There are a lot of books, blogs and spiritual enthusiasts that talk about bucket lists these days. Goal-getters, manifesters and the like. While I certainly subscribe to the practice of gratitude and setting goals I’ve never been one to maintain a “bucket list”. I guess the mantra that’s always meant something to me is to follow your desires, despite how impulsive or careless they might seem. If it feels good do it, I always say. Or was that an overplayed Sloan song?
Despite not having a list of items I feel compelled to check off before I fade to ashes someday, there are certain things that I fixate on. I guess you could interpret that as a bucket list, but I like to think of them as things I’m mysteriously drawn to as a result of some unspoken force. That probably sounds a little crazy. Maybe it is.
I’ve been obsessed with Joshua Tree for as long as I can remember. The diversity of the environment, the jaw dropping landscapes and the gnarly yucca trees made famous by four Irish lads long ago. It’s always felt like a universe away, even though I’ve lived within a 3-hour flight of California’s Mojave Desert most of my life, where a portion of the park is situated. Now that I live in Los Angeles, it was high time I explored this place I’ve fantasized about for decades.
Before committing to a multi-night stay in one of the campgrounds, I decided it was better to tackle the park in a day trip from Palm Springs to get my bearings and better understand the climate. No matter what time of year you plan on venturing into Joshua Tree, always make sure you have the right supplies with you to stay safe and hydrated.
We entered at the East entrance from Highway 10, which is exactly where you want to start if you intend on traveling across to the other side of the park in one day. The road leading up to it was surprisingly desolate with little to no traffic (like, we maybe encountered 3 other cars), despite being a long weekend. Which really appealed to my Joshua Tree fantasy of feeling like you’re the only person on the planet.
We arrived at the Cottonwood Visitor Center right when it opened and the helpful rangers gave us a map and pointed out all the keys points of interest, based on our 12-hour timeframe. If you have time, start the day by hiking the easy 1.5-mile loop to Cottonwood Spring before getting deep into the park. The spring, which was used for centuries by the Cahuilla Indians, is the result of earthquake activity and the trailhead begins next to the Visitor Center.
Our first stop was the Ocotillo Patch, which immediately transported us to what seemed like an underwater garden. The tall, green plants looked like soft coral swaying in an undercurrent amidst the Mojave’s Pinto Mountains. Great photo op for street signs that indicate how crazy and windy the route is.
A few more minutes up the road and you reach the Cholla Cactus Garden, which may have been my favorite part of the park, based on the snap-happy amount of photos I took. This area of Joshua Tree is otherworldly and the colors are so vibrant it feels like you’re looking through an Instagram filter (#nofilterneeded). Walk the 15-minute loop – or longer, depending on how long you marvel at these prickly wonders – and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. We spotted a rather friendly desert hare that was practically posing for us.
Continuing on, before we knew it, the landscape shifted from sun and sand to moody clouds and mile-high boulders. Each piece gently and strategically placed, as if by some giant being, balancing against the laws of physics. We stopped at Jumbo Rocks to stretch our legs and determined this was the spot to camp next time we make our way to Joshua Tree. The rock formations there create perfect little alcoves, offering a much-needed reprieve from the heat of the day. Slightly beyond the campgrounds you’ll reach Skull Rock, another great photo op if you feel like climbing into the nostril and hamming it up as my husband did. Be on the lookout for lizards here. We spotted a few desert iguanas basking on the warm rocks.
As you continue through Sheep Pass – watch for bighorn sheep, as the name would suggest – Ryan Mountain comes into view. One of the highest points in the park and great for a more challenging hike with steep terrain, once again a photo op was necessary as my husband’s name is Ryan. This definitely tops our list for our next visit.
Finally, we made it to Hidden Valley, perhaps one of the most photographed and familiar places in the park due to the abundance of yucca trees (also known as Joshua trees) and a teeny, tiny little album in the 80s. You know when you dream of what a place might look like or feel like, and when you get there, it’s often slightly different than you imagined? Sometimes better, other times a little lackluster. Hidden Valley was exactly what I had envisioned Joshua Tree to be. Spellbinding, spine-tingling and, if nothing else, a little eerie. Make sure you have some time to spend there just to wander. No maps, phones or distractions. Just be. And if you’re looking for the tree made famous by U2, it’s not actually inside Joshua Tree, but several hours away…if it’s still standing today.
Obviously, after traipsing about all day in the various temps and terrain, dodging rattle snakes and other unfavourable desert characters, you’ll have earned yourself a cold one. Belly up to the bar with the locals at the Joshua Tree Saloon, less than a mile past the western entrance to the park, until it’s time to head back for sunset.
A lot of people recommended that we head to Keys View for sunset, which has a great view of the valley below. But, if you’re looking for that iconic Joshua Tree experience, with yucca trees dotting the horizon as the blazing sun dips below the Bernadino Mountains, head to Quail Springs and stake your claim on one of the many boulders to soak in the last seconds of magic hour. It might just change your life.
Suggested soundtrack: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits, Queens of the Stone Age Like Clockwork and The Doors Morrison Hotel.
What to bring: A cooler with a minimum of 2 litres of water per person. We also packed sandwiches, granola bars and fruit. Wear a hat, sunscreen and make sure you have something warm to layer on after the sun goes down. Otherwise, a camera, good tunes and a tank full of gas are all you need to make the trip. Oh, and toilet paper…just in case. But the park has several rest stops with outhouses.
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