top of page

Rockin' the Desert

Friday, 28 April 2023

The park's name is Joshua Tree NP. You could replace that name with 'Jumbled Rocks', and people would still know which park you referred to.

When I lived in Southern California, my singles group made an annual spring trek to the park, camping for the weekend, cavorting in the wonderland of weathered stone. The group had one favorite feature they called The Cookie Oven (not an official park feature, but an out-of-the-way attraction someone had stumbled upon). As I recall, we had to clamber over rocks while under an overhang, then 'chimney' our way 15' down a hole, then lay flat on our back while we slithered 20' through a rock that had split horizontally. The gap was less than a foot tall - heavy people need not apply - talk about Limbo Rock!

In the intervening 30 years, I'd forgotten how to find The Cookie Oven - and people I still knew from that group had heard that an earthquake made it impassable anyway. Still, as long as I was here, I stopped at the Visitor Center to ask them about it.

The ranger, as expected, had never heard of it. After hearing my description, he beamed a smile. "That sounds like the Chasm of Doom! It's over by Hidden Valley, but it's not marked and is very difficult to find. You can find videos of it on YouTube with some directions. Your best bet, though, is to just hang around and ask other adventurous-looking people if they could guide you to it."

Maybe another day. With park map in hand, I decided to drive through the park to the southern entrance, an hour away. I'd never gone there on earlier trips, and Cottonwood Springs sounded interesting. The ranger also recommended stops along the way.

The Cholla Cactus Garden - people also call them 'teddy-bear cactus',

because the profuse silver-white spikes give it a soft appearance - lay in the transition zone between the high Mojave Desert and the lower, hotter Colorado Desert. This stand of plants spread densely on both sides of the road, and many had their flowers in bloom.

A bit farther down the road, I stopped at the Ocotillo Flats.

I remembered these from last May, in Saguaro NP in Arizona. A placard points out that this plant is NOT a cactus. Rather, it is a deciduous plant that will shed its leaves. Unlike deciduous trees, it doesn't shed them when winter comes.

Instead, it will drop the leaves 5-6 times each year, whenever a drought comes. When rains bring moisture, leaves spring forth again.

Little of interest filled the land the rest of the way south. On the road, a classic- and racing-car event featured dozens of fancy cars heading north for their festivities.

After stopping at that Visitor Center for water and to buy a tote bag to replace the one I'd lost in Florida, I continued on to the springs. Impressive!

The palm trees towered over the pool that watered this corner of the desert.

For the hike du jour, I chose the Mastodon Loop, a 3-mile round trip leaving from the springs. Under the desert sun, it slowly climbed up a well-marked trail, then branched to the right to climb more earnestly. Other than one couple that passed me while I photographed a lizard crossing the path,

I had solitude on the trail... except for the splashes of color from cactus flowers. May not be a superbloom, but it looked good.

At the trail's high point, numerous footprints led into the boulders to the left, toward a sign saying, 'Mastodon Peak access'. I could see the couple that passed me working their way over the rocks, so I followed. In moments, I saw a crowd of people working their way down the rocks. Here is where they were all hiding!

Call it a traffic jam coming off the peak. I had to wait for a gap before starting up the slot to the peak, hauling myself over the boulders, higher and higher. AS it got steeper, I pondered my goal. Did I need to summit this hill? Would the little additional height give me a better view? Would it be worth the struggle to pick my way back down (which always proves more difficult than climbing)?

In the end, it comes down to expectations. How often do I struggle toward an arbitrary goal without considering why? Looking back, that mindless push usually pushes away the balance - the Cadence of the Dakotas, that Yosemite Serenity, the Redwoods Rhythm - that has made several previous park trips so memorable.

Enough. I chose to take the panoramic video then turn around.

At the base of the slot, I took a short break. When the couple that'd passed me came down, they asked me to take their photo, and I obliged. Then I moved on to the rest of the loop trail. Quickly the trail passed the old Mastodon Mine

and meandered down past more desert wildflowers.

Finally I walked through another oasis before reaching my (hot) car.

As I returned north, I stopped at the Cholla garden again, took another stroll through cacti, admired their blooms again.

To finish my day, I parked at the Arch Rock trailhead and took the short hike to another ridge of jumbled rocks. Many looked as if they should have names (I submit Marvin the Martian for this one),

but only two bore monikers. Arch Rock was obvious, a rock with an arch in it.

Further, I found Heart Rock, ripped from a Valentine's card.

Four days of temps in the 90s had sapped me of energy, so I called it an early afternoon and drove back to town to relax and write before dinner. Later, once the sun had set and the evening glow had faded from the sky, I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed back to the park. Time for my 'final exam' for my photography class. I turned off the road at the first picnic area - I knew the 'Closed sunset to sunrise' sign was meant only to deter ad-hoc campers - and drove to my corner of darkness. Set up tripod, attach camera, verify 30-second exposure, hit the button... and I could hear the shutter open and close. Fantastic! I framed several shots, eager to see if any really worked.

Back at my room, I downloaded the shots to the computer. Status: fail!

The camera worked as designed, but 30 seconds was far too short a time to register the images. I needed a bulb, a device that allows one to hold the shutter open indefinitely - and I may still have one at home. Beyond that, a half-moon high in the sky permeated the scene with excess light. At least I no longer felt the sting of a lack of ability; a lack of equipment or uncooperative nature did not leave me feeling humbled.

17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page