What is a Joshua Tree? Will I Die in Death Valley?
The seat belt light goes on. “We will be at the gate in 20 minutes”, says the co-pilot. As we descend, I look out from my window seat and see a cement civilization. The “lights of Las Vegas” strike me as a sharp contrast to the natural beauty we anticipate at our final destination. Joshua Tree and Death Valley are the perfect Parks to visit - toward our 58 Park goal - during the dark damp days of November 2010. The easiest way to get to there from Seattle is to fly into Las Vegas, then rent a car. Good news – I am comfortable flying for the first time in years following a four day Fear of Flying Clinic.
Day One and Two – “Lovely” Las Vegas
We or should I say “I” made the mistake of taking the Hilton up on a two night stay at their Grand Vacation Resort in exchange for a 3 hour “sales job” . They had hoped to sell us their vacation plan – otherwise known as a timeshare – not interested. Warm sunshine, our November goal, is not achieved due to heavy rains in Vegas. The Blue Man Group makes up for it. We totally enjoy the crazy show. Being a non-gambler, Tom teaches me how to lose money at Pai Gau Poker. Don’t “breast your cards” - the security guys go nuts. Their cameras can’t see your cards.
Day Three-Death Valley via the new Hoover Dam Bridge
Happy to get out of Las Vegas, we head to the spectacular new bridge over the Colorado River. Built as part of the Hoover Dam Bypass Project, it’s only 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Miraculously arching over the river at 840 feet, it is the second highest and first concrete-steel composite bridge in the US. A cement wall prevents visibility from a car on the bridge. However, there is a breathtaking view down to the river and Hoover Dam from a pedestrian walkway. The visitor parking lot is packed and there are no restrooms when we arrive – assume it has improved since. Hoover Dam itself with its art deco décor is also impressive. Happy to have seen the bridge – it’s off to get our Death Valley stamp.
March of 2005 was special in Death Valley after record rainfall. Abundant wildflowers were blooming and the famous “fields of gold” were indescribable. They called it the "100 Year Bloom". We were among the lucky ones who got a room – if you call it that - and experienced the splendor. We wanted to go back and take advantage of the wonderful November weather without the crowds. Clear warm air greets us, showing off the expanse of the Valley floor and surrounding mountains. We arrive at the historic Furnace Creek Inn – Spanish Mission style built in 1927 - just in time for sun set from the patio. As darkness blankets the Valley it is so quiet you can almost hear the stars twinkling.
We opted for a cabin at Furnace Creek Ranch – about ½ the price of the Inn – just down the road. The newly renovated cabins border several attractive “lanes” with non-native tamarisk trees providing shade. The “ranch” – like a village - includes casual dining options, shops, a lovely pool, and even a golf course. If you plan to go in March – call very early!
Day Four – Death Valley
The answer is, “you won’t die in Death Valley”. You may come close May-Sept when the temperature sizzles at 100-115 degrees Fahrenheit. Weather from the west drops its moisture on surrounding peaks making it the driest spot in the lower 48. It’s also the hottest spot. These same rugged peaks – Telescope Peak at 11,049 is the highest – trap air in. November averages a perfect 76 degrees with that clear arid sunshine. We wish we had our bikes but hike instead.
Dante’s point offers wonderful vistas. It’s hard to comprehend standing at 5475 feet “above sea level” looking down on the salt flats of the Badwater Basin at 282 feet “below sea level” – the lowest point in the lower 48. We select a hike that begins at Dante’s Point and continues up the ridge. The view of the Valley gets even better but the trail is a little close to the edge (for me) in a couple of spots. One way the hike is four miles out. We make it three. Fairly rocky, with limited vegetation the trail can be easily lost – especially further out.
Some describe Death Valley as a vast empty wasteland but it’s far from that. It takes at least two days to explore the Park – northwest one and southeast the next. We remember four highlights from our 2005 trip. Natural Bridge – a massive natural rock span – is a short ½ mile walk in. Badwater Basin – 282 feet below sea level – is a huge salt flat accessed on a boardwalk. Mesquite Sand Dunes are large silky smooth dunes just like in the movies. Ubehebe Crater is a nice walk and a great way to view the crater 600 feet below.
Day Five – On to Joshua Tree via Mojave Desert
Sadly we are up and out early – a couple more days in tranquil Death Valley would have been perfect. Stopping to see the Dumont Sand Dunes we quickly learn that this is a place for four wheelers not hikers. So on to the Mojave Desert and the unexpected Kelso Train Station - renovated as a wonderful visitor center.
Highway 62 is also unexpected but in a different way. Tattoo parlors, marine haircuts, and churches abound. We notice many one room cabins off the highway in the desert. We learn that WWI veterans recovered from “mustard gas” here. Today the numerous cabins are vacation rentals, meth houses, or totally deteriorating. We finally arrive at the new Best Western in Yucca Valley which appears to be the nicest lodging on the northwest side of the Park. There is no lodging or dining in Joshua Tree National Park - one of the newer Parks – established in 1994. It has two distinct regions. Mojave Desert, “high desert” is on the west side and the Colorado Desert, “low desert” is on the east side.
Day Six-Joshua Tree National Park- Mojave Desert West Side
The answer is, “a Joshua Tree is not a tree”. It’s a species of Yucca. What an incredible sight with their wild arms and spiny leaves. Very large rounded granite bolder stacks accompany the Joshua Trees on the west side of the Park – Mojave Desert. The beautiful and rare landscape immediately impresses us as we drive into the Park. Rock climbers are attracted “like flies” to the jumbo rocks. Nice campsites, at the base of the bolder stacks, are full.
We select Lost Horse Mine Trail – yes named after a guy who lost his horse and discovered gold. The fantastic 6.2 mile hike takes you up through “high desert” – Mojave Desert - to 5278 feet. Best early in the day, it’s a great way to get up close to the intriguing Joshua Trees, rocks stacks, and other cacti. Despite the flat tire upon our return we keep recommending this one. Tire repaired, we make it back into the Park for another incredible sunset at Keys Point – 5185 feet - overlooking the Salton Sea. Lingering is limited by the howling wind.
Day Seven-Joshua Tree – Colorado Desert East Side
The transition from the Mojave Desert – Joshua Trees and bolder stacks – to the Colorado “low desert” is a drastic one mid-way through the Park. One of my favorite stops is the Cholla Cactus Garden – a wonderful walk through a plethora of knee high cacti. Commonly called “teddy bear cactus”, their soft, silvery bristles make you want to pet them – but don’t!
Lost Palm Oasis, a 7.2 mile up and down hike, is a wonderful way to explore the Colorado Desert. We wander through very sparse vegetation - creosote bushes, and cholla and ocotillo cactus. Broken rock replaces the large bolder stacks in this desert. Both of us are “turtle” fans so we are on the lookout for a “desert tortoise”. Numerous burrows are spotted in the sandy dirt but not one tortoise. Mysteriously declining in numbers, the Park is doing research to figure out why. As we “summit”, a magnificent grove of fan palms greet us. Surprisingly, the palms are watered by a crack in the earth in the middle of this arid desert. We hike out just in time to avoid the mid-day heat and exit the southwest entrance to the Park.
We drive through Palm Desert, across the Santa Rosa Mountains – via the Pines to Palms Highway - into San Diego and out to Coronado Island. It is fun to finally see the historic Hotel Del Coronado - it does not disappoint. As we enjoy a beautiful sunset at Coronado Beach, we know we are back in “civilization” - crowds. Dinner with LA friends at 1500 Ocean, in the Hotel, is fabulous although pricey.
Day Eight-Coronado Island
A great “find”, thanks to my sister-in-law, is the Glorietta Bay Inn, right across the street from the Hotel Del Coronado. Originally a mansion built in 1906 for John D Spreckels – Coronado Island developer and Hotel owner - the rooms are small but nicely appointed especially for the price. The location makes it a great place to explore the Hotel and beach. A school of porpoises were a wonderful treat on our final beach walk.
Day Nine –Headed Home
“Please stay in your seats until the Captain turns the seat belt sign off”, is what we hear from the flight attendant. As we ascend, I look out from my window seat again. This time I see an endless cement civilization. It’s hard to know where San Diego ends and Los Angeles begins. I close my eyes to enjoy the vivid images of Joshua Tree and Death Valley in the November sun. 8 Parks down and 50 more to go – wow this is fun! What’s next?