It feels like forever since we’ve posted because so much has been going on. First (and best) on the list is we got married on Oct. 10 in Des Moines and were able to celebrate for a week with family and friends! Then work kept us both busy right up to the Thanksgiving holiday. We decided to get out of town that Friday and head to Joshua Tree National Park – about a 2.5-hour drive from San Diego.
Nearly 558,000 acres of Joshua Tree are designated as wilderness, and the merging of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts creates unique microclimates with a variety of plants and topography. We couldn’t believe how varied the landscape was!
We wanted to make the most of the time we had, so we got an early start and arrived at the park around 11 a.m. with plenty of time to hike a few short trails, and one longer one. We entered the south side of the park from the Cottonwood Spring exit off I-10, and stopped at Cottonwood Visitor Center to pick up our park pass ($20 and good for 7 days).
From there, we drove north into the park – stopping at the Pinto Basin and then at the Cholla Cactus Gardens. The Pinto Basin is quite expansive and is said to be one of the best stargazing spots in the entire park on a clear night. The cactus “garden” is dominated by jumping cholla, named for its tendency to attach itself to the unwary. Such cool, yet odd-looking plants!
We moved on to our first, short hike of the day at White Tank campground where a half-mile trail led to the famous Arch Rock formation. It was so beautiful out there, yet easy to see how someone could easily get lost wandering in the desert because the landscape looks similar for as far as you can see.
Since it was lunchtime, we decided to take the road that runs west across the park and park at Keys View to enjoy our sandwiches. From almost 5,200 feet, we had expansive views of mountains and desert for miles, and supposedly the San Andreas Fault (though we couldn’t quite make that out). Two peanut butter sandwiches (and a few Snickers minis) later, we were fueled up for our big hike of the day – the Lost Horse Mine Loop & Mountain.
Billed as a “moderately strenuous” hike, the 6.2-mile loop sends you through soft sand trails among Joshua Trees, then winds its way up to the top of Lost Mine Mountain (elev: 5,313 feet), before rolling down toward the Lost Horse Mine. The mine represents the area’s gold prospecting and mining history; the mill and mine still stand today.
The hike took close to 3 hours, including the mine stop, and the sun was sinking low in the sky by the time we reached our Jeep at the trailhead. We decided to make one last stop within the park at the Hall of Horrors area at Sheep’s Pass before heading out for dinner. This is a popular spot for climbers, and it’s where we got our perfect sunset photo.
After a stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center on the north end of the park for a souvenir and to watch a video about the history of the area, we decided to try Pie for the People just one block away. Their by-the-slice pizza was amazing (and huge); one slice and a couple of breadsticks each, and we were stuffed! We checked into the Best Western Joshua Tree Hotel & Suites in Yucca Valley – super convenient, spacious rooms and a Jacuzzi tub (bonus!).
Our goal was to relax for a couple of hours, then grab hot chocolate and head back into the park for some stargazing around 9 p.m. Unfortunately, a full moon and cloudy skies severely limited what we could see, but we tried! We decided we would try to catch sunrise the next day instead.
The next morning started bright and early as we raced to get back into the park and find the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. The Hidden Valley area in the center of the park seemed to have the coolest Joshua Tree groupings that would make for a cool picture when backlit by the sun. We were right!
It was really cold, so we decided to do a final hike – a 1-mile trail loop to Barker Dam. Built around 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining use, the dam today forms a small rain-fed reservoir used by park wildlife. Bighorn sheep are often sighted in this area, though we didn’t see any on our hike.
The final hour was spent driving back south through the park to the exit … it was amazing how with the elevation decent we went from mountainous terrain to desert, something we hadn’t noticed as much on the drive up the day before. Joshua Tree is such a scenic place – we highly recommend spending some time there!
We’ve had a fun and adventurous 2015, and are looking forward to downtime later this month. Lots of races and fun planned for 2016, so stay tuned!
G & C