Weekend Getaway to Joshua Tree

It is quite a shock when you become an adult and enter the 40 hour+ work week. The first few weeks of a professional job can have phases spent brainstorming ways to get out of office life and watching clocks like a third grader anxious for recess. However, that time passes and you get used to the work day routine as you find your purpose and fit in the workplace.

As you fall into this routine, you discover that free time is rare. Weekends are precious and three day weekends are gold mines. It is easy to use this free time to catch up on sleep or simply just rest at home, but it’s important to take advantage of this time and do something different so your job doesn’t become the only thing that defines who you are. So for this mid-March weekend, I decided it was time to visit a new national park – a weekend getaway to Joshua Tree.

Nate, my roommate, and I enlisted the likes of the all-star hiker and Half Dome dominator, Luke Plache, and the last minute addition of long-time backpacking partner and childhood friend, Kai ‘k-bo’ Borer, who made the trip from Santa Barbara.

The trip got off to a lackluster start through horrendous Friday afternoon traffic in a worse than expected rain storm. After leaving San Diego around 2:30 pm, it was not until 7:30pm that I rendezvoused with Kai at the park entrance. We impeccably timed our travel as I only had to wait for about five minutes on the side of the road for Kai in the pitch black next to a parked big rig that I was sure contained a crazy man who was planning to murder me. Upon meeting up with Kai, I discovered that his trip was similar, if not worse, but spirits were still high as we were looking ahead to exploring the national park the following morning.

Day 1: An Unexpected Turn

After a night full of howling wind from the passing storm front, we woke up on Saturday to clear skies and no wind. As the sun rose over the mountain ridge, the frigid desert temperatures quickly rose as rays shed light that allowed me to feast my eyes on the surrounding landscape for the first time.

The plan in place for Saturday was a roughly nine mile round-trip hike to Lost Palms Oasis with a short detour to Mastodon Peak.

Three friends head out on the trail at Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree.
Heading to the trailhead. From left to right: Kai, Luke and Nate. 
A sandy desert wash in Joshua Tree National Park.
Granite rock formations in Joshua tree.
Rock formations on the way to Mastodon Peak

Joshua tree is known for its granite rock formations, as seen above. I find geology fascinating and could blab about it forever, however I understand that it is not everyone’s cup of tea, so I will leave those that are interested with this link – How is granite formed?

A view of the Salton Sea from Mastodon Peak in Joshua Tree.
View from Mastodon Peak looking southwest towards the Salton Sea

On the way to Lost Palms Oasis we came across some interesting wildlife.

A lizard with black and white stripes in Joshua Tree.
A desert Tortoise in Joshua Tree National Park.

While the desert was not yet in a full bloom, many plants had already started to flower – one of the perks of visiting the desert in the spring.

An orange apricot mallow flower blooming in Joshua Tree National Park.

Lost Palms Oasis

We made quick time and arrived to Lost Palms Oasis before noon. Lost Palms Oasis is special because it’s the largest grouping of Fan Palms in the entire park. We ate lunch on a ridge above the oasis, taking in the scenery. Since we had made such good time, we were brainstorming over some apples and trail mix as far as what we would do with the extra time that afternoon. Ideas from napping to reading to card games were bounced off one another, but we decided that we would cram in another adventure and head out of the park to the Salton Sea, which would lead to by far the most interesting chapter of the trip. On a newly formed time constraint, Kai and I descended to the oasis to snap some desperately needed palm tree panoramas before heading back to camp.

Palm trees line a desert wash in Joshua Tree.
Lunch time view of Lost Palms Oasis, where my second pair of two dollar Chilean glasses were left as an offering.
Vertical panorama image of a palm tree.
Aforementioned iPhone palm tree panmorama
Friends hanging out at Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree.
Regrouping at the campsite before heading off to the Salton Sea.

The Forgotten Land of the Salton Sea

As someone who loves learning geography (yes, geography and geology), I have always been intrigued by the Salton Sea. I have seen it on maps and even seen it from afar while hiking in the nearby Laguna Mountains on previous backpacking trips. A sea that was never meant to be transformed into a booming resort destination and has now become a desolate string of ghost towns. What happened to the Salton Sea? 

Let’s backtrack a second. The short story: The Salton Sea was formed in 1905 after a breached dam allowed the Colorado River to permanently fill a dry lake bed. In the 50’s the lake flourished as a resort destination. Due to few feeding sources and its shallow depth (max depth of 43 feet), the lake began receding in the blistering desert temperatures. High salinity levels and excessive agriculture runoff led to the lake becoming unfit for humans and to this very day gives off a quite potent smell likened to that of dead animals.

Our first stop was at the former resort town of Bombay Beach on the eastern shore. Everything that I had heard about the Salton Sea was 100% true. It met my expectations and exceeded them a hundred times. As one rolls into Bombay Beach it is clear which houses have been abandoned and which still contain residents that live there for a reason that I cannot comprehend. The houses that have been abandoned have been run down to nearly just the frames while the occupied ones look relatively maintained and guarded by bulldogs patiently waiting for a tourist like myself to stick a finger through the fence for lunch. We entered an abandoned building, snapping photos and exploring rooms, wondering if it was insulting to the current residents that we were treating the unfortunate state of their ‘town’ as a tourist attraction.

A dusty dirt road in Bombay Beach.
I believe this was fifth avenue in Bombay Beach. Quite the quaint, cozy town.
A dilapidated trailer in Bombay Beach.
You think they could have at least taken the camper with them, it’s not like they had to flee an atomic bomb.
Graffiti inside an abandoned building in Bombay Beach.
YOU CAN TURN OFF THE SUN… just drink the Kool-Aid
Abstract art in Bombay Beach.
No longer a prime place to take a dump

After exploring the houses and half expecting to find a dead body, I decided that I had to go see how bad the quality of the lake really was and dragged the others with me to investigate. I mean a little water never hurt anybody right? Wrong. As I approached the shoreline I ecstatically yelled back to the others:

“Hey guys, I see a dead fish!”

This is what I expected to see after all and it was rather interesting to see that the stories were true. The quote was followed by “there’s another dead fish!” and “another one” and “o crap, there are thousands of them.” As I took a better look at the lake, the previous water line was adorned with rotting fish carcasses. I am not talking just a few fish, I am talking tens of thousands just on this small 200 yard patch of the shore. I wondered for how long this pile of dead fish went. Did they line the entire lake?

A piano lays in the sand in the colorado desert.
This was the first fish that I came across that caused such utter excitement. And what is the story behind that piano?
Dead fish on the shores of the Salton Sea.
The high salinity of the lake seems to preserve the carcasses to an extent. 
Dead fish on the shores of the Salton Sea.
I spy with my little eye a dead fish.

I left Bombay Beach with more questions than answers and even went as far as to think about asking some of the local residents what the hell was going on here. I was imagining a Facebook page like ‘Humans of New York’ but instead ‘Humans of Bombay Beach.’ I decided a surprise shotgun pointed at my face was not worth the door to door interviews, however we did manage to get a friendly wave from a local on the way out of town. Maybe these people know something that we don’t.

A needle on the shore of the Salton Sea.
The Bombay Beach locals know how to liven up a party.

Salvation Mountain & Slab City

The drive down the eastern shore of the Salton Sea would not have been complete without stopping by Salvation Mountain and Slab City.

We made a quick pitstop at Salvation Mountain, a missionary’s shrine for Jesus, and Slab City, a cult-like grouping of improvised houses/shacks populated by people who want nothing to do with society. We drove around Slab City, taking photos of the art and quirky establishments in the town that include a church and a bar that is “open on Tuesdays when it is not raining.”

When you leave Slab City there is a sign that reads: “Caution! Reality ahead,” which reminded me of heading back home to work the following Monday. While a job is a job, I have a pretty cool job, so I decided to take my chances and proceed with caution while entering ‘reality.’ But hey, for each their own.

Art at Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain
Shoes hang from a tree at Slab City in the desert of California.
Shoe tree art in Slab City
Slab City.
Slab City’s church on the left

After our trip within the trip to the bizarre shores of the Salton Sea, we headed back to the campsite to cook dinner over the fire, play cards and stargaze.

Day 2: Joshua Trees!

The final day of the trip was spent exploring the north end of the national park, which sits at a higher elevation than where we camped in the south. The south end of the park actually has no Joshua trees, they only grow in the higher elevations of the north end.

The day started off by watching the sun rise and tearing down camp. We bid farewell to Luke, who due to recent toe surgery had had enough and headed back to San Diego. Our destination for the day was Ryan Mountain: a moderate climb with the reward of a 360 degree view that stretches from the far ranges of the Mojave Desert to the east to the snow capped peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio to the west.

Campsite at Cottonwood Campground.
Camp before packing up
Empty campsite at Cottonwood Campground.
Camp post-pack up

Time lapse of Sunday morning’s sunrise:

Kai Borer eating on a bench at Cottonwood Campground.
Kai going to town on some hard boiled eggs.

And we headed off in a caravan to Ryan Mountain.

A road winds through the cholla cactus of Joshua Tree National Park.
Pitstop at the Cholla cactus garden
Purple beavertail flowers blooming.
More desert flowers blooming
Joshua trees.
Joshua Trees!
Nate Straus examines the trailhead of Ryan Mountain.
Nate amping on Ryan Mountain.
Panorama of Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree as seen from the trail up to Ryan Mountain.
Joshua trees on a mountain.
The mid-day sun and greyish cloud cover didn’t make for the most dramatic photos once we got to the top of the peak, but nonetheless the view was rad.

Dave the Volunteer

When we reached the top of the peak we heard a voice sternly project from 10 or so yards away:

“You know cell phones are banned in the park, right?”

Since all three of us were using our phones to take pictures, the voice caught our attention and we turned around to see who it was. It was none other than Dave the Joshua Tree Park volunteer. I was excited to see Dave because I had built up a series of questions that I wanted to answer in Wikipedia when I got home, but instead I could just unload them all on Dave.

Dave gave us the lowdown on the park wildlife, life as a retired volunteer and finding ilegal campers by following the trail left behind by their cooler wheels. He seemed to be dying to chat it up with some hikers who were interested in what he had to say because when it reached the point where conversation was dying and normal strangers would part ways, Dave lingered around and found a way to break the awkward silence. He even pulled out his cell phone to show off his internet-less GPS app that he used to navigate the park. I refrained from being a smartass and calling Dave out on breaking his no cell phone rule minutes after calling us out on it. I realized Dave was just a lonely volunteer who wanted to share some knowledge and used the cell phone prompt as a way to break the ice. Often times the people you meet leave more lasting impressions than the things you see. I have found this to be true during my world travels. Thanks, Dave.

Speaking with a park ranger volunteer on top of Ryan Mountain.
“So what are the perks of being a volunteer, Dave?” “Well, they gave me this jacket and a hat.”

Back to Reality

Once we descended Ryan Mountain, it was time to head home, back to reality as the people at Slab City say. Nate and I were off to San Diego and Kai to Santa Barbara. This trip was another one in the books and went very smoothly compared to some grueling backpacking trips in Big Sur and Ojai that we had previously done together.

This was a weekend of exploration, friendship, nature, stargazing and clearing my mind before returning to the full-time grind. A great trip to kick off my new blog.

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