I finally made my first trip to California (not counting brief stops in the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports) last week. I was there for work, but the job only took 3 days. That left me with a little bit of time to do some hiking. Since it was winter and I would be in Southern California, I looked for a place with a hospitable climate. My wife had visited Anza Borrego State Park there a few years ago and I considered checking it out. Death Valley also sounded appealing, but ultimately I chose Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree was the closest of the three, and I already had a map. Once I get a map for a place, visiting there becomes inevitable.
BULLET THE BLUE SKY
I booked a flight to Ontario, CA, which is nowhere near Canada. It’s actually close to San Bernadino, east of Los Angeles. I chose Ontario to avoid the LA madness. The flight went well, with the exception of some truly spectacular turbulence that provided constant entertainment throughout the flight. Some of the passengers complained about it, which was funny since many of them would probably pay for a rougher ride at a theme park.
WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME
Escaping from the Ontario airport proved challenging. First, the bus to the rental car area was full. Then there was a lengthy wait for the next one. I finally got my car, but finding my way to the interstate proved difficult. Although the streets had names, there weren’t any signs directing me to the highway. I finally found one, which led me in the wrong direction and into some sort of business park. I eventually found I-10 by trial and error and headed east and then north.
RED HILL MINING TOWN
I drove up through the mountains of Southern California to the town of Victorville. Where is Victorville? The easiest answer to that question might be somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It’s out in the high desert of Southern California, surrounded by mountains. Victorville began as a mining town, and the plentiful limestone and granite in the hills there has helped it develop into a major hub for the construction industry.
The job went well, except that I was working in the conference room / break room, and was subjected to numerous distractions. Late on the first afternoon, a Hispanic cleaning lady stopped in for a snack. The snack consisted entirely of a lemon, which the she sucked on like it was candy. It was hard to concentrate on my work, with all that loud sucking and slurping going on just across the table. The next afternoon may have been worse. This time, she pulled out a Tupperware container full of Jalapenos. She’d sprinkle one with salt, before chomping on it and moving on to the next one. My skin was really crawling by the end of that day!
On the way back to the hotel, a fox crossed the street right in front of me. This was pretty amazing, as I was in town. I could only hope that the sighting was an omen of things to come.
RUNNING TO STAND STILL
As a runner, one of my “goals” is to complete at least one run in each state. This is pretty silly as far as goals go, but it keeps me entertained when my business travels take me to oddball places like Iowa. As this was my first visit to California, I was looking forward to checking the largest state in the country off my list. Unfortunately, my visit to California coincided with an unusual cold snap. Oranges froze, and snow fell in Malibu. Up in the mountains, it was even colder. The weather, combined with a 5pm sunset, forced me to do my running on a treadmill at a local gym. Although this provided a workout, I can’t count running on a treadmill towards my goal. After all, that treadmill could’ve been anywhere. I’ll have to do a real run the next time I’m in California.
IN GOD’S COUNTRY
I finished my job at noon on Wednesday, and after grabbing lunch at the local In and Out Burger, I headed for the desert. My flight home was scheduled for Friday morning, so I had about a day and a half to explore Joshua Tree. I followed my mapquest directions, which routed me down through San Bernadino. It wasn’t until I returned home that I discovered that I could’ve taken a shorter and more scenic route through the mountains to the park. Damn you Mapquest!
The drive there was still pretty exciting. My rental car was a Suzuki P.O.S., and its alignment was so far out of whack that I had to aim the car towards the right shoulder to stay in my lane. The Suzuki only weighed about a hundred pounds, and it was blown around dramatically by the vicious winds along the interstate through the mountains. To top it off, the driving in Southern California is every bit as bad as you might expect. It was almost as bad as the driving in Florida, and that is saying a lot! At least all of this kept the drive from getting boring.
Somehow I made it to the park, where I purchased the new Interagency Annual Pass. The good news is that the pass provides access to all Federal Lands, including National Parks and National Forests. This will be handy for us, as we plan to visit some of both on our vacation this summer. The bad news is that the cost recently increased, from $50 to $80. Oh well, I expect I’ll still get my money’s worth this year.
I drove into the park, and immediately entered a “forest” of Joshua Trees. This was amusing to me, because in my pre-trip planning I’d asked on a message board where the best places in the park were to find the trees. This would’ve been like planning a trip to Nebraska, and asking ahead of time where to find corn. I had only been in the park for a couple of minutes, and I’d already seen hundreds.
I drove to the Ryan Campground and selected a site. Ryan Campground is a great destination, as the sites are situated in a loop around a large rock formation. Some of the best sites are tucked in among the boulders, and I found a good one. Since it was mid-week and the weather was still cold, there were only a few other campers there. My site featured a large boulder and its very own Joshua Tree. I parked in the tree’s sparse shade and pitched my tent.
Sunset was quickly approaching by the time I finished setting up camp. I had a large agenda for my trip, and I wanted to see a few things before dark. My first stop was the Cap Rock Nature Trail. This trail was nearby, and it promised some interesting rock formations and lots of Joshua Trees.
I found one other car at the trailhead. Shortly after beginning my hike, I stopped to watch a rabbit feeding. He posed for a few photos, before I continued on through a fascinating landscape of twisted rocks and Joshua Trees. The Joshua Trees, which are in the Yucca family and are not actually trees, quickly captured my imagination. The amazing thing about them is that no two are alike. Each one takes its own form, and seems to have its own personality. Obviously, a visitor could spend days there, examining each tree individually. I didn’t have time for that, but I did find dozens of intriguing trees.
I returned to the car, changed to warmer clothes, and headed up the road to Keys View. Keys View provides one of the most expansive views in the park. From the end of the road, a short paved path leads to a spectacular overlook. From the top, I was treated to a startling view across the San Andreas Fault to Mount San Jacinto. San Jacinto towers over the valley of Palm Springs. It rises more than 10,000’ from its base there, providing a startling view. Farther in the distance, I could see the snow-capped peak of Mount San Gorgonio, the highest mountain in Southern California. In the other direction, I had a great view across the Salton Sea, which lies more than 100’ below sea level. Beyond the Salton Sea, peaks in Mexico were clearly visible.
This is a popular tourist overlook, and I had a bit of company there for sunset. It was far from crowded though, and Keys View provided a great place to watch the sun drop. It was cold though, and I only lingered long enough to see the final colors fade. I returned to camp, where I built a fire and prepared dinner. For simplicity, I hadn’t brought a stove or pots or pans. Instead I grilled a steak over the fire. Side dishes included sliced potatoes and corn on the cob roasted in tin foil. Dinner was great, but it got cold fast, despite the warmth from the fire. In fact, my steak got cold before I was halfway finished. I held the rest of my steak in the fire with my tongs, which was a rather ghetto cooking technique, but it was effective. A couple of beers added to my enjoyment of the evening, despite the cold. Before bed, I enjoyed a spectacular array of stars out in the absolute darkness of the desert. I watched them for a time by lying on my back on the picnic table. The cold drove me to the tent early though. That night, my aging winter sleeping bag was challenged by the weather. By morning, the water bottle I’d brought into the tent was frozen shut.
That night, I was wakened twice by coyotes howling and barking somewhere nearby. It sounded like a regular coyote party was going on. I didn’t mind the interruption much, as it was thrilling to hear them.
Getting up the next morning was difficult. It was cold out there, and I hadn’t brought a stove for hot drinks or breakfast. I had a lot of hiking to do though, and that motivated me. I swallowed a blueberry “flavored” pop-tart (no actual blueberries were harmed in the creation of this breakfast) and a pint of orange juice while breaking camp. Once the sun came up the day warmed a little, but it was still chilly when I arrived at the Ryan Mountain trailhead at 8am.
I had selected Ryan Mountain as one of my hikes, as the 3-mile round trip promised some of the best views in the park. I hit the trail, and headed up through an area of old Indian Ruins. Before long, I began to suspect that I wasn’t on the actual trail. Occasional cairns and dozens of footprints led me on though, and a few minutes later I stumbled onto the actual trail. It turns out that two trails depart from the trailhead, but the correct trail to Ryan Mountain is actually at the eastern end of the parking lot.
A steady climb led up a ridge with fine views across the desert. Far below, I could see a series of rock formations known as the Hall of Horrors. Ryan Mountain harbors an interesting variety of vegetation, including Yucca, Joshua Trees, and several varieties of Cacti. As I neared the summit, the wind picked up, and the morning remained chilly despite the brilliant sun. At the top I found great views that seemed to encompass a large stretch of the park. I also found a dozen more or less flightless birds that scattered upon my approach. Later I discovered that they were Gambel's Quail.
I didn’t linger long, thanks to the wind and the cold. A fast descent was almost too fast as I turned my ankle on the way down. Fortunately the injury was minor, and I arrived at the car a little after 10 ready for my next hike. Before I left though, a carload of hikers arrived, and they asked me where they could find the trailhead for Ryan Mountain. I found this amusing, considering that the turn off the road is marked “Ryan Mountain Trailhead”, but then I remembered that I had started off on the wrong trail only a couple of hours earlier.
I drove a few miles down the road to the parking area for the Boy Scout Trail. My next hike promised an adventure, as it would take me to the Willow Hole, an oasis deep in the heart of the Wonderland of Rocks. I headed down the trail, through a vast forest of Joshua Trees. Before long, I passed two young guys, who looked like they were returning from a stint of trail maintenance. That was exactly one more person than I’d seen the entire time I had been on Ryan Mountain.
After a bit more than a mile, I reached a signed junction with the trail to Willow Hole. Before long, I left the Joshua Tree forest in favor of a sandy wash. I followed the wash down a winding course through tunnels bordered by lofty cliffs. At one point I emerged into a broad, sandy opening baking in the sun. The sun finally warmed me a bit, although it was far from hot out there.
From there, I continued down to a section of the wash that was blocked by fallen trees. I followed footprints here up into a side canyon, thinking that it would provide a route around the blockage. After a bit of scrambling, including a squeeze between two boulders, I arrived at a fantastic overlook of the Wonderland of Rocks. The vista was excellent, but unfortunately, there was no way down.
I backtracked to the main wash and found a route through the deadfall. Beyond, the trail continued down into a deeper canyon choked with vegetation. I didn’t find any flowing water there, but there was a dusting of snow in the shady areas. I found a nice place for lunch, but the wind was howling through the canyon. I quickly became chilled, and began the hike back after only a brief rest.
I passed two more hikers on the way out. By the time I climbed out of the canyon, I had finally warmed up. I shed my windbreaker, and was contemplating switching to shorts. I returned to my car by mid-afternoon, and decided to squeeze in one more hike before the end of the day.
I drove to the Barker Dam trailhead, near the Hidden Valley campground. Hidden Valley looked appealing, although I understand it is popular with rock climbers. There were quite a few cars at the trailhead, and I knew that the solitude I had experienced all day was about to end.
I hiked the trail a short distance to a fork at the beginning of the loop. It sounded like a horde of people was coming my way from the right, so I went left. This route led through some interesting rock formations, and I found a few petroglyphs among the cliffs. A few minutes later, I took a short side trip to a larger concentration of carvings. Unfortunately, many of these petroglyphs have been vandalized by being painted over. Despite this, it was an interesting place to visit.
From there, it was a short walk to the base of the dam. Barker Dam was built by early settlers who were attempting to graze cattle in the desert. The dam site takes advantage of a natural basin to collect water. It was interesting to see even a small pond out in that vast desert. A handful of ducks seemed to have been glad to find it, too. I enjoyed the views of some of the surrounding peaks reflected in the partially frozen surface before heading back out to my car.
I still had an hour of daylight, and decided to spend it visiting another part of the park. I drove east, across Sheep Pass, but instead of leaving the park to the north, I turned south on the route less traveled. A few minutes later I reached the White Tank Campground, where I stopped to see Arch Rock. Arch Rock is a natural arch, but it isn’t particularly impressive.
With only a few minutes of daylight left, I raced down the mountain, occasionally exceeding posted speed regulations. My disobedience was rewarded though, as I arrived at the Cholla Cactus Garden just before sunset. Although I was in Joshua Tree National Park, the Cholla Cactus may have been my favorite plant there. The Cholla feature hundreds of sharp needles, but from a distance, the cacti actually look soft and cuddly. However, hugging them is definitely NOT recommended.
I raced through the gardens, checking out the Cholla and taking a few final photos. Afterwards, I had another 20 miles of driving through the park in the darkness. That ended a great day in another wonderful national park. I’d like to return sometime, for more car camping and dayhiking. That seems to be the best approach there, since backpackers are required to carry all of their own water.
I STILL HAVEN’T FOUND WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR
Although I enjoyed my visit to Joshua Tree, I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on some of the more exotic wildlife. I would’ve loved seeing a Tarantula, or a Scorpion, or a Sidewinder Rattlesnake. Oh well, for this trip I’ll have to settle for Jackrabbits and birds. Also, a mild earthquake would’ve been fun. Maybe next time.
I drove back to Ontario, where I checked into a particularly dumpy Motel 6. The next day, my flight home was delayed twice, first for weather (it was raining in Phoenix!) and then because the plane was broken. Boy, I love USAir! I eventually made it to Phoenix, but of course I missed my connection to Charlotte. I got booked on the next flight, which left at midnight. Oh well, I guess that’s my punishment for enjoying myself on a work day!
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