Question: What’s the best way to spend two weeks in California?
Answer: Visiting some of the best National Parks in the country!
Comment: Wow, that was really corny.
California is home to nine National Parks, more than any other state. So it’s safe to say it’s a good place to go to visit a national park. My next few blog entries are going to be a short series of posts detailing my wife's and my experiences with these parks.
My first stop on the trip was Las Vegas. I know what you are thinking – Las Vegas is in Nevada, not California… Yeah but it’s also the cheapest flight to get to Joshua Tree and Death Valley (which are in California). So a quick trip to the Vegas airport car rental, lunch on the strip, and we were on our way to our first park – Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree is located in Southern California desert. It borders a few towns, and we chose to stay in Twentynine Palms which is at the Northern edge of the park near the Oasis visitor center. It’s also home to the Jelly Donut, which looks incredibly sketchy from the outside but the folks inside are really friendly, make some really good donuts, and we were told (though we did not have a chance to try it) have some excellent Pho.
There are two roads that run through Joshua tree – Park Boulevard (which connects the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms), and Pinto Basin road (which runs through the length of the park and connects Twentynine Palms with the expressway on the far side of the park). Starting in Twentynine Palms we headed West to Barker Dam and Hidden Valley then we worked our way East and South. Along the road you will see many Joshua trees (go figure), and lots of cactus but the drive itself is not too exciting.
Our first hike of the day was Barker Dam, it’s a short mile and a half hike which takes you to a small reservoir (which was dry when we went). Keep your eyes open along the way for wildlife – we saw quail, mice, rabbits, Leopard Gecko, bee’s, a horned lizard, and a Tarantula Hawk. This was our first stop of the day because we read that goats also frequent the area in the early morning, unfortunately we did not see any of them. The trail itself is easy to follow and has plenty of interesting rock formations and Joshua Trees. It’s also relatively flat, making it one of the easier trails in the park.
The second stop of the day was the Cholla Cactus Garden. I would not really call this a hiking trail, it’s more of a short boardwalk that runs through a cactus garden. The actual turnoff for the trail is kinda sudden though, since the garden starts and ends rather abruptly as you are driving through the Southern part of the park. If you have never seen Cholla then it’s the place to be. If you are like photographing cactus then this is the spot. If you need to practice photographing cactus (which I clearly do) then you should visit this spot multiple times (which I did not).
Returning back to the Western part of the park we stopped at the Hidden Valley (Ranch) hiking trail. This is a short (1 mile) trail that was supposedly part of an old cattle rustler’s hideout, it’s also supposed to be one of the best trails for seeing Joshua Tree’s up close (Not that you can’t stop at any of the turnoffs and be surrounded by Joshua Trees – But this adds the element of hiking, dehydration, and dying in the desert). The trail has a few ups and downs and is a bit harder than Barker Dam, but it’s still not a difficult trail. Like most of the trails in the park there is not much shade (go figure – little to no shade in a desert), so wear sunblock and drink lots of water (so you don’t die). Most of the trails in the park are decently marked but it’s still just an open desert trail so you need to pay a little more attention to the trail and a bit less to your phone in order to make sure you don’t wander off while checking out all of the Joshua Trees that this trail takes you past. (Spoiler Alert - It’s like following a dirt path through more dirt, just one bit of dirt has footprints going in both directions). Remember kids – when following a trail through the desert take the path that has footprints going in both directions. If you follow the trail that has one set of footprints leading off into the dust then that guy probably did not make it back.
Following the Hidden Valley (Ranch) trail we continued down the road to Keys view, one of the most popular overlooks in the park. I’m read that it’s best to come here at night for an excellent view of the stars and moon, but I had wanted to try some light painting that night so we decided to check out the view during the day. I was a bit underwhelmed by the view during the day. It was very smoggy and I really could not get the great view I was expecting.
If you have spent much time in the national parks you may be familiar with the saying “Half the park is after dark”. That’s definitely the case here. The low moisture and clear skies make for some amazing star and moon gazing. I took advantage of the dark sky to try doing some light painting for the first time – with mixed results (which is not unexpected for a first attempt). The moon was pretty full and bright so dark sky photography was not really an option.
A couple of parting notes: Firstly, Joshua Tree is home to a lot of really cool rock formations, many of which can be found at the Jumbo Rocks area. My favorite of these being Skull Rock. There are lots of opportunities for rock climbing on this short trail, but parking is a bit crowded. Secondly, watch out for all the f'ing bee's.
That closed out our day at Joshua Tree National Park, the next day we headed to Laguna Beach via the South exit of the park and a quick detour to the Mt. Palomar observatory.