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Joshua Tree National Park; The Park That Blew Us Away

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Another month, another adventure and another National Park! With Spring break in full bloom, we had the perfect opportunity to take advantage of some days off and vacation time to venture out to Joshua Tree National Park for some camping and exploring. While we could have taken a quicker, and more direct route to get to the park, we decided to embrace the road trip vibes and enjoy a longer drive through the desert to enter through the south entrance near Cottonwood Spring.

Coming in through the southern entrance was a nice build up to the beauty Joshua Tree National Park had to offer as we could witness the merging terrain of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. The sparse Colorado Desert landscape that initially greeted us progressively included more blooming beauty the more north we drove. Initially we had driven through the first bit of the park feeling underwhelmed at the landscape, laughing between us that we had built the park up to be much grander in our minds. During our stop at the Cottonwood visitor center we even overheard other visitors asking rangers where all the Joshua trees were, so it was nice to know we weren’t alone in our current disappointment. We were soon proven wrong with our initial judgement however, and left pleasantly fulfilled. From the initial bushes that spread along the desert floor to the Ocotillo patch and Cholla cactus beds, sand dunes and mountain overlooks to the eventual expanse of Joshua Trees and clusters of rock formations, it was satisfying to watch the park landscape unfold with each passing mile.

One thing that had us entertained along the initial park drive was the foreshadowing signage reading “exhibit ahead,” every few miles along the road for designated pull outs and scenic markers. When it comes to a National Park, Joshua Tree National Park at least, these were not scenic overlooks or geographic landmarks, these were “exhibits,” and they were designated as such to be on full display.

Though we enjoyed many stops along our route in the park to partake of designated nature walks, sightseeing opportunities, and “exhibits,” our first full hike was just over two miles and was found at the Split Rock Loop Trail. This was also our first discovery that signage and trail markings in the park are at a minimal, as we, and other occasional passing hikers, found areas that left finding the designated trail up to the imagination. Occasional trail perplexity aside, the hike was nice. The trail followed the contour of the natural landscape and the abundance of large rock formations, cacti, Joshua trees and wildflowers made it a very scenic trek, one that was also accompanied by the occasional jack rabbit, chipmunk, quail and hawk.

One of the most magnificent views throughout our time hiking, not only the Split Rock area but around the entire park, was the visible "ribbons" that run through the park’s rock clusters. Known as dikes and veins, these rocky lines are a reminder of the landscape’s history.

I later learned more about these “ribbons” and how geologists believe they were formed more than 100 million years ago. The larger rock lines, known as dikes, were formed when magma filled in fractures in the pre-existing rock. Similarly, veins are the smaller, more randomly distributed lines in the rocks, and were formed from fluids that remained and circulated through gaps and cracks in solidifying granite and molten. A geological wonder and good reminder of what this landscape once held.

While leaving the Split Rock area and heading back onto the road, I spotted my first snake. Like the tarantula sighting in Death Valley, this sighting too was from the safety and comfort of inside the truck, and thus was able to be an enjoyable moment with no threat. But I can tell you this, he coiled and sat up rather abruptly when we drove past him, moving around in the air for us to see in the rearview mirror. If that is my only large snake sighting in nature, I will be okay with it.

After making the longer drive to the park and enjoying the sights thus far, we decided to call it a day and check into our basecamp for the night; Ryan Campground. Once set up we explored the small campground and made the short hike to and around the ruins of what was once Ryan Ranch, which now serves as a bit of history hiding in plain sight.

As evening brought the daylight to a halt, I anxiously awaited sunset in the hopes of capturing a beautiful colored sky with the Joshua trees in perfect silhouette. The sun dropped behind the mountains, the sky turned light blue and then it was nearly dark, no colors on display and a dusk that left us rather disappointed. I set my camera gear down and returned to my chair commenting how I was surprised that the sunset provided no show. Within ten minutes however the light shifted and the sky brightened, projecting hues of bright peach, pink, blue and purple across the sky for the next 25 minutes or so, and Jason and I both grabbed our cameras and captured as much beauty as we could from the now gorgeous sunset. It was the exact picturesque ending I was hoping for to conclude our first day in the park and another reminder that the beauty of this park lies beyond the initial judgment.

Getting an early start to the day we boiled some water, enjoyed some breakfast at camp then packed up ready to spend the day exploring the park. As we closed up the tent and packed up, I couldn’t take in enough of the surroundings. The forest of Joshua trees was amazing and the layered silhouettes of their branches through the distance was a beauty I had yet to experience until here. Breathing in the moment for one last time, we jumped in the truck resolved to visit this campground again someday, and headed to the Hall of Horrors on the hunt to explore the mini slot canyon we had briefly read about.

Upon first approaching the Hall of Horrors trail we noticed that “trails” were marked with a number and an “a.” and took a moment pondering what “a.” meant, since that clearly wasn’t a distance measurement we were familiar with on hiking trails. Not too far into our exploring we noticed the abundance of rock-climbers finding their walls for the morning and concluded that “a.” must in fact indicate that this signage was meant for the climbers. For those wondering, I later discovered that when it comes to rock-climbing signage, signs are marked with a, b or c to describe the difficulty of the climb and the number before it indicates the class of the hike/scramble/climb and its difficulty.

After hiking all around the area we resolved that this slot canyon was nonexistent, or at least not in the hiking realm we were searching for. We later discovered that this mini slot canyon is only visible from climbing up and into the large boulders. Regardless of the disappointment in not finding our intended destination we did enjoy just short of two miles hiking around all three rock formations and discovering the abundance of rock-climbing friendly areas at the location.

With the rest of the day’s schedule completely open for improvisation, we decided to beat the heat and the crowds and push ourselves by hiking to the peak of Ryan Mountain. Only a short three miles in distance, the hike took just short of two hours and included over 1,000 feet of elevation gain on a narrow dirt trail winding up the side of the mountain. With the steady elevation gain and a decent pace, I was, as the sign at the bottom of the trail indicated would occur; “becoming more acquainted with my cardiovascular system.” It wasn’t until we reached the peak and had a chance to rest that the sunny 62-degree weather was fully appreciated and felt impeccable for a morning outdoors.

With lunchtime already approaching and the winds beginning to pick up, we descended the mountain, jumped back into Roxie and made our way to Hidden Valley for a breezy tailgate lunch before leaving the park, checking out the visitor center at the West entrance and then heading back into the park toward Black Rock Canyon Campground.

Having read that Black Rock Canyon Campground was a perfect family campground and a “good introduction for first-time campers,” we were a little surprised to find that many of the campsites were on an incline, ours especially was all a hill, and the road through the campground was more broken and full of potholes than some dirt trails we’ve gone off road on. Regardless, it’s a campground we’d give another chance to, with a different campsite.

Already anticipating an evening of wind and cooler temperatures we were a bit caught off guard when a ranger informed us that a severe wind warning was in effect and that we could anticipate gusts up to 55 mph. With the reviews of the campground we assumed that our second night of camping would feel like a breeze… I guess you could say it was about to be more than a breeze.

We explored the campground and its visitor center, then walked some of the surrounding bits of trail before returning to camp, winds forcing our early return. With the wind already steady around 25 mph, we boiled water and ate our dinner inside the cab of Roxie to shield us from the gusts and provide some warmth.

After cleaning up and now fighting what had to be around 35 mph winds, we decided to pack everything up, with the exception of the tent, so that we could break camp early in the morning with extra ease if needed. Retiring early to our tent, we spent the next few hours apprehensively listening to the gusts of wind continue to escalate and debating the integrity of the iKamper’s abilities. Around 10 p.m. we climbed outside, winds wailing, gusts hitting hard, dust circling, our breath visible and the iKamper holding strong. Deciding we’d rather camp in the wind than drive through it, we climbed back in, continued listening to the gusts and eventually let exhaustion take over until morning.

Though cold, the morning was clear and the sound of coyotes yipping and howling to rejoin their party from the night before provided beautiful ambiance as we broke down our sleeping setup from the night, which I’d like to note, held up perfectly! A rather loud night, however the iKamper stayed warm and still through the gusts and steady wind. (I’ll share a full iKamper review once we hit a few more weather varieties.) Though the wind had dispersed at this point, we still decided to pack up quickly, go into town to grab a drive-thru breakfast and get on the road early to head back home. No sooner had we locked the last latch of the tent and closed the tailgate to the truck did the wind begin kicking back up around 20 mph. Perfect timing to accommodate our new plans for the morning.

Although we took the longer route to the park to come in through the south entrance and see most of the park and went home on a longer route to enjoy less traffic and see more desert and historic sights, both journeys offered so much enjoyable scenery and drive time to appreciate together.

Trips like this are always a reminder of two things, enjoy the journey; and when it comes to enjoying nature, be open to just go with the flow of things. It was also a good reminder that when you’ve been in debate with the purchase…buy the puffy windbreaker jacket!

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