It starts abruptly. A knuckled line of hills, jumbled and chaotic. Slopes clad in boulders, frumpy and disheveled from a distance. It was difficult to wrap my head around the scale of joshua tree as I drove up the dusty road to indian cove campground.
Having spent 17 years in Canada, I had what you might call a traditional view of ‘desert’ - A flat expanse of endless sand, festooned with cacti, sagebrush, creosote - But the high desert blew those cliches right out of my head.
It’s an otherworldly place. the park itself is enormous (Slightly larger than the state of Rhode island) and contains two different desert ecosystems: The mojave desert (west) where I was, and the colorado desert (East). Had i visited the colorado portion of the park, my preconceptions would have been better realized. It is lower in elevation and more closely resembles the classic notion of desert I had in mind.
But I was in the Mojave Desert, the high desert, boulder town. Gargantuan piles of stone (you can call them hills if you like) that end abruptly in broad savannah studded with cacti and Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia).
Boulders the size of SUVs lay atop even greater behemoths. An immense tumbled landscape. It’s as though a great walled city had been thrown down in ruin and its bones kicked about by giants. It is, honestly, a place where superlatives come home to feel comfortable.
Joshua Tree is at once intimate and intimidating. Stunning jumbled valleys and quiet pockets of calm between giants. Every direction you look there is a scene worth remembering, Whether in the precarious perch of a granite boulder, or the sudden green of an oak, or the stark bones of trees rising like skeletal fingers.
Of course the opportunities for climbing are legion whether it’s the technical intricacies of bouldering or something for the more “vertically challenged”. climbs of all difficulties can be had here.
Joshua Tree has long been a winter practice area for climbers when Yosemite is snowbound.
To this day I still marvel at the immensity of the mojave and joshua tree. Humans are ants, trees are toothpicks. It is a land where rock is king.
Humans have inhabited the region for more than 5000 years - the earliest known are the Pintos. Following them came the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla.
In the 1800s, ranchers arrived. with them came livestock. Soon miners and homesteaders with dreams of striking it rich or simply striking out on their own staked their claim on the land. The park protects 501 archaeological sites and 88 historic structures.
Many have stories of tragedy and broken ambition - the names are laden with images of the American West: Lost Horse Mine, Indian Cove, Skull Rock, Lost Palms Oasis.
And when night falls, things become even more magical. The great bulk of stone rears up in the darkness, framing a sky studded with light. Joshua Tree is removed enough from the cities of Southern California to be an enviable location for astronomy.
The time to depart came too quickly, but one thing I knew for sure: I’d be back.