July 1, 2010
Author: Dr. Robert Lyons
Photographers: All Fellows
Our final destination, Joshua Tree National Park, is located a few hours east of Los Angeles in the California high desert, where the Colorado and Mojave Deserts meet. After miraculously escaping most of L.A.’s notoriously nightmarish traffic, we found ourselves on Twentynine Palms Highway, which traversed the north border of the Park and connected the eclectic desert towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. We geared up for a morning departure from our hotel, but before we even boarded our van we were struck by the austere beauty of the barren mountains before us. The contrast of their running peaks against the cloudless blue sky was razor sharp... and while the morning temperature was comfortably warm, we knew it was headed for at least 100° F and the low relative humidity would all but eliminate any sensation of sweating!
Once through the Park entrance, we were blown away by the fascinating ecosystem rolled out before us. Many of the surrounding boulders were smooth and sculpted, as evidenced by one in particular called “Skull Rock,” aptly named for its noticeable “eye sockets” that stared with frigid determination amidst the desert heat. When venturing out of the van, we stuck to prescribed trails but were not disappointed by our discoveries, being constantly vigilant for anything sharp, prickly, or spiny. This was particularly true while hiking within the Cholla Cactus Garden of Opuntia bigelovii, sometimes called “jumping chollas” for the plant’s ability to break off in pieces when touched (ouch!), stick to you for a while, then drop to the ground and root at a distance from the original plant. A great feature for asexual colonization, but at the painful expense of the vector. Fortunately, none of us assisted the cholla in its spreading pursuit that day!
Many plants were weathering the heat nicely, like the Missouri or Buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima), an herbaceous, native perennial. This plant has an enormous tuber, which facilitates survival under extreme drought. Apparently, the fruit is edible only when harvested young, as it gets increasingly bitter with age. The Joshua tree itself (Yucca brevifolia) occurred as sparsely distributed individuals or in dense populations, depending upon your location. Some appeared to be holding on for dear life, while others were statuesque, well branched, and stately.
We continued to trek the easier trails, such as the Barker Dam loop that led to a grand pool of water – a great surprise amidst the desiccated landscape and simply a beautiful sight. We drove to Keys View, exited the van, and walked up to the overlook to witness a sweeping vista. The signage indicated the relative location of the infamous San Andreas Fault, the city of Palm Springs, and a snow covered Mt. San Jacinto in the distance.
So literally and figuratively, don’t sweat it when visiting Joshua Tree National Park. Enjoy and appreciate the extremes!