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What to do in Palm Springs when you’re not in the mood for shopping, it’s too cold to sunbathe, and you have time on your hands? If you’re the adventurous type, check out Joshua Tree National Park. Located approximately 65 km northeast of Palm Springs, it’s an easy drive to one of the park’s many trailheads. I was in town with two friends for the Palm Springs International Film Festival and we were not going to miss the opportunity to check See A Real Life Joshua Tree off our bucket lists.
Established as a National Monument in 1936 by Minerva Hoyt, Joshua Tree received National Park status in 1994. The park spans a total of 792 623 acres. Of that, 591 624 acres have been designated as wilderness. This means the area has been protected from development, mechanized equipment, and modern human occupation. That’s thirteen Central Parks worth of preserved land. As a result, most of the park is as pristine as a nature lover and hiking enthusiast could hope for.
In terms of hiking opportunities, Joshua Tree is an embarrassment of riches. According to All Trails , the app my fellow shenaniganators and I used to plan our hikes, there are 114 trails within the park. Of these, 66 trails are labelled as moderate difficulty, but there are hikes that can accommodate all ability levels. There are even some tracks that are wheelchair accessible. It’s best to pre-plan your trip before getting to the park and not to rely on the map given to you by the park wardens. This handout offers some basic information but unfortunately doesn’t provide the details necessary for a successful excursion. Both the All Trails App and the Joshua Tree National Park website were invaluable tools to plan what trails we wanted to explore. Find out everything you can about your hike before heading out. Otherwise, you might be sorry.
The first thing that hits you when you step out of the car is the sky. The blue is all-encompassing to the point of being overwhelming. It is a subtle ombré, transitioning from a delicate pale blue to a deep, rich cobalt. To me, it felt like walking into the Mediterranean without getting wet. The sky was warm, nurturing, welcoming, and makes for a fabulous backdrop for the amazing landscape you’ll see on your hike.
We learned this lesson the hard way. In our first outing in the park, we decided to do the West Side Loop Trail that leads through Black Rock Canyon. It’s a beautiful hike, with lots of mountain vistas, but we neglected to get all the information on the trail and weren’t expecting the elevation change through the last half. While we were well equipped and perfectly capable of managing the trails, it did mean we were a little worn out for the rest of the activities we had planned that day. We were roundly cursing the hills we had to climb by the end of the afternoon. So be aware. Take note of everything from hike length, elevation, trail types, cell reception, and the types of wildlife you may encounter.
This is important information to know when you’re planning your visit. It will inform everything from the type of shoes on your feet to how many layers you need to wear to the amount of water you carry with you.
The most important piece of equipment you bring into the park is your shoes. I would recommend wearing the sturdiest pair you own, even if your trail is classified as an easy hike. You never know what you might find on the path, and the last thing you want to do is put a bunch of cholla cactus spines through the sole of your flip flop. A solid pair of runners will keep you safe and comfortable and let you experience everything the Joshua Tree has to offer.
The next item of concern is your clothing. Joshua Tree National Park contains six distinct mountain ranges: the Little San Bernardino Mountains in the southwest, the Cottonwood, Hexie, and Pinto ranges in the centre; and the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains in the east. So regardless of which trails you choose; you should expect to do some climbing. Elevations in Joshua Tree National Park range up to 5,500 feet and you may experience a wide range of temperatures depending on your chosen trail and the time of year. We even encountered snow at the highest point of our hike along the West Loop! Even more reason to make sure your clothing is comfortable, breathable, and most importantly, that you’re wearing layers that you can peel off or add on as temperatures fluctuate. Sunburn is also a concern, even in the dead of winter, so make sure you have long sleeves, a hat, and bring your sunscreen.
Deserts are quite arid and Joshua Tree National Park is no exception. You need to bring an ample supply of water, especially if you are doing any strenuous climbing. FUN FACT: Joshua Tree National Park is not a single desert. It’s actually two. The park’s unique environment is the result of two separate deserts, the Mojave and Colorado, coming together. Each desert has a singular appearance, one rocky and rough, the other sandy and smooth. This means that one visit may not be enough to truly appreciate the diversity of plants, animals and terrain within the park.
And that brings me to the second thing that struck me about Joshua Tree; the quality of the silence. We were alone on the trail, and the quiet was palpable. It surrounded us and penetrated every motion. It meant that every step we took, every branch that snapped, every bird that called was impactful. Even the sound of my hat brushing against the strap of my knapsack resonated. As a result, I was much more in tune with my surroundings and was then able to spot other things like rabbits that were intruding on that stillness.
Speaking of wildlife, we saw a lot. Birds, gophers, jackrabbits were scurrying between cacti or diving for cover. It was an amazing show. We even found evidence of cougars and coyotes on the trails thanks to the paw prints they left behind. It was exciting to think that they could have been watching us from beneath the shrubs or from high up on the rocks. Were they simply looking to see when it would be safe to come out again? Or were they waiting to pounce? We’re still here, so I guess it was safety, not food that was their concern that day.
It’s best to have your camera ready to shoot because these creatures are fast and will hide under the nearest cactus before you know it. No matter where you go in the park, there will be ample opportunities for photos, whether you’re interested in majestic vistas, interesting plants, cute creatures, cool topography, or just the absolute beauty of that all-encompassing blue sky. While it’s important to get that picture postcard photo of yourself sitting under a Joshua Tree, it’s also worth your while to take pictures of the cholla cacti or even the lichens. They are all equally beautiful and deserving of their moment in the sun.
Our visit to the park was amazing. There were so many different varieties of plants to enjoy. Much more than I expected. I would love to experience them during the spring bloom. No matter when or where you go within the park, you will be struck by the rugged beauty of Joshua Tree National Park. Its allure will sear itself on your mind and change how you view a desert.
I cannot wait to go back.
Camille Tovee is a social media marketer and freelance writer when she isn’t plotting her next adventure. You can generally find her hitting the hiking trails in and around Nanaimo and planning her next trip to Australia.
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