Joshua Tree

[Originally posted on Monday, September 30]
We arrived for a vacation week at Palm Springs on separate flights, amazingly well coordinated considering that Arn was coming from Las Vegas and Jane from Los Angeles. The last leg for both of us was in small propeller-driven aircraft flying at relatively low altitude over desert terrain. So we got a good look at the unique topography of the Southern California deserts. Palm Springs sits in the Coachella Valley, whose springs have been a source of life for indigenous peoples and indeed pre-human life, including a specific species of palm tree.

sunset

Palm Springs sunset, from our balcony

The Oasis Resort turned out to be about five minutes away from the airport, a straight shot down East Palm Canyon Drive. It is a quiet gated condo community, and it does not appear to be very busy in this in-between season. Palm Springs’ peak season is winter, but by now the sizzling three-digit temperatures of summer are gone, the weather ideal.  Our one-bedroom condo unit is on the second floor, with a garage and a outside balcony (where we are sitting now). It has morning and late afternoon shade, so it’s a nice place for breakfasts and evening appetizers. We have great views of the mountains, the landscaping and palm trees. We’ve sighted several kinds of hummingbirds, a Red-tailed Hawk and several other birds, some related to our familiar eastern species. We have our choice of nearby swimming pools, some with hot tubs. The pools are sparsely populated, so there’s no fighting over saved lounge chairs. Although the temperatures are in the 90s, it does not feel that hot because of the low humidity. And the morning temperatures are in the mid-60s. We discovered a grocery store five minutes away, and are finding it liberating to eat what and when we want, in our own home away from home.

joshua

Joshua Tree

Yesterday (September 29) we decided to visit Joshua Tree National Park, knowing that it might be closed if the House of Representatives shuts down the government on Tuesday. The park is part of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Its entrance is about 40 miles from Palm Springs. On the drive we were happy to see huge wind farms, with hundreds of windmills and fields full of solar panels generating needed energy. As we neared the park entrance to the we began to see Joshua Trees, unique to this area. The Visitor Center ranger explained that they are a type of yucca. She showed us a cross section of a Joshua Tree trunk; they have no growth rings and feature a sponge-like center, where moisture is kept in reserve. These trees may be hundreds of years old, but are not easy to date without rings; they grow a modest 1″ a year.

boulders

Typical pile of boulders in Joshua Tree National Park

Once inside the park, we drove through areas with large loose-boulder rock formations. The shapes were rounded and fantastic, the product of a complicated subterranean erosion process. Some of the boulders were balanced precariously on top of others, some had features like “Skull Rock,” “Jumbo Rocks,” etc. What makes these rocky desert outcroppings, like the surrounding mountains, different from Eastern topography is that there is virtually no vegetation. The ground itself is desert sand, and only a few hardy forms, such as sagebrush, cacti, mesquite, creosote bushes, and small scrub vegetation grow there. Only 2 to 5 inches of rain fall annually. Most blooming is erratic, following rare rainy periods. Only a few blooms were visible during our visit, through recent heavy rains had washed out one of the park roads and covered others with sand. One bloom we did see was a yellow ground cover that was widespread in a few areas. The only wildlife we saw, except for some ravens and small birds, was a Antelope Ground Squirrel and a lizard with an amputated tail. (We had hoped to see a roadrunner going “beep-beep.”)  We learned that there were seven kinds of rattlesnakes as well as killer bees in the park, which certainly discouraged off-trail adventures.

ocotillo

Ocotillo in the desert

We stopped at various viewpoints and hiking trails, but did not venture off on any of the hikes, though we did one quarter-mile jaunt in the Cholla Cactus Garden. Another large flora grouping we stopped to see were the Ocotillo patch. They’re tall shrubs that form leaves whenever it’s wet and drop them whenever it’s droughty. Their long spindly shape reminds one of aquarium grass, through they’re 20 feet tall. We did not see Prickly Pear or Saguaro cacti here.

One of the highlights was the Keys View overlook, which provided a sweeping vista from 5185 feet. We could see a mountain on the Mexican border, the Salton Sea, San Jacinto mountain (10,861 ft.) with Palm Springs nestled under it, and most of all the San Andreas Fault, very visible at this point, running up the middle of the Coachella Valley. Our side of the fault is moving south at 2″ a year, while the coastal side is moving north at the same rate. The atmosphere in this area is perpetually hazy because of the dust and natural and man-made pollution, despite the low humidity. Heading for the southern “Cottonwood” park entrance, we noted the climate and temperature change as we approached the valley. We drove through a huge wash area typical of a region where it seldom rains but has deluges when it does. We also learned of amateur archaeologists who discovered an early Native American culture that thrived 9000 years ago along a long-gone river bed. In the 19th century this desert had pioneer prospectors searching for gold and other minerals; several active mines were in production in the area then.

We were thrilled to see something so different from anything we had ever seen before. The vastness of this wilderness, and the scale and forms of the geology, were amazing. We felt the thinness of the air as we walked in the highlands; it took its toll.

All in all, this was one of the most unusual anniversary days ever for us. it far exceeded our expectations.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

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