Now that I live in San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park is only a few hours away so I’ve got the access to spend more time there exploring. Last weekend I set out to do some scouting for my upcoming workshop there. I grabbed a copy of 40 Classic Day Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park based on the ranger’s recommendation. I set to making a list of hikes to try during my long weekend.
Joshua Tree is a wilderness park. There are roads and some trails, but many of the hikes you can go on are at best sparely marked. The guide book helps, but I found myself “off trail” despite my best interested. Judging by the footprints, I’m not the only one. The good news is that it really doesn’t matter where you go. It is still pretty spectacular.
I wanted to try a variety of different difficulty hikes. My plan was to hike morning and evening avoiding hiking mid day. It’s early September and the temps are in the high 90Fs on the north end and over 100F down along the norther edge (i.e. near Indian Cove).
I ended up listing out 10 hikes to possibly try: Gun Sight Loop, Rattle Snake Canyon, Willow Hole, Garrett’s Arch, Astro Dome, Wall Street Mill, Ryan Ranch, Triumph Arch, Pinto Basin Sand Dunes and Lost Palms Oasis. In the end, I ruled out a few of these for temperature reasons: Pinto Basin and Lost Palms are on the southern side where temps were hovering around 110F most of the day. My goal was to complete one longish hike per full day and one or more short hikes. Many of the short hikes are main-stays of visitors since they are signed and easy to find.
My first hike was Rattle Snake Canyon. The trail-head is in the Indian Cover picnic area. This is what greeted me on Thursday afternoon when I got there:
According to my truck it was “only” about 98F, but the thermometer was in full sun which accounts for the difference. It was hot, but what are you going to do? I sun-screened up, filled my camel pack bladder, stashed a second liter of water in my pack and set off.
The “hike” was more of a full on rock scramble after the first couple of hundred yards. It was listed as moderate, but finding routes was quite hard with the backpack on. I made about the first mile of the hike (total length was just over 2 miles) before deciding I was satisfied and turning back. It was a good hike regardless.
Life in the Park
This trip involved a lot of creature photography and it kicked off during that first hike. There were lots of sculpted rocks with basins in them. The park recently received some rain and there was standing water. The insects, frogs and toads were taking advantage of it to breed.
Some of the frogs still had their tails attached. There were numerous tadpoles in the puddles.
On a Thursday night during the summer heat the camp ground I chose (Jumbo Rocks) was mostly empty of human life. Despite the high temps during the day, the air was pleasant once the sun went down. It was in the 70s shortly after sunset and I woke up to temps in the low 60s every morning. It was basically perfect weather to sleep in a tent.
Thursday night and Friday morning I saw quite a few critters around camp. Many of you will cringe and maybe set your computer on fire at this next photo (I have no idea why).
I also saw other critters like this beautiful rock jay (and friends), several Kit Foxes making their way through camp looking for unattended food (BAD HUMANS!) and numerous rodents like the kangaroo mice.
The Real Find
The real wildlife wins all happened within about 200 yards of each other in the morning at [undisclosed location].
That’s a bobcat chilling in the shade of a rock. I pass a car going the other direction basically right next to this creature and they never noticed. A few minutes later I ran into a long horned sheep.
But, that’s not all folks! Not 20 minutes later, I ran into a golden eagle chilling in the shade of a joshua tree. He flapped off before I could get my camera out, but a few yards down the road I found him, or another eagle.
I suggest it might be a different golden eagle because a second golden eagle flew by this one and then it took off. They proceeded to circle up on a spiral until lost in the distance above.
These two birds had different markings but were of the same size and species. The foreground bird was mostly dark where the background bird had light patches on its wing and tail. I’m not sure if that indicates sex or juvenile status or is just individual variation. They interacted in the air, so my guess is they were a mating pair or possibly transitional siblings.
And finally, here is a picture of eagle/bobcat food:
But There’s More
The next day, I returned to the same location just on the off chance my friend the bobcat would be around. It was earlier so he was out patrolling among the rocks.
I also spotted lots of sign of big cats on one of my later hikes. It was in a wash near water and there were tracks in the mud (pictured) as well as less distinct tracks all around the gravel wash. This was in an area with very few or no human foot prints (see earlier about having trouble following the trail).
For reference these were approximately the width of my closed fist with 4 front pads and a central back pad (i.e. like a cat). The left print is superimposed over the left side of the right print. I’m guessing mountain lion, but I could be wrong. There were also prints from smaller mammals, I’m guessing raccoons and smaller that would be prey to a big cat.
I changed my mind about staying out until right after sunset after passing through this area.
Humans are nothing if not really prolific when it comes to leaving old garbage around. The park has a bunch of sites with human garbage, I mean historical artifacts.
We are even better at vandalizing our own garbage than most species:
All the Pretty Rocks and Joshua Trees
Rather than list out individual hikes, here are a bunch of pictures of pretty rocks and joshua trees: