Joshua Tree

We just got back from a lovely little trip to Joshua Tree and San Diego.

Joshua Tree is named for the Yucca brevifolia plants that are common in the northern plains of the park, but rare in general. They are amazing tree-form yuccas that can live for decades or centuries!

A Joshua Tree against an eroded granite island at a picnic area in Joshua Tree National Park

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the park, other than an interesting desert environment. I didn’t expect all the beautiful eroded granite outcroppings! The are often so pillowy that I mistook them for sandstone, until I got a closer look.

Eroded granite formations on the Split Rock trail

The two key features of the northern part of the park — Joshua trees and granite formations — are nearly mutually exclusive. Although the occasional Joshua Tree grows near the rocks, as in the first picture, the Joshua Trees prefer the wide prairie areas. In the rocky areas, they are mostly replaced by regular yucca, bear grass, pinyon pines, juniper, and little scrub oaks.

A massive granite boulder, the size of a house, is graded by the neighboring rocks that made up part of the same crag before erosion broke them up. The yucca, creosote bushes, and juniper in the foreground are common in the shallow soils surrounding the crags.

We happened to do two of the most dramatic hikes right off the bat.

Hidden Valley is a short but splendid introduction to the granite formations. Apparently it gets very busy; we were lucky enough to go first thing, so there were very few people. The trail twists and winds among a series of granite crags and valleys, so it does a good job of keeping hikers separated out. And it’s gorgeous!

This eroded granite crag with bear grass and a twisty dead tree is midway through the Hidden Valley hike. The eroded crag in the background gives a sense of the layers of rock that are a feature throughout the hike.

The Split Rock trail is a longer hike. It has lots of amazing views, they just aren’t quite as concentrated as on the Hidden Valley hike — but it also isn’t as busy. A lot of people come and take a picture of Split Rock, which is right by the parking lot, and then leave without doing the hike.

Split rock. This cracked boulder is the size of a small house!

In addition to the longer hikes, there are some short walks that are spectacular introductions to the rock formations. We visited Hall of Horrors on the second day. It isn’t listed as a hike at all, because it is primarily a climbing area (Joshua Tree is a world-class climbing destination).

Because it’s a climbing area, you can really explore the rocky crags.

One of the rocky crags at Hall of Horrors, from the back. Note presence of Rob for scale.

On the second day, we made a point to get a better look at the Joshua Tree prairie area. There are several opportunities for this; we walked the first mile or two of Big Tree trail from Ryan Campground.

Gestural Joshua Tree with Joshua Tree plains in the background

It’s hard to date Joshua Trees, because they’re succulents, but the big ones like these are probably well over 100 years old. However, you won’t see many bigger than these — they seem to max out at around 20 feet, before gravity starts breaking them to pieces.

On our last day, we drove south through the park, taking the scenic route back towards San Diego. The road drops rather precipitously from the Mojave Desert area into the Colorado Desert area.

The Cholla Garden gave a neat glimpse into one aspect of Colorado Desert flora. It would be a real treat to see it in bloom!

These cholla cacti varied from knee high to head high. The little yellow clusters looked like flowers. I’m not sure whether they are young fruit, or early-stage buds.

I’ll close out with this sunrise shot. It was actually taken in Joshua Tree town, a few miles from the Joshua Tree NP gate. The town is full of the unique yuccas; it’s fun to see them integrated into people’s yards and gardens.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree town

I would highly recommend Joshua Tree to anyone who likes dramatic scenery and/or interesting plants. It was very pleasant visiting mid-winter, but it would be amazing seeing the desert in bloom!

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