Water in the Desert

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.

~Edward Abbey

Of all of the US national parks that I’ve visited, I don’t think I’ve ever been to one as downright fun as Joshua Tree. Its landscape of Suessical looking plants combined with its endless piles of boulders just waiting to be explored gives it the feel of an epic playground. Vince and I were lucky enough to squeeze in a visit before California shut down with this latest surge of Covid-19 cases and just like with our road trip over the summer, we took a litany of precautions, including isolating before and after the trip (resulting in about a month of being even lonelier than has become normal this past year).

The purpose of the trip was really to visit my Aunt Cathy, my dad’s sister whose basement I lived in for a couple of summers after college. She moved out to LA a few years back, and Vince and I hadn’t found the time to go see her yet between all of the international travel we were doing pre-covid (ah the before times). Sticking around LA wasn’t an option I was willing to consider during a pandemic, so we planned to spend our time in the middle of the desert instead of in the city.

After meeting up with Aunt Cathy, Joshua Tree was our first stop, and we arrived in the park on a cloudy morning, feeling excited although we didn’t have much of a plan for how we’d spend the day. This is not how I’m used to traveling. Usually I pack itineraries to fill every minute of daylight (the most extreme example being a day in Cape Town where we climbed a mountain before dawn and didn’t get a meal in until 2 pm). With circumstances being much more uncertain these days, I have felt less inclined to put effort into itineraries because I feel that a trip isn’t a sure thing until we’re actually there. Luckily for me, it’s not hard to spontaneously fill a day in a national park.

We decided to start by driving around to see what we could see and our first stop ended up being Live Oak Tank, where Vince and I scrambled up to the top of some massive bubble-shaped boulders. The rock quality was amazing. It was extremely textured, so it was perfect for gripping, but that also came with the side effect of some very raw hands. From the top, we could see that the landscape was smattered with similar rock formations in every direction.

As per usual, it was harder for me to get back down from the pile of rocks. I haven’t been surefooted since my accident last February, and I definitely haven’t regained full confidence yet. It took me a while to find a suitable way down, but eventually I was back on flat ground, much to my relief.

Cloud cover gave way to brilliant sunlight as we continued further into the park. The road was bordered by fluffy looking Joshua Trees, their whimsical arms stretching toward the sky.

We were on our way to Keys View, one of the most impressive overlooks in the park. This panoramic lookout offers an unreal view of Coachella Valley, and it was made even more magical by rays of sunlight bursting through the clouds.

While we enjoyed the view, we struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller named Dana. Eventually we realized that we were all headed for the Barker Dam Trail next, and decided to meet up there and hike together.

The 1.3 Barker Dam loop is one of the most popular trails in Joshua. It was easy hiking which made for good conversation, and the landscape was flat, but full of interesting things to investigate if you are a plant lover. Desert plants are amongst my favorites so I kept falling behind as I examined juniper bushes and various types of yuccas and cacti. I was blown away by how much life there was in such a dry place.

Along the way, we also saw an alcove that was covered in rock art. It was different than any other rock art I’ve seen in that it appeared to be a combination of petroglyphs and pictographs. Upon further research I’ve learned that the petroglyphs here were actually painted over during the filming of a Disney movie in the early 1960’s because apparently the carvings didn’t show up enough in their shots. Obviously this isn’t something you could get away with nowadays, and I think it’s a shame that this piece of history was intentionally damaged.

Other historical artifacts along the trail included an old watering trough, and of course Barker Dam itself, which was covered in its own carvings of hundreds of names, most of which are underwater for a least part of the year.

There was no water to be found on our visit, but the evidence of it was everywhere. All of the rocks that surrounded the dam had obvious lines where the water level used to be. We jumped down into the dried lake bed and walked around with the banded rocks towering above us before getting back on the trail and finishing up the loop.

It was nearing sunset by the time we made it back to our car and said goodbye to Dana. As we drove out of the park for the evening, the sky glowed with beautiful clouds, and a nearly full moon shone.

That night was fitful and filled with heavy rain and and strong winds that sounded as though they might blow our entire cottage away. I barely slept at all because of the noise, and I was beginning to suspect that our morning plans would be met with disappointment. We couldn’t just sleep in though, because we had arranged to meet up with our friends Amy and Andrew at sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden. It was a lucky coincidence that we would be in Joshua Tree at the same time as them. They had driven down from their home in Oregon and had been backpacking somewhere inside of the park for the past few days. We knew that our trips would intersect, but they didn’t have phone service, so there was no way to contact them to change our meeting time.

So, after an early wake-up call, we drove back into the park and were excited to see that the horizon was glowing a brilliant pink. Ours was the only car on the road that early, and we made it to the cholla garden to find that Amy and Andrew’s SUV was already in the parking lot, but they themselves were nowhere in sight. Presumably they had wandered into the sea of chollas that surrounded us, and we decided to do the same.

Sunrise was beautiful, and the Cholla Garden, which had seemed to appear out of nowhere along the empty desert road, was a unique place to enjoy it.

I wandered around absently, getting distracted with looking at the details of the almost fuzzy looking cacti that were washed in a soft warm glow from the sunrise. Eventually I turned around and realized that I had lost track of Vince and Aunt Cathy. I knew they couldn’t be far away, because I could still hear their voices, but the chollas were tall enough to completely obscure them from view. This offered an explanation as to why we hadn’t been able to track down Amy and Andrew yet. I followed Vince and Aunt Cathy’s voices until I found them, and then we headed back to the parking lot.

Before long, we saw Amy and Andrew approaching us from across the street. After some excited greetings and introductions, we took one more spin around the Cholla Garden with them, and then we all drove to the nearby Ocotillo Patch. This spot had a concentration of interesting ocotillo plants, tall succulents with spidery, spike covered branches.

While the plants were cool, there wasn’t much to do at the Ocotillo Patch, so we used the opportunity to catch up with our friends and plan out some hikes for the rest of the day (I also took some time to pick cholla needles out of my clothes and shoes, a chore that I would have to repeat multiple times over the course of the day). It was decided that our next hike would be at White Tank, which was also just a short drive away.

Amy had read about some interesting rock formations in the White Tank area, so we set out in search of an arch and a heart shaped rock, using GPS coordinates in lieu of looking for an actual trail. To Aunt Cathy’s chagrin, this involved scrambling over a lot of boulders, but she she kept up with us despite her doubts.

Hopping around on the cartoonishly round rocks and route-finding as we went gave me a feeling of unbridled fun. I was really enjoying exploring the rugged terrain, and getting to be with friends and family that I hadn’t seen in a while. It didn’t take long to find arch rock, and Vince took the opportunity to tease me about how much I hate arches, an exaggeration born from a day in Arches National Park when the weather was too hot to be enjoyable. I may have been a harsh critic of a couple of the arches we’d seen in Utah, but this one had a whimsical shape that I enjoyed, and thus received my stamp of approval.

Vince, Amy, Andrew, and I climbed on top of the arch before we continued following the coordinates in search of Heart Rock. We scrambled over boulders and through tunnels, trying to angle in the right direction through the stone maze. After a particularly long tunnel that dead-ended in a boulder, Aunt Cathy decided to turn back.

The rest of us pressed on. We climbed up the boulder, and from there we were able to find an actual trail. Before we knew it, we’d found Heart Rock. As its name suggested, it was indeed a heart-shaped rock.

The journey was undeniably more exciting than the destination on this one, but there was a sense of accomplishment in having found the rock amongst the labyrinth of other rocks. Now that we knew where the trail was was, we elected to take the easy way back to the cars, and soon we were on our way to Hidden Valley Trail.

Hidden Valley is another one of the most popular hikes in Joshua Tree, and I was immediately enchanted by it. The beginning of the trail climbed up a small hill and led into a gap between towering cliffs that loomed on either side of it. Once we were in the valley, the trail was completely closed in by cliffs on all sides. It was an easy, flat hike, and the sandy path made satisfying crunching sounds under our boots as we meandered about, stopping to look at the surrounding rocks, and the diverse plant life that filled the valley.

This was easily a highlight of the trip for me, and I could see why it was one of the most popular trails in the park. Lucky for us, there were few other visitors that morning, so we got to enjoy Hidden Valley without its usual crowds. Once we finished up the short loop, we said goodbye to Amy and Andrew as they were heading a different direction from us next.

Vince, Aunt Cathy, and I ate a quick lunch, then we started driving in the direction of the Cottonwood Visitor center, making a quick stop back at the Cholla Garden to see it in daylight.

Our reason for going all the way to Cottonwood (which was on the complete opposite end of the park) was to see a palm oasis that Amy had recommended. We would be foregoing the seven mile hike all the way out to the Lost Palm Oasis since we didn’t have enough daylight left to accomplish it, but lucky for us, the Cottonwood Spring was visible from the trailhead.

I wasn’t honestly expecting the oasis to be anything special, but when I saw the tall palms piercing the sky, I was astounded. The air was dead quiet save for the rustle of the palm leaves high above our heads as we approached the oasis, gaping upward at the impossibly tall trees. I couldn’t believe that these lush giants had sprouted up in the middle of the desert. Standing beneath them was a peaceful and humbling experience.

Although we knew we wouldn’t make it to the Lost Palm Oasis, we did follow the trail uphill a bit further, and found more ocotillos, along with some barrel cacti, and got to see a beautiful view from the hilltop. Cottonwood springs was still visible, but now the massive palms looked tiny in the distance.

By the time we made it back to the parking lot, I was getting hungry for dinner. The sun was dipping lower in the sky and I knew that our time in Joshua Tree was coming to an end. As we drove past the Cholla Garden one last time, I noticed that the cacti were glowing in the late afternoon light, so we made a third and final stop so I could take some pictures.

I was sad when we finally left the park. Joshua Tree had been uniquely approachable as far as wilderness goes. It had felt like a setting from a storybook, with a landscape so playful I was tempted to anthropomorphize the plants and boulders. If ever there was a setting that could be a character in and of itself, this was it. It’s hard to fully articulate what I mean by this, but the land just had a personality unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I kind of feel nutty trying to write about it; perhaps it’s something that’s better experienced than described. At any rate, I was grateful for our time there, and I would love to return someday.


  1. Lovely. Annette and I stayed in Desert Hot Springs for a week to explore the park … and, we agree, it is a stunner. However, your images are better than ours! Recognise some locations.
    Thank you.

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