Joshua Tree

Lori’s been to a lot more National Parks than I have. A dozen would be a conservative estimate. But she hadn’t been to Joshua Tree. And neither had us boys, so we were all pretty stoked for today.

For most people living in the U.S., National Parks aren’t exactly easy to get to. And that’s sort of the point. It’s unique and wild lands set aside for conservation and future generations to enjoy.

For us, national parks are particularly challenging to visit, having lived outside of the U.S. for the past eight years since Noe was born. With that said, Noe did get to visit his first national park (Crater Lake) when he was two months old.

Last summer, he got to visit his second (and Riley’s first) when we spent some time in the Redwoods.

One of the aspects of visiting that they were most looking forward to was doing the Junior Ranger program. I’ll say here that Joshua Tree is an ideal national park for doing just that. It’s easy to navigate, has easy-to-reach hidden pockets, and offers opportunities to climb big rocks, peek into caves, and spot unique wildlife all against an alien landscape.

A kid’s dream.

After breakfast, we beelined it to the visitor’s center to pick up the Junior Ranger books. It’s supposed to be shoulder season right now, but it’s also at the very beginning of spring break season in the U.S., so we wanted to make sure we got a relatively early start.

Lori was also a bit concerned about parking. We’ve got 25 feet of vehicle to find a home for every time we stop. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. We’re out here in the middle of the desert hours from the closest major city. And it’s early March. And it’s midweek.

But Lori was right to be concerned. The park spans some hundred miles of the Mojave desert, but most of the paved roads and most iconic sections are located within a ten-mile diameter between the hopping little towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. I definitely did not appreciate this fact until we were actually here, nor did I fully understand how it would shape our day.

The parking lots filled up super fast. Fortunately for regular sized cars, there’s quite a bit of turnover. However, each parking area only has a handful of RV spots. Going as early as we did, we were able to snag one at each stop. Any later, however, and they would have been taken over by cars.

It would be nice if there was signage to the effect that motorists should grab the smaller spots and leave the bigger ones for the RVs if possible. Unless they’ve owned an RV, it probably doesn’t even cross most people’s minds.

Between stops, smooth tarmac and very little traffic.

Hidden Valley

Our first stop was Hidden Valley. We tried to do the most popular stops first, and this was one of those. With adventure vests on and Junior Ranger books in hand, the boys were psyched to get started.

Noe had all sorts of ideas of which animals he wanted to spot. He would not be content until he saw them all. I had to break it to him that we probably weren’t going to see bats or some of the larger cats, but he was undeterred.

If you’re not familiar with Joshua Tree National Park, it’s named for the very distinctive yucca palms that blanket the desert out here. I was prepared to see these in massive quantities, which was most certainly the case. What I didn’t expect were the strange and impressive rock formations throughout large portions of the park. We also spotted a number of climbers who appear to have visited for the big rocks alone.

When the boys are together outdoors, they’re two wild ‘n’ crazy guys. There was certainly time to run around and burn off some steam together. But we found that splitting them up was the only way to get Riley, in particular, to notice his surroundings and try to soak up some of the experience. After the first ten minutes, Noe went ahead with Lori and Riley hung back with me. Suddenly, he seemed interested in everything. Funny how that works.

He also wanted me to take pictures of him everywhere, which is unusual for Riley. If he lets me take a picture of him, it’s usually with a silly face. Not today. Today is a special day.

Hidden Valley was one of my favorite stops of the day. From the parking lot, you can’t see any of it, hence the name. It’s accessed by filing through a narrow cut in the rocks, which opens up into a one-mile hiking loop almost completely surrounded by cliffs that was once a popular cattle rustlers’ hideout.

We were told time and again to go early and bring lots of water, regardless of the time of year. Today, however, the weather is just about perfect. A steady breeze put a little nip in the air (especially in the shade), and the sun was just warm enough to make shedding our long sleeves sound like a good idea by the time afternoon rolled around.

Noe looked high and low for critters. He’s got a good eye and spotted most of the fauna we actually got to see in the park. But here at mid-morning in the desert, it’s slim pickings.

By the time we got back to the RV, our home was surrounded by cars. There were plenty of perpendicular spots left for cars, but everyone appeared to want to save a minute’s walk. If we’d arrived 30 minutes later, we probably would have passed on Hidden Valley due to lack of parking, which would have been a shame.

Barker Dam & Petroglyphs

Next, it was off to Barker Dam, another popular area in the park. This hike was cool because it offered the largest concentration of Joshua Tree’s of the stops we made, in addition to two iconic attractions: Historic Barker Dam and ancient petroglyphs.

The most popular route is a 1.5-mile loop hike that connects the dam and the petroglyphs with the parking lot.

I realized after the fact that I didn’t get a great picture of the dam. Honestly, there wasn’t much to see but an old concrete-reinforced stone wall and a small pool of water. The boys didn’t seem too impressed either.

The petroglyphs, on the other hand, were a big hit with the boys. Noe remembered seeing a recreation of petroglyphs in a museum in Baja but was bummed they weren’t real. Today, he got to see the real thing. He carefully examined them with his binoculars for what must have been close to 15 minutes.

The parking at Barker Dam was a bit easier because they had pullouts a ten-minute walk away. When we returned “home” it was time for lunch.

Skull Rock & Discovery Trail

After lunch, we headed down the street to our last two stops of the day: Skull Rock and the Discovery Trail across the street.

As we approached Skull Rock, we got the gist. It’s a rock that looks like a skull, and swarming with visitors.

Across the street at the Discovery Trail, we literally had the entire trail to ourselves.

At some point, high school kids had put up these interpretive signs as a project, which told about the various rock formations, plants and animals around here.

The boys thought it was interesting, but thought running around and exploring the desert’s nooks and crannies in the absence of other visitors was more fun. I don’t blame them.

After a long and very satisfying day in the great outdoors, it’s time to head back to camp. The boys are excited for us to review their work and bestow upon them the great honor of Junior Ranger.

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks gearing up for our departure, then making miles in the rain down here. But today is what it’s all about for us. Getting to be outdoors as a family with no particular schedule or agenda, ideal weather, and lots to see and learn.

Not even a week into our journey and we’re pretty happy with our decision at the moment. The Mojave’s been fun, but the road (and Mexico) beckons.

Tomorrow, Arizona.

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