USA: Joshua Tree National Park – deserts, twisted trees and jumping cacti

Joshua Tree National Park – a huge protected area in Southern California that is famous for, you’ve guessed it, the Joshua trees. They are not the only attractions in this park though, they compete against (among others) sculpted rocks, beautiful cacti and cute squirrels. Earlier a place for settlements, cattle-ranching and gold-digging, it is since 1994 a national park – the first one we’ve visited in the US. To be honest, it has set the bar quite high! It’s also the place where I got dehydrated, but we’ll get to that later.

The Joshua Tree National Park encompasses parts of the Mojave Desert (in the North), the Colorado Desert (in the South and the East) and the Little San Bernardino Mountains. These ecosystems differ so much that you can actually notice how the landscape changes as you drive through this extensive park.

The famous Joshua Trees grow in the Mojave Desert and look as if somebody had shaped and cut them as he wished, as if they were part of some fancy, bonsai-like garden. They’re special yuccas that used to serve American Indians for making baskets and sandals, ranchers for fencing and miners as a fuel for their machinery. It was the Mormon settlers though that came up with this interesting name – the trees reminded them of the biblical figure of Joshua with his hands raised in supplication.

There are loads of them, just usually not close to the points of interest in the park, so I’d recommend stopping at one of many turnouts along the road to take pictures of these extraordinary trees.

Joshua Tree National Park - Joshua Trees

To understand the history of the following attractions, one should know that in the late 1800s some areas of today’s park were full of tall grasses. It used to rain around two to five times more than now! These circumstances made it a perfect place for cattle-ranching; it all ended quite quickly though as the climate became much drier in the 1930s.

Getting back to 2018: we started our visit in the Hidden Valley. The rumour has it that it used to be a place where the McHaney Gang hid and rebranded the cattle and horses they stole in Arizona and California to later sell it with a great profit. Today it attracts hikers, rock climbers and other tourists with its serene beauty. Even though it’s made of rocks and sand, many species of plants and animals have chosen it as their home; some are unfortunately found dry today turning the landscape quite dramatic. It’s an easy 1-mile (1,6 km) walk that lets you get to know the desert without going too far away from the road.

Joshua Tree National Park - Hidden Valley

The next pin on our map was the Barker Dam. Naturally, it was crucial for ranchers to have reliable water sources – this particular dam was built by the Barker & Shay Cattle Company. The trail is easy and only a little longer than the Hidden Valley Trail (1,3 mile / 2,1 km). On the way we saw not only the species we’d already gotten to know, but also precious cacti and some plants you wouldn’t normally associate with the desert – they were planted in the times of cattle-ranching and thanks to the moisture close to the dam still thrive. In their branches there were some cute squirrels eating; they weren’t too sure about us, but in the end didn’t care much and let us take some great pictures. The lake itself was tiny at the moment, but we could see the maximal water level marked on the rocks – and it was over my head! (I’m 1,70 m tall, by the way)

Joshua Tree National Park - Barker Dam

Not all attractions need to be reached by trails, some are just next to the road which lets you basically hop off, take them in, hop on again and drive to the next one. One of them is the Skull Rock which, in my opinion, is not that interesting. With a little bit of imagination everybody can see everything; this rock does have two hollows and a Voldemort’s nose, but a skull wouldn’t be my first association.

What is intriguing though is how such weird rocks get sculpted. Professionally speaking, it’s called “cavernous weathering and undercutting” which is basically when moisture stays on the rock long enough to make certain minerals dissolve and then water or wind washes the sand away.

Joshua Tree National Park - Skull Rock

We could see many of such rocks on another mini trail (0,5 mi / 0,8 km) that took us to the Arch Rock. This kind of rock formation exists only for certain time before eroding even more and, eventually, falling into pieces. Nobody knows when exactly it would fall apart, but looking at the thick arch I think it will be just fine for a rather long time. For us, this attraction was just a foretaste of the Arches National Park which we visited two days later – if you plan on going there too, you can easily skip this one.

Joshua Tree National Park - Arch Rock

The last point of interest we chose to visit was the Cholla Cactus Garden which is to be found in the Colorado Desert. It is exactly what the name promises – a beautiful place full of cholla cacti. They’re also called “jumping cholla” because they “jump” on anything they touch. Their pads separate easily from the stem and stick to their new home. Watch out – if they land on your skin, their spikes turn under moisture into little hooks and are very difficult to detach. Don’t pet this desert beauty!

Joshua Tree National Park - Cholla Cacti

After visiting this park, I felt great mentally (the views!) and okay physically the whole night and the next day… until I didn’t. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling very hot, my heart was racing, I felt some weigh on my chest, had a headache and my body was shaking. I just couldn’t calm down. And the worst part was that we were in the middle of nowhere and the closest city was one-hour drive away.

In the end, I somehow fell asleep, but felt weak and had this weird feeling in my chest all day. I also woke up in the middle of the following night with similar symptoms and decided that this was worrying enough to go to a doctor.

The next morning, I went to the nearby hospital and thought that this would be a normal 15-minute consultation after which I would get some diagnosis and medicaments. How wrong was I! After a short talk with the nurse, she got me changed into this weird gown that is open on the back and put many stickers and cables on my chest. There was also a pressure gauge on my left arm, a pulse oximeter on my left pointing finger and a needle in my right arm through which my blood was drawn. I was not only being monitored through the beeping machine standing next to me, two more machines were brought in to check my heart. I was surprised by how fast everything was happening and even more that I had ended up disoriented, sweating and shaking on a hospital bed during my holidays.

The final diagnosis was dehydration which is apparently quite common in the area. Two big bags of fluids were pumped into my veins and made me feel better. Finally! I also learned a fun fact as I was sipping on the Gatorade the nurse had given me: if this type of drink tastes good, you’re dehydrated.

After almost three hours in the hospital, I was good to go. I have to say, the medical care I got was excellent, I felt taken care of and recovered quite quickly – as the doctor said, he needed half of the time I was sick to make me feel good again. Luckily enough, we had an insurance that covered the costs of it though because the legends of the expensive health care in the United States were proven true.

So drink water, kids, and don’t say you’re not thirsty! I felt like I was drinking enough or even a lot, but the desert laughed in my face.

Joshua Tree National Park

Planning

We came from Los Angeles to the Joshua Tree National Park (127 mi / 204 km) and spent there around 4 hours – driving from one attraction to another, making short hikes and running back to the air-conditioned car to recover from the heat. It was over 40°C and extremely dry! If you also plan on visiting, don’t forget to wear appropriate clothing, sunscreen and drink a lot of water. Moreover, if you plan on going when there is a chance of rain, watch out as floods may interrupt your visit. When it rains, the water doesn’t soak in this easily and the roads may result impassable. It’s open all year.

The entry ticket costs $30 per car, however if you’d like to see more national parks, I’d strongly recommend stopping by the visitor center (Joshua Tree National Park is one of few where it is located before the entry gates) and buying the annual pass. For only $80 you can visit one year long as many parks as you like! It also works for two holders, so you can buy it and share it with a friend.

Having seen this extraordinary park, we drove to a motel in Phoenix (280 mi / 450 km) and continued our journey to the Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments on the next day.

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