Joshua Tree National Park
U2 fans take note: if you rock up to Joshua Tree National Park looking for that tree, you’ll be disappointed. The iconic image that featured on the band’s 1987 album cover was actually taken by the side of the SR190, a couple of hundred miles away up near Darwin, CA. There’s no point in going in search of it as the tree is long gone. In fact, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t even a designated national park at the time, though it was a national monument. Its status was upgraded in 1994.
A visit to the park is a rewarding experience. It’s basically divided into two distinct zones: the Colorado desert to the south and the higher and slightly wetter Mojave Desert to the north. As with many US national parks, a road cuts through the park. If you’re driving, enter from the south as the scenery will improve as your day goes along rather than the other way round.
The cholla cactus garden (pronounced choy-a in the Latino way as with most place names in these parts) is one of the highlights of the south side of the park. Much of the road leading to the area is lined with fairly featureless scrub, the barren landscape dotted with creosote bushes and the cactus-like ocotillo trees which despite their appearance aren’t cacti at all. Aside from almost running over a snake, we saw almost no wildlife at all which wasn’t a surprise given the landscape and the high temperatures.
Cholla cacti almost have the appearance of cuddly bears – if your imagination is wired that way – but are extremely hazardous. Their prickles are incredibly sharp, and they get their nickname of jumping cactus from their propensity to detach.
Straying from the path could be a disastrous decision. That path is sufficiently wide not to cause a problem, but as with walking the beam in gym class, there’s something about knowing you can’t wobble that makes you wobble. As someone with short sight and thus poor peripheral vision, it was a slightly stressful walk. Back at the hotel later, I found this video on YouTube showing what happens if you’re not so careful – and it’s excruciating viewing:
Back in the car without incident, the road climbed steadily, taking us into the Mojave and ramping up the scenic quality to something worthy of National Park status. Pulling over, we were treated to the sight of Skull Rock, which as its name suggested had been sculpted into something resembling a human skull.
The geological story of much of rocky Joshua Tree is one of volcanic intrusion – molten monzogranite pushing its way up into the overlying Pinto gneiss. As the magma cooled, the granite cracked. Over time, chemical weathering widened those cracks and rounded off the rock into the huge monzogranite boulders that litter the landscape today.
After Skull Rock came Jumbo Rocks, which were pretty much what they said they were. If at first we had been in any doubt as to whether this desert deserved to be a national park then those doubts had now evaporated. Some people run America down, but in terms of sheer scale, its majestic scenery cannot be beaten. I know the word is overused, but it is awesome.
Turning off the main highway, we climbed for a short while to Keys View. Fearing snakes, scorpions and tarantulas, it turned out to be something much more common that caused us the biggest headache in terms of creature discomfort – honeybees. Attracted by moisture, and not caring whether that came from human perspiration, a/c condensate or half-drunk Coke in the car’s cup holder, those pesky insects created quite the nuisance of themselves. Fortunately we were able to get them back out of the car fairly easily and – with much relief – without being stung, leaving us free to appreciate the views across the valley to Palm Springs and even as far as the Salton Sea in the hazy distance.
Descending to the valley, the road took us to the start of the Barker Dam loop trail. It wasn’t far, along a well marked and graded gravel path, though in the intense heat (by British standards anyway) it was far enough. The dam was constructed around 1900 to store water for the cattle which were grazed here as well as for the local mines. It’s rain-fed, but visiting in the autumn meant that the reservoir was bone dry, leaving visitors to ponder the wisdom of trying to rear livestock in such an inhospitable location in the first place.
Not far from Barker Dam lies Hidden Valley, one of the park’s landmark attractions and the only place we saw a tour bus. Once the hideout of cattle rustlers, now it’s aesthetic qualities that draw humans. Steps wind up through the rocks to a clearing crammed with vegetation: cacti, yucca and several species of trees have colonised the area naturally protected from the wildest weather. Overhearing a guide, I learnt that even a seemingly spine-free cactus was actually a hazard. Touch what seemed like a smooth surface and microscopic spines would embed themselves into the skin – almost impossible to remove without the aid of duct tape. Ouch!
My verdict? Visit Joshua Tree for sure, but remember it comes with a health warning!
On a mission in San Juan Cap, California
With so many names and signs in Spanish, let alone the number of voices you’ll hear speaking the language, it’s hard to ignore that this part of the USA was once Spanish. In the heart of Orange County, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, I visited the little town of San Juan Capistrano, drawn by the mission of the same name. (And a really good Mexican restaurant, but that’s another story…)
Originally founded in 1775, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the seventh of twenty one such missions in what was them known as Alta California. Spain wished to expand its territory and at the same time, convert the native Americans to Catholicism. The missions were designed to be a place of learning and training, though of course, once converted to upright Spanish citizens, the native population would also be paying tax. The Spanish brought their own animals, food and technology, all of which piqued the curiosity of the locals. Once sucked in, however, there was no going back: converts could not leave the mission grounds without permission. By 1806, Mission San Juan Capistrano had a population of more than 1000 people.
At its heart was the delightful Great Stone Church. Today, this church stands as a ruin, destroyed in an earthquake in 1812. The two bells that sit in front of the structure are actually originals, named San Vicente and San Juan, the latter damaged in the quake, though the four that swing from the bell tower are newer.
The mission collapsed too, let down by the Spanish government so failed to send essential supplies, its residents plagued by outbreaks of disease. The final nail in the mission’s coffin came in 1821. Mexico became independent of Spain and with that, Alta California was no longer a Spanish possession. The Mexican government officially ended the mission system in 1834 and the MSJC’s land was parcelled up and sold to twenty prominent local families. In 1845, the mission itself was sold by the then governor to John Forster, who used it as the family ranch. He paid just $710 for it though its value was over $54000. Did I mention he also just so happened to be the governor’s brother in law?
Things changed again in 1848. Mexico lost the Mexican-American War and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, California was ceded to the Americans and became a state in 1850. President Abraham Lincoln was petitioned to return the missions to the Catholic church and like many, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the recipient of much needed attention and funds from well-heeled philanthropists. Today, such work continues, and visitors and benefactors continue to ensure the mission survives, adding their own flourishes to the existing structures. The fountain in the main courtyard, full of water lilies, is one such embellishment. It’s a tranquil place despite the sightseers, its courtyards full of cacti and hibiscus, framed by brick arches and adobe walls.
The Serra Chapel that stands alongside the ruined Great Stone Church is a still a working church. Its adobe walls are left partially uncovered enabling you to see how it was constructed. Inside, its simple figurines and carvings stand alongside intricate wooden carvings overlaid in gold leaf, allowing to be both rustic and ornate at the same time. The altar, imported from Barcelona, is about 400 years old.
Many visitors come to witness what the mission calls the “miracle of the swallows”. On March 19, the town celebrates the return of swallows from the south. I’m guessing there are some people out there who are gullible enough to believe this is the actual date, but anyway, March is the general time to expect them. The migrating swallows build nests in the nooks and crannies of the church walls where they stay until October. It would be another month before they would return to Argentina. I didn’t see any, but was assured they were there. It said so in the leaflet.