SW Deserts #02 – Joshua Tree National Park
Desert Southwest #02 – Joshua Tree NP
This is part 2 of a 3,246 mile driving trip we took in early March 2020 to the desert SW of the USA. On this trip we visited Lone Pine, Alabama Hills and Manzanar all on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains in California, Joshua Tree National Park in California, Tombstone Arizona, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, White Sands National Park also in New Mexico and a quick run through Painted Desert – Petrified forest National Park in Arizona.
This installment is for the Joshua Tree part of the trip.
Entire Trip map
After leaving the Manzanar Internment Camp near Lone Pine, we headed south, back down US395, through Barstow and down to 29 Palms just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is 50 miles east of Los Angeles but coming in via the Owens valley we bypassed all the LA chaos.
Manzanar/Lone Pine to 29 Palms/Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park
We spent 2 nights in Twentynine Palms giving us one full day in the park. We limited our visit to the northwestern portion of the park which is where most of the major sights to see are located. The side by side towns of Joshua and Twentynine Palms border the north edge of the park on its western side with an entrance road into the park form each. These towns have copious options for hotels and restaurants and are quite convenient to the park.
Joshua Tree Park Map
Our Route in Joshua Tree NP
Joshua Tree National park straddles two desert ecosystems in Southern California – The Mojave and the Colorado deserts. The park entered the National Park system in 1994 but had been a National Monument since 1936. The park itself is roughly 12,000 square miles in area making it slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. But, unlike Rhode Island, it doesn’t get 2 Senators or its own 2 members of congress.
Camping in the 1950’s
As a kid in the 1950’s our family visited the then National Monument many times. We always seemed to camp in the Belle campground and as I recall it was site 7 (or maybe 9). Belle was (and still is) a dry campground. The only stuff you can drink is what you bring in with you. There is no piped in water. Not too far down the road is the only other campground whose name I remember from the mid 1950’s which is White Tank. White tank always intrigued me as a kid for two reasons. First of all, in that time period, TV and movies were ripe with World War II shows and in all my watching of those shows I never did see a white tank – and no army tanks of any kind could be found in the White Tank campground either. The other intrigue was that White Tank had water spigots (still no flush toilets though) –so why we kept camping in Belle and having to schlep over to White Tank every day to fill our green army water tanks – you know the kind that you’ve seen on the back of army jeeps in WWII movies – was a mystery. My dad shopped a lot in Army-Navy surplus stores for our camping gear.
Belle Campground, Site 7 (or is this 9?)
The Meeting to Two Deserts
The Southwest US, once you get away from the coast consists of a patchwork of deserts with lots of different names. However, the main ones tend to fall into a gap between the Sierra Nevada mountains going north from Barstow and the Santa Ana range going south from Los Angeles. These tend to form the western edge of the desert region as they block the moisture coming in from the Pacific Ocean. Now, one could argue that the Coast Ranges going from Los Angeles to near the Oregon border cause the big California Central Valley to also be a desert region and that is true. However, with the entire central valley being irrigated farm land it usually is not included when we talk about the deserts of the American Southwest.
As the wet Pacific air rises to get over these formidable mountain ranges it loses its moisture as rain or snow on the western flank of the mountains making what’s to the east of these mountains a desert. On the east side of these deserts are basically the Rocky Mountains. This range blocks the very wet air masses coming up from the Gulf of Mexico from getting to these deserts. This leaves the middle between these ranges quite dry which is why they are deserts. The difference between these deserts is mostly due to altitude but also other meteorological factors that cause each to have a different ecosystem of flora and fauna.
The two deserts we’re talking about in terms of Joshua Tree national park are the Mojave desert and the Colorado section of the Sonora Desert. For reference the southern end of the Sonora Desert is well down in Mexico and includes all but the NW corner of Baja California. In Mexico it goes up both sides of the Gulf of California all the way to Joshua Tree at its northern end. It extends east covering the southern half of Arizona three quarters of the way to New Mexico. The north western section of this desert is called the Colorado Desert. The Mojave Desert picks up at the north end of the Sonora Desert and continues up the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to Death Valley. To the west it goes as far as Lancaster near Los Angeles and to the east it goes across the southern tip of Nevada to Arizona – including Las Vegas.
Map of major desert areas in SW USA and northwestern Mexico
The Sonora Desert is called “low desert” and typically resides below 3,000 feet elevation. The Mojave is “high desert” and is typically above 3,000 feet. Joshua Tree National park straddles this boundary. Most of the eastern part of the park is in the Colorado Desert portion of the Sonora Desert and the western part of the park is in the Mojave Desert.
As you go east from the boundary between the two deserts toward the Colorado River and Arizona, you lose elevation and as a result the temperatures get higher. And going the other way you gain elevation and there are cooler temperatures, more rainfall and thus more vegetation. But in the summer, either way you go, it can get damn hot so Joshua Tree is best visited in the late fall through spring.. On our trip at the beginning of March it was quite pleasant. Not too hot for hikes and no need to carry a jacket in the evenings.
The park is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca Brevifolia) which are native to the Mojave Desert but can certainly also be found in some portions of the Sonora Desert where the elevation is right. But, first a bit of history. You may be wondering how they got such a name. The story goes that upon seeing them, Mormon settlers were reminded of a biblical story of Joshua reaching his hands to the sky. Sounds to me more like what a Saguaro cactus looks like but what do I know.
Although Joshua trees are found throughout the Mojave Desert including parts of Death Valley and along many of the highways that traverse the southwest corner of the US, the park exemplifies Joshua Tree forests found throughout the area.
Joshua Tree Forest at Juniper Flats
Lone Joshua Tree casts its shadow
Joshua Tree framing small boulder pile
A Bit of History
The earliest known residents of the area were the people of the Pinto Culture (8000 to 4000 BCE). These were hunter-gatherers but little else is known about them. Of course then the climate was much different than today so there was much more to hunt and gather than what we see today. The Pinto’s were followed by the Serrano, the Cahuilla, and the Chemehuevi peoples, also hunter-gatherers who lived around what is now the town of Twentynine Palms. A fourth group, the Mojave, used the local resources as they traveled along trails between the Colorado River and the Pacific coast.
In 1772, a group of Spaniards led by Pedro Fages were the first Europeans to lay eyes on Joshua trees. This occurred while pursuing native converts to Christianity who had run away from being enslaved at the mission in San Diego. By 1823, the year Mexico achieved independence from Spain, a Mexican expedition from Alta (now Los Angeles), is thought to have explored what later became the park. Three years later, Jedediah Smith led a group of American fur trappers and explorers along the nearby Mojave Trail, and others soon followed. Two decades after that, the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican–American War (1846–48) and took over about half of Mexico's original territory, including California and the future parkland.
White settlers began moving in around 1870 (5 years after the end of the Civil War). In 1888, a gang of cattle rustlers moved into the region and hid stolen cattle in a box canyon at the aptly named Cow Camp.
Throughout the Anglo occupation, water has been in very short supply in this part of the world. There are no flowing rivers or lakes and what little rain falls quickly disappears into the sandy desert floor. Every now and again though a rock jumble forms sort of a basin where rain water collects but that’s about it. These large puddles are called “tanks” (Ahhh, so that’s what the “tank” part of White Tank Campground is). As ranchers moved in during this time they looked for these tanks and oftentimes helped out nature with crude dams to allow the water level in the tank to go higher. Sometimes they just built a dam to make a tank where there was none before. But, they also dug wells which was hit and miss at best.
One of the hikes we took was out to Barker Tank which is one of those created by a dam and is somewhat larger than is typical of the area.
Barker Tank. You can see on the rocks how high the water can get – but evidentially not often
Adobe walls form cattle watering trough just below Barker Dam
Between the 1860s and the 1940s, 300 small pit mines populated what would become the park area. The most successful, the Lost Horse Mine, produced gold and silver worth about $5 million in today's dollars. Another, whose name seems to come right out of an old John Wayne movie is The Desert Queen gold mine .
The park itself got its start in 1936, when a local committee persuaded state and federal governments to protect the area. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Joshua Tree National Monument at about 1,289 sq mi. In 1950, the size of the park was reduced by about 453 sq mi to open land to more mining. Then in 1994 the monument was redesignated as a national park under the Desert Protection Act which also added 366 sq mi. In 2019 (hey, that was just last year!), the park expanded by another 7.1 sq mi under a bill included in the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.
In addition to Joshua tree forests, the western part of the park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California's deserts. The dominant feature being mounds of bare rock broken up into loose boulders perfect for rock climbing and scrambling. Many times the flat land between these boulder piles is forested with Joshua trees which together with the boulder piles make the landscape otherworldly.
Boulder Pile near Cap Rock
Looking for a way down
And with such a wealth of these boulder piles strewn about, it was only natural that some would obtain unique and even human or animal like shapes – even more so when you’ve been out in the desert sun too long.
Mushroom (left) and bear or lion (right)
Rear View of an elephant
The numerous boulder piles are wonderful for scrambling around for those of any skill level. There are flat sandy pathways between for the less ambitious, couch sized boulders for the little ones, and on up to those requiring ropes and technical climbing skills to get to the top.
One area formed by these boulder piles is Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley is a 55 acre area which at that time was full of grasses and is surrounded by natural rock formations on all sides except for one gap which formed the entrance to this natural corral. The story goes that in the late 1870’s, brothers Bill and Jim McHaney formed a gang called the McHaney Gang. With the help of a little bit of dynamite they closed off the one exit except for a narrow passageway where they could put up a fence and gate. The McHaney gang rustled cattle from Arizona and horses from California and drove the herds into this area for rebranding and eventual sale in other states.
Steep walls kept cattle from wander out of Hidden Valley
The grass in Hidden Valley is now gone
Trail leading to narrow gap in the walls surrounding Hidden Valley
On to Tombstone
The next day, we headed east into Arizona and the town of Tombstone.
So, what happened in the world on our day in Joshua Tree and drive to Tombstone you may ask? Well, let’s see. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US is now at 217 but it’s still okay to fly to most of the world. Still no Shelter in Place orders or any large scale testing going on. A bit of Q&A screening at airports is taking place. Restaurants, movie theaters, bars, sporting events and concerts are all still operating as they had. And, the federal government is calling the COVID-19 a hoax, a Democratic plot and insisting it will be gone in a few weeks of its own accord.
I hope you enjoyed reading about our time on PEI and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them. PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)
Keywords: Barker Tank, Bear Rock, Belle Campground, blog, California, california desert, Cap Rock, Colorado Desert, dan hartford photo, dantravelblogdesertsw2020, destert sw, Elephant rock, Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave Desert, Mushroom Rock, Scull rock, Sonora Desert, TwentyNine Palms, united states, White Tank Campground
Thanks for the photos of Joshua Tree National Park. I like skeleton rock. It will be years before the park looks like this again. What a tragic year.
(note from Dan - other than a small 160 acre fire along the northern border of the park that may have crept into the park a little bit, there does not seem to have been any significant fires inside the park this year (so far). The fire being reported as devastating Joshua Tree Forest is not in Joshua Tree NP. It is in Mojave Desert Preserve, about 50 males north of Joshua Tree NP)
Thanks, again. Well done as always. With Covid-19, this is the only way I’m willing to travel
Wonderful desert shots! I really enjoyed the connection with your camping experience in the 1950's, I learned history and geography. Thanks for the great entry. You are a true artist.
Thanks for desert explanation....I did not know the details, just the names. Great shots of the forest and the rocks. Hard to call it forest, but it sure matches the definition! Great clear light for spectacular photos!
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