Travel Contradictions collide in Joshua Tree National Park

09:50  07 december  2017
09:50  07 december  2017 Source:   Toronto Star

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Joshua Tree National Park is frequented by SoCal residents, because it’s only a couple of hours from LA. It easily made our list of must-see places while we’ve lived in LA and San Diego. The park isn’t very big in comparison to Death Valley or Yosemite.

The closest National Park Unit to Los Angeles (in travel time), Joshua Tree is known as one of the world’s best rock climbing areas, but the desert hiking is fantastic, too.

Ron Chang leads our hike through Joshua Tree National Park.© Provided by Toronto Star Ron Chang leads our hike through Joshua Tree National Park.

COACHELLA VALLEY, CALI.—In some ways, the drive out to that desolate place could be anywhere in America, strip malls and car dealerships and two-level drive-up-to-the-door motels strung all along Interstate 5. But contradicting the heavy development on both sides of this freeway, Captain Ron tells me it isn’t so — that this is indeed a very special place.

Rolling east out of glamorous Palm Springs, we flow with eight lanes of traffic through the Coachella Valley, where every year thousands of chi-chi festivalgoers gather to see — and be seen.

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Welcome to the BEST WESTERN Gardens Hotel at Joshua Tree National Park ! Relax with us in the clean Mojave Desert air! Our property offers a numerous varieties of desert vegetation for your enjoyment.

We have reviews of the best places to see in Joshua Tree National Park . Visit top-rated & must-see attractions. Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School. 37 reviews.

“Captain” Ron Chang, a guide with Big Wheel Tours, points out the driver’s side window at a line of mountains, just beyond the sprawl, tracing the San Andreas Fault with his finger. But he says it’s more than seismic, that there, just beyond that ridge, lies a truly great wilderness.

“You can go hiking back in there and not see a soul, in the real desert,” he says, with anticipation. “And then you come around a corner and find a lush oasis filled with California dates palms. It’s just beautiful. I’ll take you there.”

Together with Chang and a couple other guests, I’m heading on an adventure tour deep into the heart of the Southern California desert — a land of contradictions.

Here, in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, lies a primal wilderness big enough to swallow you whole. I’m headed for Joshua Tree National Park, a place with two different deserts (the Sonora and the Mojave), covering more than 3,000 square kilometres — about the size of the state of Rhode Island.

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Joshua Tree National Park encompasses more than 500,000 acres of California desert. It's a starkly beautiful landscape, filled with otherworldly Joshua " trees ," which aren't trees at all, but tree -like members of the yucca family.

In one of the most densely populated parts of the United States, lies a primal wilderness big enough to swallow you whole.

Exiting the freeway, Chang swings us north, across an overpass, catching a blue-shimmer glimpse of the Salton Sea to the southeast. The traffic almost immediately dwindles to a trickle as we merge onto a small two lane road headed straight into the mountains, crossing into a series of foothills, and across the famous fault.

Noting that these hills were actually created by the coming together of the continental plates, Chang adds that this area experiences as many as 100 earthquakes every month. “You only actually feel a couple. They’re small, but they get your attention.”

Passing into the national park and continuing toward the Oro Copia Mountains (named by hopeful, but ultimately mostly unsuccessful gold miners), we peer eagerly out the windows of our sturdy jeep in search of wildlife.

Despite the extremely dry and harsh conditions (the area gets as little as five inches of rain annually — and then gets it often almost all at once, causing flash floods) everything from bighorn sheep to jackrabbits to mule deer and even tortoises make this their home.

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Joshua Tree Camping | Survival Life National Park Series. Thinking about a Joshua Tree camping trip? What are you waiting for? Joshua Tree is one of the most popular and beautiful national parks in the US.

As the continents collided and smashed into one another, they crumpled along their edges to form vast mountain chains. Some of the previously formed offshore sedimentary rocks were caught up in these collisions , which generated extreme heat Learn more about Joshua Tree National Park geology!

Even the trees here have a story — Chang points out the “smoke tree,” which can drop its roots as far as 46 metres below the surface to find water and stay stable during a flood. “It even grows its own sunscreen — and survives the 120-degree days here very well.”

Chang suddenly pumps the brakes and swings the jeep into a K-turn, announcing a wildlife sighting with a twinge of excitement in his voice. A big snake? A meandering tortoise? No — a tarantula.

Parking on the shoulder, we hop out and snap a few close-up photos of the hairy spider as it makes its way across an empty two lanes of sun-baked park road. “It’s a little venomous — if he bites you, it’ll swell, but it won’t kill you,” Chang says in reassuring tones.

Just around the corner, we park in a small lot, pulling together small packs for what, we’re told, will be a simple, small hike.

Descending down the Lost Oasis Trail, we pass — as promised — an oasis of huge, furry date palms fed by a tiny, hidden spring, then ascend into a canyon filled with mesquite and cactus, Chang pointing out a grinding bowl bored into the stone by the Cahuilla people, using it for some 1,400 years to split seeds.

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The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park depends on what you’re looking for. Want mild temperatures perfect for hiking or rock climbing?

Joshua Tree National Park is like no other place on earth, with its signature Joshua trees , giant boulders, and surrounding mountains that create an almost surreal landscape and make you feel like you have entered another world.

“They would also use the cacti as crock pots,” he adds. “They would put their meats inside, and let the sun slow cook it.”

We decide as a group to go beyond the original scope of the hike, making a push to summit a modest eminence called Mastodon Peak. As I huff and puff up a series of steps rough-hewn into the stone, Chang says he even comes out here on his days off, grabbing a book and soaking up the sun.

“I never get tired of it. Getting close to nature, it’s good for the soul,” he says, with unmasked satisfaction.

Eventually the path begins to level off, and, out of the shelter of the canyon, we lean into the gusts of wind that whistle across the desert. We view a rock that, if you squint a bit and use your imagination, looks a bit like the Buddha, then carry on around a bend, arriving at an abandoned gold mine that proved a modest success in the 19th century before the land shifted and the seam was gone forever.

Moments later we’re headed back down into the canyon, getting momentarily turned around as our guide seeks out — and finds, a few minutes later — a somewhat unfamiliar shortcut.

Soon enough we’re back in the jeep and out on the two-lane, headed inexorably for the interstate. But I take one last moment of peace, quietly gazing out the window, imagining the tarantulas in their holes and the rumble of an earthquake somewhere down there, feeding my soul, just a little bit, before rejoining the freeway and heading west, to the horizon, and the hustle and bustle.

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Joshua Tree National Park is about 140 miles east of Los Angeles, near the resort and retirement region around Palm Springs. It is situated at the eastern end of Southern California’s Transverse mountain ranges.

Most Joshua Tree National Park campgrounds are nestled among fantastic boulder formations. These formations become even more fantastic when light from flickering campfires illuminates them against the dark night sky.

Tim Johnson was a guest of Visit California, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go

Do this tour: In addition to their half-day Joshua Tree National Park Adventure ($169 U.S.), Big Wheel Tours offers bicycle and hiking tours, as well as jeep itineraries along the San Andreas Fault.

Get there: Both Air Canada and WestJet operate seasonal, direct flights from Toronto to Palm Springs International Airport.

Stay: With two giant pools and rooms that evoke the days when celebrities — from celluloid stars to the Rat Pack — roamed these streets, the Riviera Palm Springs provides comfortable, stylish accommodations with a healthy dose of history.

Drink: With a wide variety of whiskies and a chic, industrial space, Truss and Twine specializes in classic cocktails as well as a few innovative originals — the perfect place to wet your whistle after a long day on the desert trails.

Eat: A place where tiki bar meets classic Palm Springs, Tropicale serves up hearty meals in a casual atmosphere (shorts and sandals predominate among guests). Fresh seafood is always a good choice, but home-cooked fried chicken, served up with a mess of mashed potatoes, remains their bestseller.

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