Not even two months into 2018 and I checked off two National Parks already! What started as a casual conversation turned into an impulsive weekend getaway to Joshua Tree in SoCal. It was only two and a half hours from LA with amazing stargazing and lots of rocks to climb on (not professionally). We did several short hikes during the day and camped under the stars at night.
Most Joshua Tree campgrounds are first come first serve except for Black Rock Canyon and Indian Cove Campground where you can RSVP ahead of time for $20/night. We RSVPed for two nights at Black Rock Canyon since we planned on arriving late Friday night. Black Rock Canyon is also closer to the main northern entrance and only a few miles from Yucca Valley for food or groceries.
By the time we arrived at the campground around 11 PM, the moon was pretty high in the sky and the stars were amazing. It was the perfect stargazing spot with a clear sky and no light pollution at all. Joshua Tree is known for stargazing because it’s far from major cities and it’s in the High Desert with high elevation. Definitely lived up to the hype.
When we were in our tents, we heard howls and yells that could pass as rowdy drunk people. But then they continued and became crazier, and didn’t sound like noises humans could make. Turns out they’re coyotes coming out at night and they sounded like they were just one campsite away! It was also freezing at night and I had to cocoon myself in my sleeping bag as the night went on.
I woke up just before sunrise to make a fire and warm myself up because it was that cold. After cooking breakfast and grabbing coffee, we stopped by the visitor’s center and headed into the park! Fun fact, Joshua Trees are a type of cactus named after the biblical figure, Joshua. It was named by Mormons who first settled in the area long ago and has stuck since!
First stop was Quail Springs where there were giant rocks for us to climb and hop around on. They looked easily climb-able from afar, but up close they’re giant smooth rocks that have not hand or foot holds. We weren’t really climbers so we just explored the easier sections and took silly photos.
Just up the road was Hidden Valley. The original plan was to do the 1-mile loop, but we got distracted by a giant rock mountain and climbed that instead. The vantage point overlooked the entire valley. It was a giant circular valley surrounded by rock mountains; I guess that’s where the name Hidden Valley comes from.
Not far from Hidden Valley was Barker Dam, another 1-mile loop that passed through a dam briefly used by early ranchers. It was impressive how there was a pool of water in the desert. The dam was used by ranchers long ago to conserve water, but as the water supply became scarce they moved to areas with more reliable water sources. After all, Joshua Tree is still a desert.
After lunch, we did a quick stop by Key Views which overlooked Coachella Valley. We saw Salton Sea in the South and snow peaks on San Jacinta. The view was nice but it was so windy and a bit chilly up there.
The last stop for the day was a 3-mile, out-and-back, 1000 ft elevation gain hike up Ryan Mountain. The hike itself wasn’t too strenuous but as we got higher it became windier and much colder. We originally planned on staying for the sunset, but the view to the west was just mountains with clouds covering the sun. We figured we could see better sunsets near LA, but mainly because it was cold. We did catch the sunset on the way down and I (literally) ran to catch it before it descended behind the mountains.
That night, we rewarded ourselves by feasting on hot dogs, steaks, beans and corn. Cooking on open fire was so satisfying and we actually did a great job cooking the meat.
We spent the morning in Joshua Tree to check out Skull Rock and Cholla Cactus Garden. Skull Rock wasn’t much of a sight but we stopped by since it was along the way. Cholla Garden, however, was very unique. It was a patch in the middle of the desert where Cholla Cacti grew, and the surrounding area was barren. The needles on Cholla Cactus are so long and pointy, and will supposedly harden its spine if brushed against anything (aka legs). I was paranoid I’d accidentally skim one of the low cacti, but thankfully I did not.
We exited the park from the Cottonwood exit in the South and drove an hour to check out Salton Sea. It was recommended to me by a friend for the unique nature and history of the sea. The sea was created by an engineering accident when they tried to irrigate nearby areas. Water flowed into the basin, already filled with salt deposits, for 18 months and thus created this giant salt-water lake. This used to be a getaway spot for the elite from LA, and saw more visitors than Yosemite did. However, as water evaporated with no water flowing into the sea, the salinity increased. It’s nowhere near the Great Salt Lakes, but it’s enough to kill fish and produce a slightly foul-smelling odor. Tourism in the area dwindled and left a bunch of areas desolated or abandoned.
We saw barnacles and dead fish that washed ashore, and the water looked very brown and stale. Definitely not something I’d want to swim in. It was eerie because Salton Sea was so big but so deserted – no water sports or anyone enjoying the beach.
Nearby was Bombay Beach, another popular spot for tourists back in the day but is now mainly lined with abandoned houses. We saw lots of houses with just the beams and covered in graffiti. According to the census, the town’s population went from over 900 in 1990 to under 300 in 2010, with the majority of the town living with a $15K annual salary, way below the poverty line.
After Bombay Beach, we took the ranger’s suggestion and hiked Painted Canyon. We hiked and climbed ladders in between canyons and it reminded me of Antelope Canyon. It was fun exploring and venturing deep into the canyon, but we didn’t have enough daylight to make it to the top.
All in all, for an impulsive trip and not much planning, it was very enjoyable and we did a bunch of things in and around Joshua Tree. The park offered different terrains so it wasn’t boring just being surrounded by desert. Climbing the rocks was the highlight of the trip and we did quite a bit of that at every hike. I also forget how much I enjoy camping, granted car camping is a little different. My favorite part was just sitting by the fire, disconnecting from electronics and enjoying nature, and I got to do that this trip with the occasional coyote howls in the background.