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.
Keys View, by far one of the park's best panoramas, is about five miles south. At nearly 5,200 feet above sea level--and despite a slight haze--we can see the entire Coachella Valley, including the Salton Sea, the town of Indio, and the San Jacinto Mountains.
While eating our picnic lunch at Jumbo Rocks campground, we talk to a crunchy couple from Vancouver, camping with their 10-month-old son, Viggo, and an adventurous foursome from Cincinnati, who have just returned from off-roading through a muddy riverbed. Afterward, we go to Skull Rock nature trail--named for a large anthropomorphic formation--and scramble over as many rocks as we can. Josh and I agree: We would've loved this place even more back when we were kids.
In Twentynine Palms, we've reserved a room at theHarmony Motel--where U2 stayed when they worked onThe Joshua Tree. It's dingy at best, but hey, that's rock and roll. For dinner, we go over to the poolside restaurant at nearby29 Palms Inn(we would have stayed there if it hadn't been fully booked). I opt for the pasta primavera, made with vegetables from the inn's garden, and Josh digs into teriyaki chicken, brushed with a tangy homemade sauce.
- Harmony Motel71161 Hwy. 62, Twentynine Palms, 760/367-3351, harmonymotel.com, from $70
- 29 Palms Inn73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms, 760/367-3505, 29palmsinn.com, pasta primavera $10.25
- Joshua Tree Visitor Center6554 Park Blvd., Joshua Tree, 760/366-1855, nps.gov/jotr
Day 3: 29 Palms to Indio
TheCrossroads Cafe & Tavernis 15 miles in a direction we weren't planning on heading, but everyone we talk to says we have to go there. The cheery restaurant, which has local artists' paintings on the walls, is run by mother-daughter duo Bonnie and Stacee LaGassa. We grab a seat in the back and order challah French toast stuffed with raspberry cream cheese and a plate of Willy Boy Hash, with shredded beef, bell peppers, red onions, and cheesy scrambled eggs. We also buy two lunches to go and are soon making a beeline to the park.
We enter near the Oasis of Mara, then make our way through the transition zone to the southern end. The scenery morphs: Joshua trees become sparser, cacti and creosote appear, and the air gets hotter and drier. In the distance we see craggy mountain peaks (instead of smooth rock formations) and the sweeping vistas of the Colorado Desert.
Our first stop is a cholla cactus garden, home to hundreds of chest-high cacti with fine, light-green needles. From a distance the chollas appear soft and fluffy, and even though signs everywhere warn you not to touch, I can't help myself. My second mistake is wearing a sweater that somehow attracts the chollas' needles. As annoying as the barrage of pinpricks is, it still beats smelling like manure.
Less than a mile down the road is an ocotillo patch. The tall, spindly shrubs resemble bright green shuttlecocks facing nose down. In spring, like plants all over the park, they sprout vibrant flowers; it's still winter, however, and there hasn't been enough rain for wildflowers to appear. Once back in the car, we continue south and eventually reach the Cottonwood Visitor Center. In the bookstore, we read up on the nearby Mastodon Peak trail.
Like most hikes, this three-mile loop has a payoff at the summit. The Eagle Mountains are visible in the distance, and when we yell, our voices echo on and on. Proud of our accomplishment, Josh and I head back down, drive 35 miles to Indio, and crash at aTravelodge.
- Travelodge80651 Hwy. 111, Indio, 760/342-0882, from $79
- Crossroads Cafe & Tavern61715 Hwy. 62, Joshua Tree, 760/366-5414, French toast $6
Day 4: Indio to Palm Springs
Our first stop of the day isShields Date Gardens, an old-fashioned roadside attraction that opened in 1924. The Coachella Valley produces 95 percent of U.S. dates, and the preferred way of eating them is in a date shake, or so I learn. I'm not a sweets-for-breakfast guy, but Shields' date shake--a blend of ice cream, milk, and two kinds of dates that've been dried into "crystals"--is delicious, even at 9 A.M. I savor it while watchingRomance and Sex Life of the Datein the movie theater. The film, made in the 1950s, explains the process of growing and picking dates, and inspires hours of "cheap date" jokes.
Chiriaco Summit, 30 miles east, is mostly a rest stop, as well as home to theGeneral Patton Memorial Museum. In 1942, the general headed a desert training center for soldiers bound for North Africa; it was the largest simulated theater of operations in the history of U.S. warfare. The museum is filled with World War II memorabilia, including 15 tanks outside.