Joshua Tree National Park

We had accomplished everything we set out to do in Palm Springs. And yet, we had one more full day. What to do?

I asked Larry in the hotel office. He’s done well suggesting two restaurants over the weekend. He did it again today, recommending Joshua Tree National Park.

We headed east on I-10. Once we passed Indio, the palm trees stopped and the desert became more scrubby and ugly. Joshua Tree was another 25 miles away.

I got off the freeway in Cottonwood, turned north and headed into the park.

Most national parks have a gate you go through… in essence a toll booth where the daily fee is collected ($15 per car). Not here. A friendly sign at the ranger station asked you to turn in and register.

The ranger asked me a few questions and then she proceeded to mark a map with sites appropriate for Helaine and me. Light hiking – OK. Scary heights – nope. Photo ops – please!

First stop was a stand of chollo cactus. These are particularly nasty plants, if you get near them. They pierce the skin easily and hurt like crazy. They’re called teddy bear cactus by some, “But don’t hug them,” the ranger had warned.

The chollo grow in a very compact stand. Where they grow, there are hundreds, but the area they inhabit ends sharply.

The rangers have created a path through the chollo. Lots of photo opportunities for me and an excellent chance to see this species up close for everyone. This was the prettiest part of the park.

Joshua Tree is nowhere near the prettiest park I’ve been in. I still wouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. It features broad valleys and meadows marked with the scrubby vegetation most of America’s deserts feature. The valleys are surrounded by mountains and often rocky outcroppings.

Of course there are also stands of Joshua Trees. From a distance, they resemble tree we might have in the northeast, but up close it’s instantly obvious they’re built for the desert. They grow 30-40 feet tall and can live a few hundred years.

Originally, I was going to drive in the southern park entrance, explore, then turn around and head home. The ranger suggested otherwise. We drove all the way through the park from south to north.

A few miles from the exit, I stopped to photograph some interesting rocks. It wasn’t until I really looked closely that I realized a man and woman were rappelling the rock face!

I moved close enough to hear him shout instructions down to her. Maybe she was his student? This was an interesting place for a classroom and scary enough for Helaine to look away.

If you’re one of the rappellers and somehow find your way here, drop me a line. I’d be thrilled to send you the higher quality original files I have.

We exited the park in the town of Joshua Tree, CA. Without the National Park Service to protect it, the land was speckled with buildings and other artifacts of 21st Century life. It was not pretty at all.

We turned west, headed into Yucca Valley and then down a long steeply descending road into the Morongo Valley. Before long we were back here in Palm Springs.

As a kid, national parks were totally foreign to me. Even if given the chance, I probably would have said no. It takes a certain personal seasoning (in other words, age) to go somewhere and just enjoy those things that make it different and distinct.

That’s what we did today.

Joshua Tree isn’t my favorite national park, but it was well worth our time this beautiful early fall afternoon.

Viva And All That Stuff

From zion to vegas

Helaine packed before we had breakfast at the hotel. We like Springdale and like the Best Western there. I usually associate Best Western with a lesser class of hotel. It’s not true here.

Yes, the room was nice. Yes the staff was friendly and helpful. OK, it’s our third hotel in a row with bad water pressure and bad shower heads. No one’s perfect.

What sets this place apart is how it’s built for its locale. At the end of every hallway and beyond the lobby are outdoor areas for sitting and watching the mountains. The rest of the hotel just fits too.

From zion to vegas

We left for the bus stop and I started taking pictures. A nearby mountaintop, around 3,800 feet higher in elevation than the town, was snow covered! It is only mid-October.

We hopped the shuttle to the Zion National Park entrance, flashed the pass we’d bought yesterday as we passed through in our car, and hopped on the park shuttle.

Both the town and park’s shuttle are paid for by the National Park Service. It’s a great idea. The road through town and the road in the park (where virtually no other traffic is allowed) were uncongested. We never waited more than a few minutes for transportation.

From zion to vegas

Our driver in the park was Kristine. Since we had her coming and going, I can tell you she doesn’t have an incredibly deep repertoire, but she was anxious to talk about the park, its sights and its history.

With the overnight rain the ground was a little soggy. Water flowed in many, though not all, the brooks and streams we saw. Low clouds hung over the mountains.

From zion to vegas

If this was our only day at Zion, I would have been upset. However, yesterday we saw how the mountains looked in bright sunshine. Today was a contrast, a more moody look.

We took the shuttle to Weeping Rock. This was our original fair weather plan. We wanted an easy hike which would give us a nice vantage. This trail ran about 1/2 mile, though at a significant incline.

From zion to vegas

We got off the bus and looked around. We were alone in a canyon with walls thousands of feet tall. It was majestic and humbling. I can’t imagine how the first settlers, Native Americans and Caucasians, found their way here. I can understand why they loved its beauty.

I checked. No cell service. Sorry to ruin the moment.

We walked to the trail’s end, at an overhang at the edge of a sheer rockface. Water from last night’s rain came dripping from the overhang, and flowing in a few small, but long, waterfalls.

From zion to vegas

A few more pictures and we were back at the bus stop, waiting for Kristine (or someone like her). Helaine and I decided Zion National Park was the most beautiful of our stops.

From zion to vegas
From zion to vegas
From zion to vegas
From zion to vegas

Back at the hotel, Helaine checked at the front desk to make sure our directions toward Las Vegas were correct. The desk clerk told her to take the left at the first traffic light and then added, “It’s 17 miles away.”

We also got some traffic tips: They seriously enforce the speed limit in the next few towns. “They even ticket locals,” he said. I heeded his warning as we headed out through the Hurricane Valley. It’s tough to drive 40, 35 and even 20 mph in a school zone (where the kids were, after all, in class).

From zion to vegas

Moving away from Springdale, we still saw mountains alongside the road, but they just weren’t up to Zion’s standard. The bar had been set high.

From zion to vegas

We drove Route 9 through Virgin (of course we shot the sign) and Hurricane to I-15. Helaine hoped our time on twisty mountain roads was over. Not quite yet. There was still the Virgin River Gorge to transverse.

From zion to vegas

The speed limit went from 75 to 65 and finally 55 mph. There were yellow signs, signifying caution, everywhere. Steep grades – yes. Strong crosswinds – of course. Sharp curves – what then?

The mountains were bleached white, sharply formed and perilously close to the roadway. We crossed bridges marked “Virgin River” at least a half dozen times, maybe more.

Helaine gripped whatever she could find and hoped for the best. She helped me down the mountain pushing against the imaginary brake so many right seat drivers subconsciously use. Then, finally, we were out.

Utah gave way to Arizona and then Nevada. The highway settled down to a flat ribbon with desert wasteland on either side. Though Helaine was happy to be on a low straight surface, this was the most boring part of our drive.

We approached Las Vegas from the Downtown side, passed the Stratosphere Tower and got off at Spring Mountain.

We are here and ready to start this very different part of our adventure.

There is one problem. Our room buzzes! I’ve already sent for an engineer, but so far, no help has arrived and the buzz continues.

Let the buffets begin!