Amid the drab landscape in Joshua Tree National Park lies a bounty of treats

08/08/2007 2:53 PM

05/16/2014 4:58 PM

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. | Brown. I’m headed south along Park Boulevard, just outside the town of Twentynine Palms, and everywhere I look it’s the same: unrelentingly brown, brown, brown.

In town the dusty front yards of middle-class neighborhoods are nearly all without grass or landscaping. Along the highway the dirt is peppered by scrubby, drab bushes. The flat land gives way eventually to monochromatic mountains -- crumbling dirt and rocks with few, if any, trees. When the wind picks up it creates a brown haze over the whole place.

Green does not seem be on the palette here. But you take what you can get in the desert. So after three days, why is it that I just can’t get enough of Joshua Tree National Park?

A bit of the Old West

Imagine the day in 1918 when Bill Keys first brought his bride, Frances, out here from Los Angeles. Keys had been in the area, working as a foreman of the Desert Queen Ranch, since about 1910. But to Frances, a department store saleswoman, it must have seemed like a prison sentence.

There were rattlesnakes and bobcats, bighorn sheep and who knows what else. But not a lot of company. The nearest town, Joshua Tree, was 18 miles away; Twentynine Palms was even farther. A trip to the market took six days round-trip by freight wagon. They didn’t make the trip often.

Still, Frances and Bill thrived. They raised seven children, including three daughters who still live in the area. Their homestead, now known as the Keys Ranch, is the park’s most popular ranger-led attraction. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"When Bill Keys came out here, it was still the Old West," Ranger Pam Tripp tells a group of visitors, painting a vivid picture of life in the early 20th century. "It still was, even up till the 1940s and ’50s."

For nearly 60 years in the desert, Keys did whatever he could to get by. He was a lawman, a cattleman, a miner, even an actor in his old age, appearing in some Walt Disney TV movies, including "Wild Burro of the West."

"They dubbed his voice," Tripp says. "They didn’t think he sounded enough like a prospector."

The Keyses built roads and planted a large garden. They had an orchard with peaches, plums, pears and other fruit. They dug wells. They built dams.

When their children were very young they were homeschooled, but the couple later built a small schoolhouse. Children attended from homesteads all over the area. It’s still there, along with the Keys home and a handful of outbuildings.

Water was always an issue, and Keys was protective of his water sources, Tripp says.

"He once filed a claim on Cow Camp Dam, which belonged to another cattle company," she says. "So he made enemies."

One was a neighbor named Worth Bagley. His feud with Keys ended when Bagley was shot and killed. Keys "said it was self-defense, which it probably was," Tripp says. Still, he served five years in San Quentin. Years later the California governor pardoned him.

Keys had an entrepreneurial spirit. Or maybe he was just a pack rat. "If people needed a piece of equipment, they could come to Mr. Keys and purchase it," Tripp says. "Farm equipment, fencing, beds -- they had lots of beds." Rusty metal bed frames still dot the property.

In the 1950s the couple opened a small store selling canned goods. Frances sold women’s bonnets, too. After the area became a national monument they even leased cabins to tourists.

Frances Keys died in 1963, her husband in 1969. The federal government owns all of the land now, except one-tenth of an acre. It’s the family cemetery.

Rock and roll

I drive only a few miles into the desert before I begin to notice things. Either the landscape is changing or I am more aware of the complexities of the desert.

That’s when the music begins in my head. Nothing from U2’s "Joshua Tree" album, which brought a lot of attention to the park a few years ago. I’m hearing America’s "Horse With No Name."

"On the first part of the journey I was looking at all the life

"There were plants and birds and rocks and things

"There was sand and hills and ..."

Slowly I am seeing more than brown. There are mesquite trees and creosote bushes, brittle bush and yuccas. And with each mile, more and more of the park’s eponymous Joshua trees appear -- hundreds, thousands of them, dominating the landscape.

Strange thing. The wildflowers didn’t bloom for the most part this year because it has been even drier than usual. But the shaggy brown arms of the Joshuas look as if they’re offering up clusters of creamy white blooms as gifts to heaven. This is an even bigger treat than you might think because the Joshua tree doesn’t bloom every year.

Then rocks begin to rise up out of the landscape. Monstrous boulders of granite formed 85 million years ago when magma forced its way up through the earth.

The strange formations have been given irresistible names. I pull over when I see a sign that advertises Skull Rock and wander for a few minutes along a dusty gravel trail among the Mojave yuccas and desert oaks. I snap a couple pictures of an unmistakably pointy rock head with two huge indentations that suggest the creature’s eyes.

For many, many visitors, the rock formations are the real attraction. Joshua Tree is a climber’s paradise, a rock star.

In the parking lot of the Hidden Valley area, I meet Nick Burton of San Francisco and a couple of his climbing buddies. It’s a windy day, with gusts up to 45 mph, but they are undeterred as they unload gear from their car.

"This is a huge climbing spot," says Burton, who’s originally from Ireland. "I’ve been wanting to come here for years."

He’s impressed by the range and quality of the climbs, as well as the overall friendliness of other climbers.

They’re getting ready to tackle an ascent called Illusion Dweller, which Burton says is a famous climb. He also says it’s a 5.10b, which doesn’t mean a lot to me, but I get that it’s tough.

"It means I’m scared, that’s what it means," he says. "It’s long; it’s sustained. It’s about 180 feet up."

I decline the gracious offer to join them. I’m more into hiking, and fortunately Joshua Tree has miles and miles of trails and wide-open areas to explore and rock formations that are just as easy to appreciate from the ground.

Matt Stern of Simi Valley, Calif., has been visiting Joshua Tree for 20 years. He’s here for spring break with his wife, Liann, and their daughters, Megan, 7 and Kaela, 5.

"The first time he brought me here was 11 years ago, and I hated it," Liann Stern says on the trail. "Now I love it. We come twice a year. It’s magical."

So what’s the draw?

"For me it’s the photography -- walking and taking pictures," she says.

"For me it’s the solitude, the quietness," says Matt.

Evil cacti

For a place that seemed pretty unremarkable at first sight, Joshua Tree brings surprises with each mile. On the drive south toward the Cottonwood Visitor Center, I leave the Mojave Desert and cross into the Colorado Desert. When the Joshua trees disappear, you know you’ve switched deserts.

For awhile it seems pretty bleak again, until I see a sign for the Chollo Cactus Garden.

In California Desert Trails (1919), J. Smeaton Chase wrote: "If the (chollo cactus) bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet I should be glad to hear of it."

Be warned.

On a sandy, quarter-mile loop trail, thousands of catci rise from the desert ground. They are dark brown, with pale spiny branches that protrude along the ends and top. Some have little yellow blossoms.

Signs warn against touching the plants because they are so ... violent? The slightest touch, they say, can cause the cactus spines to penetrate the skin. Removing them can be difficult and painful.

I’m not tempted to get close. Unfortunately, the wind is persistent, so strong that I seriously worry it might knock me off balance as I innocently walk along the serpentine path. I hold my elbows in carefully as I stoop to take a few pictures.

A little farther south, the Ocotillo Patch offers a remarkable contrast. Here, the threatening yellow cacti have been supplanted by tall trees whose leafless branches are sprayed with delicate red flowers.

My goal lies farther on, toward the park’s southern edge. It’s the Cottonwood Spring oasis, whose name alone sounds inviting. It’s one of Joshua Tree’s five fan palm oases, among nearly 160 in North America.

They are a welcome sight, especially after a long hike through what seems, remarkably, like the most desolate section of the park yet. I feel almost like the parched desert soldier from Hollywood movies who finally comes upon some relief. Is it a mirage or the real thing?

The spring at Cottonwood Spring oasis, perhaps a few hundred yards wide and long, produces 30 gallons of water an hour, which, of course, is the key to the change in environment. The water apparently attracts many of the park’s best-known animals, including Gambel’s quail, bighorn sheep and coyotes. I don’t see any, but I can hear a few of the 200 bird species that also are reported here.

I am especially struck by the presence of tall cottonwood trees whose green leaves glimmer in the wind. It seems a little like Kansas.

Refreshed, I’m back on the road, ready for more.

Cue the music in my head:

"In the desert you can remember your name

" ’Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

"La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la ..."

About the park

Joshua Tree National Park comprises nearly 800,000 acres in southeastern California. It has been a national park since 1994 but had been designated a national monument since 1936.

The park is dominated by two deserts. At higher elevations in the park’s northern area, the Mojave Desert is best identified by the dominant Joshua trees. Farther south and lower is the Colorado Desert, where creosote bushes are prevalent.

The park is well-known among rock climbers for its huge granite formations -- more than 400 for climbers. Hiking and camping also are popular.

Among best-known features are five fan-palm oases, green areas where water can be found at or near the surface and where wildlife may be abundant. They are among nearly 160 fan-palm oases in North America.

Look for the Oasis of Mara, at the Oasis Visitor Center near Twentynine Palms; the Fortynine Palms Oasis, near Canyon Road on the west side of Twentynine Palms; Cottonwood Spring, near the park’s southern entrance and the Cottonwood Visitor Center; and Lost Palms Oasis, also near the south entrance and reached by a desert trail. The most remote oasis is in Munsen Canyon, which can be accessed from Lost Palms.

This is the first in a series of occasional stories on America’s national parks.

@For an online gallery of photos from Joshua Tree, go to KansasCity.com/travel.

FIRST IN A SERIES OF OCCASIONAL STORIES ON AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS.

To reach Allen Holder, travel editor, call 816-234-4397 or send e-mail to aholder@kcstar.com.

Joshua Tree National Park is a rich desert

TRAVELER'S CHECK | Joshua Tree National Park

Getting there

Joshua Tree National Park is about 140 miles east of Los Angeles. From L.A., follow Interstate 10 east to California 62, then on to park entrances at Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms.

Round-trip, restricted airfare between Kansas City and L.A.'s Ontario International Airport, about 100 miles west of the national park, recently ran from about $140. Fares to Los Angeles International Airport, about 50 miles farther west, recently started about $100.

Twentynine Palms is about 50 miles from Palm Springs, Calif.

Getting in

A seven-day vehicle permit costs $15; annual passes cost $30.

If you're going to be visiting several national parks in the next year, an annual Federal Lands Pass costs $80 and permits access to national parks and other federal recreation sites. Call 1-888-ASK-USGS, or see store.usgs.gov/pass.

A lifetime senior pass for citizens or permanent residents 62 and older costs $10.

When to go

Summers can be brutally hot in the desert, where temperatures rise above 105 degrees and drop only to 75 or so. Spring and fall are more comfortable, ranging from about 50 to 85 degrees. In winter, high temperatures often reach the 60s but drop below freezing at night.

Where to stay

No lodging is available in the park. Camping is offered on a first-come, first-served basis at nine campgrounds. Most sites are primitive; water and flush toilets are offered only at the Black Rock and Cottonwood campgrounds. No showers are available, and there are no hookups for recreational vehicles. Fees start at $10. Backcountry camping also is available.

Numerous chain hotels can be found along the Twentynine Palms Highway (California 62) in Twentynine Palms, including:

Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites, 71809 Twentynine Palms Highway. 73 rooms and suites from about $129, including breakfast. 760-361-4009, hiexpress.com.

Best Western Garden Inn & Suites, 71487 Twentynine Palms Highway. 83 rooms and suites from about $99, include Continental breakfast. 760-367-9141, Bestwesterncalifornia.com.

Where to eat

The park has no concessions. In Twentynine Palms:

The Rib Co., 72183 Twentynine Palms Highway. Steaks, seafood and ribs. Top sirloin, $14.99; breaded shrimp, $15.99; full rack babyback ribs, $22.99. 760-367-1663, theribco.com.

Edchada's Fine Mexican Food, 73502 Twentynine Palms Highway. Señor Burrito, with choice of beef, chicken, pork or chile Colorado, $7.95; chimichangas, $8.75; tostada grande, with shredded chicken or beef and refried beans, $7.95. 760-367-2131.

Ramona's Fine Mexican Food, 72155 Twentynine Palms Highway. Enchilada trio, $10.95; grande burrito, $9; lobster enchilada, $10.95; veggie quesadilla, $7. 760-367-1929.

To learn more

Joshua Tree National Park: nps.gov/jotr or 760-367-5500.

Twentynine Palms Convention and Visitors Bureau: visit29.org or 760-367-3445.

ANIMAL WATCH

Among the 250 species of birds at Joshua Tree are road runners, verdins, house finches, Gambel's quail and several raptors.

The desert tortoise is on the endangered species list; handling one is illegal. They live throughout the park, except in steepest areas. Because of especially dry conditions this year they are difficult to spot.

At least 18 types of lizards live in the park, including chuckwallas, western whiptail lizards and side-blotched lizards, and more than 20 snake varieties, including common kingsnakes and sidewinder rattlesnakes.

About 250 desert bighorn sheep live in the park in three herds. They prefer steep, rocky terrain. The herds live in the Eagle Mountains, the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the Wonderland of Rocks in the park's northern area.

Other mammals to look for include bats, desert coyotes, kit foxes, gray foxes, desert bobcats, southern mule deer, cottontails and jackrabbits, and rodents such as chipmunks, squirrels, gophers, kangaroo rats and all kinds of mice.

PLANT LIFE

Desert fan palm: Tallest among North American palms, it can grow to 75 feet and live 80 to 90 years. Look for them in the park's fan-palm oases.

The Joshua tree, a member of the lily family, is dominant in the park's northern region. These slow-growing trees, recognized by their shaggy barks and bristly foliage, can live hundreds of years.

The Chollo cactus is covered with silvery bristles that look soft but can be painful to touch. They're sometimes called "jumping" cacti. Most easily found at and near Cholla Cactus Garden on Pinto Basin Road.

The ocotillo produces a rare flash of color with its bright red flowers. Look for Ocotillo Patch on Pinto Basin Road, south of Chollo Cactus Garden.

The creosote bush can produce small yellow flowers in spring and summer, as well as a pungent smell. It was a source of medicine for Cahuilla Indians. Creosote tea is sold in health food stores.

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