Joshua Tree National Park, about 150 miles east of Los Angeles, is a fantastic place to hike, rock climb, picnic and camp. The 794,000 acre preserve is noted for its spectacular gardens of huge monzogranite boulders mingled with sparse forests of juniper trees, pinyon pines, cholla cactus, and the ungainly Joshua trees for which the park is named.
The favored months to visit this high desert park are October through May. In the summer months it is oven hot. A perfect day would be a weekday in early spring when visitors are few and wildflowers are many. Wild primroses, sand verbena, brittlebrush, beavertail cactus, and towering ocotillo are a few of the native plants you would see blooming during the brief spring profusion of color.
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Drive past the first tempting rock piles, turn left at the Hidden Valley Campground, follow the signs past Barker Dam and park at the Wall Street Mill trailhead. Lace-up your boots, smear on the sunscreen, and hike past the ruins of a pink house to enter the Wonderland Wash, an aptly named region of the most beautiful and bizarre granite boulders imaginable. The trail weaves past yucca plants, prickly pear cactus, and shade-giving juniper and palo verde trees. But the amazing rock formations are what capture the eye: skulls, whales, sharks, camels and monsters of rough buckskin-colored rock. It is a hikers’ and photographers’ paradise-wonderful shapes and tableaus wherever you look.
The Wonderland of Rocks is a climbers’ paradise as well. Shouted commands and words of encouragement echo off the vertical walls as roped climbers inch their way up corners and cracks. There are hundreds of established climbing routes in the Wonderland, most of which are demanding, multi-pitch 5th class climbs requiring delicate toe and finger-tip maneuvers.
On your perfect day in the Wonderland of Rocks, you would select a smooth boulder to lay-out your picnic lunch. Nibbling on dried apricots, cashews and sharp cheddar cheese while you lean back and watch a pair of climbers methodically solve the puzzle of a difficult crack in a 300-foot dome of rock. You may even spot a vulture looping in the sky. Cactus wrens and loggerhead shrikes flit among the nearby tree branches. Lizards scurry among the rocks. A noisy raven draws your attention to the jumble of boulders on the opposite hillside. Movement catches your eye: a trio of bighorn sheep. Quick, snap their picture before they scuttle out of view!
In sections, the Wonderland is a maze not unlike the one Alice negotiated in the children’s story. Explore the cul-de-sacs; discover more marvelously sensual monoliths of granite-both gorgeous and grotesque. Feel blessed to be footloose and free in this sun-drenched rock and cactus garden.
On the way back to the car keep your eyes open for jackrabbits bolting from the brush, reclusive desert tortoises and alert for rattlesnakes.
After a day exploring, climbing and appreciating the beauty of Joshua Tree head towards home, your hotel or a nice restaurant you spot. Sit back, relax and enjoy a nice California Chardonnay as you unwind from the day’s adventure in the Wonderland. Or, if you prefer, an icy cold pint of beer to slake that desert thirst.
Getting There: From Los Angeles drive east on 1-10 and from Palm Springs, drive west on I-10 to the Highway 62 exit. Drive 27 miles east on Highway 62 to the town of Joshua Tree. Turn south on Park Boulevard and ascend four miles to the West Entrance to the National Park.
Helpful Hints: The entry fee is $15 per vehicle and is good for seven days. For further information, visit the Joshua Tree National Park website: www.nps.gov/jotr/. A useful trail guide for Joshua Tree and three other nearby preserves is Hiking California’s Desert Parks, 2nd: A Guide to the Greatest Hiking Adventures in Anza-Borrego, Joshua Tree, Mojave, and Death Valley (Regional Hiking Series) published by Falcon Publishing.
Another book option by the same author is Best Easy Day Hikes Joshua Tree
John grew up in Oregon. Before entering college he spent a year hitch-hiking around the world, visiting 40 countries. He earned a degree in English from Colorado College and a master’s in Outdoor Recreation Management from Oregon State University. He has worked as a landscaper, climbing instructor, park ranger and freelance writer. In 1992 he formed Skyline Communications, providing writing, photography, editing and publication design services to corporate clients. In his free time, John enjoys hiking, river-running, photography and travel. He and his wife, Carol, live in West Linn, Oregon.