Through the Desert on Route 66

The famous Joshua Tree, deep in the Mojave


I left Sequoia with the intention of traveling only for an hour or two, but ended up cutting south and then east across the desert to the very border of Joshua Tree National Park, a drive of 7-8 hours. The driving was easy and the roads straight and in good repair.

Hit a milestone!

Route 66 no longer exists, but there are dozens of chunks scattered across the desert. You see signs for these on some of the modern highways, and parts of the route have been co-opted into other roads. What I saw was not all that different from other highways, with the exception that there were a lot more traffic lights.

I ended up sleeping at a Wal-Mart in Yucca Valley, right outside Joshua Tree, and then heading into the park early the next morning.

A common desert lizard.

Joshua Tree is famous for two things: the eponymous trees and its distinctive piles of large boulders. It’s situated where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado – they each have distinct ecologies. There are four deserts in the United States, the hottest being the Mojave; surprising to me is that most of the southwest is not considered desert at all.

The Joshua Tree is neither a Joshua nor a tree. It is a yucca. These bizarre trees form widely-spaced ‘forests’ that look like something from a Doctor Seuss book. It’s really an awkward plant and can grow up to 25 feet high. The bark, which is formed from old leaves, is tough and fibrous. It was used by native americans for a variety of purposes, including the production of rope.

“Here is where Worth Bagley bit the dust at the hand of W.F. Keys, May 11 1943”

After entering the park I grabbed a campsite at Jumbo Rocks and headed towards Ryan Mountain – but just before I set out on my hike I turned back to check my car was locked… and found it hissing. Bad sign – there was a leak in one tire, presumably caused by the gravel all over the roads (a result of flash floods).

So I had to head back out to town to get the tire patched. Luckily, there are three fairly large towns near Joshua Tree (Yucca Valley, 29 Palms and Joshua Tree). After an hour waiting around, the job was done (for $20… I won’t complain).

View from Ryan Mountain

Then it was back to the mountain, although by this time it was after 10am and getting hot. Actually it was never as hot as I anticipated – although the thermometer hit 105 degrees the temperature could be cool in the shade. It was the intense sun that could prove grueling on some hikes. However, this 4 mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 1300 feet wasn’t that bad. And the views were nice – all around the desert and many of the rock piles were visible. Here on the summit it was actually comfortable – a slight breeze was enough to keep the temperature tolerable.

Lost Horse Mine – perhaps the stereotypical gold mine.

After finishing that hike, I went on another – a 6 mile loop to an abandoned mine. There’s a lot of enduring evidence of people in the desert here. A mile in, a rock shack. And then the mine itself – an operation which produced 9000 ounces of gold and at one point employed 30 people, it looked exactly like an old west mine. Its elderly owner, alone at the mine, was found dead in 1926 and it’s been abandoned ever since.

Jackrabbits are an occasional sight. They’re tolerant of people and use their ears to regulate heat.

It was neat to traipse around here. There were a lot of smashed, contemporary beer bottles, nails, cans, and other artifacts. The mine itself was neat, but unfortunately it was fenced in and impossible to look inside.

The results of a desert wildfire. Absolute desolation.

During the rest of the hike I really began to appreciate the power of the sun – it was draining in the same way as altitude sickness, though more subtle: you simply moved slower than normal. Thankfully, deep cloud cover provided me some shelter – but the 6 mile hike felt like 9. Along the way there were a ton of Joshua trees to look at. The cliches in the visitor’s center are that the desert is full of life, and that is true in a way. Most of the ground is covered with some sort of brush, there are joshua trees and yucca, birds and hundreds of small, lightning-fast lizards.

The gorgeous Jumbo Rocks campground

That night I stayed out of my tent and climbed some rocks near my site, where I was able to watch the stars come out. It was quite a show: about an hour after sundown the Milky Way was visible, and there were several shooting stars, many planes flying to LAX, satellites, and of course the stars. Many, many times more stars than are visible on the East Coast (the dry desert air makes a huge difference in visibility – and of course the distance from people). The lack of stars is one of the most disappointing things, for me, about NYC. Only perhaps 10 (!) are visible through all the streetlights. Here there were thousands and thousands.

There was still water behind the dam in the beginning of September.

The next morning I wanted to check out a few shorter trails: Barker’s Dam and Wall Street Mill. In addition to mining, there were people ranching out here (in the desert!) the climate grew drier at the start of 20th century and the ranches began to disappear. The dam remained a small oasis: there were willows and other trees, hundreds of tiny spotted toads; desert mountain goats are reputed to be in the area, though I saw none. It was a beautiful area and a natural oasis even before the dam: there are ancient indian petroglyphs. These so-called ‘Disney Petroglyphs’ were painted over to make them more visible for the production of an early film.

Abandoned car near the Wall Street Mill

From the same parking lot, a trail leads to part of another mining operation, the ‘Wall Street Mine’ – named in 1929 before the crash. There’s a ton of abandoned stuff out there: a pueblo, multiple trucks, a windmill, and a mining mill for separating ore. It’s crazy seeing these old cars in the middle of nowhere – just pure desolation. They’re in pretty good condition, considering.

The mill, and rock piles.

After this hike I headed into town, having found the heat of a sunny day simply too much to be outside. The clouds returned again and I went and climbed around around some of the rock piles. These look pretty simple to climb from a distance, but the rocks are much larger than they look, the gaps broad or deep. It would easy to get wedged in or fall 20+ feet. I enjoyed wandering around, using my very basic climbing techniques. But I found that in many cases it was possible to easily climb up some section but very tough to get back down… it’s easy to get trapped.

An iguana, pretty rare in the park

I got stuck for a while and was slow getting back to the campground, which I found rained out. I’d unfortunately set up my tent right in the path of flooding and found everything soaked. No problem, it just smelled like gym clothes.

Climbed this pile of rocks, which is about 50 feet high.

The following morning I left extremely early to head to the Grand Canyon, in Arizona.

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