January is a great time to visit some national parks. The weather is pleasant and, in general, the visitor numbers are down. Some parks are actually much better in the winter as summer temperatures can soar unbearably.
We recently visited Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. Much of Joshua Tree is in the transition zone between the Mojave and the Colorado deserts. The eastern half of the park, below 3000 feet above sea level, lies within the Colorado Desert. Extremely dry and sun-baked, creosote is the predominant vegetation with patches of jumping cholla cactus. The short loop trail through the Cholla Cactus Garden is self-guided with an informational brochure. Even though they are often called teddy bear cholla, jumping cholla are anything but cuddly. They are called “jumping” because of their tendency to snag anything close by. The strange shapes, flowers and buds are fascinating but you do want to keep your distance.
In the western half of the park, at elevations above 3000 feet, the scenery changes. Here you find large boulder stacks, pinyon pines, junipers, and the namesake “Joshua trees,” which are not actually trees at all but rather a species of yucca. On the Barker Dam loop hike, we found ourselves in a veritable Joshua tree forest. Considering the slow growth of about an inch a year, you have to appreciate the fact that some of these trees grow to over forty feet tall.
The jumbles and piles of monzogranite boulders found here make rock climbing a popular activity in this portion of the park. Skull Rock is one of the more bizarre shapes.
There are a number of short nature trails as well as longer hiking trails throughout the park, as well as innumerable scenic photo opportunities. If you want to do the Keys Ranch tour you do need to make a reservation ahead of time. It’s one of those places that used to be open to the general public but is now only by ranger-guided tour and on a limited basis. We spent two half-days in Joshua Tree, did several short hikes and explored in general. We would have liked to have seen Keys Ranch but maybe that’s for next time.