Joshua Tree National Park


Photo courtesy of Ginger Duncan

I was finally in Southern California. It took me a long time to get there. And I don’t mean that in a metaphorical I’d-been-waiting-all-my-life kind of way, I mean my flight was cancelled and my travel delayed by 7 hours. I’d flown south for a much needed break from my gray city life in Portland, and to visit my good friend Shonna who was living in Newport Beach for work. We’d lived together in Portland and she was always my go-to companion for hiking, camping, and general adventuring. I was excited to get out and explore the desert.

Our visit to Joshua Tree National Park came toward the end of my trip, after a magical whirlwind of a weekend in LA (with Backwords co-founder, Matt Kulisch). The drive from Newport was just over two hours and the familiarity of being in Shonna’s truck on the way to a piece of wilderness was comforting. Just as it had felt perfect to be exploring a new big city with Matty, it felt equally perfect to be far away from that big city with Shonna.

Photo courtesy of Ginger Duncan

It’s hard to explain the surreality of a forest (field?) of Joshua Trees, and equally difficult to capture the sense in a photo. It felt a little like being on a different planet. The trees seemed perfectly spaced, their gnarled arms and balled up fists stretching skyward. We pulled off at the first picnic area after the park entrance to climb on one of the famed boulder piles and evaluate hiking options. We only had one day in the park – everything on that trip was a bit condensed – and we knew we’d be losing our light around five o'clock. We chose a couple small nature trails and drive-by sights, and one longer trail to explore.

Joshua Tree National Park was established as a National Monument in 1936 thanks to the efforts of Minerva Hoyt, a resident of Pasadena, who was passionate about desert plants. It didn’t received designation as a National Park until 1994. At present it is 792,623 acres with 591,624 of those designated as wilderness. Because it’s located at the meeting point of the higher, cooler Mojave desert and lower, hotter Colorado desert, it covers a vast number of environments and ecosystems including dry lakes, sand dunes, mountain ranges, and oases. As we drove farther into the park, we left the boulders behind and found a flatter, sandier landscape.

Photo courtesy of Ginger Duncan

The Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail seemed to take us through a new scene with every turn. We commented on the constant changes and alternated taking photos of each other with Joshua Trees and other Yucca plants – the cloudy landscape of the Great Basin reaching north in the background. As we rounded the loop back toward the truck, the sky cleared and the sun was just starting to set. The scene was awash in the kind of light that only winter somewhere warm can provide: a buoyant mustard glow. The trees cast sharp black shadows.

We made a few more stops on the way to the north exit. I snapped more photos of boulder formations, and we jogged through the shady parts of a short nature trail – the sun was taking the temperature with it. Our last stop was “The Arch” – aptly named – which was accessed through the White Tank Campground. The campground itself consisted of tent sites tucked in among an enormous boulder field. We wandered and scrambled and eventually separated when my longer legs made a difficult clamber that Shonna couldn’t follow.

Photo courtesy of Ginger Duncan