Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park.   The name always conjured up images of a strange desert landscape full of alien trees transplanted by fairytale characters.  Naturally, I had high expectations.  They were blown out of the water! This park was incredible for so many reasons that have nothing to do with the fantastical plant that gives the park its name.  Although seeing forests of Joshua Trees is reason enough to visit this southern California park.

We visited at a great time of year – the very end of October (yes, that means I’m a month behind on my posts).  The weather was warm enough during the day that light fleeces were all that was needed, except when they were tied around our waists while we were hiking.  As soon as the sun went down, it got cold.  It was in the low thirties at night, so we didn’t spend a lot of time out of our tent in the evening hours.  But, when we did spend some time in the cold night air, we were rewarded with the most brilliant sky I’ve seen on this trip.  We’ve been camping for eight months.  Without a doubt, Joshua Tree takes the prize for the most brilliant stars and inky skies we’ve seen.  It was not lost on me that the lack of moonlight added to this effect.  Like the Joshua Trees themselves, the night sky is reason enough to visit.

We expected to have our choice of campsites, given that the park has a generous number of sites and we were visiting in the middle of the week in the middle of the school year.  We were wrong!  Yes, there were plenty of spots from which we could choose, but many of the sites were already taken.  Some of the spots were filled with retired travelers, a few with families who appeared to be on long-term pilgrimages like us, but most of the campers were rock climbers.  Had I known more about the camel-colored rock formations pushing up from the desert floor like large drops of liquid not subject to gravity, this would not have been a surprise.  We set out to find a campsite that would protect us from the 60+ mile an hour winds that were predicted at night and found a site where we could set up our tent in a crevice between rocks and shrubs.  The wind may have howled, but we were snug and warmish all night long.

Campsite Success!

Campsite Success!

Alan’s ankle was beginning to feel better, so we were able to go on a number of small nature trails and a few proper hikes.  Van loves the nature trails, mainly because he loves running from sign to sign or number to number.  He was a little boy in heaven.  My favorite of the nature trails was our amble through the Cholla Cactus Garden.  The garden is situated in a part of the park where the Colorado Desert meets the higher, Mojave Desert.  There are many types of Cholla Cacti throughout the southwest, but these particular Cholla, the Teddy Bear Cholla, get their name for obvious reasons.

Teddy Bear Cholla, Johua Tree National Park

Teddy Bear Cholla, Johua Tree National Park

Just don’t cuddle them, or even get close to them.  If you brush against one with the slightest amount of skin or clothing, spines will jump off the plant and on to you.  This gives the cute but unfriendly plant its nickname, Jumping Cholla.  This was a case of making sure that our little Junior Ranger really stayed on trail.  Thankfully that’s the one rule about hiking in sensitive habitat that Van has really embraced.  Especially since he was working on obtaining yet another Junior Ranger badge.

We also took several hikes and nature walks through the Joshua Tree forests, in and around the magnificent rock formations, to see a small dam (a remnant from when this area received twice as much rain just a short century ago), and to see hypercolor Disneyified petroglyphs.  Shocking to think that this area, which receives so little rain, received twice as much a mere century ago.  It makes me wonder what this area will look like in another century, after climate change has an even more significant impact on the temperatures and rainfall in this area.

The most fascinating hike we took was to 49 Palms Oasis.  We hiked up and over a ridge through a dry desert landscape dotted with barrel cacti.  As we headed down into a valley, in the distance was a striking site.  A small cluster of green.  Palm trees in the middle of the desert!  Yes, I’ve seen plenty of palm trees in the middle of the desert before.  Typically in straight lines along streets, golf courses, and resorts.  But to see a natural palm oasis was something else.  What appeared to be a tiny cluster was actually quite large once we were hiking amongst the palms.  I can imagine how hikers in the hot summer must feel such relief in the shade of the fan palms.  And so I repeat myself, hiking to a true palm oasis is reason enough to come to Joshua Tree National Park.

49 Palm Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park

49 Palm Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park

My biggest lesson from visiting Joshua Tree is that the layperson’s view that a desert is devoid of life is categorically untrue.  Joshua Tree is an incredibly diverse biological environment.  Many of the plants were new to me, and I had such a blast learning about the myriad of plants we were living, hiking, and eating around and what each plant did to conserve water and thrive in this environment.  More surprising to me was the richness of color found in the plants.  I expected that the plants would mimic the colors of the rock and soil.  Instead, many of these plants stood out for their saturated colors against the tans and browns of the desert floor.

Deep Reds of a Barrel Cactus, Joshua Tree National Park

Deep Reds of a Barrel Cactus, Joshua Tree National Park

Greens of a Fan Palm, Joshua Tree National Park

Greens of a Fan Palm, Joshua Tree National Park

Our last day in the park coincided with Halloween.  We were not about to go trick or treating in the campground, so instead we celebrated by taking Van to Skull Rock.  Aptly named, indeed!

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Given the government shut-down, this was the first national park we had visited since the Pacific Northwest.  It was great to spend a few solid days in the outdoors – no traffic, smog, or crowds.  And since Van is growing up before our very eyes, he’s finally at the age that he can participate in the Junior Ranger activities with more understanding.  Although he had received two junior rangers badges at previous parks, this was the first park where he completed the activity booklet in order to earn a badge, bragging rights, and a fabulous book that he continues to read about Lilly the Joshua Tree.  The rangers were incredibly supportive and friendly with Van, which just added to how much we enjoyed Joshua Tree.  If you’re traveling to Southern California, spending a few nights camping and exploring this park should be very high on your agenda.  Aside from seeing friends, Joshua Tree was my clear favorite during our time in California.

From the Mountains to the Semi-Desert

The only thing that made me excited to leave Rocky Mountain National Park was our plans to visit our friends in the Breckenridge area (Silverthorne to be exact).  We had seen Rebekah and her son Rhyer this past Thanksgiving, but before that she and I had not seen each other since college!  Even though it had been so long since we’d spent any meaningful time together, within minutes it felt as if no time had passed.  Those are the best kinds of friendships!  Van had a blast playing with Rhyer.  He basically became a parrot, mimicking everything that Rhyer (who is a couple of years older) would do.  This was a huge benefit when it came to eating.  Van was keen to skip breakfast so that he could get extra time with the toys, but after seeing Rhyer eating a nectarine, it took no convincing to get Van to follow suit.  Healthy eating for the win!

On our first afternoon with Rebekah, we headed up to the nearby town of Leadville, which just so happens to be the highest incorporated town in the country.  As we were wandering around town and checking out her old stomping grounds, she thought it’d be a treat for Van to see the fire station.  Since she knows several of the local firefighters, we were able to take Van on a grand tour of all of the fire and rescue trucks.  And these are no ordinary fire trucks.  These firefighters cover a huge, mountainous area and face building as well as forest fires.   Their trucks were massive!  We finished the day feeding fish at the fish hatchery, grabbing a great dinner in Leadville, and staying up late and chatting over glasses of wine.  A perfect day!

Downtown Leadville

Downtown Leadville

Manning the Leadville firetrucks

Manning the Leadville firetrucks

The next morning, Rebekah and Rhyer took us to Cataract Lake, a fantastic hiking spot in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.  It was a perfect hike for kids – not too difficult but not too easy.  Van wound up walking about half of it and being carried the rest of the way on Alan’s back.  The hike was around a lake and to an impressive waterfall with a small wooden bridge over the rushing water.  The views were insane (no filters or adjustments of the photos below – it was that beautiful), but the coolest part was how the trail passed through several different types of environments.  The number of changes in scenery, plant life, smells, and colors were pretty remarkable for a trail less than three miles long.  This would be the kind of trail you could keep coming back to during different seasons and not get bored.

Hiking with Rhyer and Rebekah

Hiking with Rhyer and Rebekah

Aspens

Aspens

Cataract Lake

Cataract Lake

After an afternoon and evening of more fun, great food, and even better conversation, we woke up and struck out for Breckenridge.  We spent the morning wandering around, eating crepes, and stocking up on food for the next few days before saying our goodbyes.  THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING REBEKAH AND RHYER!!!

We continued westward, headed for Colorado National Monument.  We decided to overshoot the park and first check out Rabbit Valley, a beautiful and completely deserted area along the Utah border.  We could have camped there for free, but we decided to opt for a campground with water where we wouldn’t be so far away from anyone else.  We made our way to Colorado National Monument and set up camp for the next couple of days in a beautiful spot up on a cliff overlooking the town of Fruita.

Rabbit Valley, near the Colorado/Utah border

Rabbit Valley, near the Colorado/Utah border

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument

Now that we are out of the mountains and into the semi-desert, the weather has changed dramatically.  The sun had us up and out of the tent by 6am and on the hiking trails by 7.  We were able to get some beautiful hikes in each day before it got too hot, and then proceeded to do some exploration by car in the middle of the day with stops for water play and ice cream in Grand Junction and a shaded picnic in Palisade.  Across the valley from CNM were the Book Cliffs, so named because the edges of the buttes appear similar to a shelf of books.   Though they lacked the punch of the rock formations in Colorado National Monument, I found them strange, beautiful, and all the more compelling.

Exploring

Exploring

Posing

Posing

The Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs

We capped off our trip with an afternoon wandering around and picnicking in Glenwood Springs on our way back to the Denver area.  We also swung through Carbondale during Van’s nap and vowed to come back and check it out again when we’d have time to explore.  I was instantly taken by how it was situated, between towering mountains still covered in snow in one direction and red rock cliffs in another.  Those are views I could get used to!