Scenic Trip Through Joshua Tree National Park
For a place that's pretty desolate, the California desert has a number of ways to get into trouble--as well as cinematic views and tremendous day hikes.
Day 1: Palm Springs to Desert Hot Springs
It must've been the brochure I was holding that tipped off the rental-car agent that I was heading to Joshua Tree National Park. "You know, the Joshua tree isn't a tree at all," he said as he handed over the keys to a navy PT Cruiser convertible. "It's a yucca." Legend has it that the yucca was renamed by Mormon settlers who thought its upraised limbs and scruffy-bearded appearance resembled the prophet Joshua leading them to the promised land--which seemed like a good enough reason to bring my friend Josh along on the trip.
With the ragtop down, we drive northwest on Indian Canyon Drive, and we're soon greeted by the wind farms of San Gorgonio Pass. The 60-foot-tall gray metal poles are intrusive, but striking, and in any event harnessing the wind is better than burning oil. With more than 4,000 turbines, the farm is one of world's largest, and since we're in a convertible, we can hear the propellers whirring every time we stop at a red light. They sound like gentle waves breaking in the clouds.
I'm eager to reach Desert Hot Springs, 50 miles south. Because it's built over a natural mineral-water aquifer, the town claims to have some of the world's best water. We backtrack a bit, as I'd made a reservation for a mud bath atTwo Bunch Palms--now a ritzy resort, it was originally built by Al Capone as his western hideout. Little do I know what I'm getting myself into--literally. It's called mud, but if the smell is any indication, it could be fertilizer for my mother's garden. After a half-hour-long, neck-deep soak, I'm treated to a hot mineral-water shower, a steam, and full use of the grounds, but it's not enough. I smell like manure the rest of the day. Josh thanks me yet again for renting us a convertible.
At 5 P.M. we leave Two Bunch Palms for our hotel, a pleasant spot called theEmerald Springs Resort and Spa. Our room has turquoise walls, black furniture, and white duvets, giving it a '50s vibe. We go swimming in all three of the hotel's heated mineral-water pools, in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, surrounded by cacti and bougainvillea. We fall asleep early, in anticipation of our first day exploring Joshua Tree National Park.
- Emerald Springs Resort and Spa68055 Club Circle Dr., Desert Hot Springs, 760/288-0071, from $110
- Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa67425 Two Bunch Palms Trail, Desert Hot Springs, 800/472-4334, twobunchpalms.com, mud and steam $110 ($85 for hotel guests)
Day 2: Desert Hot Springs to 29 Palms
The coffee at Emerald Springs is exceptional--can it be the water? An elderly couple from Milford, Conn., believes in its power. For 25 years now, they've wintered in Desert Hot Springs solely for the rejuvenating effects of a good soak.
Josh and I hop in the car and head east on Highway 62, toward the West Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. At nearly 800,000 acres, the park straddles two distinct deserts: the Mojave in the north, marked by craggy Joshua trees and moon-like rock formations, and the Colorado in the south, with wide-open vistas and jagged mountain peaks. Between the two lies the transition zone, with features from both plus cholla cactus gardens and patches of spidery ocotillo.
In the town of Joshua Tree, we stop at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. There are no concessions inside the park, so we buy lots of water. The Park Service recommends one gallon per person per day, two gallons apiece in the summer.
It immediately feels as if we've been transported to prehistoric times. Boulders the size of dump trucks sit near spiky trees, and the air is fragrant with lavender and chia, which smells like sage. We're only a few miles into the park and already we're scoping out rocks to climb. At Quail Springs Picnic Area, we pull over near a sign that explains how bighorn sheep can go without water for 14 days. Interesting enough, but all we really care about are the rocks. We begin our ascent with carefully placed steps but can't avoid getting on all fours as we lumber up the granite formations. At the top of the biggest rock, we scan the desert for wildlife--the park is home to jackrabbits, coyotes, and bobcats, plus a population of birds that includes golden eagles and red-tailed hawks--but all we get are trees and boulders.
We drive on to Hidden Valley, popular with advanced climbers--sure enough, two fearless friends are scaling a sheer rock face. Josh and I decide that the Barker Dam nature trail is more our speed. The sandy path, just over a mile long, leads past turbinella oak and California juniper to one of the park's few man-made attractions, a small lake where ranchers used to feed their livestock. It's now a watering hole for desert animals and migrating birds. After snapping photographs of the surrounding area, aptly named Wonderland of Rocks, we explore the trail's end--or whatever the opposite of a trailhead is called--which is marked by red, black, and white petroglyphs left by migrating Native Americans.