Joshua Tree National Park protects 794,000 acres of desert in southern California, of which 585,040 acres have been designated as wilderness.
The park is named after the Joshua tree, which actually isn’t a tree at all, but rather a form of Yucca plant, a member of the Agave family. (You may recognize Agave as the plant used to make Tequila). The Joshua tree grows very slowly, only a half inch per year. The tallest Joshua tree in the park stands over 40 feet and is believed to be over 100 years old (Joshua trees have no rings and therefore cannot be accurately dated).
After the Joshua tree, the park is best known for its giant boulders and eccentric rock formations. Many of these “rockpiles” form shapes that stir the imagination like clouds in the sky and have fanciful names such as “Skull Rock” and “House of Horrors.”
The Joshua Tree rockpiles draw expert and amateur climbers from all over the world. Everywhere you look there’s someone scaling or repelling off a rockpile. One group of young climbers had strung a tightrope hundreds of feet into the air between two giant rockpiles and were planning to walk across.
These rockpiles were formed 100 million years ago when molten liquid oozed up from the Earth’s crust and cooled while still underground. This “monzogranite” developed a set of horizontal and vertical cracks due to erosion and collision with surrounding rock, respectively. As groundwater percolated down through these cracks, it weathered the corners and created giant rounded, rectangular boulders. This happened over millions of years during a much wetter climate.
Eventually the park became an arid desert. Occasional flash floods began washing away the top rock layer. As the rounded boulders were exposed, they settled one on top of another to form these fantastic shapes.
We spent four peaceful days boondocking off the grid in Ryan Campground in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park. Here we are on Ryan Mountain, over 1000 feet above our campground in the distance.
Here’s a closer look at our campground. Our new RV is marked with a red X. Remember that you can click on any photo to see a larger version of it.
Here is Theresa sitting atop Ryan Mountain overlooking our campground in the Lost Horse Valley.
And here is one final view of our campground, from the ground perspective. Our white RV is in the middle of the photo. Notice how we are surrounded by Joshua trees and amazing rockpiles. It was like living in another world.
Operating between 1893 and 1936, the Lost Horse Mine produced over 9,000 ounces of gold for its owners. That’s worth over $15 million in today’s prices. This mine had a 500-foot deep shaft and three separate tunnels. It got its name from its founder who apparently stumbled upon a major gold seam while out looking for his lost horse.
One of the great allures of a national park is often all you can see in every direction is God’s natural wonder, with no signs of man’s development.
Cottonwood Spring Oasis is the result of earthquake activity. It was used for centuries by the Cahuilla Indians, who left behind bedrock mortars and clay pots. Later it became an important water stop for prospectors and miners. Since water is essential for gold processing, this beautiful oasis was for many years the site of several gold mills.
After a four mile hike across the desert teeming with beautiful wildflowers, we reached the Lost Palms Oasis, the largest stand of fan palms in the park. Click on the photo to see a larger version, and notice how the oasis spans several levels hundreds of feet down a ravine in the canyon. We enjoyed our lunch from this spot several hundred feet above the canyon floor. It was too late in the afternoon for us to attempt the treacherous hike to the oasis below.
This desert tortoise captured our attention for quite a while. He was a magnificent creature, his shell over a foot in diameter. He ate his away along the desert floor, munching so loudly that we could hear him clearly chewing from where we stood several feet away. He seemed blissfully happy and unaware of the world around him, sort of like how we are when we are hiking these national parks and disconnected from the real world. This little fellow was such a draw that a weary camper carrying a full pack hiked two miles back to this spot when another hiker told him about the tortoise.
The Cholla Cactus Garden is a site to behold. There is a quarter-mile interpretive trail through the garden, which is full of Teddy Bear Cholla, so named because it has a soft and fuzzy appearance. But you wouldn’t dare hug one of these cholla, as it’s a solid mass of formidable spines, each with a barb on the end that instantly pierces and then holds on tight to anyone unlucky enough to come in contact with it.
The Cholla Cactus Garden rests in the Pinto Basin, which is a 30-mile wide expanse surrounded by the Eagle (left) and Cottonwood (right) mountain ranges. The Pinto Basin seems to go on forever as you drive through it to reach the Cottonwood Spring at the south end of the park. We imagined how the early settlers must have felt riding their wagons for days across this giant valley, only to run into this impenetrable wall of cacti.