The excitement of fulfilling a long-held dream was beginning to dissipate, with nervousness taking hold. The guide told us, “In addition to the two gallons of water per person, you need to make sure you have salty snacks and energy bars. It wasn’t that long ago that someone got lost, couldn’t find their way back to their car and died of dehydration. Remember, there’s no cell service in the desert – you’re on your own!”
I was heading to the Mojave desert in southwestern United States. It’s the driest, and smallest desert in North America, covering some 124,000 square kilometres of California and neighbouring Nevada.
After the blunt, yet well-meaning warnings of the information guide in one of the local visitor centres, I drove to the nearby 24-hour convenience store. I filled the small trolley with snacks, sandwiches, and gallon bottles of water.
“You’re heading into the desert today then?” the cashier questioned as she scanned the weighty bottles of water. “Don’t worry; it’s the weekend, there will be plenty of rangers out and anyway it’s too hot to walk too far from your car – just enjoy the drive!”
Joshua Tree National Park
I felt reassured. I had always wanted to discover the Joshua Tree National Park, one of America’s ‘high deserts’, named after the unique trees that are only found in this part of the world. I’m not sure why, but scenes of the otherworldly landscape, punctuated by the unmistakable Joshua trees, had captured my imagination ever since I could remember.
U2’s late 80’s album, The Joshua Tree, features the band in front of a tree on the album’s back cover and inside sleeve artwork. Thanks to those now famous photographs by Anton Corbijn, these almost mythical plants become global icons (sadly the tree photographed back in the 80s died in 2000). They are said to have been named Joshua trees by early US settlers, since the plants reminded them of the Old Testament prophet raising his hands in prayer. The trees are in fact yuccas, but grow tall with thick, hardy twisted branches topped with spiky evergreen leaves.
My base was Desert Springs, one of the nine desert cities to the south west of the Joshua Tree National Park.
The dry sunny climate is a favourite for holidaymakers, retirees and families looking for a better-value, better quality of life compared with the congested and polluted LA area. In the middle of the last century, the Hollywood elite were among the first to make the desert fashionable, escaping the intensity of life in the spotlight, for the chill culture of Palm Springs. It’s a destination that has since become synonymous with the era of the Rat Pack of Las Vegas entertainers. In the 60s, ‘Frank, Dino and Sammy’ (that’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr for the younger readers among you) put the area well and truly on the map.
Yet economic recession in the 70s slowed tourism significantly; a fact that has ironically contributed to Palm Spring’s renaissance over recent years as a retro-chic resort for a new generation. Many of the classic mid-century modern villas, motels and hotels weren’t torn down by developers - they were just left. Now many are restored and offer a captivating flavour of this glamorous era.
The low desert valley area has now grown to encompass nine desert interconnected communities, south of the Interstate 10 motorway - Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella.
Palm Desert has been one of the fastest growing, with a well-planned infrastructure, making it popular with families and visitors. I had split my time between two resorts; the Westin Desert Willow Villas, with excellent facilities for families; and the Westin Mission Hills Resort Villas, which has two championship golf courses and spa.
Jim Moran, the general manager at Desert Willow Villas has a wealth of knowledge about the area. He suggested to me that the best way to enjoy the Joshua Tree National Park was to take a road trip from the north, driving south.
It was just light when I left Palm Desert and its early morning sounds of the stuttering water sprinklers refreshing the lush, manicured landscape. Within moments I was on the straight highway cutting through the dull ochre of the desert terrain, the heat of the sun already penetrating the windscreen. I stopped for breakfast in a classic American Diner off the Twentynine Palms highway, with a sign outside at least three times taller than the building. Once inside I was greeted by the comforting aroma of bacon crisping on the grill, eggs being fried and coffee warming in the pot (the waitresses were as sassy and friendly as in they are in the movies and yes, they do keep coming over to top up your mug with filter coffee).
At the park entrance, confident with my abundant water and supplies, I greeted the ranger with a smile. Looking immaculate, wearing a Smokey Bear hat, and the traditional US National Parks grey and olivegreen uniform, decorated with an arm patch and insignia, the ranger took my entrance fee, offered me a map, and wished me well. My adventure had begun.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, the arid desert is very much alive. Entering from the north in the Mojave, driving down to the Colorado Desert, one experiences an impressive terrain that is home to hundreds, if not thousands of species of flora and fauna. Like a school boy I was hoping to see snakes and tarantulas – frustratingly there seemed to be none in the heat of the day. But the Joshua trees did not disappoint; some were much older and taller than I expected and looked strikingly beautiful against the clear blue sky.
Driving deeper into the park, soon enough mobile phone coverage was lost. I was entering genuine wilderness. Dominating the view were extraordinary boulder piles – groups of rocks that were so awesomely huge they looked otherworldly. Dating back millennia and sculpted by violent tectonic forces and water erosion, it was hard to comprehend the scale of these huge outcrops – some taller than a 10-storey building. Little wonder climbers love the challenge they pose.
Black Rock Canyon offered an abundance of Joshua trees and desert shrubs. For the one of the best vistas in the park, I drove to Keys View. It’s a dead-end, but well worth the detour for the spectacular panoramas across the Coachella valley, and in the far distance, the crumpled terrain of the famous San Andreas fault.
Most of the roads are paved and in excellent condition, making it easy to explore in a normal rental car. If you have a 4x4, then you can be a little more adventurous, taking the dirt tracks to places like Covington Flats where huge juniper, pinyon pine and Joshua trees grow - and the landscape was so still that one could feel the silence.
Heading from the elevated north to south affords you amazing road trip views, the kind you can really only get in the States – the open highway stretching to the horizon, surrounded by wilderness, framed by mountains.
Before leaving the park, as you enter the Colorado Desert, make a point to stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden. There’s a self-guided trail through a mass of these golden cacti that look spectacular against the backdrop of the mountains beyond. It was here I met a park ranger, who assured me that roads are regularly patrolled to identify people in difficulty.
0 to 50
It was early June when I visited, yet already temperatures were climbing to almost 50 degrees centigrade. Surprisingly the dry heat was very manageable. Yet if you want to hike or camp, then autumn is the time to visit, or spring when the desert begins to bloom. During winter the night temperatures can plummet to freezing.
The road trip through the park from the high desert to the south is easily done in a day, yet there is so much to see you’ll want to take advantage of the multi-access pass and come back another time during your holiday.
Just remember, once in the park, you are pretty much on your own apart from maybe seeing the occasional park ranger or fellow visitor. There are no restaurants; nowhere to buy water and no phone coverage – this is wild country. I suppose the advice I had at the start of the day wasn’t so alarmist after all.