Christmas 2017, we celebrated a little differently than most families. We spent some quiet time at Joshua Tree National Park to take in the beauty of this National Park’s thousands of Joshua Trees, Cholla gardens, Desert Lavenders and Ocotillos. But we had a couple setbacks and surprises during our journey.
Our original holiday plan was to boondock at Trona Pinnacles for Christmas and New Years to relax, explore and hike. However, our plans were interrupted by an unforeseen frigid cold front and wind storm that plagued the southwestern United States. We didn’t want to take the chance of getting out there only to be stranded with frozen water lines and blown to smithereens.
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However, all was not lost because Joshua Tree National Park was less than two hundred miles away. Our next destination was to spend time at Joshua Tree anyway and as we say in this RV lifestyle, “that’s why they have wheels”.
So, off we went to score more pleasant and warmer weather.
We had always wanted to go to Joshua Tree National Park to because growing up on the east coast, Joshua Trees were certainly not what grew in our backyards. Oh, and the fact that we got to add California to our state sticker map was a bonus!
Once we got to Joshua Tree, we needed to stay at a campground for a couple overnights to catch up on laundry, empty and flush tanks, take on water and research the area. We also wanted to scout out potential boondocking spots outside the park and do a drive-through in the National Park.
We ended up staying at Joshua Tree Campground on the north side of the National Park.
By the second day of our stay, we found our spot through assistance from our RV friends Brandon and Kerensa of Drive, Dive, Devour who sent us coordinates.
Change of Plans
However, the day before we were to leave to go boondocking, I suddenly fell ill (and I mean FELL ill) with the worst case of vertigo while doing a little hiking.
Though, I’ve had a few bouts of vertigo before, this one literally knocked me on my ass. I lost all control of my equilibrium, intense fatigue and was extremely nauseous.
So, Dan rushed me to the emergency room at Twenty-Nine Palms Marine Corps Base not far from the north entrance of the park.
Needless to say, the good Doctor ordered bed rest for a few days and medication to help manage and alleviate my symptoms.
We ended up staying two more days at the campground until I could be steady enough on my feet to relocate. Doing exactly what the doc told me, I recovered surprisingly quickly. I still had to rely on my Meclizine but at least we could move on to enjoy our visit to explore Joshua Tree National Park.
After four days of parking at the campground, I was feeling much better and back to my old self. So, we were ready to relocate to our new backyard; this time on the south side of Joshua Tree National Park. We parked our fifth wheel on BLM land just outside the south entrance gate of the park.
Quiet Christmas Celebration
Not but a few hours after parking and getting our new backyard set up, we noticed our friends, Gary and Stacey, of Pau Hana Travels were headed our way from Washington state.
So, we texted them our coordinates. By sunset, we were spending Christmas together. As they were pulling in, we welcomed them and were gifted this beautiful sunset.
This actually was another blessing because it forced us to really relax over the holiday.
The following afternoon (Christmas Eve), we went exploring inside the park and deliver our holiday greetings for our families on videos.
Christmas came and went. Gary and Stacey needed to get down the road to go see family and friends near Palm Springs. We felt blessed that we didn’t have to celebrate Christmas alone.
The next day, we set off on our own to go exploring the beautiful desert full of spiny trees, prickly bushes and boulders galore!
Once we finished checking in, we were off to explore the millions of Joshuas! I was feeling healthy again so I was more than ready to lace up my hiking shoes and do some hiking and climbing.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
The Joshua Trees
The Joshua Tree got its name from Mormons who were crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid 1800’s. The trees reminded them of Joshua as he reached his hands up to heaven in prayer.
Miners and ranchers used the branches for their fences and the trunks for fuel for their ore-processing steam engines. They were known in Spanish as izote de desierto meaning ‘desert daggers’ because of their sharp pointy bayonet ‘leaves’.
The Joshua Tree, part of the Yucca family, is truly unique. They don’t have growth rings and their trunks are made of thousands of small fibers making it difficult to figure the tree’s age. They are fast growers even in the dry desert.
The blooms are pollinated by the Yucca Moth, which spreads pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower. While the moth larvae consumes some of the seeds, there’s plenty left to disperse to grow into seedlings.
Though seedlings come from ‘seeds’, new trees can also spawn from underground rhizomes that spread out around the host tree.
Although the trees look top heavy, they have an incredibly deep root system reaching up to 36’. The Joshua Tree has been speculated to survive even to a thousand years despite the harsh desert rigors.
The tallest Joshua Trees grow up towards 50 feet. The tree blossoms from February to late April in panicles. The trees typically don’t branch until after blooming and surprisingly, they don’t bloom every year.
Like most desert plants, their blooming depends on rainfall and timing of the rainfall. Interestingly, they need a winter freeze before they bloom.
MORE THAN JUST JOSHUA TREES
One of the intriguing things about Joshua Tree isn’t ‘just’ about the thousands of Joshua Trees but also the huge boulders and unique geological differences.
It’s also where two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, join in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating collection of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain.
And, dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California within the park.
The Cholla Garden
We stopped at the designated Cholla Garden. Those unfamiliar of what Chollas are, we best describe them as sturdy tree-like bushes that ‘look’ soft and fuzzy at a distance but quite the contrary.
The Teddy Bear Cholla‘s, also known as the Jumping Cholla, stems break off in little porcupine looking balls and root to start new bushes. Since their spines have barbs, they attach to passing wildlife who carry them to other destinations, replanting after they’ve fallen off.
Let me tell you through personal experience, you do not want to have these attach to your skin. Those spiny little suckers bite! Well, not really but they sure feel like it!
We learned that the Desert Pack Rats will carry these Cholla balls to their burrows, creating a defense against predators.
They bloom in late spring. Bright yellow 1-2” ‘fruits’ that once hosted the blooms on their tips hold the seeds that fall off for germination.
The Ocotillo Patch
Found in a corner portion of the Pinto Basin in the Park, the Ocotillos are also known as Candlewood, Canewood or Desert Coral. You’d know them from sight as it this spindly tree/bush combination grows upwards to 30 feet tall.
To those not familiar, the Ocotillo appears dead most of the year but don’t let that deceive you. There’s a whole lot of life going on inside it’s branches. After the slightest of rain, bursts of bright red flowers grow on the branch tips leaving a perfect nectar feeding ground for Hummingbirds and bees.
Native Americans used the bark to concoct soothing tinctures for stomach ailments. They also used the roots and leaves on wounds to stop the bleeding.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see them in bloom because of our timing however, we learned that last year’s Super Bloom provided an awesome photographic event with their crimson spears of flora.
To read about other desert plant life in Joshua Tree National Park, you can check it out at Joshua Tree National Park website.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not just about the Joshua’s that make this park so interesting and unique. My favorite part were the boulders! The rocks were fun to climb, crawl through the crevices, and playing leapfrog on. It was a great playground even for us older kids.
This one that I am pointing to looks like a whale coming up from the ground.
We also crawled between them making for interesting photos…
And we posed under them…
The next stop took us for a few hours to climb the big boulders and hike around them. It was an easy trail; nothing like our hikes in the Badlands or Spearfish, South Dakota.
However, we learned that good shoes are a must as footing is unstable from the loose sand, gravel and rocks.
We enjoyed the many rock formations; one of which was the Face Rock in which we found by accident as we turned onto Face Rock Trail.
Here’s an interesting explanation of how these huge boulder rocks were formed
Our Joshua Tree National Park Review
The park was busier as we had expected forgetting it was Christmas vacation for families and college students. Though its was crowded, we still enjoyed the many cool sights that the park offered and learned great things about geology, ecology and desert life.
The National Park Rangers and staff at the visitors center were helpful and friendly. Although, we didn’t see much of them on the trails.
Our week-long stay came to an end a couple days before New Years. Joshua Tree National Park taught us many things about the desert environment but also, to step back a moment and respect our health.
And, the weather blessed us with beautifully warm and sunny days with gentle breezes. Joshua Tree National Park is definitely NOT a one and done National Park. We shall return as there’s many trails we did not get to explore and many stones (or boulders) left unturned.
“Somehow I wound up in the desert just after daylight. Where the Joshua trees grow that little place you always liked.”
See where we went after Joshua Tree Our Salton Sea Mis-Adventure
Check out other National Parks we visited!
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