’ll get to that in a bit. We have to move chronologically, you see.

Some of the cacti seemed to mirror the rock formations around them.

Some of the cacti seemed to mirror the rock formations around them. Or maybe I was just high on too much Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix.

Ryan Mountain

Next on our ranger-approved itinerary was a hike up Ryan Mountain. It’s a three-mile loop and you end up climbing a little over 1,000 feet in a mile and a half. It’s the only mountain around so you get a stunning view of the park the whole way up. We stopped about half-way to admire the view and do a Mother Gaia prayer, a tradition my hiking partner and I started somewhat jokingly a while back. The first time, we thanked her for some particularly delicious burritos we made, but it has since become a more contemplative activity for us (though we do maintain a touch of whimsy). We thanked Mother Gaia for the Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix, the opportunity to come to Joshua Tree, and our friendship. I know it sounds cheesy, but honestly, taking a moment out of every day to express gratitude makes you much more conscious and thankful for all that you have.

The view from Ryan Mountain.

The view from Ryan Mountain, about half-way up the trail.

Skull Rock

We stopped quickly at the aptly named Skull Rock and I made my day trip partner take an obligatory photo of me. Such a tourist, I know. Sorry I’m not sorry.

Posing with Skull Rock.

Posing with Skull Rock.

Split Rock

Just up the road from Skull Rock was Split Rock, a gentle two mile trail loop. We opted out of doing the whole trail and instead wandered and did a bit of scrambling. The light was perfect, and it was so quiet that we stopped to meditate for a bit. There is something magical about high deserts. A quiet like nothing I have known as a life-long city dweller. I never think that noise pollution bothers me until I’m somewhere utterly removed.

I meditated under these rocks for a while.

I meditated under these rocks for a while.

These are my last few days in LA. I am moving back to DC at the end of the week for my job after being in Southern California since August. I’ve never lived anywhere like this before and I’m not sure if I will ever come back other than to visit, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t loved my time here. It’s a conflicted feeling and one that I have been intimate with my entire life: the feeling of being split between many places.


We got to Split Rock around golden hour so the light was amazing.

Sitting amongst the rocks at Joshua Tree, I felt a moment of calm. But really, how could you not feel at peace in a place like that? Place has for me, as it has for many if not all writers, been my lifeblood as an artist. Place, memory of place, familiarity and weirdness of place has always sustained my creativity. I am grateful for that.

Cholla Cactus Garden

We ended the day at the Cholla Cactus Garden. The cholla cactus has a distinct colouring that I can only describe as “ombre,” so, really, cholla cacti are super trendy. By the time we got to the garden, it was around 5pm so the sun was starting to set.

The sun was starting to set across the valley.

Look at that sea of ombre.

As I mentioned earlier, the Cholla Cactus Garden was basically my photographic heaven so I went a little nuts taking beauty shots of the cacti. There’s a short nature trail through the garden and, as we were walking, we saw a little cactus wren perched on a tall cholla. She didn’t stand still long enough for a beauty shot of her own, but she did follow us back to the car.

Up close and personal with a cholla cactus.

Up close and personal with a cholla cactus.

We drove another 25 miles to exit the park. As we did, the sun continued to set until we were driving through darkness with the occasional ghostly silhouette of a joshua tree lit up as we passed.

The joshua trees are endangered and increasingly under threat with many of the mature trees dying out as younger ones are unable grow in the hotter, drier climate. Some scientists have estimated that they could be gone from the park entirely by the end of this century.

I know I’d like to visit them again.


A seedling joshua tree.

xox J

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