A California diary… Bob and Tigg on tour in 2005
10 days in southern California… day four
The Joshua Tree National Park


From the Backpack ~ Strange and Unexpected

Normally when I post something from the archives, it involves bringing back an essay or article or such that had appeared on the In My Backpack web site and was removed during one of the updates or computer issues over the years.


This entry is a bit different though… in addition to appearing on the site, it was part of the Travel Trilogy project… or, more specifically, Strange and Unexpected: Backpack on the Road – Volume Two: California.

And that means a couple of versions exist… somewhat specific, almost definitive versions if you will… the work that was on the site, and the chapter that was edited and potentially revised from that piece and used for the book.

This material was originally posted on January 2, 2006. It was later published in April 2013. Some minor proofreading edits and adjustments may have been made while bringing the material back to the site in this posting.

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Day four, Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I’d like to begin this section with a little reminder… suntan lotion. (Just keep it in mind. It will be important later.)

Today is the big risk day for me. It is either going to work out spectacularly… or… be the biggest flop of the trip. And, truth be told, with the San Diego Zoo finished… theme parks and sightseeing on the way (which the boys like but don’t necessarily love)… the honest truth is that if today goes down in flames the entire trip may fall apart around it. If today goes well, it will be the centerpiece of some terrific memories.

It isn’t that we’re having a bad time. In fact, just the opposite… the resort is good, the weather is great, and we’re having fun. The Getty Center and the San Diego Zoo were incredibly nice and we really enjoyed them, especially the zoo. There just hasn’t been an overwhelming, signature moment. And I’m not sure Disneyland will provide one for Jay and Justin.

Justin enjoys seeing theme parks and ride roller coasters (not entirely true… but close enough). Jay does as well… just not as much. Both boys, and especially Jay, are really drawn to rocks and mountains and oceans and trees. (In fairness, Terry and I basically want to sleep late and not think about Connecticut. We’re open to adjusting the sleeping late part.)

When Jay said he wanted to include a national park for one of the days, I started researching the idea. Eventually I began finding information about the Joshua Tree National Park and found myself getting really excited about the possibilities.

Really excited.

That is, until I talked to people in California.

Funny thing about the Joshua Tree National Park. No one has heard of it. No one knows the directions to it. Californians basically don’t seem to even know it exists.

I’m not exaggerating.


To start off with, I should mention the web site of the National Park Service. I e-mailed them in late February after visiting the site, and they sent me the Spring 2005 newsletter. It contained some great information, including a map of the park that outlined driving distances and points of interest. Awesome. If you’re going to a national park anyplace, I highly advise you to ask for information from them. Terrific resource. That said…

I’ve already introduced you to Paula. (She made an appearance on day two of this travel diary.) When exchanging information with her on a few places of interest, I mentioned Joshua Tree. She had never heard of it, but thought it sounded kind of interesting. (Uh-oh… a state resident that has never heard of it? So-so start for the park.)

I called the resort to confirm our reservations at one point and ask some general questions. You know… about an iron in the room, extra pillows… something I might be missing questions. I mentioned Joshua Tree. The operator I spoke to informed me that the park was a minimum of six hours away by car. That didn’t match up at all with the directions and mileage I was seeing, but I figured perhaps there was something going on… the old California traffic thing or slower speeds on the routes available for travel or such… that I wasn’t including.

Paula hasn’t heard about it… a six hour drive… the park was picking up speed on a possible downhill run.

When we arrived at the resort I decided to ask about it at the desk, and one girl told me they had heard of it, had never been to it, and didn’t know anyone that had been to it. The other girl didn’t know it existed.

(Yeah… this once promising lead wasn’t adding up too well.)

This morning, we set off on our trip anyway.

The scenery takes an impressive turn as you head out toward the park. Those mountains in the distance? You get closer to them… you see the snow on the top of them… and you drive past them. At times it’s hard to see the top of a mountain as it disappears into the clouds. Beautiful stuff.

We drove past exits for Yorba Linda. Turned out I was the only one who was impressed upon initially seeing the signs… no one else in the car made the connection to Richard Nixon until I explained it. I always wondered where Yorba Linda was. Never looked it up when I was younger. Now I know.

We stopped for gas. (It’s a rental… I’m putting in the cheapest gas, and so help me, since then I’ve learned things could be worse… I was cursing stations charging $2.60 to $2.80 a gallon for the cheap stuff.) As we left the gas station we started to see fields of windmills. They went on for miles… on both sides of the road. (Or more precisely, turbines. Wind farms.)

At this point in our trip we are on route 10. Looking over the maps I had, especially the one I received from the National Park Service, I had decided to enter through the North Entrance Station. So from route 10 we connected with route 62 and drove around the outer northwest edges of the park. We arrived in Twentynine Palms, California, and ultimately at the Oasis Visitor Center, just about three hours after we left our hotel that morning. Not too bad a drive at all.

I’m going to tell you right here that this turned out to be a simply brilliant day. The weather was gorgeous (honestly just about flawless), we ended up staying hours longer than we anticipated, and everyone was overwhelmed by some simply breathtaking natural wonders. Gorgeous. Did I say gorgeous? It was gorgeous. But I mention it here because we were starving… and yet we could not get to lunch.


Well, we had packed a lunch to eat in the park. A picnic. And the scenery actually kept getting more and more impressive as we entered the grounds. We’d see one thing, stop to take a look and some pictures and decide it was neat and we were going to have a pretty good day, and then suddenly we were all pointing at something coming up in the distance that was even more impressive. Before we even arrived at the gate, we were hungry. We had pretty much skipped breakfast and taken off. Depending on the travel time, I planned on driving in to one of the picnic areas of the park and stopping for our lunch. But wouldn’t you know it… after arriving in a decent amount of time, we kept seeing signs and plants and rocks and things. So… we kept stopping… and kept photographing… and kept pointing up the road just a bit. Little did we know that the small lizards and first cactus were absolutely nothing compared to what was next.

We finally got to the Live Oak picnic area to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If you happen to head in to the park, I highly recommend bringing not only water (which, at the visitor center, they will ask you if you have with you) but also some food such as a lunch. We had purchased a small, disposable cooler earlier on the trip. We filled it with some ice from our hotel and used it for drinks (water and soda… let’s not go crazy here people) during some of our drives. On this day, it worked perfectly for drinks, lunch, and other stuff.

Jay and Justin took off to walk around and climb up the rocks. During the course of the day, Tigg and I did our share of climbing and walking as well.

We pulled off to the side of the road a few times, but basically here is the running order for our trip around the park during the day…

Skull Rock – Yes. It does. Looks exactly like one.

Ryan Mountain viewing area – We didn’t walk up the full trail here to the top of Ryan Mountain, but we did meander around a bit. It was right around here that the actual Joshua Trees began to appear.

Barker Dam – It is advertised as a 1.1 mile loop. Felt like about 3 miles to me. Tigg insists it was closer to 8. Still, well worth it. Of all the wildlife we saw on our visit, most of it was around here. According to the Joshua Tree National Park information pamphlet, we saw: jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, antelope ground squirrels and plenty of small lizards. The dam supports a small reservoir and was pretty neat to see.

Hidden Valley – Very interesting surprise here. The rock formations had become incredible by this point in the park, with one after another topping all previous offerings. We drove in to the parking area and got out of our car. After taking a few steps, an absolutely jaw-droppingly stunning view opened up between this spot and Ryan Mountain. Breathtaking. Amazing. Brilliant. Smashing. I have no words that fully capture it.

Cap Rock – Neat example of the rock formations in the park.

Keys View – 5,185 foot elevation and a beautiful view.

Cholla Cactus Garden – For me, the most visually striking place in the entire park. Driving along the main road (in parts referred to as either Park Boulevard or Pinto Basin Road), there is a marking on the map where the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert meet. Yes… two deserts in this park. At one point, the Cholla Cactus Garden is noted. Earlier, we had passed some Joshua Trees before we even got to the park. Inside, we’d see one, then a few more, then more than a few more, and finally Joshua Trees as far as the eyes could focus. So, we had no clue what to expect from the cholla cactus, but figured we would see a few and then finally a few more. Nope. It just smacks right into you… here it is. In the middle of nowhere, and it is absolutely amazing.

Arch Rock – It’s hidden folks. Located in the White Tank campground area, Tigg and I just kept walking along until we eventually found it right when we were going to give up. Along the way we spotted two iguana-like lizards that looked really neat and were pretty decent in size.

Just after we started moving from place to place inside the park, Jay asked if we could stay until after sunset. He wanted to get some shots of the setting sun, and also around the desert after it got a bit dark. Since we now knew the drive was a manageable three hours and didn’t have major plans for the next day, we agreed.

So after visiting Arch Rock, we decided to leave the park to get something to eat for dinner, try to find Jay an additional memory card for his camera, and then get back in time for sunset. It took us about five hours to cover all of the ground noted above… and we could have moved much more slowly. Having arrived close to noon though, and knowing what we wanted to do after dinner, we had to keep moving along.

As we pulled in to Jack in the Box to eat, you’ll never guess what we noticed.

Yup. After a day in the desert, we were all a little sunburned. (You forgot the suntan lotion too… even after I reminded you… didn’t you?)

During dinner, Tigg starts on one of her favorite stories… about how she used to go to a Jack in the Box all the time when she was growing up in Warwick, Rhode Island. She went on and on about how she used to get the tacos there, and thought they only cost five cents.

Yeah… sure, Tigg… sure.

After trying to introduce the boys to Burger Chef and Jeff from my youth, we finally wrap things up and head back to Joshua Tree. We never did find a place that sold memory cards. That meant Jay had plenty of memory to take the pictures he wanted to take, just not enough to take as many pictures as he would have liked to.

As we drove back out toward the Keys View area, I come up with what may have been the dumbest smart thing I have ever said. We had stopped to take a few pictures and then returned to the car. I was wondering if Jay wanted to be looking out across the desert as the sun went down. Instead, as we headed up the mountain to watch the sunset, I asked: “Do you want to be looking at the sun or away from it?”

Three blank stares.

Terry finally decided to help me with my confusion by explaining that to watch the sunset, she would prefer to have a view of the setting sun.

Fair enough.

After the sun disappeared into the distant haze of the horizon, we drove back down into the desert, making some assorted stops. In Joshua Tree, the night sky… and more to the point, the twilight sky… is one of those all too rare amazing experiences.

In the end, it was a fabulous day… not just the best of this trip, but one of those special days that rank up there with the best from any vacation. I can’t recommend the Joshua Tree National Park strongly enough.

Here are a few notes from the end of day four that I jotted down while driving home. By the way, we used a different road out of the park. We had seen on a map, and in some signs along the way in, the West Entrance Station. It ended up saving us a lot of time on our way home, ultimately connecting to route 62 without having to go back through the park. Basically we went west and out, instead of looping around by moving east to reach the road to use to head west. I would still use the same entrance to start my day (Oasis Visitor Center) if I ever have the opportunity to visit the park again, but this exit was no trouble to navigate, even in the dark.

  • We listened to 101.1 on the radio. Over time some of the songs became a bit repetitive. This could have been because they didn’t vary their rotation much over the week that we were there... and it could be that they never vary their rotation much at all. If it’s the latter, it could make for an awfully boring station over time. But for our week, we really enjoyed it.
  • Cars… most of the drivers we encountered were great. Even in traffic jams everyone seemed ok with the way things moved. Heck, for the first time in my life I actually was in a traffic jam where lanes merged and the cars all alternated back and forth perfectly into one lane… and that happened three times during our trip. Imagine that… people that can figure out how to alternate merging traffic. That said, a stunning number of drivers were not only speeding, but idiotic jerks as well. Basically, there were no clueless, casual drivers. No drivers in the middle. Everyone seemed either really good and aware of their surroundings or amazingly reckless.
  • I found a note on a map that said California began the transition to a mileage based numbering system for their exits in 2002. They expected it to take three years for a full implementation. Ok… during the trip I saw some exits signs marked in one way or another, and a few of them marked by mileage, and I even mentioned this to you before… but there is no way it will be done in 2005.
And to wrap up day four, I’d like to take a moment to add a few bits and pieces to this entry of tour diary. A computer nightmare led to an unprecedented cleaning of my office. And underneath stacks of papers, programs and other assorted stuff that Tigg is stunned I managed to defend keeping, I found a piece of paper with two things written on it…

First – Evidently the trip from our hotel in San Clemente to the Joshua Tree park only took us 160 miles to cover. The notation I have for mileage is a 6,241 start and a 6,401 arrival.

Second – Our route to the park. I’m including this because later during our trip I noticed a stretch of one of these highways was closed (it was on route 55). And, you might actually want to know how we drove it, that the signs were very easy to follow, and it went very smoothly:

  • Route 5 north
  • Route 55 (heading north or east is the note I have listed for this… and all other connections)
  • Route 91 (I have a note that says 91 involved a possible toll section that didn’t accept cash, but I don’t have any recollection of encountering a problem with it, so I think there is an express section of 91 and a regular section and we stayed on the regular part… help me out people that know more about this.)
  • Route 215
  • Route 10
  • Route 62 into Twentynine Palms

And to wrap it up, a brief defense of my north – east – I don’t know comment. In Connecticut, route 95 effectively runs east – west. There is no part of it in the state that truly runs north or south… check out a map and you’ll understand what I mean. And yet route 95 across Connecticut is for 95 north and 95 south. And that is how 95 runs for the majority of the east coast… north – south. Just not in Connecticut. Hence, while I cannot recall if, for instance, route 215 above was considered north or east, I do know that for the drive to the park on every one of those routes we went to the north or to the east in the direction we took.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com