Imagine you’re baking a loaf of bread. A nice crusty loaf just starting to brown, the inside fluffy, warm, and full of holes. Now picture injecting that loaf through the bottom with some type of melted candy that fills in all the air pockets. What if that goo filled every nook and cranny and even created new crevices? Imagine that hot liquid oozed into every air bubble inside your bread and then hardened.
Next you take the bread out of the oven and leave it outside, so the soft bread gets dry and crumbly and is worn away by the wind and rain, leaving only the hard candy behind. The candy pebbles drop down and stack on top of each other, leaving piles of strange and beautiful shapes.
This explains the bizarre and beautiful rock formations at Joshua Tree National Park. (An oversimplification, of course.) But the bread is actually sandstone, the hard candy – magma. The inexplicable formations are now accounted for, and the results are spectacular.
Of course there are other places on Earth where such rock formations exist, but none set among a forest of Joshua Trees. (Which are technically not trees, but tall yucca plants.) The namesake trees only grows in the desert climates above 4000′ elevation.
I obviously love to describe this landscape and could go on and on, but you probably fall into one of two categories; either you’ve been and I’m preaching to the choir, or you haven’t and you need to see it for yourself. Soon.
My adventure gal-pal, Erin, had never been to Joshua Tree National Park and I was both horrified and excited by this revelation. I love showing people something new, and the prospect of showing one of my very favorite people one of my very favorite places had me giddy. The truth is, neither description nor photos can do this place justice. You need to be there, to experience the silence, smell the scents, and feel right-sized in the expansive landscape. My son hates when I use the word “majestic” and I’m trying really hard not to, but that word continuously comes to mind when I talk about Joshua Tree.
Erin and I visited the park on the second day of 2017. I’ve already mentioned it was the first time using my new tent, but also my new sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, headlamp, and lantern. I was very pleased with most of my purchases (and Christmas gifts). The sleeping pad (Airlite) is fantastic, a light weight backpacking pad that has a built-in manual pump and only weighs 1.7 lbs. and rolls up tiny. But the sleeping bag? Well, remember the price vs. weight factor? I got inexpensive and I got light, but I compromised on warmth, reasoning that I really don’t do any winter camping. But the desert can be cold as hell in the winter, and my sleeping bag didn’t suffice. I’ve since learned to buy a bag that is rated 20 degrees lower than you expect to sleep in. Supposedly the rating is a survival temperature, not a comfortable sleeping temperature. I bought the Mountaintop 32 degree ultra light bag and at just 2 lbs., it is an awesome backpacking bag for warmer temperatures, but didn’t do the job of keeping me warm enough to sleep on this trip.
Spring or Fall is the optimal time to visit the park, but that is also when it’s the most crowded and nearly impossible to get a campsite inside the park. Joshua Tree doesn’t take reservations, so it’s first come first serve. Erin and I arrived in the morning and scored a great spot in the most desirable campground; Hidden Valley. We saw a pair that were packing up and asked to take their spot, then killed twenty minutes while we waited for them. They left the site clean, but with wood and beer as a parting gift. We passed on both to the pair of climbers that took our place the next morning.
I wanted to show Erin an overview of the park, so we did three short hikes, starting with Ryan Mountain to get a spectacular view. And that we did. In addition to sweeping views of the landscape, we saw a high line walker. Joshua Tree is known for it’s rock climbing, but this is something I’d never seen before:
(Photo credit goes to local Robert Miramontes, a very talented photographer and author of many climbing guides on Joshua Tree. He’s also an all-around nice guy who gave me permission to use this amazing picture.)
Our other hikes included the Hidden Valley loop, and just skirting around some rock formations and rushing back to the car. It was cold and the windy, but it was well worth it. The best time to be in Joshua Tree is right before the sun goes down and the lighting and shadows decide to show off just how vibrant this place is. If you believe the desert is colorless and devoid of life, visit Joshua Tree and watch the sun go down.
And since I promised to share what we learn on our adventures, here it is:
- A sleeping bag should be rated 20 degrees colder than you expect to need
- Always bring matches in case you have a faulty lighter
- An air mattress is softer, but makes you colder than a solid pad due to the cold air
A few photos from our trip, taken with my phone:
Can you see the moon? (The rock mooning us)
So beautiful at dusk
Erin on Ryan Mountain
Me trying to stay warm.