Well, the short answer is yes, I survived a week-long tent camping/hiking trip to the desert with My Lovely Daughter Elisabeth. The story unfolds…. I flew from MCO (Orlando) to PHX (Phoenix) and met Liz, and we took the shuttle with our 50 pound backpacks, tents, daypacks, carry-ons and camera bag to the rental car center. I had reserved an economy car, but had neglected to ask what kind of economy car… I foolishly expected a small four door car. Imagine my surprise when I found out that they planned on giving me a Fiat 500 that looked smaller than a VW Beetle. Okay, so I adopted the classic guy’s solution: throw wads of money at the problem. Off we drove in a 4 wheel drive Ford SUV…
We arrived in Twentynine Palms, CA in the Mojave Desert late in the evening, and rather than setting up camp in the dark, stayed the night at the Marine Corps base’s BOQ. (I figured it would be also be the best night’s sleep of the week. I was right.) The next morning we had brekkie and did some last minute food shopping at the base exchange. Liz wanted some beef jerky. I didn’t think the selection was very good at all… (It seems that young Marines carrying 100 pounds of pack, weapons, ammo and other gear get hungry out in the desert.)
Then off to Joshua Tree National Park and the Panorama Loop trailhead for a 6+ miler that promised great views and a modest 1000 foot elevation gain. Oh, but the trail guide also stated that “The majority of trail passes through deep sand. Plan travel time accordingly.” Here is Liz starting our hike trudging through, yes, deep sand… I guess it was better than deep camel droppings… You may also note the very bright sunshine out here. The air is very clear, and sunglasses were a necessity – the glare was intense.
The flora here is very, well, deserty… it’s mostly cactus, like this cholla variety. The spines on this devilish plant are about two inches long, enough to penetrate your clothing and skin and maybe come out the other side. The advantage is that the cholla doesn’t have many natural enemies, so it is everywhere! The guides recommend staying on the trails and not traveling cross-country. Good advice… can you imagine running into one of these beasts in the dark?
After an hour of slogging through the sand, we were actually glad to get to the steep sections of the trail, because they were mostly rock, rather than sand. Here is Liz approaching the crest of the trail. As you can see, vegetation is rather limited – cactus and the ubiquitous Joshua Trees. You may also note that my daughter (the small figure at lower left) is far ahead of me. I will ascribe the distance to her much younger age, but in fairness, she is in amazing shape, and participates in adventure races (run, bike, and kayak) and mud runs. (And I thought I was adventuresome!)
The Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifola) was named by Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave in the 19th Century. The widespread arms reminded them of the Biblical story of Joshua lifting his arms to Heaven in prayer. This particular tree is much fuller than most, and was probably the best example we saw during our stay in the desert.
The view into the back country was impressive, reminiscent of the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The mountain range in the background is probably 30-40 miles away; the visibility up in the high desert is incredible.
This photograph is provided to prove that I actually made it to the top of this trail. I think I had just asked Liz, “Okay, where’s the doggone Starbucks?” I could have used a piece of iced lemon pound cake and a caramel macchiato at this point.
After our hike, we headed to the Indian Cove campground, which is very popular among rock climbers and birders looking to sight the elusive LeConte’s thrasher (unfortunately, we didn’t see one). Campsites are situated next to the rocks like the one shown here. Some of these “rocks” are 150 feet high. Of note, the San Andreas Fault bounds the southwest border of Joshua Tree National Park, and two other faults cross the park from west to east… let’s hope there aren’t many campers close to the rocks when “The Big One” hits…
Here is our “big tent”, my 15 year-old 4-man REI tent that has served me well over the years. It looks a bit worn at this point, but like a Timex watch, “takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin'”. Actually, the largest population that has ever inhabited this small piece of nylon is two people, but you can also keep your packs inside comfortably, out of the weather. Okay, so “comfortably” my be a relative term… Liz hasn’t yet set up her small, two-person tent, which weighs about half the weight of the big one, much more sensible for backpacking.
Sunset in the desert comes early and fast on the winter solstice, especially when you’re surrounded by mountains and big rocks. The colors, though, never fail to impress me. I first visited Joshua Tree in 1970, and slept on the ground under the stars (no tent), and listened to the coyotes howl. They were back again every night in Joshua Tree, never seen but vocal, lending a surreal voice to the seemingly empty desert.