TWENTYNINE PALMS, California - Although we’re a nature-loving family, the natural beauty that my wife, youngest kids and I experienced at Joshua Tree National Park was unlike any we’ve encountered before.
Indeed, the Rhode Island-sized park, although just a few hours east of Los Angeles or San Diego, is a sere, starkly lovely - and very pointy - side of California that many visitors never experience. (Fortunately, the park has avoided the recent rash of California wildfires.)
The trip to the desert was the first for my 12-year-old twins. They are experienced explorers of the fields and riparian forests of Ohio and of the shores and semi-tropical wetlands of south Florida. But Joshua Tree gave them a look at not one, but two great desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Sonora, which are stunning even to more experienced travelers.
During our spring visit, crisp skies sharply delineated the other-worldly landscapes of boulder fields, dry arroyos and vast plains of spiny, spiky, desert-loving plants.
The park’s namesake tree - actually a giant yucca - thrives, as well as anything thrives, in the Mojave Desert.
The tree was named by Mormon settlers who thought it resembled Joshua from the Old Testament, lifting his arms toward heaven. They look more Dr. Seuss-ian than Biblical to me; odd lanky characters dotting the desert, sporting furry green cuffs.
The trees, covered with stiff, dagger-like leaves, are beautiful but, like most desert plants, are not very huggable.
Even the teddy-bear cholla cactus, which appears soft and almost cuddly, possesses razor-sharp spines that can cause severe injuries - even severed arteries - to those foolish enough to be deceived by desert appearances. (A special cholla first-aid kit is available, just in case, at the trailhead of the Cholla Cactus Garden Trail.)
But that doesn’t mean that the desert denizens aren’t lovable. My bird-watching, gardening, animal-loving family was absolutely besotted with the unfamiliar flora and fauna, and with the park's harsh beauty.
The best way for a family to explore the 1,200-square-mile park is probably a combination of driving and short hikes. The park has many hiking trails, but much of Joshua Tree is drivable, with a wide variety of habitats, geological formations and scenery to be seen from pull-offs and on easy walks.
I recommend arriving as early as possible, because traffic can back up behind the entrance gates and temperatures can climb quickly during the day.
After a morning’s drive from San Diego, my family entered the park from the West Entrance Station. Our first stop was just a few miles ahead, near Hidden Valley, where boulders lie strewn like a spilled bag of giant marbles. Scrambling over the boulders is fairly easy, and fun for all ages. They also offer a great vantage point from which to admire the Joshua Trees that fan out across the dusty flats stretching from the rocky outcroppings.
We took a detour north to the Oasis Visitor Center at the town of Twentynine Palms to check out the displays there and pick up park information and maps. At the loop trail there, we saw a colorful, wrinkly chuckwalla, a large desert lizard; and a cactus wren, a life bird for the entire family.
We also decided to stop for lunch and, at the recommendation of a park ranger, found the 29 Palms Inn. The pretty motel and restaurant - something of a throwback to an earlier age of motor travel - was the perfect place for a family lunch.
Heading back into the park, we made several stops along the main north-south artery, Pinto Basin Road.
We did more boulder-scrambling at Arch Rock, another magnificent area of granite outcroppings and natural formations, including the 15-foot-high arch; the perfect setting for a family selfie.
Continuing south, we began to cross the transition zone between the Mojave and the Colorado Desert, an arm of the great Sonora Desert that is drier, lower and cooler than the Mojave. We also, sadly, began leaving behind the habitat favored by the Joshua Trees.
Cactus, though, were still abundant. We had to stop, of course, at the Cholla Cactus Garden and walk its lovely, spiny and, yes, dangerous nature trail. Many fascinating and beautiful varieties of cholla and other low-growing desert plants thrive here. Just wear closed-toed shoes. And don’t leave the trail. Seriously.
Next we visited the "Ocotillo Patch," where several of the large, thorny ocotillo shrubs grow near the road, some of them more than 20-feet tall. In dry weather, the ocotillo looks as if it were dead. But with a bit of rain, the shrub quickly sprouts tiny green leaves among its huge thorns.
We were fortunate enough to visit while many ocotillo were also showing off their yearly bloom of bright scarlet flowers. The clouds of hummingbirds feeding at the flowers apparently appreciated them, too.
Our last stop was near the southernmost point of the park at the very easy Bajada Nature Trail, a quarter-mile loop through many plants that are common to the Sonoran but still thrilling to us: Ocotillo, palo verde and ironwood trees, and indigo and creosote bushes.
Just past the south entrance, we hopped onto I-10 for our trip back to the megalopolis, refreshed by our immersion - figurative, fortunately - into nature's spikier side.
Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@SteveStephens.
If You Go
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
The national park in southeastern California is the size of Rhode Island, but much drier and spikier. Two great deserts, the Mojave and the Sonora, meet in the park. Visitors will see fascinating geological formations and the wide variety of desert-loving flora and fauna that inhabit the ecosystems.
For more information about visiting the park, call 760-367-5500 or visit www.nps.gov/jotr.