Common sense says that there are right times of year to head for the Joshua Tree National Park, and wrong times. It’s all to do with the temperature, but sometimes, if you’re going to live a dream, you have to ignore common sense because it’s the only option you have.
The men and women in their meteorological offices were predicting 110 degrees Fahrenheit. For those of you who think in Celsius, that’s 43. Either way it’s a toasty temperature. I decided to ignore the logic, and head there anyway, but there’s no doubt that I was daunted by that weather forecast.
I’d not ridden off the beaten track in these temperatures since I was in Africa, but I drew on that experience. The keys are to ride in the cool for as long as you can, and to drink lots! Water I mean. Certainly steer clear of beer until your end of day camping spot, and for sure stay away from tea and coffee. Tea and coffee wiz through your system faster than your body needs, if it’s going to have any chance of doing a camel impersonation.
Drink way more than you think you’re going to need. In fact, if you let yourself get to the stage where you’re thirsty then you’re already on the way to trouble. It’s the moment that your brain starts to slow down its processing chips and that of course is when we humans have the amazing ability to make daft decisions.
A dream? I’ve ridden past the Park on several different occasions; always heading for somewhere else. That ‘somewhere’ always having a time limit tagged onto it. You can see stray Joshua Trees as you cruise on down the US 62, but I was sure I wasn’t seeing these fascinating trees at their best. A visit had to happen this time around. I had the feeling that I’d tempted fate the last times I’d not made it; who knows what tomorrow will bring. This might be my last chance. That justified my decision to go ahead, but to retain some common sense, I’d be cautious.
Setting off in the cool of the dawn, whose temperatures were actually akin to a fine summer’s day in England, I’d drunk over seven litres by the time I’d made it to the Park’s West entrance. Stopping at the petrol station on the main road through the rather battered town of Joshua Tree, I’d knocked back two litres, filled all my water bottles to the brim, and bought a large cup of ice. Luckily a friend had loaned me a small cooler bag and that meant for much of a day’s ride I had cool water to drink. Without it my stash of water would have heated to the stage where I could probably have made cups of diuretic tea, without using my cooker.
With no gas available in the park I topped up the fuel tanks on the F800GS and was ready to go. First stop, the information centre on Park Boulevard. I wanted to see their reaction to my heading into the 792,510-acre park on a bike whose only air conditioning had blasted across the very hot landscape first. The park sits where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge, but the bonus of that is because this is a desert landscape the breeze though hot, was dry; not a trace of humidity.
The park ranger on the desk didn’t even twitch an eyebrow at my plan. But she did ask how much water I was carrying, how long I was going to be in the park, and if I’d ever travelled anywhere this hot before. Six litres, just a night, and yes, a few times! She also asked if I intended to go hiking. “It’s all about having enough water with you, sir.” I noticed the blackboard on the wall that not only listed all the legal camping possibilities, but gave the temperatures at those sites. All but one showed temperatures well over 105F. To my delight, the area I’d been thinking of heading for, Jumbo Rocks, was five degrees cooler than the coolest alternative. That’ll do.
We chatted on for a bit. She told me that the Mojave section of the Park is over 3,000 feet above sea level and that this kept the temperatures down in the almost-sensible range. “The elevation drops quite dramatically as you head South West though, and the temperatures can be harsh.”
“Am I going to have a problem finding a pitch at Jumbo Rocks?” I asked. She smiled and told me no. “There’s hardly anyone in the Park at this time of year.” So a bonus in two ways. I’d have my pick of the pitches and the roads through the Park would be quiet. No battling with RVs or other visitors who would be far more aware of the scenery than they would be of other road users. Outside the Visitors Centre, people climbed from the cold of their cars and recoiled at the temperature shock. They stared at me as I stomped from one shady spot to the next in my bike trousers and jacket, but it wasn’t as bad as they imagined. After all, I wasn’t going through the same dramatic change in temperature that they were. I did envy them their shorts and T-shirts for a moment though.
Armed with a new map, I set off to meander my way through the Park. Exposed bits of skin stung with the power of the sun. I was glad I’d layered on the Factor 50 sunscreen. To help counter the heat, I’d also soaked my T-shirt and neck scarf with cold water. I rode with my jacket zipped up tight, but the air vents open. The fact is that when you’re riding in temperatures of over 93 degrees then all a breeze helps you to do is lose valuable moisture. It sounds perverse, but you actually stay cooler by keeping covered up. Don’t believe me? Then think about the way Arabs in the Sahara keep covered up.
The road started to twist and curve its way across the desert. I had a wry smile to myself. The USA is full of roads that have you forced to make a decision. Ride the curve or enjoy the view. I happily admit to doing some sections of road three times. The first time to enjoy the curves, the second to head back, and the third to enjoy the landscape at a gentler pace. People say, ‘Never go back’. I don’t agree. If for nothing else that the world can look a very different place when you’re going in the opposite direction. The sun’s direction can dramatically change how we see things. Taking of which, when you’re planning your own ride through the Park, it’s very useful to know where West and East are. Choosing to ride with the sun behind you opens up the park in such a way that its colours are fully alive. The acres of Joshua Trees look more as if they belong in a science fiction movie than here on earth for us to see and touch. Their trunks look a bit like they belong to a wookie, but the spiky leaves are far more dangerous looking. Rather like bayonets, they end with a vicious looking spike.
But what is a Joshua Tree? Its botanical name is the Yucca Brevifolia and it is really only comfortable growing above 1,500 feet and below 5,900 feet in dry desert climates. Part of what makes it so special is that it’s only found in this part of California and a couple of spots in SW Arizona. Though its Spanish name is Desert Dagger, it got its Joshua Tree name from a group of Mormon settlers in the mid-19th century. They thought the trees looked like Joshua reaching up to the sky in prayer. The trees survive the extreme climate because they have a root system that can reach as much as 36 feet away. They can live for hundreds of years and some are thought to have survived for thousands of years! Though it’s rare, they can grow as high as 49 feet tall.
Joshua Trees can also be found in the Mojave National Preserve, Cima in California, to the NE of Kingman in Arizona and along the US 93 between the towns of Wickenburg and Wikieup. The latter being known as the ‘Joshua Tree Parkway’.
The Park is amazingly well signposted, with a mix of asphalt loops and drives, and dirt roads that head enticingly across the heat-shimmering landscape. The dirt roads have names such as Black Eagle Mine Road and Gold Crown Road. Yes, they’d hunted for gold in the area and some of the mines, though tumble down, still exist. I failed to make my imagination stretch as far as it needed to understand what it must have been like to be a miner in these conditions. A bonus of being in the Park well before mid-day was that I had plenty of time to explore all the side turnings. It’s cleverly done. The way the roads are laid out I mean. Each road takes you meandering though yet another aspect of the park. The views, vegetation and the breeze direction change constantly. All the time you ride you’re bounded by the different ranges of mountains. The Pinto Mountains, Eagle Mountains, Cottonwood Mountains, the Little San Bernardino Mountains, and far to the East are the Coxcomb Mountains. One of the spots well worth getting to is Keys View in the West of the Park. From an elevation of nearly 5,200 feet you can even see as far as the San Andreas fault.
While on the move, the increasing heat was manageable, but when I stopped for even a couple of minutes I could feel the risk. Towards the middle of the day I found myself regretting that for this trip I’d left my collapsible umbrella at home. There’s very little shade to be had, even in the picnic areas, but at least I had a wide brimmed hat.
By 3pm I’d been on the move, or stopping to enjoy the magic for 10 hours. I’d counted just 15 cars in the Park. But I’d had enough and for sure this wonderfully unique landscapes’ temperatures weren’t cooling. If anything it felt as if it was getting hotter. The sand and the rocks had been soaking up the heat since dawn and now were powering it back at me.
The Jumbo Rocks camping area was just 10 minutes further on. This is an area of giant and decidedly spectacular weather-worn granite rocks that seem to poke their heads above the surface as a sort of challenge to the world. Though early afternoon, the sun was still pretty much overhead and, as I eased on round looking at the pitches, I began to suspect that I wasn’t going to find a shady pitch to set up in. I wanted shade right now, but I was also being optimistic. I wanted shade to wake up to in the morning too. Then I stuck it lucky. I found some shade under a small gnarly tree. Just to the side of my spot, a stand of rocks looked as if they were about to cast some shade. I’d waited to see what would happen.
I sat on a rock, for about two seconds! Even though it was in the shade of the tree now, it’d been soaking up the heat for the rest of the day. It was hot enough to burn my backside through my Kevlar riding jeans! I sat on my heels instead, but I was glad no one had been watching! The hot breeze floated around my shady perch. The afternoon eased by as I dozed. The scrawny leaves above me rustled, and an antelope ground squirrel hopped down to say hello. Cocking its head to one side, we sat and looked at each other with equal curiosity. A pair of road runners scuttled across the sand in front of me and then to my delight, a tiny humming bird hovered looking at me from just inches away.
I’d been right. The rocks to my side were now casting shade and the tree that I was under would give shade in the morning. Perfect. An hour later, the sand in the rock’s shade was still too hot to put my hand on for more than a few minutes. With no real concern that anything would get stolen, I dumped some gear in the spot and headed back to the entrance of the camping area. It’s an honour system for payment. Fill out a card with your name, the date and your registration number. Insert your camping fee of $15 in a matching envelope and post that into a slot. Job done.
By 5pm it was just beginning to cool enough to put my tent up. For a laugh I decided to cook my dinner on my bike saddle. I was lucky enough to be riding a bike that was kitted out with a new range of luggage from Jesse Luggage and the top box had a solar panel fixed to it. No problem charging my phone, especially if I’d been planning to stay and hike for a few days. But what about using the black of the saddle as a heat source too? Stripping the labels off a couple of tins, I set dinner cooking and headed off into the rocks on foot to explore.
Wary of the red diamond and Southwestern speckled rattle snakes and the scorpions, I jumped from rounded rock to rounded rock. Deep chasms in between some of them had me thinking that I’d better concentrate hard! To fall into one of them could cause big trouble. Finally reaching the top of the rocks, I settled down on the coarse pinkish-yellow granite to wait for the sun to set. With the sky changing its shades of blue with every passing moment, the sun fell closer to the Western skyline, but still the air temperature was baking hot. By this time though my sweat soaked shirt was completely dry and I was beginning to wish I’d brought an additional bottle of water with me. I saw no other people, but ravens cawed in the background and red tailed hawks wheeled overhead, their sharp eyes looking for an unwary ground squirrel perhaps.
The surrounding land changed colour fast, while the Joshua Trees changed into silhouettes against the flaming sky, and then suddenly the sun sank below the horizon. Time for dinner. My tin can solar dinner was a success, though I made a mental note to find out how hot the cans could have got before exploding – that thought hadn’t crossed my mind earlier!
I’d made a tentative arrangement to link up with a friend that day, but by 8.30pm my 4am wakeup call had caught up with me and I eased into my tent. As I drifted off I smiled that I was lucky I had a good sleeping mat. It was protecting me from the significant heat that the ground still retained, in spite of being in the shade for around five hours by this time. Unbeknown to me, Fonzie turned up shortly after, but he kindly allowed me to sleep on while he made the climb up the rocks. With a full moon the views from up there must have been stunning, but tired I’m sure I wouldn’t have given them full value. A good excuse to head back to the Joshua Tree National Park another time? I think so. Perhaps between February and April when the Joshua Trees are in flower.
With the cool of the dawn and after breakfast with Fonzie, I set off to enjoy the rest of the morning in the Park before heading along the Pinto Basin Road and down through the Cholla Cactus Garden towards the exit and the I 10. I was planning my next stop to be the Salton Sea. Risking the heat to be there? Well worthwhile, but little did I realise that the Park had actually been cool in comparison to the heat I was about to ride into in Box Canyon on the way to Mecca.