My job takes me frequently to southern California, and it has since the early 2000’s. Most years I try to tack on a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, one of my favorite spots in the world. This year’s trip was in April. Afterwards, some friends asked me in the usual way “How was your trip?” I started to write a quick response, and then it got out of hand. Somewhere along the way it became interesting enough to share.
I flew into Palm Springs on Friday morning, grabbed a burger in town, and did the usual pre-trip prep— grocery shopping, buying fuel, driving to the park, etc. After arriving in the park, I drove 90 minutes round-trip on a dirt road to just shy of the summit of Eureka Peak. The road is marked as 4WD on the map, but I know from past experience that it’s safe enough to drive my car a rental car I don’t care about down it. The scenery was nice, but the real motive for being there was to drop off a gallon of water.
One of the main reasons I come to Joshua Tree is photography. Over the past few years, my water-laden backpack (1 gallon per day, 8 pounds per gallon, people) has driven me to bring my lightweight point-and-shoot. Unfortunately, that camera now has a scratch on the lens that is visible on many of my images. I knew I was going to be bringing my big SLR. I’ve been struggling with creativity at J Tree during the past few years, so I decided to mix it up by bringing some different and unusual lenses. I brought my 60mm macro lens, and a super-wide 10-16mm zoom. To keep the weight down, I left my standard zoom at home. But I did include my beast of a tripod. That’s a lot of camera gear for a desert trip – hence the gallon of cached water.
I left the Black Rock trailhead in late afternoon. Nice terrain, with flowers everywhere. The guy at the gear shop said it was the best bloom in at least 12 years, and I believe it. But… the wind was howling. The NWS forecast exclaimed HIGH WIND WARNING and promised 20-30mph winds with gusts up to 50mph. About a mile from the trailhead I realized that the tripod might as well be a 5 lb. rod of pig iron in my pack. With the flowers bent over in the wind, there wasn’t going to be any macro-lens-on-the-tripod shooting.
As afternoon turned to evening I looked around for a camp site. One likely spot was a little close to the trail, but just beyond that was… “you’ve got to be shitting me” I said out loud to my nonexistent hiking companions. A perfectly flat sandy spot in the bend of a side canyon, off trail and out of sight. Perfectly sheltered from the wind. I dubbed it “Camp You’ve Got To Be Shitting Me” because it was so awesome and so unexpected.
I had a nice evening with a reasonably edible freeze-dried dinner and was asleep by 8:30. The next morning was relaxing and mellow. After breakfast, I sat back to drink my coffee, listen to the Grateful Dead and read David duChemin.
It was relaxing, which made leaving camp hard to do. The hike started with a slow steady climb up to the top of Eureka Peak. Nice terrain, and the wind was helping to push me up the mountain. Got steep towards the top, but I just keep Truckin’ (“…like the do-dah man”). I grabbed my gallon of water and went up to enjoy the view. And… almost blew off the summit. I probably would have if my pack had been lighter. Crazy wind. Had some lunch with a desert hippie farmer who talked too much. The conversation was fine, but I wasn’t in Joshua Tree for the conversation, and I didn’t mind when he went on his way.
The way down was steep, sandy, and windy. The wind was against me this time. I had hoped to find a site below the summit in what the guide described as a “pine forest with excellent campsites.” Yes, at any given point I could turn myself around 360 degrees and spot a pine tree. But I would have never characterized this as a pine forest. Mostly just gnarled up shrubs and thornbushes, with some cacti and J trees thrown into the mix. Honestly, it wasn’t lush enough to be a forest (and I am accustomed to using that definition loosely), and not barren enough to be a desert. Kind of a nasty no-man’s land of ugliness between the green beauty of a forest and the stark beauty of a desert.
I finally found a camp, a patch of sand surrounded by thorn bushes. The bushes blocked my view of the trail, but also blocked my view of everything else too. The wind was… well I almost convinced myself that it was less windy in this spot than elsewhere on the mountain. I’m sure that after a shot or two of bourbon I would have been able finish the convincing process. I went about setting up my tent, and had it almost pitched when… it fell over. Wha-what? Oh. It looked like the windward pole popped out of the hub that holds the tent together. I’ll just stick it back in and… hmmm. Yeah, that will hold. That will…. O crap. This time the tent blew over completely and started to blow towards the nearest thornbush. Since that wasn’t far away, I quickly tackled it, and took another look at the pole. The hub had three prongs sticking out of it, and one was no longer welded on. I tried to stick it back into place but it wouldn’t stay when put under pressure. I examined it carefully. Duct tape? Lash it together with rope? Neither looked like a viable option with the stress that was on the pole. I tried a third time to set up the tent, and it blew over again after a few minutes.
So what were my options? Sleeping outside would have been uncomfortable with the blowing sand and cold, but I wasn’t going to die or anything. I could try to manage with the tent falling over me all night, or take out the poles entirely and use it as a bivvy sack. I don’t know, maybe I should have just done it. But it didn’t seem fun or relaxing. I had visions of trying to set the tent up at 2am with strong winds, or having the ultra-light fabric rip on me. The campsite was lousy and my plan for tomorrow was more hiking in this ultra-non-scenic no-man’s land terrain of suck.
Screw this. I dumped my extra gallon of water onto the least scratchy and prickly-looking plant in the area (a cactus), loaded up my pack, and headed for the car. Because of the loopiness of my planed hike, I was only 2.5 miles away, so I made it out by 6:30pm. It’s probably the only trailhead in J Tree that gets cell phone reception so I turned on my iPad and booked the second to last room at the Best Western. I dropped off my gear, and without even bothering to shower went straight to Edchada’s for a burrito the size of my head and a margarita only slightly smaller. Could have been worse…
Sunday I went into the park’s visitor center, picked up a copy of the guidebook that I had left at home, and surrepitiously used my phone to photograph a hike I’d wanted to do. Only 8.5 miles to a high peak in a remote section of the park. Do-able. And I headed out, determined to avenge my retreat with an epic day hike.
There was a good omen as I waited in line at the park entrance station. I looked up at my rear-view mirror, and through the back window of the car behind me, saw a coyote amble across the road. Coyote, the Native American trickster. Still a good omen right? Right?
“WARNING: 4WD Road Ahead” Uh-oh. About a half hour from the entrance station, I stared at the road sign. I had driven the Geology Tour Road before, but I belatedly remembered that I had rented a jeep the last time. I went as far as the Park Service said was prudent, then went a little farther. It didn’t actually look so good, even with a rental car I didn’t care about, so I went back to the closest parking lot and considered my options. It was only about 2 extra miles to the trailhead from where I was at. Each way. 12.5 mile hike. A truck came by. I flagged them down, pointed my thumb at my Nissan Altima and asked “Could this car make it?” “No way. Too rocky.” Well that settles that. “Can I give you some money to make the loop again and drop me off?” “Well we would but… no back seat.” “Oh yeah, right. Well, thanks.” I started on my way, then went back to the car to get more food. Another truck with no back seat. I started again. Just before picking up my pack, I pulled out my phone to read the guidebook page. Because it was an 8.5 mile off-trail hike with a 4-mile desert road walk. Solo.
Aaaand that was an easy decision. No thank you. Off-trail solo desert hikes are not safe places for me to be climbing cliffs.
Plan C was to drive out to the Keys Overlook and bag Inspiration Peak. This is a short hike from the parking lot, but is actually the third highest peak in the park. I was suprised/not surprised to find a path leading up to the peak. The wind was again ripping and being above treeline there was nothing to stop it. Everywhere the flowers were again bent to the ground, the grass was blowing, that moving stick eight feet away from me was blowing, the thorn bushes were blowi- MOVING STICK? Yep, turns out that in a 60 mph gale you cannot actually hear a rattlesnake shaking his tail at you. It was a pretty big beast of a snake too. It was moving a little slowly (only about 60 degrees out) and trying to catch some sun on the black rocks on the trail. I cautiously snapped a few photos with my most appropriate lens (the macro lens- don’t overthink it, Rich) and then made a 20′ detour away from it.
The summit was a few more knolls farther than I thought it was, but I finally found the survey marker and declared victory. The views were fabulous, encompassing the Salton Sea, the Coachella valley (presumably including the ongoing music festival), Palm Springs, and the massive bulk of San Jacinto Peak. Windy though. So. Tired. of. Wind. I didn’t see the snake on the way back, which was completely terrifying because he could have been anywhere. I banged my hiking poles around a lot and moved slowly but he was gone.
It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, so I headed out for my next destination. I was going to check out the Pine City area, since there were a lot of small loop trails in the area. Pine City was the site of my very first Joshua Tree trip many years ago (2003). I was pleased to discover it was as beautiful as I remembered. Crazy rough terrain but smooth walking on the trail. Cactus everywhere. NO WIND. I had big plans to hike 3 different small loops, but those fell apart as I finally got my desert groove on. The camera came out and I started shooting up a storm. Rocks, cactus, flowers, more rocks, you name it (you’ll see these in future posts). I went beyond the trail’s end for a little bit and started to descend into a rough canyon. Had my lunch with nobody around, just breathed it all in, and relaxed.
My hike back was equally slow and full of photos. Saw a horned toad, which is one of my favorite animals ever. Finally, an appropriate use of a macro lens. And finally, I found the peace that I had spent the weekend looking for.
That night I drove to Redlands for my week’s work. And every night I pulled out the topo map and started to plan the next trip. You see, while at the gear shop I found an outfitter that will do a car shuttle…