Crisp winter air and clear skies shape the day as we make our way to the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, CA. Our first trip to this area and Joshua Tree National Park, we are eager to begin our exploration. A helpful and informed ranger at the Visitor Center guides us on what to see and do during our 5 hour visit. We follow his suggestions and drive up to Keys View, then do two loop trails – Barker Dam and Hidden Valley.
Joshua Tree National Park is immense, covering nearly 800,000 acres. Two deserts, two large ecosystems primarily determined by elevation, come together in the park – “high” and “low” desert. Below 3,000 feet, the Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert), occupying the eastern half of the park, is dominated by the abundant creosote bush.
The Mojave Desert, higher in elevation, slightly cooler, and wetter, is the special habitat of the Joshua tree, extensive stands of which occur throughout the western half of the park. According to legend, Mormon pioneers considered the limbs of the Joshua trees to resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.
Looking for a place to park and eat our picnic lunch we spot some massive boulders. Reading the map/guide we learn the park encompasses some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths bear witness to the tremendous earth forces that shaped and formed this land.
Turns out these rock piles began underground eons ago as a result of volcanic activity. Magma rose from deep within the earth. As it rose it intruded the overlying rock. As the granite cooled and crystallized underground, cracks/joints formed horizontally and vertically. The granite continued to uplift, where it came into contact with groundwater. Chemical weathering caused by groundwater worked on the angular granite blocks, widening cracks and rounding edges. Over time the surface soil eroded, revealing heaps of monzogranite scattered across the landscape.
Perched on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Keys View provides stunning panoramic views of the Coachella Valley from an elevation of 5185 feet. The southwest side of the ridge drops nearly a mile in elevation into the Coachella Valley. The San Andreas Fault, stretching 700 miles from the Gulf of California to the Mendocino Coast north of San Francisco, runs through the valley.
Driving down from Keys View we head to Barker Dam to walk the 1.3 mile loop trail. Built around 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining use, the dam today forms a small rain-fed reservoir used by park wildlife.
Near the end of the trail right before you head back to the parking lot there is sign for the petroglyphs. The main area of the petroglyphs are right behind the sign in a big rock that appears to have a part cut out of it.
As our day draws to a close, we head to Hidden Valley. A short, mile-long interpretive trail through an area rich with history, wildlife, and rock climbers.
Back in the early 20th century, the area around Joshua Tree got a lot more rain than it does these days. Before the land was protected in 1936, ranchers and prospectors tried to make a living in the region, and one of the most colorful was a man named William Keys. Keys built the nearby Desert Queen Ranch. He blasted his way through Joshua Tree boulders to let his cattle graze on the untouched grassland in Hidden Valley and made improvements to Barker Dam.
The current climate is much drier and the pastures have mostly vanished, but this short and easy hike into Hidden Valley will give you a nice glimpse at some of the region’s plants and animals.
Located just two hours east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is a desert getaway that boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in southern California. From the weird and wonderful Mojave Desert to the vast and stark Sonoran Desert. Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide shows readers the park’s highlights and hidden gems. Fascinating chapters on the region’s history, geology, ecology, archaeology and wildlife reveal the story behind the scenery. Gorgeous color photos showcase the park’s namesake Joshua trees. Detailed maps reveal over 20 of the park’s best hikes. An indispensable travel guide for outdoor enthusiasts and travelers on a budget.