I woke up in Tuscon, Arizona feeling musty after a night of breathing in recycled air from the window unit of the Motel 6 off the side of busy Interstate 10. I missed the night sky. I began to rethink my choice of staying in a motel over camping. With Saguaro reaching daytime temperatures of 110 and relentlessly staying hot and dry throughout the desert night, I chose to stay in the motel to get a good night’s rest. But trading in the stars for a sterile ceiling is rarely worth it.
We packed quickly in the dawn and locked our car into place on the already streaming highway. 10 took us through the Sonoran Desert National Monument, which was a vast stretch of Saguaros reaching as far back as the horizon. We avoided Phoenix by catching up with small Highway 85.
At the junction of Gila Bend, we were 80 miles North of Mexico on the same highway. Not long were we driving on the road when a plateless black car flew by us on the shoulder. There wasn’t anything we could do until it passed us, and then we pulled off the road to watch several cop cars with lights blaring, chasing after it. 15 miles later and the black car had been run off the road, cops surrounding it and its trunk open to reveal what I can only assume was a big amount of some kind of drug wrapped up in burlap. My doubts about missing Organ Pipe Cactus Monument were slightly quelled after witnessing this event.
We continued on through the rest of Arizona until the Colorado River appeared. Wide and green, it separated Arizona from California. Over the stretching concrete bridge and we were in the state that I love the most. Immediately there was a change the in air, a balminess. Palm trees began to sprout up a hundred feet tall. The Colorado Desert opened up before us past the scrappy little town of Blythe.
We were well on our way to seeing the Joshua Trees.
We entered Joshua Tree National Park from the South. The roads were drying up quickly after a brief desert rain, and the temperatures were soaring. The bottom half of the park had us slightly confused as there were no Joshua Trees to be found anywhere. But we explored the other interesting plants that the park had to offer.
The Cholla Cactus Garden is a maze of these spiky yellow and orange cacti. They are anywhere from a few inches to a few feet tall.
These little guys are referred to as the Teddy Bear Cactus. But don’t be fooled by their cuteness. They are lethal. They make it a purpose to drop off and latch onto whichever unsuspecting person or animal walks by. Their barbs will sink into your skin and form something like a fishhook from within. They can be incredibly painful to remove. Luckily this hasn’t happened to me, but just thinking about it makes me shudder.
Their color is so lovely. Almost makes you want to reach down and... nope. Don’t do it!!!
The monsoon rain was clearing away completely, making way for a blue sky. It looked especially vibrant against the colorful Chollas.
Joshua Tree National Park is made up of two entirely different desert regions, which explains why you will not see any of the famed trees in the bottom half of the park. But not to worry, the Colorado Desert melts right into the Mojave, and you will not be disappointed.
Of course I had to pull over the inspect the first one I saw by the side of the road.
These trees are incredible. You’ll never see anything else like them anywhere else in the world as they only grow in the Mojave Desert. They can reach 70 feet tall and can live to be 150 years old.
They enjoy mesas and grow well in groves. We saw many growing in pairs.
Inside this National Park there is more room than you could ever dream of, room to walk among the Joshua Trees to your heart’s content. Perhaps it was because of the hot season, but it felt like we had the park’s astounding 800,000 acres to ourselves.
Key’s View is one of the lesser known parts of the park, and nothing had prepared me for it. The road takes you 20 minutes off of Park Boulevard up to an elevation of 5,000 feet.
Key’s View sits on the crest of the San Bernadino Mountains. From there you can see Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and the shining surface of the Salton Sea which lies 230 feet below sea level. Once in a while if the air quality is especially fine, you can even see Mexico.
Key’s View would be an excellent place to watch the sunset, but I had something else in mind. I had my heart set on some Joshua Tree silhouettes. I took one last look from Key’s View and then headed back down the mountain.
The only difficult part about my sunset and silhouette idea was choosing which Joshuas I wanted to photograph. As darkness neared, the park was more quiet than ever.
The sky began to fall in subtle, colorful layers. I walked out into the field of trees and looked up.
A crescent moon and Venus was rising in the sky, mingling with the sunset. A pair of Joshua Trees caught my eye.
I will never forget the time I spent under these trees. Their stillness, their mystery, and their unique shapes against the California desert sky all add to their beauty.
The sunset, the moon, and a pair of Joshua Trees: