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The Backstory

Joshua Tree National Park is one of those places you must go to if you’re a fan of U2, just because they named an album after it. Technically, I guess they named the album after the plant, not the National Park, but back at the plot, the album doesn’t have any songs about Joshua Trees themselves. That would be a bit weird.

There is a photo of one particular Joshua Tree on the album sleeve that was taken with the band. That one is apparently miles away in the Mojave Desert near Darwin, California. They don’t want to tell anybody which one it was, because it would then be flooded by fan-mania and get trampled to death. So, somewhere in the Mojave Desert, there’s a Joshua Tree that U2 were photographed next to. In the Joshua Tree National Park, there’s a lot more of them, amongst other things.

On a previous trip to the US some of my friends recounted how they had visited the square in central San Francisco where they did a performance of “All Along the Watchtower” on the back of a truck which later got included on the Rattle & Hum album. I usurped this by going to the Red Rocks arena near Denver in 1994. The place where the Under a Blood Red Sky album was recorded. So going to Joshua Tree was a bit of a spiritual journey really, even though it doesn’t contain the “actual” Joshua Tree. It’s just one of those things you have to do, just so you can see what U2 were going on about. Except they weren’t really singing about Joshua Trees or National Parks. They are very strange plants, though. Joshua Trees, not U2, that is. U2 aren’t plants at all.

Back at the Plot

The Best Western in Twentynine Palms treated us to a free breakfast of pastries, cereals and coffee. And then we were off on our way to see what there was to see. The first thing to see, as ever in a National Park, is the main Visitor Centre. We picked up the usual collection of free papers, brochures, and snippets of useful information. The most useful piece of information here came from one of the Rangers. He told us that we would be well advised to plan to leave the park in mid-afternoon and return in the early evening. Why? Because we would find the temperature too hot to bear. OK, if you say so boss.

We’d been to some hot places on this trip, so we didn’t really believe the guy, but we proceeded into the park with some caution nevertheless. From the Visitor Centre you basically drive straight up a long straight road until you pass the fee station. Then you are into some mountains, so the road starts to wind a little. You start seeing the trees themselves at around this point. We failed our initial park orientation because we couldn’t tell the difference between the Joshua Trees and the Mojave Yuccas. We just thought the Mojave Yuccas were baby Joshua Trees. However, when you get up close the difference is more apparent.

Remember the Rules About Water

First stop in the park was right over on the southern entrance at Cottonwood Springs. There is a moderately strenuous hike leading over towards the Lost Palms Oasis, which leads you through an excellent desert landscape of low hills with exposed rocks, sparse ( and spikey ) vegetation and not enough water. I think the Oasis is aptly named, because we seemed to walk for ages, but couldn’t find any palms. We eventually had to turn back for more water, as the normal allowance of 6 litres between us was running down quickly. It was hot there, and there’s no shade at all. Our plan on this holiday had always been to turn back when we’d drunk 2/3 of the water we were carrying. That had meant we missed a couple of objectives, and this was the latest of those.

Having trudged back and swallowed loads more water we then drove back over the paved road towards the north entrance again. The hike had taken us around 3 hours, and lunchtime was approaching.

Not So Cuddly

We drove past the Ocotillo Patch turnoff, because Ocotillos don’t look that interesting from a distance, and then stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden, slightly further north. Chollas are quite interesting. They are alternately known as “Teddy Bear” Cacti. They do, from a distance, look quite soft and fluffy, sort of like a plant made out of pipe cleaners and cotton wool. However, when you get close to them, you can tell that you really wouldn’t want to try cuddling them. The barbs on the ends seem to be able to jump onto your clothes, or any other part that brushes against them. This is how they propagate, I think. They don’t seed much, and normally when you see a stand of them they are, in fact, a set of clones from a single specimen.

Anyway, the slightest little brush against anything results in a whole crop of little barbs embedding themselves. Wear gloves, long trousers, long sleeves, and so on, and don’t take children close to them. They are very good for photography though. There is a short interpretive trail around this area explaining the plants and their roles in the local ecosystem. Quite interesting stuff.

Having seen the Chollas we decided that the ranger was right and that we really would like to go and lie down in a cold room for a couple of hours, so we shot off back to the hotel and had our lunch.

Photography Time

Suitably refreshed, we set off again at about 4 pm to have a look at some other parts. We went to the same entrance station and drove up the same road to look around some of the other stop-offs we had seen on the way past in the morning.

We seem to remember a number of little stop-offs but can’t remember where they all were. Most were probably from the parks at White Tank, Jumbo Rocks or Ryan. At one, there is a rock formation called Arch Rock, which looks just like an elephant’s head. The was also Split Rock which, err, has a split in it. Another stop off resulted in us nestling under the bottom of a rock which also had a split in it. Somewhere near Jumbo Rocks, there is a rock formation right by the roadside that looks like a skull ( I think it is called Skull Rock ). All of these were interesting and very photogenic. If you can’t find anywhere good for a walk here, you can also just pull up by the roadside and take in a few sweeping vistas across a wide plain covered in the main event – the Joshua Trees themselves.

There are some pretty good specimens of Joshua Trees around here. If you want to do a reasonable copy of the U2 album sleeve photo you don’t really need the “actual” Joshua Tree, just ones that look similar. If you wait until sunset you could probably convince yourself that any one of them was the “actual” one. No two Joshua Trees look alike (or even vaguely similar), but they are all pretty weird and they all make good photos.

Sweeping Vista

We finished off the evening activity by driving up to the Keys View viewpoint. From here you can get a tremendous view down across the lower desert valley towards Palm Springs, and the mountains behind. You can also see the Salton Sea. And, if you know where to look, the San Andreas Fault. One of the main canals taking Colorado River water across into LA is below too. The whole effect is great, especially if you arrive just before sunset, as we did. As the sun descends in the west, you get some great colour transitions, from the yellows and whites of the day into softer yellows and oranges and then finally into reds and purples, before eventually there is just black with a few pinpoints of yellow street lights. The whole effect is well worth sitting through, and we weren’t the only ones doing so, even though the park had been quiet all day.

When it was suitably dark, we returned to our trusty RAV4 and headed back home. There was still time for a swift dip in the pool before getting ready to eat. This evening we chose a small family-run restaurant on the main road through Twentynine Palms ( name unknown ). It majored on serving substantial portions of typical American stuff – large steaks, salads, sandwiches, that sort of thing.

As usual, the food was good and the beer was cold and wet.