A passion for trail running, ultras, mountaineering, snowshoeing, hiking, and other outdoor adventures

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Joshua Tree National Park Travelogue

Well, I guess I should say the highlight was the Calico 50K, and my exciting PR there. And I really did enjoy the race. But, truth be told, the highlight of my five-day solo trip to the California desert was the hiking and trail running through Joshua Tree National Park. More than add-on sightseeing piggybacking on a race, I think I really had a race as pretext for the sightseeing this time! And I kind of like that feeling of soaking in the destination as much as the race in the whole “destination race” thing! What spectacular desert scenery throughout! And how interesting the differences from other desert environments I’ve been lucky enough to visit! So I think I’ll make this post into more of a “travelogue” (be forewarned), and so a separate post tomorrow on the race itself.

The trip idea started when I sought out a race someplace scenic that coincided with my winter “break,” and Calico ended up fitting the bill nicely. I’d also heard good things about the race from friend Kelsey, who did the race last year. Then, looking at a map to see where I could do a few days of “getting back to nature” and re-charging mentally for the busy work months ahead. So cool to see that Joshua Tree NP was sort of vaguely on the way from Los Angeles to the Barstow area (not exactly, but who’s counting!). And glad to remember the article from Trail Runner mag about cool trails to run on there…and then be able to track it down on-line from their site (from 2006). Both of the trail runs I did were recommended by that article…and just as cool as advertised!

So, Wed. was a flight into Orange County, and then the 2 1/2 – hour 130-mile drive (with some great L.A. traffic thrown in!) northeast to the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, near the Oasis northeast entrance to the NP. Stayed at a nice little cozy inn called the 29 Palms Inn for three nights. The increasingly arid terrain, the surrounding mountains like snow-covered Mt. San Jacinto and one other snowy peak whose name I need to look up, the cool valley with miles of windmills on either side of the interstate before the turn off onto Rt. 29 (27?)…some of the highlights of the drive up to 29 Palms.

Thursday morning I did an 11-mile, 3-hour out and back run/hike of the Boy Scout Trail, accessed from just inside a separate northern entrance with a ranger station that is located just west of the town. Started out in the first couple miles following a wash with a steady, slow incline, with mostly low shrubs like creosote with great views of the Wonderland of Rocks (such odd and varied piles and piles and piles of rocks, and a climbing mecca, though no climbers were to be seen that day). Mostly sandy footing, but it was soft enough and the grade was just enough that it was hard to keep a good pace going, so it was run/walk. Then you start entering a series of canyons, including some really cool slot canyons, as you continue to climb upward, and the footing becomes rockier and a little more technical. In this section there are a few more signs with arrows at points where you could go off-trail, but most of the way you have to rely upon your sense of the basic direction of the washes, and the occasional rocks lined up on the edge of the trail to sort of direct you and keep you from wrong turns. But navigation proved surprisingly easy, and I only got off trail once, and only for a few feet before I realized my error. Pretty much all the trails in the Park proved follow the same basic parameters. Blazes or greater signage would kind of ruin the views, when you think about it.

Then after maybe 4.5 miles or so along the Boy Scout trail (why exactly it’s called that I don’t know), you enter this beautiful high plateau. Up around 4,000 feet or so maybe? (Gotta check my Garmin specs). And there suddenly it’s Joshua trees every 20 to 30 feet as far as the eyes can see. Majestic! In the background, the beautiful higher peaks of the northern part of the Park, west a snow-covered peak. Awe-inspiring! So quiet out there, with no one around (saw a total of two other hikers and two overnight backpackers the whole time!). The only sound my own footfalls and the wind (which could be strong at times, and the arm warmers I was testing out served me well along with my long-sleeve tee).

Really hated to turn around when my watch read 5.5, but I knew how much time was ahead of me, and wanted to get on to some afternoon hiking and drive-by sightseeing. I knew the whole trail was a 16-mile round-tripper, and that the miles ahead of me that I was foregoing were flatter and less eventful terrain-wise, though I’m sure the views would have continued to be awesome. Going back proved to be faster, and a lot of fun, as it’s mostly downhill, and you can really cruise down those switchbacks and admire the Wonderland of Rocks and the canyons in a different light and from a different perspective.

After a picnic lunch in the warm sun by the trailhead and a stopoff in town for a coffee to go, it was back into the park via the Oasis entrance. The highlight of Thursday afternoon was the 2.4 mile round trip hike up to Ryan Mountain, which at 5,461 feet is the Park’s highest point (but not it’s most demanding ascent at all, according to the guidebooks). It’s not particularly steep, and the footing is quite good, and a fair number of hikers of various ages were making the trek up from the roadside parking lot in late afternoon. The views get more and more interesting as you wind around and up the mountain, and then at the summit you have a 360 degree view that is truly awesome. Desert cut by ridges to the east and south, the Wonderland of Rocks to the north, and to the east the impressive snow-covered peaks. All bathed in the gorgeous late afternoon sun, with yellows giving way to more oranges as the sun moved lower. I changed into my windbreaker nearing the top as it was quite windy and brisk, and a nice Aussie whom I encountered was kind enough to walk the few steps back up to the top to take my picture. When I asked him if JP and Death Valley (which he mentioned just visiting) were at all like the Outback, he joked about how flat it is back there at home by comparison. And how excited trekkers get when there is so much as a turn in the road or trail across that Australian icon!

Friday morning it was on to the other major climactic and vegetation zone, in the southern part of the Park, which is the Colorado desert (part of the larger Sonoran desert system). It’s so cool to see the changes as you drive the 35 miles or so south through the park, descending in altitude, and entering a terrain with all kinds of cacti, instead of the characteristic Joshua trees and other yuccas of the northern, Mojave section of the park. Cholla, beavertail (like Mexico’s nopales from what I can tell), cactus species like that, prevail in this part of the park. There are still ridges in all directions, but they tend to recede more in the distance, be lower, and to take different forms and colors from the northern ridges in the park. Here you’re below 2,000 feet mostly.

I did a gorgeous trail run of about 7.8 miles, in somewhere around 2:20, along the out and back Lost Palms Oasis trail. You access it just a mile or so from the Lost Palms (southern) visitors’ center. Here there were more folks, but by no means crowded trails at all. More of a wide open, rolling desert trail, sandy but with its share of rocks. Leading down into a wash and down some smaller canyons and then to the top of a deeper but narrow canyon, where the trail ends. And then voilá, you look down into the canyon to see a whole line of palm trees smack dab in the middle of the desert—so cool! From there it’s a fun, quite manageable scramble down some switchbacks into the canyon (you have to take some care with the scree), and on the canyon floor you come face to face with the massive palms (of two different species, as some have that more “normal” sleek look, and others have a bushy covering that extends from palm fronds all the way down the trunk toward the bottom). Pretty unusual sight, though one not so “with-it” woman hiker I encountered proclaimed something about liking the “trimmed” ones better! ”Then go visit an arboretum!,” I felt like shouting!

In the canyon you can see that there is a spring, with occasional puddles of water, that irrigates the narrow strip of valley between the canyon walls which hem you in two sides. Don’t think I’d ever really seen an oasis so close up! You can sort of bushwhack your way on through the canyon as the palms continue as far as the eye can see through the twisting canyon in front of you, but the footing becomes dicier. Plus the mind does tend to wander to rattlesnakes, as you can’t see exactly where you’re stepping while you traverse downed fronds, mud, rocks, and other stuff all kind of thrown together in mounds. You start to feel like a machete might come in handy!

I spent maybe 15 minutes just sort of exploring and taking pictures, and then hiked back up the canyon and took a few more pics from the top, before heading back. The return trip was a pleasant net downhill, and I could appreciate more the views southward to and across various ridges, and to the Sea of Dalton, which I gather lies outside the Park. Lots of cool cacti of all sizes and shapes. It was a clear and pretty warm day, hitting 70ish but with the air still cool, and I was fine in my shorts and short sleeves and “Lawrence of Arabia” sun hat.

Not too much in the way of wildlife spotted on the various hikes over the two days at JP. Mostly restricted to small lizards, a couple of long-eared jackrabbits, and some desert field mice or something along those lines. No rattlers or other snakes (fine by me!), mountain lions, or elusive desert bighorns. And oh yes, just as I was complaining to my mom on the cell leaving the park of the relatively few wildlife sightings, a smallish coyote did cross the road in front of me on the road just outside the park, and next to a row of houses. He didn’t stay still long enough for me to get his picture once I pulled off the road, but fortunately (s)he did finally walk off the road behind me, rather than crossing it again in front of the cars coming up behind me as he seemed to be doing for a few seconds.

After a picnic lunch at the Lost Palms campground (totally deserted), I drove back north, and moved into road-side national park sightseeing mode till dusk. Plenty of explanatory signs at various vista points and points of interest along the roads. The Cholla cactus garden, as you near the transition zone between the two deserts, was a real highlight. Spaced just a few feet apart, the white tips of these little guys turn a luminous silver type color when they are backlit by the sun. Set in a narrow valley framed by ridges on either side, it makes for an incredibly beautiful tableau of color, as you walk the few hundred yards along the nature trail through this natural “garden.”

Back in the northern section of the park again, I drove to Keys Point. At 5,175’, it’s the highest point you can drive to in JP. The views from this wind-swept vista are spectacular—especially east toward Palm Springs, the San Andreas fault, and a couple snowy peaks, and south toward various peaks and the Sea of Dalton. It was freezing up there even with my windbreaker and long pants, and the gusting winds nearly blew off my hat despite the chinstrap! Another cool stop was at Cap Rock. Bathed in the late afternoon glow, this rock climbing mecca had a sole climber, though only a lonely pack sitting on a rock halfway up this formation was visible from my vantage point on the little nature trail that circles around some of the contiguous formations. Only on the way out in the car could I finally make out the guy rappelling down the other side (presumably the owner of said pack!), and stopped to get a nice shot where he barely came out.

Really hated to leave the park, and head back to 29 Palms for my last night, and then on to Barstow the next day to get checked in for the race (the subject of my next post). But I had pretty much squeezed as much as I could out of two full days of venturing through this captivating piece of desert real estate. Amazing it took till 1994 to make this into a full-fledged national park. A lot more to see, a ton of trails to explore, much that Esperanza would love to see…so plenty of excuses to go back!

1 comment:

Staci said...

Scott, I am so envious of the places you are fortunate enough to run through!