Joshua Tree National Park is relatively close by. I’d been out there once before on a day trip, but this time I wanted to get in a couple of hikes/walks, stay overnight and test out some of my desert camping gear/abilities. I left at dawn Friday morning, heading opposite the commuter traffic on the 91 to the 10 freeway and hammered it until I got to CA 62, aka Twenty Nine Palms Highway. Stopped for gas and then set out to find the perfect campsite.
As is often the case with me, if things are not clearly marked, (sometimes even when they are) I follow my instincts, and, more often than not, they lead me astray. The first campground signs I encountered were for Black Rock Campground. I headed 4 miles up a somewhat decrepit access road (Campground Road!) to the campsite, found a closed Nature Center, and no signs of life except a couple of equally confused German tourists who had spent the night previously. Fortunately, Black Rock is still close enough to civilization that my iPhone had service, and some research on the Internet and a few calls later and I was back on CA 62 for another 20 miles or so. Apparently Black Rock is an overflow site, it’s not really officially open in the summer, and, I’m not even sure it’s actually in the Park.
View Joshua Tree in a larger map
To add to my confusion, there are two northern entrances to the park. One is called The Joshua Tree Visitor Center. The other is also called the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (Oasis). So you can see it is easy to tell them apart.
I just stopped at the first one and asked where I’d be able to get a campsite on a Friday with no reservation. Seeing as it was still technically summer and temperatures were over 100F, they gave me kind of a bemused look and said, “Wherever you want. There’s practically nobody out there.” Sounded good to me.
I decided on Jumbo Rock as it semed to have some hikes near it and it was one of the closer available.
I tooled around a bit, picked out a shady-ish site near the entrance, but within minutes grew irritated at the comings, goings, shoutings, beer openings, gruntings and other annoyances emanating from a couple of camper/drinkers setup nearby. So off I went to the extreme end of the thing, deciding #77 gave me my best chance of solitude, and took care of the eight bucks, the forms and the envelope drop.
It still being relatively early I decided to cruise on into town. Not being overly familiar with Twenty-Nine Palms, I wandered a ways down what seemed to be a superbly paved road through the desert until I found myself approaching The World’s Largest Guard Shack, which was surrounded by some scary signs… “No Unauthorized Vehicles”, “Visitors Must Show ID”, “No Photography” and “We Shoot Dumbass Motorcyle Campers on Sight.” Okay, I made that last one up, but that’s the sort of vibe I was getting. Apparently I had wandered onto the Marine Corps Air and Ground Base. I did a U-turn before the guard shack and hoped they didn’t pick me off as I headed back to Twenty-Nine Palms proper.
I’d like to tell you I discovered some amazing sites and hangouts in Twenty-Nine Palms, but most of the places I went by looked a little skeevy and not being from those parts, I went the safe route and ended up at McDonald’s.
“Oui Monsieur, le quartair poundair avec les pomme frites! Tres bien.” No, they did not speak French. I’m not sure they spoke English either. I didn’t care. It was air conditioned inside and I spent a long time sucking down one of those ridiculously large iced coffee shake drinks with the whipped cream and the chocolate sauce.
Afterwards, picked up some ice and food from a Valero mini-mart where a couple of toothless cougars checked out me and my bike. They thought it was a Harley and I didn’t argue. They thought I was an idiot and I didn’t argue that either. They they told me I’d probably get bit by a rattlesnake, “but it probably won’t kill ya!” They they both laughed real hard til they started coughing. I think one of them was about to hack up a lung when I pulled out and headed back to camp.
I was kind of sleepy when I returned and attempted a nap. It was probably 103 outside my tent. I don’t know how hot it was inside, but even laying down naked on ice it was too hot. I gave up and decided to go for a hike. Fortunately, there was a trail head pretty close by. Skull Rock. Black Rock, Jumbo Rock, and now Skull Rock. I was starting to see a pattern in the place naming convention.
It was still kind of hot, but I had my trusty REI desert wear, my Teva “adventure” sandals, and a pretty awesome CamelBak type thing with ice water in it, so I was relatively comfortable as I set out. It was a modest 3 mile loop, dotted with little informative signs about Desert Stuff along the way.
I read the first one or two, but, really, who is that interested in the names of the scrawny underbrush? I wanted to see the world famous Skull Rock! (It reminded me of A Hardy Boy’s Adventure title… The Mystery at Skull Rock or somesuch.)
For the next two miles I saw lots of big rocks that sort of resembled a skull. I dutifully took pictures of them, somewhat disappointed in their appearance, but not wanting to have missed the photo op should it turn out, They were It. Fortunately, They were not It.
About a mile and a half in, I came across what was most definitely the the Likely Specimen. Not only did it kind of look like a skull, there were signs pointing to it from several directions clearly labeled “Skull Rock”, which removed any potentially lingering doubt.
I hung out a bit, got some photos of me in the nose, me picking the nose, etc. and then headed off down the remainder of the trail.
Got back to the campsite and cooked up a steak, baked potato and a couple ears of corn – good camping staples if you like to eat well and may be limited to an open fire. As it happened, all the sites were equipped with brand new grills. Clean as a whistle! No water, of course. Or flush toilets. Or showers. But still. A nice clean grill is nothing to sneeze at. My food attracted all manned of winged creatures, most significantly bees and wasps. Apparently there’s not much water in the desert, so they swarm around anything that isn’t all dried out. I put one of my eaten corn cobs at the opposite end of my pic-a-nic table and it was soon covered in sting-y thing-ys. While I judicously chowed down on my filet mignon (again with the French! Seriously, it was a filet mignon – they’re delicious…) a half dozen bees drowned themsleves after they discovered it’s a lot easier to crawl into a 12oz can of Diet Dr. Pepper than it is to crawl out. I shall assume they at least perished with their thirst slaked, albeit calorie free.
I wrapped up my sumptuous repast, disposed of corn husks, entrapped bees and other detritus and soon it was nightfall.
The next morning I got up as soon as the sun peeked over the horizon. I planned on doing a 14 mile out and back hike at a southern point in the park and wanted to get to it before the temperature climbed too much.
Packed up my stuff and headed down Pinto Basin Also Known As Eldorado Mine Road. Most of the roads in the Park have two or three names just to keep the navigation interesting. “You want to take The Loop” “Which Loop?” “Why, the Big Loop, of course!” Naturally.
The good news is that all of the roads are superbly paved and there’s practically nobody on ’em. Snaky sweepers that stretch out for miles on end, no stop signs, no traffic lights, nearly no cops. So of, course, one strictly obeys the posted 35 mile an hour limit. (Ahem.)
Ennyhoo, got down to Cottonwood Springs about 10:30ish, stopped at the Ranger Station, asked the two guys on duty about the relative foolhardiness of a man my age and condition hiking 7 miles out into the desert. “Others your age have made it… some haven’t. We’ve had to rescue a few, and occasionally things can go wrong out there…” I didn’t ask what that meant. The two dentally-challenged meth heads back at the Valero had already given me the news bulletin on the snakes.
“Park your bike where we can see it, and check in with us when you get back so we don’t have to go looking for you.” Well, there’s a vote of confidence! On to the Lost Palms Oasis!
As it happened, I was feeling relatively spry and, maybe because I was concerned about being out there during peak heat, I hustled along at a pretty good clip. The guys told me it would probably take about 4 hours or so to do the 14 miles, but I didn’t want to be out there past 2pm. There was also the matter of running out of water. I had my CamelBak thingy, and, it allegedly held the prescribed amount, but I was drinking it near constantly and there’s no gauge on the thing. When you’re out, you’re out. I didn’t want to find out how far I could hike in 107 degrees with no water.
About half way there I encounter what I dubbed “Baked Potato Rock” because, well… you’ll see…
Yep, kind of resembled one of my food groups from the night before. Also ran into a lot of these poky things. They might be Desert Sage, but I’m no naturalist. I can tell you that they are very sharp and will penetrate a boot (and from there, your epidermis…)
Eventually I made it to the Promised Land, or rather, Loat Palm Oasis. Had a quick bite, drank up some more of my precious water and high tailed it back to the ranger station.
I’d made pretty good time, I was back before 1. No cold drinks back at Ranger Town, so I hopped on the Strat, headed out of the park, and went a couple miles east to a Chevron station that had a Foster’s Freeze inside. Downed a large Dr. P, a dog, and a few refills to rehydrate and then mapped out my route back to Anaheim.
Having still a good deal of daylight, I decided to hit the Palms to Pines highway, one of the most spectacular motorcycle roads anywhere, and see if I could handle the snaky CA243 turnoff, which I’d passed by once, but never actually rode. It looks scary right on the map. It’s so scary, Google refuses to save a map that includes that segment. (Try it!)
Climbed up out of the desert valley into the hills and hung a left at Mountain Center heading up into Idyllwild. Stopped at a place called the Mile High Cafe. Had some sushi and played a little on their piano. Yes, they had sushi and yes they had a piano. I was surprised too!
There was a little girl there with her family and as luck would have it, the one song she requested, happened to be in my lifetime repertoire of about three (Linus and Lucy from “Peanuts.”) For about 3 minutes I was a rock star.
After sushi, I headed back out onto CA243. Awesome road. Any one with two wheels that lives with in 400 miles of Banning needs to ride this road at least once. As it happened, I got a job playing the piano at Mile High for Christmas and rode the bike out there a few times to practice and to perform. There’s a nice view/rest stop called Indian Point about halfway between Idyllwild and Banning where you can look out over the entire LA Basin. I stopped there to stretch my legs before I got back on the 10 and headed home.