Day 16: Joshua Tree National Park, Yucca Valley

Phoenix to Joshua Tree

I left Phoenix at about 10am, armed with another handful of Burritos- you can’t go wrong with them over here and especially now, being so close to the Mexican border, they seem to get even better!
I didn’t really see too much of Phoenix, since I got so induced in Sedona. In fact, I was stuck in my car, in traffic,  for almost the entirety of my short visit. I wasn’t overly fussed though as now I was headed to Joshua Tree National Park, a 4 hour drive through the heat of the Mojave Desert.

I can’t say that it was the most pleasurable drive- I was on the highway for the entire duration along a very flat, nonchalant landscape with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees. In fact the only excitement along the drive was when my right wing mirror glass, which had been hanging on by tape, finally succumbed to the rattling and flew off. Luckily the highway was pretty empty! I managed to buy a replacement mirror at the next service station and stock up on water- of which there is none available within Joshua Tree!

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Cottonwood Drive, Joshua Tree National Park

4 hours later and I had reached Joshua Tree Park, on the outskirts of Coachella, California.
Starting from the Cottonwood visitor centre I climbed about 25 miles to the top of the Cottonwood Mountain flats and into the middle of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. I continued along the dried up river washes, along a white, moon-like, crater surface for about 15 miles before I saw my fist real cluster of Joshua Trees. Gradually the Joshua Tree clusters out grew the smaller Cottonwoods and churned a small forest.

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The landscapes across the desert-lands are peculiar to say the least; Huge boulders, some up to 20 metres high, sit alone along the flats, with no indication of how they could possible of been placed in such a lonely, level and desolate place.
Driving further into the heart of the park, the individual boulders turn into huge clusters. Having watched Django Unchained only a few months earlier, I instantly recognize the surroundings from the opening credits.

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Hidden Valley

I drive to Hidden Valley; a mound of huge, crushed boulders, all leaning against one another. From afar it looks like an ordinary cluster, but this particular rock formation forms a ring around a ‘secret’, interior flat. Rumour has it that a successful 19th century cattle rustling gang would hide their loots here, allowing the cattle and horses to feed on the flat grasslands that inhabit the interior, while remaining hidden to any passer-bys.

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I take about an hour, bouldering around the perimeter of the mounds. After climbing to one of the highest rocks on the exterior mound, I follow the trail into the secret interior portal.
The interior flat is completely surrounded in the wall of boulders and provides welcome shaded relief from the hot desert sun.
I take another hour to encircle the grounds and watch as a pair of climbers scale a vertical face called the ‘Great Burrito’.

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Jumbo Rocks Camp

After 3 hours of hiking some of the surrounding trails around the Hidden Valley and hiking through some of the Joshua Tree forests, I head to Jumbo Rocks to set up a camp within the boulder minefield.
By now the heat has cooled and the campsite is pretty busy, but I’m fortunate to get a place right amongst the Boulder-lands. It costs $5 to reserve my place and after dumping the majority of my things I take a short hike around some of the trail hikes around the camp. Again, as expected there are lots of big rocks- many of which are being scaled by climbers.
I don’t have the equipment of technical ability to climb any of the substantial faces, but I make a pretty decent effort bouldering my way up to a decent lookout, high above the valley.

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Keys View

With evening drawing in I take a drive along Bighorn pass road, again another array of rock faces- but no Bighorn sheep on view.
I then head up to Keys view to watch the sun dip below the hazy Coachella and Palm Springs valley. The lookout is fairly crowded- it is the prime spot in the national park to watch the sunset and provides the perfect panorama across the desert lands.

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A Night in Joshua Tree

I noticed on the entrance board to Jumbo Rocks campsite, that there was a ranger led stargazing programme on tonight- something I was definitely not going to miss! Having experienced an unbelievable array of stars at the grand canyon and tagging on to one of the ranger talks there, I was pretty intrigued to see what the night skyline at Joshua Tree would present.
It was incredible, far surpassing the skyline at the Grand Canyon and one of the most memorable moments of the whole trip!
The programme started at 10pm, where about 50+ people were gathered around a small outdoor amphitheater at the heart of the campsite. The ranger had a slideshow presentation showing what Stars, Planets, Nebula and Galaxies that we were likely to see tonight. The half hour talk was then proceeded by the chance to look through a huge telescope that some astronomer dude had bought along as part of the programme. After typing in some co-ordinates into the telescope, we all then had the chance to look down the lens and observe Saturn, clear as anything, all the rings, everything! It was crazy!
An hour later and the crowd of 50 had been reduced to 5, meaning a lot more viewing time into some further reaches of space. Through the lens we observed the dust cloud gases of a Nebula, Jupiter, Andromeda- the closest Galaxy to Earth-and the most incredible thing; Two Galaxies that were slowly crashing into one another, fighting for survival and that would one day, in the distant future, form a huge super galaxy! It was absolutely insane to see!
The astronomer dude also tried to show us a Red Giant-a large star that is exploding as it dies. He went on to explain that our Sun, is only a small star and that when it one day dies, which it will, it will form a White Dwarf-it will collapse in on itself and implode. Harrowingly, he explained that this would also wipe out the majority of our Galaxy. Again, just blowing my mind at trying to grasp some sort of concept and understanding into Space.

After a 2 hour rollercoaster mix of pure fascination at the scale of space and a new-found perception of feeling smaller and smaller and more uncomfortable about the lack of our knowledge about our surroundings, the guy was preparing to leave.
He told us though that if we were to get up in 3 hours- at 3am, then we would be able to see the Milky Way dust clouds and pointed us in the direction that they would rise.
I retreated back to my tent, cooked up a quick pasta meal, slept for about 2 hours and then forced myself back out to the break in the desert.
Sure enough, the dust clouds of the Milky way could be seen, painting their way across the black night sky. The surrounding stars and planets had also increased their visual output, all adding to one of the most unbelievable sights!
Half an hour later and on the horizon, a yellowish glow presented itself- the moon-as bright as a second sun! One of the most astonishing, unforgettable experiences of the trip! Amazing!

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