“You got air back there?” Dori asked from the front of the Jeep. Bouncing around in the back seats (although fortunately strapped down), we replied in the affirmative: yes, we had gotten airborne for just a moment.
“Good,” she yelled happily, “it ain’t a Jeep Tour until you’ve got air”.
We were in the Joshua Tree National Park – but not as most people know it. Not for us the official park entrances, the surfaced roads and smooth rides of the average tourist. No, we were seeing this Californian Park the hard way: up through little-known canyons, where there is more rock than road and where 4x4s are most definitely not an urbanite accessory.
Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve
On the Joshua Tree National Park Jeep Adventure, our afternoon started quietly enough with a trip to the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve, a nature preserve just north of the Coachella Valley. We took a short walk around, admiring the native Californian Fan Palm, with its distinctive “skirt” formed by dead leaves hanging around the trunk. We also saw desert pupfish in the oases, an ancient fish species that has adapted to extreme desert conditions.
Then it was onto Joshua Tree. We entered the park from a southerly direction through Berdoo Canyon, where the tarmac ended and the road turned into a sandy path. We drove on, to a point where rocky inclines surrounded us, along with a number of indigenous plants that Dori pointed out as we drove along.
Although we were visiting in mid-winter, there was still a surprising amount of vegetation on show. Firstly came the abundant creosote bushes – a shrub with delicate yellow flowers that grows predominately on the southern side of the park. When it rains, the flowers produce a delicate smell. We did smell the cheesebush – another native shrub that has adapted to dry conditions.
Joshua Tree National Park
The secret of the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park lies both in its location and its history. Over 800,000 acres in size, it is the meeting point for 2 deserts: the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. Bounded on the southern side by the San Andreas Fault, it offers visitors the opportunity to see geologic formations, desert life and wilderness in one place. It is easily accessible from the Coachella Valley, and you can see a lot on even a half-day trip.
Dori pointed the Jeep upwards. The path began to narrow, the canyon closed in and suddenly we were driving up a stony incline with steep rocks on either side. The bumping and shaking began, and we grabbed onto the sides of the Jeep as it lurched over rocks that would be impassable in a regular vehicle. This was definitely not a route open to the average visitor!
All through the canyon, the rock formations were becoming more pronounced. We started with loose shale and craggy rocks, but as we climbed higher, the rocks became bigger and smoother. And then the canyon opened out and we were back onto sandy roads, with the huge wide expanse of the park plateau in front of us.
We stopped to photograph this vast landscape, and to appreciate the effects of 800,000 acres of silence. We also had our first up-close-and-personal look at the Joshua Trees. Native to this part of California, they are a member of the Agave family and instantly recognizable. They got their name from Mormon pioneers who, passing through as they headed west, were reminded of Joshua praying to heaven by the trees’ wide-open branches.
In fact, the trees owe their unique shape to a genetic quirk. They grow a new branch only when they bloom (so any trees with only one straight stalk have never flowered). They also rely exclusively on a Yucca moth to pollinate them. As the moth lives only in this part of California, the trees will only bloom here.
The Mormons also gave their name to another Joshua Tree plant – the Mormon Tea bush. The story goes that they followed the Native American example and made tea from the leaves of the plant Ephedra viridis Coville. Unsurprisingly, people reported a slight buzz after drinking it!
Back in the Jeep (and, thankfully, back on smooth roads), Dori drove us up to one of the Park’s landmarks: Jumbo Rocks. These rectangular rock structures formed over millions of years when erosion washed away layers of gniess rock and loose clay, exposing the monzogranite. The rocks are pale in colour and provide a dramatic backdrop to what’s known as Geology Tour Road.
We stopped to admire the rocks and to take a gentle stroll. From up here, we had a truly spectacular view. The park stretched for 25 miles to the south-east, and beyond that was the Salton Sea and, eventually, Mexico.
Then it was time for the return trip down Berdoo Canyon. It passed quickly this time, with a few stops for sunset photos. Soon we out of the canyon and back onto solid roads.
As we drove home, I reflected on a thoroughly enjoyable but tiring afternoon. Stifling a yawn, it occurred to me that I was in need of a pick-me-up.
Maybe some of that Mormon tea…?
Photos courtesy of Louise Heal
– Louise Heal