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Joshua Tree Reprise

Started: 2020-02-28 22:32:40

Submitted: 2020-02-29 01:26:08

Visibility: World-readable

It's beautiful, in its own alien way.

On Tuesday, 18th February, while staying at a resort in Palm Desert, I staged a day-trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Kiesa was not interested in making the trip into the desert (to be fair, she spent a year living in the desert in Arizona so she's probably had her lifetime quota of desert), so I took the kids and Sharon and left Kiesa at the resort.

I merged onto westbound I-10, following the highway through the Coachella Valley, with the Little San Bernardino Mountains to my right and The Joshua Tree playing on the stereo. We passed wind turbines (and a sign advertising wind turbine tours), then turned off the interstate highway onto the state highway leading north, climbing out of the low Colorado Desert into the high Mojave Desert. I drove through the towns of the high desert clinging to the highway and stopped in the town of Joshua Tree at the eponymous national park visitor's center.

I took Julian through the exhibits at the visitor's center and tried to point out the things he might learn. He did, at least, seem to get something out of the two-minute video explaining the geology of the park's granite boulders -- in particular, how the granite was formed into the stacks of rocks that form the landscape today, looking very much like a gigantic dump truck piled a hundred-meter-high pile of room-sized boulders.

Julian with a Joshua Tree
Julian with a Joshua Tree

We headed into the park itself and stopped on a convenient pull-out, high on a desert plain. We got out and marveled at the Joshua trees, stretching out in every direction from Park Boulevard, each one beautiful in its own alien way.

Park Boulevard flanked by Joshua trees
Park Boulevard flanked by Joshua trees

I continued down Park Boulevard and pulled into Hidden Valley. I found a parking space within sight of a picnic table, which we claimed for lunch.

Sharon, Julian, and Calvin on a rock outside Hidden Valley
Sharon, Julian, and Calvin on a rock outside Hidden Valley

We set out on the one-mile loop trail through Hidden Valley, an enclosed valley allegedly used by cattle rustlers. Julian led the way and followed a social train into a small nearby valley where he could scramble up the rounded granite boulders.

Julian walks through Hidden Valley
Julian walks through Hidden Valley

The coarse granite provided a great climbing surface: it gripped my shoes like magnets, almost begging me to climb. Julian scrambled easily up the rocks; I stayed close behind, to spot him if he fell (he didn't, but it made me feel better), and occasionally suggest an easier route he didn't see.

Julian scrambles up a boulder
Julian scrambles up a boulder

We reached a dead-end on the side of a series of short cliffs that I couldn't see an easy way down. While surveying potential routes, my camera lens cap fell ten meters below me, banging on the rocks as it dropped; I briefly considered whether I should attempt to retrieve it but decided to write it off instead of attempting to take my entire group down the series of cliffs. I pointed Julian in the opposite direction, back down the way we'd come, by promising an ascent of the large rock fin on the other side of the tiny valley. (After consulting the topographic map I dubbed it "Point 4320" after its elevation, given by the last closed contour line at the summit.)

Calvin sits on a boulder overlooking Hidden Valley
Calvin sits on a boulder overlooking Hidden Valley

We made our way down the rocks and began our ascent of the fin. Julian made it about two-thirds of the way to the summit, to a local dip in the rock formation, and declared he was done. Calvin and Sharon continued their ascent, reaching the bottom of a crack near the summit, where I suggested that perhaps they turn around because the final pitch to the summit was sufficiently steep that I was worried about Calvin's ability to down-climb. They agreed, and descended from there.

Sharon and Calvin on Point 4320 overlooking Hidden Valley
Sharon and Calvin on Point 4320 overlooking Hidden Valley

From my perch at Julian's stopping point on the fin, I could see into Hidden Valley, protected from the surrounding valley by a ring of granite.

Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park
Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

We descended the fin, made our way out of the side valley, and resumed our circuit of the main Hidden Valley trail. Julian walked fitfully, running ahead at some points and then stopping to investigate some random feature at length. At one point I suggested he hug a Joshua tree; he agreed.

Julian hugs a Joshua tree
Julian hugs a Joshua tree

The rest of the hike meandered through the valley, completing a circuit between the boulders and sand and scrub oak and Joshua trees and cactus and yucca forming the narrow valley. Calvin amused himself by playing tic-tac-toe in the sand with Sharon, and then attempted to invent even-more-elaborate versions with larger grids and more players, each with their own symbols; but his play-testing seemed to indicate some problems with the games where players could win on a five-by-five grid with only three symbols in a row.

Julian and Calvin in Hidden Valley
Julian and Calvin in Hidden Valley

By the time we returned to the car, we'd spent an hour-and-a-half to hike the one-mile loop (including a substantial detour scrambling on rocks in the side valley). I quickly abandoned any hope I had at taking a second, longer hike (to the Wall Street Mill), and continued our circuit driving through the park.

Our next stop was Skull Rock, a granite formation carved by wind to look kind of like a skull, from precisely the right perspective if one squinted enough. Calvin seemed less than entirely impressed, because the illusion broke down from the wrong perspective.

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Here the boys scrambled around the rocks before we continued on our way.

Julian, Jaeger, and Calvin in Joshua Tree National Park
Julian, Jaeger, and Calvin in Joshua Tree National Park

Our next stop was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Julian was not impressed by the prospect of seeing cactus (possibly because I had warned that one should not touch the cactus, because the cactus does not like to be touched and it will fight back), so Calvin and Sharon wandered around the garden while I wrestled Julian out of the car and onto the sand next to the trailhead, where he refused to go further until Calvin and Sharon were returning.

Sun over cholla cactus garden
Sun over cholla cactus garden

At least everyone in my group heeded the warning to not touch the cactus, so we did not need to use the emergency tweezers chained to the fence next to the parking lot or the other first-aid supplies provided in case one was insufficiently cautious with the cactus. While I was trying to convince Julian to walk into the cactus garden I consoled myself with the fact that I was not, at least, trying to pull cactus spines from my shoe like someone was at that very moment.

Julian, Sharon, and Calvin walk through the cholla cactus garden
Julian, Sharon, and Calvin walk through the cholla cactus garden

We continued our drive through the park, stopping by the octillo patch for a closer look at my favorite Colorado Desert shrub; but by this point Calvin was only interested in looking from the car, so we drove on, continuing our circuit through the desert valley, unmarked except for the tiny stretch of asphalt we were driving on. We left the park and merged onto I-10 westbound, joining the truck traffic heading towards Los Angeles. As we descended below sea level in Indio, I pointed this out to Calvin. We returned to our resort villa late in the afternoon, just in time for a leisurely supper before retiring for the night.

For more photos of our visit to Joshua Tree National Park, see Photos on 2020-02-18.

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