Our plan for this sunny day in Southern California seemed straightforward enough – drive about 60 minutes from La Maison, our French-inspired boutique hotel in Palm Springs, to Joshua Tree National Park for a desert hike.
Instead, we’ve either materialized on another planet or time-traveled back to the Stone Age.
Bill and I, along with our friends Keith and Carole, are driving on a two-lane, paved, serpentine road through Joshua Tree National Park, an 800,000-acre wilderness where the Colorado and Mojave deserts converge. All around us and as far as we can see is an unexpected landscape bursting with ragged hills and mountains of sandy-colored stacked boulders and buttresses, a setting mind-bogglingly, spectacularly, captivatingly surreal and primeval.
Geology has run amok.
Otherworldly in its sheer size, shape, and scope, the monolithic scenery at Joshua Tree National Park is unlike any I’ve ever encountered. I’m transfixed. My imagination cuts loose, and I envision huge, predatory, prehistoric beasts lumbering and prowling around à la Jurassic Park.
It wouldn’t surprise me if gigantic alien hands had shaken and scattered these massive boulders across the land, haphazardly discarding them like so many jumbled heaps of unwanted toy building blocks.
How these rock formations came to be is, of course, more scientific.
The rock piles are mostly granite, a kind called monzogranite and not unlike our kitchen countertops back in Charlotte. The rock began underground some 250 million years ago during volcanic activity. Hot, molten fluids within the earth’s crust gradually cooled and crystalized, forming ball-shaped masses and creating horizontal and vertical cracks. The granite rock uplifted, and intruded onto the surface and into the overlying ancient rock, called gneiss and pronounced “nice.” Chemical weathering from groundwater further widened the cracks and rounded the edges. Eventually, the gneiss eroded.
Nowadays, the only surviving gneiss, which is dark in color, remains exposed on the mountain tops. Younger monzogranites (can you really call something “young” when it’s 100 million years old?) are what we’re seeing in the valley bottoms.
Adding to nature’s eccentric imagery are extensive stands of Joshua trees – the namesake of Joshua Tree National Park. It’s the weird and iconic Joshua trees that tell us we’re in the cooler, wetter, higher-elevation Mojave Desert.
Brandishing wildly zigging and zagging branches, they tease with a grotesque, mischievous beauty. They’re bizarre, undisciplined, wacky. Some silhouettes are full and bushy while others are rangy and sparse. Joshua trees, I’ve decided, would be right at home as illustrations in a Dr. Seuss book.
Even though Joshua trees can grow over 40 feet tall – and they do so at a leisurely pace of an inch a year – tree is a misnomer, for they’re actually a species of yucca, a member of the agave family. Blooming occurs from February through April, and clusters of spiky cream-colored flowers have begun sprouting on branch tips, thanks to well-timed and unusually abundant spring rains.
We exit the car for a closer look at one of the hills. The air is still and tranquil, belying the sound and fury that must have rumbled here eons ago when the earth was undergoing such upheaval. The temperature is a seasonally mild 75 degrees despite the relentless sun. Come summer with heat soaring to 100 degrees and more, this would be a forbidding place. Even now, I’m guzzling water.
Two boulders, worn from time and the elements, make us think they might topple from on high at any moment. One teeters precariously on edge. The other is tenuously wedged into a darkened cleft below. We watch and wait expectantly for the inevitable to happen, but it doesn’t. Perhaps if we return in a thousand years, those boulders might have moved at least a few inches. Or, they might have finally met their fate and lie on the desert floor.
In the meantime, a man with climbing gear dangling from his backpack strides energetically past us. No wonder climbers find Joshua Tree National Park to be a mecca for their sport. He begins his ascent, stretching his Gumby body and confidently grasping footholds and handholds only he can discern from his vantage point. We glance around at other hills in the distance and, sure enough, spot several more figures inching their way upwards.
Driving deeper into the park, we reach our own higher altitude at Keys View. At 5,185 feet, the overlook lords above a 50-mile swath of the Coachella Valley.
I’ve always reveled in the tranquility and quietude of heights, and the steady breeze does nothing to disturb that feeling. A lone hawk, riding the upward draft of thermals, soars and swoops above as I take in the beauty and timelessness of valley, desert, and mountains from my bird’s-eye perspective.
The view isn’t as clear as I had anticipated. A slight haze, the product of water vapor, dust, and smog funneled through the mountain passes mostly from Los Angeles, partially obscures the panorama. Still, the setting is stellar.
I admire the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, both flirting with an elevation of about 11,000 feet. There’s the flat, shallow Salton Sea, an inland saline lake and a sure anomaly in an otherwise barren part of the desert. Directly beneath it lies the powerful San Andreas Fault of earthquake fame. Spread wide with neighborhoods of legendary Mid-Century Modern homes, hotels, golf courses, and energy-producing windmills is the outline of Palm Springs, a mere suggestion of a city at this distance.
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park
Our hike awaits, so we retrace our path and come to Hidden Valley. The name is apt, for the 55-acre Hidden Valley is enclosed by high rocks. Giving it added cachet is a colorful history, which might or might not be true.
Rumor has it that cattle rustlers hid their illicit herds within the valley. Most notable was a band of cowboys named the McHaney Gang. Local lore says they pilfered cattle from Arizona and horses from California, and drove the herds here for rebranding. Grasses were once abundant and lush, and stock grazed until they were sold in out-of-state markets. The business supposedly was profitable until miners, lawmen, and more law-abiding cattlemen moved into the area in the late 19th century.
Following the same route those animals (maybe) once trod, we enter the trail through a narrow gap in the rocks. The one-mile loop that skirts the valley is more of a short walk and nature trail blazed with interpretive markers describing resident plants and animals. Some boulders appear to have carved faces or resemble fanciful shapes of animals and objects. We call out: “It’s a frog! “A rocking chair on a porch!” “A child’s car seat!” “A cow!”
We leave the unearthly Joshua Tree National Park, and about 25 miles later come upon yet another quirky spot – a faded, cinematic version of the Old West – when we enter Pioneertown. Human hands crafted this off-the-beaten-path place in 1946.
A group of Hollywood investors and personalities, including the legendary Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, built a backdrop of facades and interior spaces replicating a 19th century frontier town to film TV and movie westerns. Up went false-front stables, saloons, shops, banks, jails, and a corral. Inside went motels, a bowling alley, and an ice cream parlor for casts, crews, and the public.
Not much is happening along the dusty remains of Mane (yes, that horsey spelling) Street, so we mosey over to the livelier Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a small Western-themed roadhouse that tempts us with an entrance sign proclaiming “Hot Beer. Lousy Food. Bad Service. Welcome. Have a nice day.”
This rustic saloon – a beef and beer joint serving a surprisingly delicious kale salad – also is a nationally acclaimed music venue, where the likes of Leon Russell and Robert Plant have performed.
Oh, if only we had been here last October when Sir Paul McCartney sandwiched in an improbable little gig between appearances at the Desert Trip mega-festival. My favorite Beatle jamming for more than 90 minutes on this intimate stage?
Now that would have been a true out-of-this-world experience.