December 2012

East of the Tehachapi Mountains, east of the jumbled junction of five ecoregions that forms one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, Joshua Tree offers yet another unique convergence.  The national park created in 1994 by the California Desert Protection Act brings the Mojave Desert smack dab up against the Colorado Desert.  In this transition zone bighorn sheep share habitat with chuckwallas, roadrunners with cactus wrens.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Visiting during a spate of cold clear December days, Joshua Tree was a treat for the snow-weary from the Sierra Nevada as well as the Wasatch Range.  Jon and I met my brother, Lowell, and the Utah branch of his family for several days of hiking between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  We stayed at the Harmony Motel, an adobe-style hostel with an interesting cross-section of travelers.  The owners have restricted parking to protect resident desert tortoises – reason alone to make a return visit.

The park is crisscrossed with hundreds of faults so it was great to have two geologists among us: Lowell and Jean.  I found it mildly thrilling to brave the wind on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains and look down on the San Andreas Fault nearly a mile below.

The park’s most fascinating features are the fan palms, found in strange and beautiful oases. These California natives tower 75 feet above the ground in verdant groves that attract red-tailed hawks, loggerhead shrikes and Scott’s orioles.  The groves lie along fault lines, where uplifted layers of hard impermeable rock forces underground water to the surface.  The five oases in Joshua Tree are among 158 fan palm oases in North America.

We were too early in the season to see the Joshua Trees in bloom but the cholla cactus garden at dusk was worth the two-day drive.  And the company: fabulous!

Elana Ross near Mastodon Peak