Stop 13: Joshua Tree

Updated 1/18/2016 to add this video: Joshua Tree Interview and Hike

In late June of 2014, on our big Lilly Grant journey out west, we left the Salton Sea, a place we thought we’d hate but kind of loved, for Joshua Tree National Park. For some reason, I thought I would be totally in love with the place based on my research. The last few days had showered us with surprises, though, so I began to fear I might not fall for Joshua Tree after all. As we drove through the desert, we got another quick glimpse of Palm Springs, then Yucca Valley, the town of Joshua Tree, then the city of Twentynine Palms, before we turned off the main road and into the National Park. We were kind of surprised at how big of a population this section of desert seemed to support. Again, this trip challenged my preconceived notions.

When we arrived, we went straight to the Visitors Center for my interview. In retrospect, it might be better to spend a day exploring and learning about a park before conducting an interview. I feel like I would have more interesting questions if I did that. I’ll keep it in mind the next time someone hands me $10,000 and tells me to go learn stuff.

Cactus garden outside the Visitors Center

The woman who greeted us was not Carey Goldstein, the Ranger we had scheduled to meet with, but she went to get him for us. Then she talked to Kieran for a while about the Junior Ranger program, as Carey and I discussed how we’d conduct the interview. I don’t know how we missed out on this as we went through all these National Parks, since they all have a Jr. Ranger program, but we never took the time to try it out. She gave Kieran a book and he spent the next two days using it to explore the park and learn. It was fabulous! We all learned a lot from the program and Kieran really felt proud the next morning when we returned to the Visitors Center, and Ranger Carey swore him in as a Junior Ranger, giving him his brass shield and a book about Joshua Trees.

Cactus garden, again

We decided to conduct the interview out on the patio in the shade, but it was still quite hot there! Ranger Carey gave me a quick history of the geology of Joshua Tree, which isn’t as complex as some parks we’ve visited, but includes some of the oldest rock in the American west! Despite the lack of complexity, I still was momentarily confused about it because I’m used to Indiana’s geology, and am still a novice to the subject in general. Joshua Tree National Park has only two major types of rocks. A mottled, dark-colored rock called Pinto Gneiss, which is very very old (on the order of 1.7 billion years!) and a younger pale pink or yellow rock called monzogranite. The gneiss is on top, which means it should be younger, if these were sedimentary rock. Carey reminded me that the granite was igneous and resulted from magma intruding upward into this very old gneiss and folding it into mountains. Over the last 1.7 billion years, the gneiss has cracked and been eroded to expose the young granite beneath.

Ancient pinto gneiss

Carey also explained that the many fault lines that run through California are responsible for more than just earthquakes. As Rocio had explained at La Brea, the faults squeezed pockets of oil and tar up toward the surface, leading to the demise of many dire wolves and other large animals. Carey described the same process. The faults had pushed and diverted deep aquifers to the surface, resulting in desert oases around the Joshua Tree area.

Younger Monzogranite

When we asked Carey what we should do with our time at Joshua Tree (again… if you ask a ranger about a good hike, you won’t be disappointed), he challenged us a bit. He explained that Joshua Tree is not just about geology or the absolutely fascinating Joshua trees, themselves. It also exists to preserve the human history of the area. He said that since we were there to study geology, we should seek out the human history aspect instead. I hadn’t really thought to do that, but I’m glad we took him up on the challenge. He suggested several places to hikes to check out, but we finally decided on the Barker Dam trail. He also gave us some suggestions about choosing a campsite, which we followed and were quite glad we did. We talked about the wildlife at Joshua Tree and the problem of invasive plants, the history of humans in the area, the current land use around the park, and much more. I took a lot of Carey’s time, and I felt like I could have asked many more questions, but we really wanted to get out there and explore, so we concluded the interview.

We had left LA early in the day, cruised through Palm Springs to the Salton Sea and back, and conducted an interview, but we still had things planned for the day. We needed to make camp, take a hike, and make dinner before we could get some rest. The next day was set to be a long drive, so we needed to leave at a reasonable time, and we wanted to drive the Geology Route as well before we left Joshua Tree! Carey suggested we camp at Hidden Valley campground. It wasn’t where I had planned to stay, because I didn’t consider any place that didn’t have water. Of course, we were carrying plenty of water with us, I just have never camped in a place that didn’t have water (not an issue in Indiana). Actually, I had been very concerned about getting a campsite at this park, because they don’t do reservations. Some Yosemite sites are booked nearly a year in advance, so I was a bit worried about not getting a site. But of course, it wasn’t an issue at all. We got to the campgrounds, put our money ($15 for the night) in an envelope in the box, and picked our own site. Granite rock gets its name because it is made of grains. When you touch this monzogranite, it quickly becomes clear that the name makes sense, and so does the sport that draws so many people to Joshua Tree: rock climbing!

This guy loves to climb!

The site we chose had a huge granite wall that would block the morning sun (see we aren’t rookies on that aspect of camping, just the water thing!), and had a large flat area to put the tent. Anytime the boys weren’t actively helping set up camp, they were climbing in, on, and around the granite boulders. We set up camp quickly, grabbed our water bottles and cameras, and jumped back in the truck to head out for our hike. We didn’t have a long drive before we arrived at the trail head.

The boys at our campsite.

Our Hidden Valley campsite

We hit the trail just before sunset, and took headlamps along, just in case. We didn’t need them, but I must say, this sunset hike was one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever taken. It’s right up there with Colob Canyon at Capitol Reef NP, Devil’s Backbone/Lucifer’s Spine at Pine Hills in Shades State Park, or Trail #3 at Turkey Run State Park (Indiana friends will understand those last two). The trail was a loop and we went left at first. I think I snapped a photo of every Joshua tree for the first 15 minutes we walked. Kieran was busy checking off the plants and animals on the list in his Junior Ranger book. The Joshua “trees” are really relatives of yucca plants, which we have in Indiana (are they native to Indiana… must look this up later). This species of yucca just grows very tall! They are really hard to describe, but I hope the pictures will suffice. I think each Joshua tree is unique in a way that makes them seem more like people than like plants. I can’t really think of any other plant that has such an individualistic style, except maybe the oldest of the bristlecone pines.

One of many Joshua tree photos

Lots of Joshua trees

Seriously, I love these trees!

Tree of Life

I was totally geeking out trying to catch every Joshua tree with the sunset in the background, or sunlight streaming past the leaves when we reached a small cave-like indention in a rock wall. There was an interpretive sign that explained that the symbols drawn on the walls were made by ancient people who lived in the area. It was amazing to have such a connection to people who used this land to supply all their needs so long ago. As I read further, I found that the symbols had been painted over by some early Hollywood filmmakers who used them in a movie, but the original carvings didn’t show up well enough for their liking. This happened before the National Park Service was around to provide protection for the cultural heritage of this area. What a shame, and restoration of an artifact like that is really difficult, if not impossible.

Ancient drawings

We continued from the cave through a low basin in which we saw some lizards and a jackrabbit. Here is some video of our jackrabbit friend.


We checked several species of cactus and a couple of birds off the list in this area as well. The trail began an ascent and there was a French-speaking family coming the opposite direction. As we went up, we noticed some desert bighorn sheep high above us on a ridge. We could only see their outline against the fading red sky. We pointed them out to the French family who told us the sheep had just been at the dam. The family showed us some fantastic pictures they had taken of the sheep up close! We got some good shots of them as well before we went up to the dam itself.

Bighorn sheep

Three, or so sheep

The dam had been built by some people of European descent who used this area to graze their cattle. The cows needed water, so they built a couple of dams to capture the little rainwater that falls on this area. We climbed around the boulders in this area for a while before following the trail through the little slot canyon where we finally realized what scrub oaks were, thanks to Kieran and his Junior Ranger book (they’re the trees with the tiny oak leaves that are all over the place, but we couldn’t seem to recognize them for the longest time)! It’s times like this that I think my degree in biology should have been in wildlife biology instead. I was trained to work in a lab, but that’s never been my job. I wish I knew more about plant identification!

So those are scrub oaks!

We followed the trail up and down over boulders, pretending to be sure-footed sheep, snapping ever richer sunset pictures along the way. When we were back near the trail head, we stopped to try to capture some bats on film. They were flying all over the place, snacking on various flying insects. It seemed like they were teasing us, coming in close, then turning sharply to go another way. We got a few blurs in some pictures, but not much more than that. It still makes a great memory, though I can’t share it with you.

This is where we saw the bats.

Back at camp, we slapped together a quick meal (smoked pork sandwiches and oranges, as usual), cracked a couple of cold drinks, and found a place to watch the sunset finish up. Here again, the rocks and Joshua trees made for some pretty spectacular pictures!

Back at camp

A little sliver of moon shined through the crook of a Joshua tree branch and reflected the light off the earth, making me think of the Rush song Earthshine.

Moon with Earthshine

There were people who had camped far enough away from us that we couldn’t really hear them, but we could see they had climbed up into the boulders and made a fire in a cave. It was surreal to see them moving around the fire up on the cliff with their shadows dancing against the stone.

Fire in the cave

All the while, we sat on one of our big boulders watching the sky. It was a quiet night and there were almost no man-made light sources to be seen. I tried taking some long exposure shots, but they weren’t capturing what I was seeing, so I put the equipment away and just enjoyed the view. David fell asleep on the picnic bench, but the boys and I laid on our backs on our boulder, about ten feet above camp and watched the occasional meteor. I don’t think we talked much that night, but it was a night I won’t soon forget.

Stop 13: Salton Sea

It’s about time I get back to this blogging thing. I’ve had one of the busiest years ever, this year. So I really didn’t put any effort into my blog since the fall. This year, I’ve taught three different types of classes, one of which I hadn’t taught in several years, and one that was entirely new to our school, so I spent a great deal of time writing curriculum for that class. Aside from that, I had two part-time jobs, and our oldest graduated from high school. I wish someone had told me to expect to spend about $1000 on all the odds and ends that come with being a senior… SAT test, college applications, housing application, buying a cap and gown, etc. etc. etc. And more than the money, the time… honors nights, band awards nights, all the “last times he’ll be doing this and that.” I guess I knew all of these things were coming, but I wasn’t really ready for it. It’s definitely been a bittersweet and busy year. BUT I am determined to get all of our experiences from what has come to be known as the BIG TRIP down before the memories fade too much. We’ll see how that goes!

After we left the California coast, we drove a little way inland to Ontario, California. We spent the night at a hotel near the airport. When we got up in the morning, we grabbed breakfast and headed to visit a place I had been curious about for many years. The Salton Sea is not known for its geologic history or its beauty, but I just HAD to see it. I had learned about it because I teach Environmental Science. Living east of the Mississippi, I think of agriculture and irrigation differently than people out west do. In the eastern part of the US, farmers can generally use rivers, reservoirs, or aquifers to water their crops when needed, but they can also count on some rain during the growing season as well. Farmers in California can’t just turn to abundant natural (or man-made in the case of reservoirs) fresh water sources. They have to work a little harder. Diversion of the Colorado River has been the primary source of water for California’s growers for a long time now. It continues to be a concern because the cities at the mouth of the river frequently get no water from upstream. This also means there is also no sediment replenishment, which is a concern at the north end of the Gulf of California (APES students will want to review this later on).

The story of the Salton Sea goes something like this: In the early 1900’s, a water diversion project mistake caused the Colorado to be completely diverted into a large, low, desert Basin, that had previously been filled with water, but had evaporated, leaving behind a layer of salt about fifteen feet deep. By the time the flow was stopped and the Colorado returned to its banks, the basin was filled to a great depth, and it became known as the Salton Sea. It quickly attracted a large population of people who built homes on the seashore and enjoyed the desert sun and beautiful water. People stocked the sea with tilapia and other sport fish. The water allowed for lots of agriculture, so fruit growing became a booming business. But the basin didn’t have great soil, so lots of fertilizer had to be used. And in the early to mid-1900’s, there were few public concerns about pesticide use, so those were used in high concentration as well. The Salton Sea being a basin, had no outlet so all the agricultural runoff from the area ran into it. The hot desert sun evaporated the water, but not the dissolved chemicals (as you will remember from discussions of distillation in chemistry class). There were also no natural tributaries that would bring fresh water into the Sea. Over the years, the fertilizers and pesticide concentrations in the Sea rose to levels that killed off fish and caused algal blooms, which tend to cause dissolved oxygen levels to drop when aerobic bacteria decompose them. Low dissolved oxygen levels also kill fish. (AP Environmental Science students should stop reading and go review “cultural eutrophication” now.) At this point, the Sea began to have a characteristic stench of dead fish. This problem didn’t go away, in fact, the Sea continued to evaporate and the shoreline receded to reveal new beaches, not of sand, but of barnacle shells and fish bones. The property values declined drastically, and the population fled.

When we were leaving Ontario, CA (basically an eastern suburb of LA), and heading toward the Salton Sea, I tried to explain to David and the boys why I wanted to go see this place. I warned them that it would probably smell awful, and might not be too pretty. They grumbled that it seemed like something we could skip, but I insisted we go. We drove through Palm Springs, which reminded me a bit of Las Vegas… lots of glitz and excess in the middle of the desert. Seemed like a big waste of resources to me, but I was intrigued by the MANY MANY MANY windmills and solar panels. At least they are getting some of their energy in a renewable manner. We pretty much blew through town without the opportunity to get to know the city better, so maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake.

Near Palm Springs, CA

As we continued south, we began to see plantations of orange trees and palm trees, which I later realized were date palms. The fruiting parts of the tree were wrapped with netting to keep the dates from falling on the ground (or is it to keep critters from eating them??). When we arrived at the Salton Sea, we drove to the sign that cheerfully said “Welcome to Salton City” and turned down the main street.

Welcome to Salton CIty

The community looked like the homes were built in the 50’s or 60’s. They were moderately-sized ranch houses, some well-kept, and others slightly disheveled. But many lots either never had houses built on them, or the homes were torn down. Only about two-thirds of the lots had homes on them, and there didn’t seem to be a pattern to explain which did and which did not. A small K-12 school building appeared to serve the community. We drove to the marina and beach, which appeared to be placed in the wrong spot. It was obvious that the shoreline had been higher in the past, and the marina was far too shallow. There were no boats at the docks. We parked in the middle of the beach (there was no parking lot) and got out. The smell was overwhelming. We walked toward the beach and tried to avoid stepping on the fish skulls.

Hazy view of the Salton Sea

The water was beautiful and had a haze over it that made me think the sunsets there were probably gorgeous. Normally when we go to a beach, we toss off our shoes and run to put our toes in the water. I didn’t even feel the need to tell the boys not to do it here.

Guess which scout camp song this place brings to mind.

At the water line, there were thick mats of bacteria that reminded me of small versions of the stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia, which gave scientists clues about the first life on Earth. There were some long-legged shore birds that kept flying too close to us and screeching. I finally realized they were probably trying to scare us away from their nest. It didn’t take long before I found a few well camouflaged eggs sitting out in the open among the fish bones and shells.

Black-necked stilts (I think)

Eggs among vertebrae and barnacles

We took some pictures, but didn’t stay long. In all, we were probably in Salton City for 45 minutes, but I didn’t see a single soul there. For those who are interested, for $99 a month, you can own a lot there in seven years. It almost seems like a good deal.

When traveling with your children, it is impossible to predict which locations will make lasting memories for them. David took a picture of Evan staring out over the water, looking very pensive. Months later, I found the picture and thought it was a really good one. A little while later, Evan was writing his college application essay and what he wrote came as a bit of a shock to me. I’ll share it here with his permission:

Evan at the Salton Sea, photo by David Kern

As surprising as it may be, the place in which I experience the most contentment I have only been to once. The Salton Sea in California is my destination of choice for any vacation. The Salton Sea is surrounded by ghost towns composed of broken down buildings, the scent of dead fish, and an overarching air of complete, deathly silence, aside from the crunching of fish bones as you walk atop the “sand”. All of this would normally act as a deterrent, but it draws me in. Just like a good horror novel, the back-story behind this place sets the mood for visitors.

The Salton Sea was the result of an awful mistake in the diversion of the Colorado River. The men working on the project did not expect the massive amount of flooding that came their way in the spring of 1905. Via miscalculation of the vast quantity of water, this flooding overwhelmed the gates designed to keep the water from escaping, leaving the mighty Colorado to flow wherever she pleased. When they finally had stemmed the flow of this beast, the Salton Sea had already been born. Because of the generally high temperatures and low elevation, the Salton Sea became a massive hit among vacationers. This prosperity was very short-lived because the sea had no influx of fresh water. After about fifty years, the quality of water and life in the area declined and the vacationers began leaving. The sea’s salinity levels began rising thus making it harder for fish to survive. The water began to evaporate leaving the remains of fish bones as a sort of pseudo-sand. This is what is seen by passers-bye to this day.

I find the story of the Salton Sea from “birth” to “death” to be a horrific tale, but despite the grotesqueness, there is something beautiful hiding in those briny waters. Maybe it is the stagnant air. Perhaps even the backdrop of desert. Maybe the sheer idea of a boomtown that once was intrigues me. What it is about the Salton Sea that I find so remarkable, I cannot quite say. However, what I can say is this: it changed my viewpoint on life. The Salton Sea serves as a window into a possible future. Could it be showing a world after us? What we decide to do with the planet now is the only thing that creates a defined line between a prosperous world and a world like that of this environmental anomaly. Seeing the consequences of these actions made me realize that I should use this example as a reminder that the decisions I make in life can have a profound effect on not just my personal life, but on the world around me.

Also, I think this short video about the place is interesting and very well done. It is probably the biggest reason I wanted to see the Salton Sea with my own eyes. I didn’t quite see the desolation this video shows, but I have no doubt that some communities around the Sea are even more economically depressed than the one we visited. The man at the end who built/painted the “God is Love” monument died several months before our trip. I might have considered visiting that part of the Seashore had he still been alive, but it was farther out of our way, and we had plans to meet with a park ranger at Joshua Tree National Park that afternoon. So I’ll leave Ransom Riggs to share his bleak, but beautiful view of the Salton Sea with you.

The end.