Joshua Tree National Park


Pig in our backyard at Indian Cove.

Last year, we both fell in love with the monzogranite boulders at Joshua Tree National Park.  Peter is a serious rock hound but I was equally smitten when we first came to this campground (Indian Cove) last year. And so we are back. In one way, we are conventional because we reserved the same impossibly un-level site (#36) simply because of its primo backyard.

We took our site for five nights of dry camping, excited to try out our new Zamp solar panels. Learning the ins and outs of dry camping started with the purchase of our Honda 2000 generator last year. National parks have strict hours for generator use, which we completely understand.

But the limited hours often don’t offer enough time to fully re-charge our batteries making it sometimes challenging to cook, run the lights and fans, and keep the laptop and phones charged up. Cool to cold nights (it’s been in the mid-30s here) create the greatest drain for our batteries and our top priority is firing up the propane as needed to keep T2 comfortable.  With solar panels, and the ample desert sunshine, we knew we had hours to collect and power up and top off the batteries.

Our new Zamp portable solar panels silently at work.

We chose portable Zamp panels after visiting a fellow Airstream camper in Glacier National Park. He chose Zamp portables because unlike roof-mounted panels, they can be positioned to directly face the sun, no matter what the configuration of a campsite (from the four directions to shade).  We bought the extra-long extension cord making it more flexible.  Plus, we found a Zamp-dealer in Idaho who could install an Airstream-approved clamp, which allows us to simply plug into our batteries. The inaugural set-up went so smoothly:  remove from case, position the panels to face the sun, plug in and in seconds, we were in business. In combination with the option of the generator (especially first thing in the AM) this is amazing. We are learning more and more every day that we continue this journey.

We named this the grandfather Joshua tree because it dominated the Mojave landscape.

We are visiting the part of the park we didn’t see last year, heading through to the south entrance to the Cottonwood Springs Visitors Center.  Joshua Tree includes two different deserts, the higher and (relatively) wetter Mojave; and the lower, warmer, and drier Colorado, which is actually part of the Sonoran desert (just without the saguaro). The drive through was illuminating because the difference in the terrain is subtle while the vegetation is dramatically different.

The most distinctive vegetation in the Mojave is the Joshua tree. The early Mormon settlers gave the tree its name, thinking it resembled the biblical Joshua lifting his arms in prayer to God.  Right now, many of the uplifted arms of the trees are filling out with huge, white, waxy blooms.  Imagine a pineapple-shaped blossom perched at the ends of the clusters of branches. This is a remarkable tree that sends out branches in mysterious twists and turns.  William Collins O’Kane wrote, “It (the Joshua tree) is like an adventurous yucca that has embarked on an endeavor to find out in how many directions it can grow, and to see what it can do in the way of forming branches”.


Look closely and catch a glimpse of Peter in the Colorado desert cholla garden.

The Colorado desert is home to the cholla, the ocotillo and the creosote, all of which we saw back in Arizona. We stopped at the lovely cholla garden where thousands of cholla of all sizes, fill the wide open valley.  Right now, the cholla are beginning to bud and seeing the size of the garden, I can understand why there are signs warning that “bees may be swarming”. The cactus typically begin blooming here in late-March and this garden will be a very busy place.  Peter imagined the torturous trip taken by the first prospectors searching for gold who tried to navigate the needle-like barbs, with fish-hook shaped tips, of the vast garden of cholla. And that was sans the bees!

Further down the road, we passed the towering Pinto Peak.  About 9,000 years ago, the now-extinct Pinto River flowed in this valley and provided sustenance to the native Pinto people, hunters and gatherers who lived in this basin hunting the camel, llama, sheep and tortoise who once lived here.  Amateur archeologists Elizabeth and William Campbell worked feverishly from 1931 to 1935 to preserve, document, and map the fossilized remains of the animals and the artifacts and tools of these early inhabitants. Now, backcountry hikers and campers are able to explore the vast backcountry here.


Cottonwood Oasis with its towering palms marking the abundance of underground water.

We landed at the Cottonwood Springs Visitors Center and south entrance after a meandering two-hour drive. This is the entrance closest to the I-10 and is the busiest of the park’s entrances. Here we saw vehicles from all over the country, from Canada, and one heavy-duty custom desert vehicle from Germany. There was an article in the Orange County Register two days ago documenting the size of crowds from around the world that are discovering this fragile park.  The biggest concern now is having it smothered in the love of all these people.  We did see parking pull-outs overflowing with cars as hikers, rock climbers, and picture-taking tourists reached out to experience the place.  At our campsite in Indian Cove, we heard German, Chinese, and French being spoken.  All the campgrounds were full over the weekend and one ranger said it will most likely be this way until the heat of summer begins to descend on the park.  The proximity to the major metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, which is a just over 100 miles away, could certainly explain some of this traffic.


The bedrock granite mortar holes used by generations of Cahuilla people to grind flour.

Just a mile from the Cottonwood Visitors Center is a trail to the Oasis that watered this area.  Here, for thousand of years, a spring flowed from the mountains, providing life-giving water for the native people here, the Cahuilla. They most likely lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans.  They lived in a roughly 2,400 square mile area and numbered about 10,000.  Masters of desert living, their knowledge of the native plants explained their survival.  On the trail through the Oasis, we saw two pieces of granite bedrock that contained deep mortar holes, silent witness to the generations of Cahuilla who ground mesquite and other native seeds into flour for sustenance for their families. One Cahuilla elder today refers to the desert as the “local supermarket” where all the food and medicines needed for survival, along with the inherent knowledge, were available.  To me, I was seeing plants and cactus and rocks and with the reminder of the eyes of the old ones, it was food and medicine and materials for clothing and living and sacred offerings for all that was provided.

One of the greatest gifts of camping here at Indian Cove is watching the subtle changes in desert light throughout the day. I am aware of the grace-filled moments of being able to look up through the sky light at 2:00am and see the crescent moon on its journey across the night sky; of watching contrails just before the sunrise, unfurling like fuchsia ribbons in the cold morning air; of opening the curtains beside my bed to see Venus in the western sky just before she drops behind the towering rock formations that surround our campsite.  In these moments of complete stillness and unspeakable beauty, there is just the sound of Peter breathing deeply in sleep.  All is well in this grateful heart of mine.



Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here heading next to Death Valley National Park for five days in their Airstream, for one more desert experience before reunions with friends in central California.











2 thoughts on “Joshua Tree National Park

  1. We returned from Joshua Tree not long ago. What a great place! If you like the desert, the Mojave National Preserve is not far from Joshua Tree. We do astronomy events for the Preserve 2 times a year and it is also a wonder place.


    • We are in Death Valley now and will have to hit Mojave on our next trip. Fortunately, life on the road is flexible enough that we get to develop the itinerary! Thanks for writing. We enjoyed reading your post from JT. Safe travels.


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