Joshua Tree National Park Day Trip

Mount San Jacinto

We were going to take this trip with Caleb’s Uncle Ed while he was in town for the last two weeks of April, but ended up staying local that day instead. Ed inspired us to get out and about, regardless of how comfortable the vehicle we ride in may be — a 2019 white Ford Fusion rental (while our’s was in the shop after being rear-ended at a red light) and our 2006 yellow Volkswagen New Beetle (with a new rear bumper that seems to drive worse now).

Anyway, today isn’t about the car. It’s about a day for us, as just us. We both grew up with people all around us all the time — they’re called siblings. Then we joined the navy and had 80+ roommates, then down to three while in A-school, then up to seven after Hurricane Katrina. We’d let a couple stay with us to save money and then we’d move in with another couple to help them save money too. We were able to live without others, not including our amazing dogs, for a majority of the last decade (minus a few transitional months on each coast). We’ve gotten used to doing things our way, not that we don’t love changing things up, especially when we travel, but we didn’t have kids for a reason.

there’s a Zebratail lizard in this photo

This trip isn’t about kids either, which is why we took it without them. We were under the impression that we’d have our own space, not be sharing our room with a large closet of soccer shoes, boys’ collared shirts, camping gear, and loads of toilet paper along with a pantry shelf for snack foods, bottled water, and powdered coffee creamer. We though that we’d have space to store our toiletries but a teenage boy, prepubescent girl, and their little sister have a way of filling up the bathroom with steam, mold, colored sticky spots, toothpaste, tape, paper, scrunchies, etc. so I tote my things in and back out.

Porcupine Wash

This trip isn’t about a lack of personal space either or getting in the kitchen to cook a non-meat meal before the family meal is made that must consist of chicken or beef and on occasion a pork loin with sauerkraut. This is about getting into the great outdoors, seeing the trees, smelling the flowers, and picking the music on the radio — as Ed prefers country or jazz or conversation — which we can all agree is better.

We get a later start in the day than we normally would as the trip was decided on as a way to escape a rainy day in San Diego and get into the sunshine that Joshua Tree had to offer. We put on shorts and 15 SPF, grabbed some bananas and pistachios, lots of water and some caffeine and hit the road. It’s amazing the immediate shift in mood when getting back to something that the last year has deprived us of. Caleb isn’t even supposed to be on this trip because it’s considered unnecessary travel (where he could pick up Covid and deliver it to his current command), which unlike his last hasn’t had to be locked down multiple times for failure to follow instruction — the only rules nature follows are its own.

Cholla Cactus Garden

As we approach the park we notice the snow-covered peaks of Mount San Jacinto in the distance and the trees in the foreground that appear to be bowing to royalty — I’ll take what I can get, even if that requires over 20 mph winds to accomplish. Caleb and I admire the windmill farm and the massive desert it creates to support wind turbines with broken blades and tops that look burnt. Hearing his mom talk on the phone about work and showers reminds me of conversations with my mom and their relaxing simplicity and of the recent post on my dad’s blog about the most difficult phone call of his life which was already six years ago. 

Joshua Trees

Time is like the wind, you can only see its effects, sometimes barely a breeze and other times a blistering barrage, such is the ebb and flow of life and finding the peace between the daily dullness and the moments that memories are made of. I drive and wonder about the possibilities of breathing the same air twice in a lifetime, but science teaches me that everything is constantly growing and dying simultaneously and the chances of two particles reuniting are infinitesimal but the effects those atoms have on us can last a lifetime; such are the influences of a parent upon a child. 

The sound of a mother’s voice disappears as quickly as the highway traffic to get to the south entrance and that’s when the windows come down and the wind fills my hair as a smile crosses my face. Caleb looks at me as his phone starts to lose signal and though their is negativity in the world, there is only positivity surrounding us now. The desert is as dry as we remember and traffic is light though camping is full. We arrive without our first mini national park passport book that we bought in 2008 or 09, Caleb’s children’s version for notes from the rangers, or my newer binder version that we got once the southeast portion was full with plans to go back and fill the rest. 

on Ryan Mountain trail

Caleb grabs a map, I put a stamp in it, and we’re off to Porcupine Wash to explore roughly 2.5 miles of the Colorado Desert in the heat of the day, which at 100*F isn’t anything we can’t handle in our shorts-clad legs and sunscreen-covered faces. This is a wilderness backpacking area and we realize that at our turn around point when we don’t know which way to go, except back the way we came, and our water is at half remaining. The desert is full of subtle colors and signs of life and we’re lucky enough to spot a couple of Zebratail lizards scurrying across the hot sand; though they prefer to keep their camouflaged distance and I didn’t bring my zoom lens. 

We left behind a few people trying to brave the poorly unmarked path (which I have nothing against) and it was just us and nature, truly two of our favorite things. We appreciate more each day the solitude and selfishness we’re allowed since we didn’t invite kids to join us for the rest of our lives and even as we look to the future, we don’t see dogs in it anytime soon because Sparky and Piggy were perfect traveling companions and we’re still ok with them living on in our memories with no need to adopt a distraction puppy because they don’t keep that cute breath forever. 

scrub jay on Mojave yucca

Anyway, so there we are, reveling in each other’s sweaty musk, holding a warm and moist hand as we listen to our feet patter over and through the grains of mountains past and feel them climb into our shoes because of course I have ventilation in the toes of mine that are perfect for this situation. Caleb’s just glad that I upgraded from flip-flops or flats which I find just as worthy on trails not covered in snow. I’m sure that’s just my youth speaking for me as my joints start to age and lose flexibility I will need more stable footwear to keep me in the outdoors for the decades to come. 

Back on the road and we make the touristy stop along the route at Cholla Cactus Garden. Last time we were here we got to witness someone being attacked by a cacti for getting off the clearly marked path. I realize for some people that the access they’re allowed now will never be enough; they feel the need to go further and faster through life than others to make some unknown claim for their “friends and followers”. So this time we get to see a high-school-aged girl pretending to airplane over a cacti while her friend films on the other side and a woman having a full conversation with another cacti, complete with hand signals. 

going up Ryan Mountain

Ignoring the idiots, we continue to appreciate the minor details showing us the cycles of life and death as the Earth struggles with its most obnoxious of predators — humans. It’s no wonder Caleb and I enjoy coming to places like this that show us a percentage of the beauty that our ancestors saw as threatening and a way to feed their families, such as other countries’ citizens continue to destroy their parks to clear land for cattle, cocoa, cotton, etc. to continue to do the same. Past this stop and we’re entering the Mojave Desert. 

panoramic views

We’ve traveled 36 miles north into the park before the split — one to the west entrance and the other to the north entrance. We’ll go right and park at Ryan Mountain. There are more trees and boulders on this side of the drive and a beautiful scrub jay watching us from a Mojave yucca and a Black-throated sparrow eyeing us from the stone steps as we ascend half the trail. We’re not worried about finishing before sunset as much as we realize we’re down to 40oz of water and Caleb still has to work in the morning. We’re roughly three hours from home without interruption and we already know we’ll be stopping at Twentynine Palms Marine base, or MCAGCC, to refill the car with gas. 

Black-throated sparrow

The trail has three other couples dispersed evenly — one that we pass bouldering, another sitting on some rocks, and the last that are ahead of us as the trail winds around the side of the mountain before the summit. We take in the panoramic views and the pops of pink and red along the route that stand out in a vista of browns, greens, and yellows before passing another couple on the return to the car. Our first stateside national park visit in 20 months went well and we have plans to do it again soon. 

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