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U.S.A.: Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park | U.S.A. | Americas

[Visited: August 2015]

It is still pitch dark when I drive off from Los Angeles, and the sun is just appearing above the horizon when I arrive in Joshua Tree in Yucca Valley. After a filling breakfast, I stock up on water and snacks, and am off to the entrance of the park. The visitor centre turns out to be closed, and at the gate there is no one to collect the entrance fee, so I continue straight into the park. I listen to The Joshua Tree, the acclaimed album by U2, which seems only logical at this place. Around me, plenty of the trees after which the park is called point to the sky in their peculiar fashion, and dry hills. There are plenty of places to stop on the roads in the park. But while you can get a good view of the park from your car, nothing beats getting closer, and my first hike is at Hidden Valley. A short climb takes me through a narrow gap between huge boulders, and I soon deviate from the official trail and hike and scramble over boulders to viewpoints of plains and narrow valleys strewn with yet more rocks. There are also cacti, and other plants and trees typical of the region. Even though they all look different, they have one common denominator: they are designed to cope with the climate of the desert, and have smart ways to collect water, and are exceptionally economical at using the priceless and vital commodity. As soon as I am back at the official trail, there are signs explaining what I am seeing. At a certain point, I scramble up and jump down high boulders, to arrive on a vast plain full of Joshua trees. There are many bouldering and climbing routes here, but I see no one on the face of the rocks. In fact, there are surprisingly few people around. I decide to drive straight down to Keys View, the highest point reached by road in the park. From here, you can look straight towards Palm Springs, and the San Andreas fault line from the top of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Afternoon at the rock formations of White Tank

The road is a dead end here, and I return to a more central part of Joshua Tree: Queen Valley. There are more rock climbing opportunities here; hiking past them is good, too. Again: big boulders in all kinds of shapes, and sizes, with cracks, surrounded by the occasional tree or plants here and there. It is getting hot now, and I start to wonder whether my 5 litres of water will be sufficient. The air is dry, so I don't really sweat, but minutes after drinking water, my mouth feels dry again. After this short hike, I head to Barker Dam, which is a loop hike. There are petroglyphs made by indigenous inhabitants of the region, and after hiking through a flat area with all kinds of vegetation, I reach the lower part of the dam. To my big surprise, there actually is a lot of water in the man-made lake, which reflects the big boulders on the other side of the pond. The presence of water means there are different trees here, too. After finishing this loop, I walk to the Wall Street Mine, once an operable gold ore mill complex. During this walk in the heat of the day, I am getting increasingly thirsty. I now realize that I should have taken much more water, and since there is no water available inside the park, I have to ration whatever I have. The remains of the mine look a little weird here. There is a track for the tramway which once carried the mined material uphill, there are rusty vehicles, there are shacks: it is clear that the last activity here was a long time ago. I allow myself a few more sips when I reach my car again, and drive the Big Horn Pass Road to park at the foot of Ryan Mountain.

Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): View from Ryan Mountain, looking northwest

Ryan Mountain is dubbed one of the strenuous hikes of Joshua Tree: it climbs around 1,000 feet (over 300 metres) to 1664 metres in just under 2.5 kilometres. It turns out to be an easy climb, and the higher I get, the better the views. At the top, I enjoy a 360 degrees view. There are clouds coming in now, and where before the sky was deep blue, it is now getting a more hazy. The sun is not shining as relentlessly as before, but it still feels hot anyway. I head east from here, and reach Skull Rock. To my surprise, this rock formation appeared right away when I got off the car - I had expected to hike there, and get the skull as a reward! I still did the loop hike, walking down to Jumbo Rocks, cross the road, and then continued north through more rocky landscapes with some more striking formations that certainly deserve names, too. Especially clear (at least, to me) was an elephant lying on its side. From Skull Rock, it is a short drive to White Tank. The sun is now well on its way down, and the light on the rocks is getting better by the minute. There are many rocks, piles of rocks, and geological features well explained on signs here, until I reach the Arch Rock. When I walk back, and admire the great views of the rock formations here, I wonder whether I should stay until sunset, but curiosity about the landscape in the east wins, and I am on my way again. From here, the road descends through Wilson Canyon towards the Pinto Basin, and I stop at Cholla Cactus Garden where I walk the short loop through this wonderland of attractive cacti that almost look woolly. If there had not been a big sign warning against touching them, I would certainly have tried. I am now in the transition area between the Mojave Desert, the higher part of Joshua Tree National Park, and the Colorado Desert in the east, which is lower, and has different landscapes and vegetation. The sun is sinking behind the mountains when I reach the Cottonwood Visitor Center, where I can finally fill up my water and drink. I spend my entire drive back to Los Angeles to relive the great views of my visit to Joshua Tree.

Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Reflection of rock formation in the reservoir of Barker Dam
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Looking up Arch Rock near White Tank
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Trees and rock formations: a common sight in the western and central part of Joshua Tree
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Looking east from Keys View
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Road in the western part of the park
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Cactus in Hidden Valley
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Plain with Joshua Trees, endemic to Joshua Tree National Park
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Rocks and prickly plants in what seems like a riverbed near Wall Street Mill
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): At the upper part of Pinto Basin, you can find peculiar Cholla cacti
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): One of the vehicles rusting away in the desert landscape near Wall Street Mill
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Native Americans painted these petroglyphs on one of the rocks close to Barker Dam
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Just off the road, Skull Rock is probably the most obviously shaped rock in the park
Picture of Joshua Tree National Park (U.S.A.): Tree standing in a barren landscape in the transition area between Mojave and Colorado Desert

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