The first time I saw Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms, Calif., I felt as if I was on another planet, or another geologic era. Neon-blue sky against sand-colored rocks that piled up on the flat desert landscape like mounds of coffee ice cream. Spiny plants punctuating the earth like beached sea anemones. Ravens, the size of large cats, swooping low.
But what amazed me most were the Joshua trees.
Soft and fuzzy looking at a distance, the dusty green, fork-like trees appeared wickedly sharp up close. Despite their ferocity, these hallmarks of Joshua Tree National Park stood beautiful in a lonely, majestic, prehistoric way and cast a veil of dangerous beauty throughout the desert.
Since that initial visit in 1993, I returned numerous times with my husband and our rescue dogs Annie and Owen before they passed away. Summer heat doesn't entice me, so we visited the park in fall and spring to enjoy the temperate climate, clear days and spring wildflowers.
I remember one visit vividly. The drive from Orange County to the park isn't much to write home about—crowded freeways, sprawling housing developments, ginormous shopping malls. But after about 90 minutes, the landscape opens up. Mountains loom on the horizon, eye-blink towns on Highway 62 zoom by, sporadic Joshua trees—like breadcrumbs sprinkled in a path leading home—hint at what we'll behold as we turn on Park Boulevard. After paying the entrance fee, we were greeted with immense and rugged geologic displays. My science-schooled husband commented about the rock composition, while the photographer in me pondered the way they turned pink in the afternoon light.
We had our lunch at Quail Springs. Peanut butter sandwiches, even though small BBQ pits were available near the picnic tables surrounding what climbers call "Trashcan Rock." While bouldering and mountain climbing are not good options when you visit the park with dogs, hiking is. Dogs are required to be on-leash at all times, as much for their protection as for habitat preservation. With coyotes being a frequent sight at Joshua Tree, I was more than willing to keep Annie and Owen on their six-foot leads.
Unfortunately, dogs—even leashed—are not allowed on any of the hiking or nature trails. But they are permitted in campsites and 100 feet on either side of any road, of which there are many. We walked Annie and Owen throughout Quail Springs, marveling at the climbers, exploring the Joshua trees. We've found the park a great place to just take leisurely, relaxing strolls with the dogs while enjoying the scenery. According to Michael Thomas, an information specialist for the Joshua Tree National Park Association, dogs are welcome sights in non-restricted areas.
"The dog would enjoy it, and the visitor would enjoy it as well," he says.
And that we did. Ink-black ravens swooped across the rocks, landing delicately on the lance-sharp Joshua tree spines, while red-tailed hawks coasted high above us. We didn't see any other wildlife like jackrabbits or roadrunners on this trip, but a previous journey put us face-to-face with a gorgeous, full-coated coyote as we drove out of the park. As the temperature dropped slightly this trip, we walked around Hidden Valley, a climbing Mecca, and then drove about 20 minutes up to Keys View. The fantastic panoramic point overlooks the desert and well beyond. It's gorgeous in late afternoon, where mountains seem to collide with the desert in a fiery orange explosion. The winds at that high elevation can be chilly, so a jacket or sweater is recommended.
As my husband made his way along roads he knows almost as well as our own neighborhood, he commented on how the park, eerily empty on this mid-week afternoon, was so quiet—save for voices of a few climbers in Hidden Valley. Sunlight peeked between the Joshua tree spires, and everything looked as still as a painting. Perhaps that's what enchants so many about this rugged landscape: beneath the harsh surface lies untouched, historic beauty. Two hours from Los Angeles, and yet it feels like a trip back in time.
Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Information: 760-367-5500