Joshua Tree December 2015

Joshua Tree Aug 2013

Joshua Tree Hall of Horrors and valley at sunset

It might not seem possible since it is simply high desert with a bunch of rocks, but Joshua Tree National Park never ceases to amaze me.  I have been there multiple times and have had a completely new experience each time.  Even the changes in the color of the sky due to the different angles of the sun are spectacular, with the hue often changing from orange to purple during sunset.  And the Little San Bernardino Mountains give an impressive background to the otherwise endless desert landscape.

The park boundaries stretch over two different types of desert: with the lower elevation and cooler climate of the Colorado desert plateau on the eastern side of the park, and the lower elevation and warmer climate of the Mojave desert on the western side of the park.  Perhaps the most famous inhabitant here is the Joshua Tree itself—whose name was given by a group Mormon settlers that were reminded by the trees’ outstretched arms of a Biblical story of Joshua raising his arms to the Heavens in prayer.  The Joshua Tree is endemic to the Southwestern U.S., as they do not grow anywhere else in the world.  It can reach heights of roughly 50’, and its varying shapes and sizes with arms that seem to bend with no rhyme or reason make for some excellent desert landscape photography.

During one trip in August 2013 I was fortunate to have seen several Big Horn Desert Sheep in multiple locations of the park.  The first time was while we were hiking Barker’s Dam Trail, which winds its way back through canyons with some boulder scrambling to a dam created back in the 1800s by local cattle rustlers.  The dam is still in existence and is a pretty interesting spectacle to see in a dry, arid desert hidden among the rocks and boulders.  Along this hike you can detour just a bit to find some ancient hieroglyphs as well.  On our way out of the enclave of rocks and boulders, we heard some scrambling noises on the rocks above us.  We looked up and were delighted to see that two Sheep had been following us as we made our way out!  The second sheep sighting was the same day while we were exploring the outside of what I learned on a later trip is the Hall of Horrors (more on that below).  While scrambling the boulders on the outside of the rock pile we noticed an entire family of the sheep leaping and bounding their way through the field across the street from us, so my friend Billy and I ran over as close as we could get without scaring them and snapped away.

This August trip also rewarded us with some excellent viewing of the Perseid’s Meteor shower that occurs for the Southwestern U.S. every year in late August.  We had clear skies with no moon or cloud cover, and it was so nice out that Nate slept in his tent with the rainfly off so he could have a constant view of the meteor shower through the mesh roof of his tent.  I remember being so tranquilized by the experience that I eventually fell asleep while laying on my back on a picnic table gazing at the meteors.

Also on this trip, we got acquainted with one of the local specimen of desert tarantula.  The thing was so big it looked as if it could cover my entire palm and outstretched fingers!  It made a home underneath one of the rocks at the front of our campsite, and we only first noticed it at nighttime when it was walking towards our campfire to investigate.  Our excitement and camera flashes scared it back into its hovel, and we saw it return about an hour later.  After another round of pictures scared it back into the sanctity of its home it never returned (that we know of).

I have since learned that desert tarantulas only look menacing, but are actually very elusive and skittish and would prefer to retreat to safety rather than fight and attack.

We also got to explore Skull Rock, which looks exactly like a skull.  Getting outside of the park in search of food took us to an interesting little town called Pioneertown, which was created as a filming location for old westerns, including the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral.

During another trip in December 2015 I was able to follow the lead of more experienced boulderers and rock climbers who are much more familiar with the local climbing and bouldering routes.  Jim showed us three very interesting bouldering locations—Cyclops, the Hall of Horrors and a third whose name is eluding me.  Cyclops is a rock pile that is approximately 120’ high and got its name due to a single hole at the top center of the rock pile that looks like an eye watching out over the valley.  Scrambling up the boulders from the back will eventually reward you with spectacular views from behind the eye.

Shockingly, the Hall of Horrors and the forgotten one are established scrambling routes that make you contemplate the sanity of the person(s) who first discovered them and spread the word.  In certain spots, each route requires you to squeeze under and between rock slabs and rock walls so tight that you can barely even take a breath due to not having room for chest expansion, and one of them is aptly named the coffin due to having to slide along your back with the rock slab pressing down onto your torso the entire way.  Each route also requires multiple spots of chimney scrambling up and down rock walls so treacherous that one slight misstep could result in a broken leg or worse upon hitting the floor 10-20 feet below.  They aren’t terribly long, with each of them lasting approximately 30 minutes if you keep moving.  So, thankfully, your paranoia of small dark spaces, and your nightmarish fantasies of getting caved-in, getting stuck between rocks, and falling down a chimney of rock don’t have to last very long.

Also during this 2015 trip with Jim and crew I was able to get my first experience at outdoor rock climbing with a rope and belay system.  I had gone on a rappelling trip with these guys before, so I knew I could trust their concern for safety despite their seemingly maniacal lust for adrenaline and adventure.  I couldn’t work up the courage (or lunacy) for the more difficult and higher routes (for example, a 75’ high climb that calls for wedging your hands into a vertical crack about halfway up), so I stuck with the less difficult routes of lower elevation (roughly 40-50’).  I definitely had a blast even on these beginner routes, which helped me to develop a good amount of confidence to do up the ante a little bit more on the next trip.

Anyone in the southern California area looking for a change of pace/scenery during the fall, winter, and early spring (before it gets too hot) should definitely head out to this amazing area of the desert.  You will definitely not be disappointed!!!