BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Book your springtime travel now and plan to see flowers burst forth in the silence of the desert. Discover the wonders of relaxing in a 9,000-year-old oasis, just hours from Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and San Diego, near the Mojave Desert town of Twentynine Palms, California. Joshua Tree National Park not only boasts trees that take on poses worthy of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz but also hikes for rock climbers to casual walkers, and even an occasional roadrunner that darts busily across your path.
Stay, as we did, at the 29 Palms Inn, minutes from the north entrance of the 800,000-acre park on the ancient Oasis of Mara lined with California fan palms, and you’ll bask in the peace of the place with private cabins and vegetables grown in their spacious organic garden served at a poolside restaurant.
Visitors promise that there is magic in the park’s boulders, piled up like play toys. They began eons ago, as a result of volcanic eruptions with magma arising from deep within the earth. Plentiful star-filled nights, vibrant waves of wildflowers most frequent in the spring, clear skies, and endless vistas for photographers at any level are part of the package. Although almost three million people visit each year, a sense of solitude prevails.
As naturalist Pat Flanagan, who has been giving tours rich in geology, history, and botany at the 29 Palms Inn, said, “The rocks will get you every time.” Pat shared that silence is another Joshua Tree staple:
“Although you have your selfie shooters, it is not what this place is about. The oasis on the park’s edge is a peaceful and spiritual place, and you don’t necessarily know why. Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, filled with vegetation and birds, it is a powerful thing and you can’t be totally sure why.
“It is also about the uniqueness of the vegetation. We have 38 percent of the native California desert plants—cactus, shrubs and the Joshua trees, which are actually Mojave yuccas—and you begin by being amazed at the variety of green in the high desert. People at first don’t know why they are bedazzled.”
The land was first inhabited by Serrano Indians, later the Chemehuevi and a few Cahuilla who camped by the sacred oasis. Pat has been active in hosting Native American gatherings in recent years at the oasis.
The first surveyor, Col. Henry Washington, saw the 29 palms at the once mile-long green space and gave the area its name. Miners and cattlemen began arriving in the 1870s, lured by gold and wilderness pastures. Gold mines, mill sites, camps, and settlements continued into the 1900s, and today a four-mile round-trip trail leads to the Lost Horse Mine.
In the 1920s lung-damaged World War I veterans and homesteaders came seeking the benefits of desert climate. Actor James Cagney, swim-star Esther Williams, and painter John Hilton were among the artist colony members in the 1950s.
Pasadena doyenne Minerva Hoyt recognized over 100 years ago the fragility of the desert plants and animals she encountered in the Southwest desert she visited to rejuvenate herself. A Southern socialite who married a wealthy New York surgeon, she had come to Pasadena in the 1890s. After the death of an infant son and then of her husband in 1918, she devoted herself to saving the desert. She became conservation chair for California’s chapter of the Garden Clubs of America and lobbied endlessly, persuading President Franklin Roosevelt to proclaim Joshua Tree a national monument in 1936. In 1994, as part of the California Desert Protection Act, Congress renamed the area Joshua Tree National Park.
Elevation is around 3,000 feet in both the Mojave and Colorado deserts within the park, but hikes take you higher and at Key’s View, you can look at the San Andreas Fault in the valley below. We met a visitor from Scotland as well as several from Los Angeles as we walked the Juniper Flats trail in mid November.
Our friend Suketu Bhavsar, Director of the Honors College at Cal Poly Pomona, makes the two-hour drive from Claremont to the park when looking for a place for reflection. He recommends the Hidden Valley and Baker’s Dam one-mile loops and the Cholla cactus garden for the beauty of desert plants.
A rare desert tortoise, registered in the “threatened” category, once walked across his path. On earth for 15 to 20 million years, they are rarely seen because they burrow deep in the earth to capture rainwater. “They move very slowly, and I have heard that military desert drills are ordered to stop when one is sighted in Joshua Tree,” Suketu told us.
In the summertime, temperatures soar over 100 degrees. Rangers advise that you carry at least one gallon of water per person per day. There is no cell phone coverage in the park, and Pat Flanagan advises that you carry a paper map because GPS navigation systems often don’t report washouts due to occasional flash floods in the area.
In addition to the TwentyNine Palms Inn and its more upscale property, the Campbell House, which features guest suites and cottages but is not on the oasis, there are many airbnbs to book.
Drive through the nearby Coachella Valley, past acres of date palms and signs to April’s music and arts festival that attracts thousands, named Coachella after its stunning setting, to another commanding treasure of Southern California, the Salton Sea. California’s largest lake, now tragically evaporating, it has more salinity than the Pacific Ocean, although less than the Great Salt Lake.
It is a bird watcher’s paradise with possibly more diversity on its migratory stops than anywhere in North America. Cranes, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, and even an occasional flamingo will drop by and cast a curious eye of a pedal-powered hang glider coasting nearby.
Serene on weekdays, off-road vehicles dominate the wide sandy beaches on weekends. Johnson’s Landing Café featured a great Beyond Burger, a vegetarian option not on the menu, and homemade coleslaw, the best anywhere. Our server Debbie told us with sadness of the disappearing waters of this peaceful and ecologically welcoming place where the restaurant was once at water’s edge.
If your soul is saying it needs some solitude, you will find it at Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea.