Joshua Tree National Park is chock full of evidence of former inhabitants and land use. We had a fun time exploring old gold mines as well as the residences of past miners. Joshua tree is a place where you can just imagine cowboys and their herds roaming. But the preservation of Joshua tree is in thanks not to these rustic cowboys and prosperous miners who used the land to their advantage. Those who saw the area as a special place that must be protected were women who saw the beauty, not the bounty, of the land.
Elizabeth Campbell was the earliest archeologist of the area, finding arrowheads and other artifacts left by Pinto culture. Furthermore, Minerva Hoyt, a gardener who moved away from the Mississippi to California, developed an admiration for the tough desert plants of the region. Horrified by the human destruction of such native desert plants, Hoyt fought to protect them. She showcased desert plants in conventions across the country and she founded the International Deserts Conservation League to help preserve desert ecosystems. In time, her efforts were noted by President Franklin Roosevelt. Her efforts helped to establish Joshua Tree National Park.
We ventured to Joshua Tree after spending Christmas contentedly alone on the beach, and then returning to L.A. to spend one more night with Stephanie’s sister.
Upon arriving at Indian Cove Campground, the emptiness of the landscape elated me. It was the perfect place to escape the dense traffic of L.A. Out here, everything has space to breathe. Though there are mountains here, I can only describe the land as flat, with each mountain, moraine, rock, and tree rising up from the otherwise flat ground with its own character and charm. Each of these features stands solemn and alone, while still creating a whole composition as, in unison, they spread out across the Mojave Desert.
We spent our first evening at Joshua Tree at the visitor center, sitting on the ground reading books to research what we wanted to do in the park. I researched hikes while Stephanie researched climbing. After the visitor center closed, we drove outside the park to the wasteland: a wide stretch of BLM land north of the park where all the boondockers sleep. We were one of many “FunBuses” in this vicinity.
We arose early and drove to Indian Cove Campground, where we got out in search of the short wall. The scramble up the back of short wall is no easy feat, but we both made it. Stephanie set up a top rope as I returned to the bottom and started brewing our coffee. When she finished, I checked her work, and then it was time to climb on! The climbing theme of the day was crack; I’d never done so much crack climbing in my life, but I started to improve my techniques. Suddenly, I’m better at climbing than I remember.
After spending the morning climbing short wall, we moved on to another wall to check out the climbs. By then, many climbers were present and we couldn’t grab a route that we wanted. Instead, we went for a short hike along the Nature Trail. This turned out to be an excellent decision as we met a fascinating lady named Claire while exploring the trail. Claire was from France but had lived in L.A. for the past many years. Claire talked about the environment and the importance of reducing energy use as well as waste. Reduction is the first step one should take when attempting to reduce their footprint. Claire believes that many Californians are hypocritical because they rely on sustainable energy sources but do not reduce their energy use. We also talked about climbing, American Indians, and the wisdom of elders.
That night, we drove out to Twentynine Palms to check out the drive-in movie theater. I had never been to a drive-in before, and it was a fun experience. We got to watch Coco as well as the latest and greatest superhero movie. It only cost $5 per person to see the double feature. The best part was, the movies changed the next day, so we ended up returning there on Friday for another set of films!
We crashed at the wasteland again that night, and in the morning we headed back to Indian Cove Campground to hike Rattlesnake Canyon in the Wonderland of Rocks. This hike was difficult due to the navigational skills required to complete the loop. To start, we made great time. The curves of the canyon walls were absolutely stunning.
We followed the canyon until it became slot-canyon like, soon after which pour-offs made it too difficult to maneuver. At this point we exited the canyon to the right, returning back into it once it flattened out. At the end of rattlesnake canyon, we reached the trying part of the hike: a seemingly endless scramble up many boulders toward Rattlesnake Spring.
Perhaps we chose bad routes, but this was an extremely difficult and time consuming scramble. After two hours of working our way up the boulders, it seemed that we were only halfway there. We decided to turn back at this point, and had a lot more fun taking our time and enjoying the scenery.
After one more night of drive-in movie and crashing at the wasteland, we returned into the park to tackle the maze loop, named such for a section of boulders that require navigating through like a maze. I really enjoyed the solitude of this hike. We started early and saw very few people. I enjoyed viewing the huge yucca plants and the sculptures of rock formations.
At the end of the hike, we saw a bevy of quails running away from us!
In the morning we started our first and only backpacking hike in the park. Departing from Quail Springs Trailhead, we hiked up toward Johnny Lang’s Canyon. The first day, we bypassed Johnny Lang’s, though we stashed a store of water at the start of the canyon. We hiked to the second canyon and set up camp at the start of it. We then made our way up this canyon toward Quail Mountain. We intended to summit the mountain, but the canyon was so overgrown and difficult to hike that we gave up. We are tough Minnesota women who can snowshoe for miles and miles in negative temperatures, but the desert has a tendency to defeat us. Desert conditions are harsh enough without the added struggle of trying to navigate through resilient and pokey desert plants. We turned around before reaching the scramble. Still, sleeping amongst the Joshua trees was very peaceful. I spent some time that evening photographing the beauty of the park’s namesakes.
In the morning, we moved camp back to the start of Johnny Lang’s Canyon. On our hike from one canyon to the other, we saw a coyote in the distance. It was aware of our presence before we of its, and it was running over the hills away from us. Back at the start of Johnny Lang’s Canyon, there was an old pump house which I was unable to learn much about, but it made for some stunning photos.
That day, we headed up Johnny Lang’s canyon in search of the ruins of his homestead. Johnny Lang actually started the Lost Horse Mine, which was the most successful gold mining business in the area. He eventually sold his stock in the company and moved to this canyon where he prospected and apparently drank his life away.
After finding the ruins and multitude of cans left by Johnny, we continued up the canyon to find an old mine shaft. We climbed up a high hill to find it. A grate covered the shaft so that I was able to climb on top of it and look down into the blackness. We were gifted a grand view of the vast landscape from the mine.
On the way out, we again passed the ruins of Johnny Lang’s cabin and contemplated the simple life he had lived back in the early 20th century.
Johnny Lang’s Cabin – Joshua Tree National Park
After sleeping one more peaceful night alone with the Joshua Trees, we hiked out early and set up rock climbing routes at Garbage Can Rocks, conveniently located at Quail Springs Trailhead. Stephanie set up a great top rope on one of the easier climbs and we got in some more crack climbing!
Eventually, more climbers began showing up. Many of them were free soloing these easy climbs, which naturally made us nervous. Before long, we struck up conversation with a large group of self-proclaimed “dirt bags” who had more or less been living and climbing in the park for weeks. One particular dirt bag told us that she was actually in school getting her doctorate. At this point, she explained, she was mostly just finishing it so she could officially be called “Dr. Dirt Bag”. This soon-to-be doctor was hilarious; claiming the best thing about climbing was “heckling”. Any time one of her fellow dirt bags was on the wall, she would shout out “take off your shirt!” or “let down your hair!”, to which her comrades would usually oblige. We shared ropes with this group and thus climbed many routes that afternoon.
They invited us back to their “hippy camp”, but we declined. We still wanted to get a hike in that evening and planned to see sunrise before leaving the park in the morning.
After parting ways with our newfound friends, we headed to our next hike: Eagle Cliff Mine. I had read that there was an old cabin at this site still full of artifacts from hundreds of years ago. We approached this site from the Split Rock trail. After completing about half of this short loop hike, we continued onto a small dirt path that diverged from the main hiking trail. From here, we scrambled up to the top of a steep hill. At the top, we found what looked like an old mine that had been blocked off. We continued up and over the ridge, eventually finding another old mine, but worried that we had missed the cabin somewhere. We turned around and retraced our steps. We couldn’t find it. Soon, we found a couple of hikers and asked them if they had seen it. They pointed us in the direction, back up over the ridge where we had found the second mine. As it was getting late and we realized that we both had forgotten headlamps, I voiced my fears that it was going to be getting dark soon and that maybe we should just turn back. They assured us that visiting the cabin was well worth it and that we should not pass this up. I am sure glad we didn’t! This was a very cool and very well-preserved piece of mining history. There were still so many artifacts in this little cabin built into the rocks.
I was sad that we had only about 15 minutes to explore as, at that point, darkness began settling in. As we scrambled back down the steep and slick hill, visibility continued to lessen, and we had to take this section quite slowly. When we finally made it to the bottom of the scramble, the rest of the flat and easy hike was easy to accomplish in the moonlight.
That night we crashed in the FunBus at a backpacking trailhead. We got up early and entered the Colorado Desert side of the park for the first time. We watched the sun rise from the midst of the cholla cactus garden: an invigorating start to the day.
The morning light behind the rounded, soft looking cholla cacti illuminated each tubercle. Never had a cactus looked so soft and harmless. This trip into Joshua Tree was our first experience with the jumping cholla. It wasn’t until we reached Arizona that I would learn just how painfully austere these beautiful plants can be!
Joshua Tree is a place that has been loved and used by many people throughout its history. There was a time when American Indians used the land respectfully and sustainably. They used the desert plants as not only sources of food and medicine, but also as materials for weapons and tools. As white men invaded the area to mine and farm, the land was used disrespectfully. Thankfully, there were women who saw the historical significance of the land as well as the value of the native plants. They helped to protect the land from further damage. After exploring California quite thoroughly, we were now finally leaving it for the last time on this journey. This made us very sad. Joshua Tree, one of few remaining wilderness havens of Southern California, was a perfect place to see us out. This was in January of 2018. Now, eight months later, California is still calling me back.