Being a nearly lifelong resident of Virginia, I always get a kick out of traveling out west. To me, the environment differences couldn’t be more obvious. Often times when I see people give advice on backpacking, it is pretty clear their opinions are polarized to whatever happens to be in their backyard. My blog is no different as I tend to favor techniques and gear appropriate for the east coast while most backpacking gear manufacturers are grounded in the theory that the west is the only place to do anything outdoors. There is merit to both. With that said, if there is one thing Virginia has in abundance it is trees or other greenery. From floor to ceiling, if you aren’t near something green (and all the creepy crawlies that call this “home”), then you aren’t in Virginia. Heading to John Muir’s stomping ground within the Joshua Tree National Park was an expected blow to my ingrained “green” psyche and yet a welcomed memory to retain.
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California, west of Los Angeles (not to be confused with a U2 album). Declared a U.S. National Park in 1994 when the US Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act, it had previously been a U.S. National Monument since 1936. It includes over 1,234 sq miles of land. A large part of the park is designated to wilderness area; roughly 914 sq miles.
Straddling the San Bernardino County/Riverside County border, the park includes parts of two deserts, each an ecosystem whose characteristics are determined primarily by elevation. Below 3,000 feet, the Colorado Desert encompasses the eastern part of the park and features natural gardens of creosote bush, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. The Little San Bernardino Mountains run through the southwest edge of the park.
The higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave Desert is the special habitat of the Joshua tree, from which the park gets its name. In addition to Joshua tree forests, the western part of the park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California's deserts. The dominant geologic features of this landscape are hills of bare rock, usually broken up into loose boulders. These hills are popular amongst rock climbing and scrambling enthusiasts. The flatland between these hills is sparsely forested with Joshua trees. Together with the boulder piles and Skull Rock, the trees make the landscape otherworldly. Five Washingtonia fan palm oases in the park are the few areas where water occurs naturally and wildlife abounds. The rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park were formed 100 million years ago from the cooling of magma beneath the surface. Groundwater is responsible for the weathering that created the spheres from rectangular blocks which were various sizes and stood at all angles in all configurations.
The ground is principally sandy with Joshua Trees, large rocks, and various brush and cactus throughout. In the short time I visited, I saw several animals which I’ll more simply refer to as rabbits, lizards, chipmunks, birds, huge red ants, and a rattlesnake - although I'm certain they have a more domestic local name. On the surface, the desert looks dead. Looking closer, the ground is full of holes and something is always buzzing or moving. In most cases, I felt uncomfortable as I was not familiar with this environment enough to know what I could expect from behind each rock, bush, and hole. My mind was a little too creative with the potential whereabouts and temperament of rattlesnakes which was a little discomforting. It is worth mentioning that I was about 30 seconds into the park and had just stepped out of my rental car as I moved towards the trailhead when I heard a rattle coming from a bush. It was literally square one step one, hence my reservations.
My impressions of Joshua Tree National Park are fairly simple – a nice place to visit, but once you’ve seen a square mile; you’ve seen pretty much all it has to offer as the rest is just the same stuff arranged a little differently.
Probably one of the things I enjoyed most was my return trip from Joshua Tree where I took a flight from Los Angeles. While waiting at LAX, I noticed a guy in front of me wearing a ULA-Equipment backpack. As I was going through security, next thing I know he started asking me questions about an Appalachian Trail hat I was wearing. As it turns out, he was from PA and thru-hiked the AT in 2008 with his brother. He was in LAX after returning from doing some hiking in New Zealand and was gearing up for a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. We talked quite a bit about gear, what worked and what didn't, and ultimately how he handled the AT. He said he took his time, nearly 7 months, partially because he took 100 "zero days". He also didn't have a single mail drop and instead elected to hike into town any time he needed food, laundry, etc. He said he had been using different kinds of tablets (MicroPur) to treat his water, but ended up not treating water at all from Virginia to Maine and reported no problems whatsoever. He used a Tarp Tent and a Gossamer Gear pack and quickly switched to running shoes after getting numerous blisters with boots. He said he enjoyed hiking through New Hampshire and Maine the most and reported it was also some of the hardest hiking with so many water crossings that keeping his feet dry was near impossible. He was in his mid-20's and said he realized about 2 weeks into his AT trip that he had a realistic chance on finishing it being that he really enjoyed being a YMCA outdoor educator and the initial steps of the AT. He reported that he hopes to finish the PCT and possibly even the CDT so he can join a couple of his friends who can claim they have done the Triple Crown. If you're interested, you can find more about him at his Trail Journal site (http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=216562).