Monday, December 27, 2010

Joshua Christmas Tree

Since our son insisted he needed to get back to his job in South Carolina, post traumatic bike injury number 4, we were going to be empty-nesters for the first Christmas since he was born back in the Reagan Administration.  To avoid having a very sad, "we miss our son" holiday, I decided to burn up a "free night stay at any Hilton property" certificate I had, and we drove to La Quinta & Palm Springs California for Christmas.  Hilton has a Waldorf Astoria resort in La Quinta, and since we've been to both the Boulders and The Biltmore in Arizona, we wanted to see how La Quinta stacked up.  We'd never been, and heard it was nice, so we thought "what the heck, why not?" 

Well, the valley in which Palm Springs sits is like Phoenix, except with a little bit worse air quality, higher property values, a higher concentration of wealth and elderly, and higher California prices.  The quality of the service and accommodations was not as good as the Arizona Waldorf Properties, but it was just as expensive.  We won't be back.  But I digress...  this posting is about Joshua Tree National Park, and spending Christmas there.

We drove out of La Quinta, and headed West down I-10 to the massively over-populated wind farms at the West Side of Palm Springs, then turned North through several depressed towns with economic conditions that reminded me of much smaller Akron OH or Hammond IN, with closed businesses, and very weak development.  When we got to the main entrance of Joshua Tree, there's a nice visitor's center with friendly rangers, clean rest rooms, and a nice gift shop, but it is 3 miles from the gate, which we thought was kind of strange.  There's several hundred people who live on small plots of land along those 3 miles between the Visitor Center and the main park entrance, with trailers (mostly) clinging to the rocky soil, along a winding well paved road - Federal Highway Funds.

Once inside the park, you're greeted with other-worldly rock formations, that look like Titans or Giants had stacked up boulders and then went to play someplace else.  As the boulders gave way, vast forests of Joshua Trees came into view.  We were up at 4000 and 5000 feet, where Joshua Trees love to grow at their leisurely pace of 1 inch a year.  As I am 6 feet tall, the tree behind me is about 250 years old.   We saw several other trees that were well over 20 feet tall, and the highest recorded Joshua Tree in park topped out at 40 feet - or almost 500 years old!

If you've never been to Joshua Tree before, take the time to drive around the Western edge of the park, and enter from the North West Gate in the town of Joshua Tree, and exit to the South near I-10.  This way, you'll get to see the spectacular rock formations and vast forests of Joshua Trees early in your visit, and if you leave to the south, you can see the "God Forsaken Desert" of the Sonoran upon your exit.  Since we LIVE in the Sonoran desert, fields of cholla cacti and creosote bushes hold little allure for us anymore, and it's a very desolate, forbidding landscape once you descend out of the Little San Bernardino, Pinto and Hexie Mountain Ranges towards the Cottonwood Range and the Coachella Valley beyond. 

It was quite interesting to drive up and then hike up to the look out at Keyes View to see the San Andreas fault, snow capped San Bernardino Mountains, Salton Sea, and Coachella Valley down below and off in the distance. 

The park was Unexpectedly Busy  for Christmas Day.  The close proximity to Los Angeles brought out thousands of day trippers I think.  It seemed everyone had the same idea we did, about spending Christmas in one of the National Parks (our NP Park Pass is still good until January 1st!).  There was no shortage of
- lumbering RVs (both owned land barges reminiscent of "Meet The Fockers" and smaller rented ones driven by unsteady and uncertain hands)
- extended Asian families with impatient teens or 20-somethings at the wheel
- NRA-hat wearing Republicans
- Vacationing Europeans (French, Germans, Dutch, Spanish, Italian speakers)
- Rental Cars outnumbering owned vehicles, at least 2 to 1
- Orange County Gucci'ed housewives toting little dogs
- Rock Climbing "extreme" 20 somethings, hauling their gear around.
There was a clan of 3 young male coyotes (smaller than what we see in Phoenix, and busily urinating on things to mark every trunk and branch that could be smelled) that crossed the road in front of us at one point, and every rental car within site stopped to take a plethora of pictures.   

The hike out to Barker Dam is worth it.  It's one mile, and an easy loop.  We took it on the advice of one of the friendly rangers.  There's water in the dammed lake, and we were told that many long horn sheep drink and lounge there, but all we saw of sheep were lots and lots of "pellets" they left behind. 

If you're planning on going to Joshua Tree at Christmas, and it's a weekend (as it was this year), you might want to plan the Park visit during the week, to avoid the 'local tourists'.  It makes it easier to negotiate the roads and hiking paths when there's fewer travelers on them, most of whom don't know where they're going, or how to read a map, or how to drive an American rental car or rental RV very well.  Spend most of your time in the Northern and North Western part of the park.  The Southern and Eastern part are fine for drive through, but if you live in the Sonoran Desert (as we do), this will be the least interesting part of the trip. Take plenty of water with you - it IS the desert, and wear warm clothing.  I was a little chilly in shorts on a 60F breezy day in the high desert.  Charge your digital camera batteries ahead of time, and get a full tank of gas before entering the park.  Enjoy.  =)

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