Back in December, after checking out Noah Purifoy’s incredible sculptures and popping into the World Famous Crochet Museum, my friend Jim and I headed into Joshua Tree National Park. Neither of us had been before but we didn’t have too much time, so we grabbed a map at the visitor center and asked a park ranger to highlight the shorter hikes.
Joshua Tree is located in southeastern California about three hours from Los Angeles. It was declared a National Park in 1994 and the eponymous trees are native to the western portion of the park, in the higher, cooler Mojave Desert. I grew up in Ohio and we have nothing remotely desert-like here on the East Coast. I’ve been to New Mexico, but I’ve never experienced the desert like I did on this trip, and I have to say that I totally fell in love. The lack of humidity, dazzling light and cool nights all felt otherworldly to my coastal bones, and I can definitely understand the appeal.
We took a short hike through Hidden Valley and it was a nice introduction to the alien world of Joshua Tree. Of course I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Joshua Trees, but I was surprised to see so many. They are everywhere. And then, as you drive further south and east into the park, they start to disappear and you feel like you’re on yet another planet entirely.
After our hike, we drove east into the lower, warmer Colorado desert and to the cholla cactus garden. One thing we both noticed about the park is that it is enormous—so much bigger than either of us expected. Points on the map that appeared close were actually quite far from one another, and if we had known how far we had to drive to reach the cactus garden, we may not have made the drive. I’m so glad we did though, because it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
The cholla cactus trail is a loop that goes through ten acres covered in teddybear cholla. It may seem obvious to state that a cactus is prickly, but the teddybear cactus is extra nefarious—it has tiny barbs on its needle-like spines and despite being extra careful (ok, full disclosure, I touched one gently) I still had to pick a few spines out of my shoe on our way out. The seeds from the cholla are usually infertile and new plants grow from fallen stem joints. Because of this, it’s possible that this entire garden originated with a single cholla cactus, which is mind-blowing because—like Joshua trees to the west—they are everywhere.
We didn’t go very far on our California trip without running into a site that has exploded on Instagram recently, and Joshua Tree is no exception. Many trails have been closed to the public because of an increase in graffiti that has been attributed to the park's surging popularity on social media. I recently visited the Temple of Dendur at the Met and for the first time noticed that even in the 1800s tourists were carving their names into antiquities—so vandalism is nothing new but also maybe don't be a jerk and ruin things for other people?
But like Palm Springs, the hype surrounding Joshua Tree is definitely justified, and as with most places there’s nothing that can compare to throwing your phone in your backpack and experiencing it in person.