Monday, May 19, 2014

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Some friends and I spent this past weekend in Joshua Tree National Park.  Although this was not my first time to the park, this was the first time I read up on the botanical and geological make up the area so I could better understand what makes the place what it is.  So, in case you'd like to learn vicariously as we go:

Joshua Tree is a meeting of two desert ecosystems: the Mojave ("high desert" - above 3,000ft elevation, wetter & more vegetated) and the Colorado / Sonoran ("low desert" - below 3,000ft, hotter & sparse).  Where we camped, Black Rock Canyon, and climbed, Indian Cove, are both in the Mojave section of the park.  There are six mountain ranges in the area as well: Little San Bernadino Mountains, Cottonwood Mountains, Hexie Mountains, Pinto Mountains, Eagle Mountains, and Coxcomb Mountains. 

Short note on our climbing this time: there has been a heat wave this past week at home and it was hovering around 95-100 degrees on Saturday out at the park when we rope climbed.  Thus, while we normally would do 2 or 3 climbs in a day, we only each did one this time, and all felt pretty spent.  Still, Pixie Rock provided a fun climb and, since we haven't climbed in a few years, I for one woke up sore the next morning (a glorious sort of feeling in truth, a physical memory of what occurred the day before).  I even got a little tutorial on how to set up ropes top-side, although I'm a long way from setting them up myself.

Joshua Tree was established as a national park on 31 October 1994 and it is 794,000 acres.  The landscape we see today was born over 100 million years ago - molten liquid, heated by the movement of the Earth's crust, oozed upward through the cracks in the Earth's surface, and cooled.  The intrusions of granite rock (the iconic formations that make the park alien-planet like) are called monzogranite.  Erosion and flash floods removed overlying rocks and the soft clay over time, creating the impressive rock piles we see today.  The rounded nature of the boulders can be explained by erosion as well : imagine holding an ice cube under a faucet, the cube rounds away at the corners first.

The tree the park is named for, the Joshua 'tree', is not in fact a tree.  It is a branching yucca, a member of the lily family, and (sometimes) the agave family.  The tree grows slowly, about 1/2 to 3 inches a year, and is typically 5-10 feet tall before the first blossoms appear.  The tallest Joshua tree recorded is 80 feet, but most are 20 feet tall when at full maturity (can take up to 60 years).  The oldest Joshua tree was estimated to be 1000 years old, and most can live to be more than 500.  The concave leaves of the 'tree' funnel water down to the roots.  Native Americans used the plant's leaves to weave into baskets and sandals, and the flower buds and seeds for food.  As legend goes, pioneers thought the plants looked like the Biblical figure Joshua, with outstretched arms in supplication, directing travelers westward. The name stuck. 

Over 250 species of birds have been documented in the park, although most are migrants and vagrants - but a still impressive 78 species of birds nest and raise their young in the park.  From this trip, our most notable encounters where with Gambel's quails.  They would perch on the tip-top of a Joshua tree and create a sort of message chain, spreading the call from tree to tree, seemingly spreading news of some sort.  They became our alarm clock each morning : 0530 and they were enthusiastically making their opinions of dawn being the time to rise well known.  As an aside, they are pretty amusing creatures to both observe and listen to.  Their call cannot really be called "beautiful" by any stretch of the imagination, but I found it endearing in the sort of awkward-adjustment-to-voice-breaking-during-puberty way.  Their signature, forward-drooping head plume (seems to have added no practical benefits to their birds' livehood) and their panicked manner of scurrying across the barren landscape only adds to the hilarity of what they are.  In truth - I could happily observe them for hours and not grow bored.

Enough of the facts - a trip to Joshua Tree always reminds me of the underrated beauty of deserts.  Although I am a nemophilist, I will openly admit that deserts have a captivating allure all their own. Something about the stark vacancy of the place, and the eerie almost alien-like landscape create because of it, makes deserts into quite fascinating places.

 On this trip I brought a desert wildflower guide to take my first stab at  identify things "out in the field," if you will.  So below are some photos of the plant life I saw and my best attempt at identifying a few of the species correctly.  Right or wrong in my identification intentions, the attempt revealed just how bio-diverse and vibrant a desert can be.  I couldn't keep up with all the different types of plans I saw in truth, and in general the process reminded me of the importance to slow down and really look around at what a landscape is composed of.  How much I miss most of the time when I am just in a hurry to hike from one place to the next, to just get to the peak, to just get to the end of the trail.  There is so much enjoyment to be gathered in the details, and details can only be gathered in slowness.

Bladder Sage
Evening Primrose
Wild Buckwheat

Beaver Tail

Joshua Tree

Creosote Bush


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