I honestly didn’t know what to expect, setting out on the several hour drive into the Mojave desert from LA. My only real association with Joshua Tree was the U2 album of the same name (the cover of which ironically was shot some 200 miles away near Darwin, CA, no where near the park), some casual fictional references to yucca brevifolia, aka the Joshua Tree, a type of tall growing yucca that only grows in this small area of high altitude desert, a variety of spiritual and supernatural encounters in cult texts I’ve read over the years, and stories about the Yucca Men, a desert version of Big Foot. I was expecting a typical desert with a small bundle of these exceedingly rare plants. And I would have been happy with that. But I was enchanted by what we discovered.
There were Joshua trees for sure, but they weren’t hard to find. Within the region the plants cover the open dry flatlands in spaced out “forests”, rising in dynamic poses like the entire valley had been alive with dance and suddenly frozen under the gaze of human eyes. It’s easy to see how one could ascribe agency to these creatures. The trees start as small yucca bushes that slowly grow taller into 15-20 foot trees with many arms spreading out. We arrived during a super bloom so the trees were topped with clusters of thick white flowers or large alien and scaly pods that would soon break open into flowers.
What I didn’t expect were the other worldly geologic formations! Bare rock mountains that looked like enormous piles of boulders, like they had been dropped from space and shattered across the landscape. Some formations were quite organic looking, giant spherical boulders, perched on peaks, globulous protrusions, ridges of dragon spine, smooth shattered slopes, a wonderland of giant toys left abandoned to climb on and hide within. I’ve never quite seen anything like it.
Katy had hiked the entire length of California through the Mojave desert on her PCT expedition so the landscape was very familiar to her. But the desert is still quite foreign to me. Every cactus and coyote was a revelation and I went a bit crazy taking pictures.
We rented an AirBnB at the end of a dirt road on the edge of the park surrounded by miles of protected land. With a hot tub. We spent the days hiking short trails and climbing boulders and the nights naked under the stars submerged in hot water. The weather was still quite cold at night at that altitude and the wind was fierce but everything was perfect under the infinite skies and the howls of coyotes all around us. “Aaaaawooooooooo!”
Around the park
Arch Rock trail
Cholla cactus garden
The cholla cactus represents over 20 species in the opuntia genus including the prickly pear. These guys were growing over 15 feet tall in broad forests across the southern slopes of the park but most were hip to chest height. They bud off these prickly nubs that can easily stick to your skin if you’re not careful, a painful form of hitchhiking. It was a super bloom while we were there and we got to see some lovely cholla flowers which are also spiky but still beautiful. Some of the cholla seem to have just dissolved into a pile of spiky balls like a pile of tribbles or the fuzzy balls of mogwai shortly after contacting water.
While we were there I witnessed the total freakout of a boy not paying attention and catching one in the leg. It sounded like he had been attacked by a swarm of bees. And another college age boy, sheet white, and on his way to unconsciousness for some unknown reason. And I started to get the sense these cute creatures might be a bit more dangerous than they appear.
Sunset at Key’s View
Black and white photos of the park
There’s something about the images in Joshua Tree that lend themselves well to black and white. I could see it even while shooting. The edges and contrast. Often the photos I saw hung on the walls of restaurants and coffee shops, even our AirBnB, were rendered in black and white as well. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of the west through media or the richness of tones that I don’t find in my own cloudy city. But whatever it is, Joshua Tree is beautiful in grey.
The super bloom
We were fortunate enough to visit at a rare time. The recent rains had allowed a super bloom and the valley at the southern entrance to the park was awash with a sea of flowers and blooms. It was a 40 minute drive to find it but well worth the time. It’s hard to imagine this valley as the desert it normally is.