We did a lot of desert on our latest September trip out west. The most varied was Joshua Tree National Park. It is gigantic—nearly 800,000 acres—and if you’re looking for true desert wilderness, you’ll find it here. 
Named for the Joshua tree that dots the landscape nearly everywhere you turn, the park is the meeting point of two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado. A fascinating variety of plants and animals live in this land that has been so incredibly sculpted by wind and rain. Its elevations range from 900 feet to over 5,000 feet above sea level, and the park is home to biological communities that closely coexist nowhere else. According to the National Park Service: “Sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases can all be found here.” We found no oases, but we saw remarkable plants and vast landscapes. 

We mostly saw the Joshua tree itself, Yucca brevifolia, which is a member of the Agave family. (Hmmm…tequila, anyone?) And it is quite different from the yucca plant we see in local landscaping, that one that features long, wide leaves and a tall, spiky, flowering center. Otherworldly is a good word to describe the Joshua’s idiosyncratic form. Spiny, twisted, short or tall, the variety of sizes and shapes boggles the mind. Some places it’s sparse, some places it’s in thick colonies. And we confirmed that, as we’d assumed, we had identified quite a few of them even before we entered the park. 
We got lots of tips from the affable park ranger at the Twenty Nine Palms gate where we entered, so we drove off to find some specific sights. One, the Keys Overlook, unfortunately was most memorable for the haze that filled the view, generated by smog from the Southern California cities further west. Blurred the view of the faraway hills. 
It’s a big park, and a long drive. But we kept stopping to take a closer look at a plant or some extremely cool rocks. The rock pictured here cried out to be photographed—especially since we wondered if it might fall at any moment! The park has plenty of places to turn out for that closer look. 

Our ultimate objective was to get to the Cholla Cactus Garden at photography’s “magic hour,” and the park is so big we weren’t certain we’d make it. But, as the photo here clearly shows, our timing was perfect. And the cacti were the icing on the cake, especially with the sun at that charmed angle that made them glow like large, spiny candles. I was particularly enamoured of the tiny baby chollas gathered about the feet of the larger “parent” plants.
Once magic hour was over, it was time for us to hit the road, find dinner at one of the numerous Mexican/Southwestern restaurants we feasted in, then head further west to our beds for the night. And that trek out of the park seemed like the longest part of the trip! At home, we always say the trip back feels shorter than the one headed out. Not so in the desert

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