In the cooler months, for Southern Californians, the draw of Joshua Tree National park is obvious. The desertscape of billion-year volcanic bubbles and eponymous yuccas, straddling the Mojave and Colorado deserts is an otherworldly area. Its proximity to a major metropolitan center makes it that much more appealing. In 2014 a record 1.6 million seekers, sun soakers and rock climbers made the pilgrimage to Joshua Tree. A divine cliché, venturing to the inhospitable desert, stripped of conditions suitable for human life, to understand ourselves and our relationship with the world a little better.
The popularity of Joshua Tree can be the biggest hindrance to enjoying this rare land. The park’s nine campgrounds are notoriously full and exceedingly difficult to acquire. The grounds in the northwest of the park, decorated by the park’s signature granite inselbergs are the most popular, usually leaving Cottonwood campground in the rather desolate southeast for overflow. Visitors have been advocating for the development of additional campgrounds to meet the popularity but between lack of funding and concerns over environmental impact, efforts have stalled.
For my wife and I, like many, securing a spot at Hidden Valley, the parks most popular campground, was a privileged occasion. The place is gilded with beauty and rock climbing lore. Still, what I once considered the most desirable spot in the park, is still a campground, prone to the boom boxes, rowdy weekenders, children, caravans of unlucky campers circling the grounds in search of a site, dogs, dumpsters and a general lack of peace. I fully recognize my crotchetiness, my temper towards others, but of all activities, shouldn’t camping afford us some solitude in the grace of nature? The modern iteration of camping has little to do with getting away from it all.
Equally as rare as peace and quiet in Joshua Tree are its backcountry trails. Like most national parks, where visitors venture no further than the main drag, hopping out of their cars to photograph the highlights on the map and moving along, backcountry use in the daunting desert is especially uncommon. Researching the California Riding and Hiking Trail, the primary backcountry route snaking 36.5 miles through the west of the park, the most prominent beta discussed is the utter lack of people you’ll see on the trail. This sounded promising so we packed our bags and set off for a quick overnight on a portion of the trail.
We arrived at Juniper Flat’s backcountry board on a sunny Saturday morning, accessing the midpoint of the trail. After filling out the registration card we set off through the Lost Horse Valley on a meandering path amidst the expansive grove of Joshua Trees. About a mile in, the trail flanks Ryan Campground, filled with campers and climbers clung to the precipitous formations, before heading east into the pass between Ryan and Lost Horse Mountain.
Vegetation in this area is pervasive, disarming the notion of a lifeless desert. Joshua Trees with their bayonet blossoms are everywhere, some twenty feet tall, separated by clusters of Desert Poppy, Teddy Bear Cholla, Hedgehog Catcus, Beavertail Pricklypear, and Barrel Cactus, either in bloom or with buds ready to burst open with exotic color. We stopped for a moment as a Scott’s Oriole perched in a yucca to listen to his sonic whistle.
Nearing the saddle of the pass, the mild elevation gain lead us out of the sun washed granite range and into a zone of black and orange Pinto Gneiss. Unlike the smooth eroded granite, the Gneiss jutted from the ground as smooth and jagged as fangs and the variations of color gave the area a threatening air. A Horned Lizard darted across the path, stalling on the fringe, his body of marled soot and rust blending into the landscape immaculately.
Beyond the pass the trail opens up to a southward expanse of open desert and a collection of massive monadnock ships sat anchored in the vastness. We’d been on the trail for less than four miles but the scene beckoned us to call it home for the evening. A wide sandy wash, less than a mile long, linked the trail with our destination and after a quick lunch we contemplated our decision. The wash seemed a logical route; wide, obvious, with few veins to lead one off course. Still we had no maps and our only compass was an iPhone. For some callous reason I always seem to outfit myself poorly on short trips like this. Confident in my route finding over such a small area, I still conceded setting off into the desert without navigation equipment was one of my dumber risks in the wilderness.
We followed the wash, constantly turning back to identify landmarks which could lead us back the following day. A large black pyramid of Gneiss stood unlike anything else on the eastern margin Ryan Mountain. As long as we could maintain sight of the pyramid, we were safe. In less than twenty minutes we were in the shadow of the great ancient structures. Best of all we were utterly alone, powerfully so. We hadn’t passed a soul all day and felt as if the park, for better or worse, was ours alone. We pitched our tent in a shady spot beneath a hulking Joshua Tree, had a couple snaps of blackberry brandy and spent the afternoon crawling around the playground of brittle boulders, taking pictures and holding our breath to mimic the cadence of silence.
The sun fell, tacos were enjoyed, and a bright blood moon rose over the mountains like dawn, blasting the valley with cool illumination. Even the black pyramid was still visible from a perch beside our tent and I took solace in that. Still, relaxation was crippled by the responsibility of being off trail in the desolate backcountry. As we retired to sleep I thought of the idiots who died in the park searching for the tree on the U2 album cover (which didn’t even exist anymore), how much water we had and how long it could last us, mitigation plans if we couldn’t find the trail again and how annoying it would be to die in JTNP of all places. Damage done, I cuddled up close to Alli and slept heavy through the mild night.
The next morning we broke camp quickly, intentions set on getting back to the trail and guaranteeing our safety. The black pyramid rose prominently ahead of us and the wash proved as trustworthy as the trail itself as we tailed a family of quails across the sandy channel. Back on trail, the constriction of anxiety released and we beamed with satisfaction every step. No visit to Joshua Tree had granted us such diversity of plants, animals and geology, such adventure in the face of mild danger and above all, such solitude.