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.

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