The sky that catches fire
Joshua Tree National Park sparks interest.
by Annunciata Williams
photography by Katherine Careaga
Visitors claim that “there’s something here we have never seen,” says David Carney, acting chief of interpretation for Joshua Tree National Park. A few minutes after entering the park from the Oasis Visitor Center all the Joshua Trees temporarily disappear. Your car climbs a small hill, and huge boulders rise from the ground, capturing the skyline with their massive presence. Looming among this rock stanza is one resembling a smiling skull.
This is Joshua Tree National Park, a place where your imagination can and will run wild. It is also the closest national park to the University of La Verne, being a leisurely two hour drive from the campus. Designated as a national monument 76 years ago, Joshua Tree expands over more than 800,000 acres and encompasses three different ecosystems.
The area has witnessed several inhabitants. The first to settle here were Native Americans who occupied the land for more than 3,000 years. In the early 1800s, cattle men drove their animals through the desert, and in the mid-1800s the gold rush struck, instigating many legends and stories. In the early 1900s, the United States introduced the Homesteaders Act, and settlers streamed in. Minerva Hoyt, an heiress, came to Joshua Tree in the 1900s and fell in love with the landscape. “She is known as the Apostle of the cactus,” Carney says. It was through her efforts that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation, establishing Joshua Tree as a National Monument in 1936. Decades later, in 1994, Hoyt would have been proud to see Joshua Tree declared a national park by the Desert Protection Act.
The park is home to various species of mammals,insects, amphibians and many reptiles. “The Mojave Green is here, but they aren’t very common; the normal one you’ll see is the speckled,” Carney says. “Rattlesnakes normally stay out of everyone’s way, and hikers don’t see them too often.” More than 18 lizards live within the park. Some, like the Mojave Collared Lizard, are common; however, there are a few threatened species that live within the park such as the San Diego Horned Lizard that the park rangers monitor. Many unusual animals have adapted to the arid desert life. The California Tree Frog is one of these and can be found in rocky areas near water.
Kristen Lalumiere, a park wildlife biologist for nine years, works primarily with tortoises. “We have 16 with trackers on them,” she says, adding that although there are many tortoises around, they spend most of their lives underground due to the heat. Many carnivorous animals live within the park, including mountain lions, bobcats, bears and the California Ringtail. “The reason I joined the Park Service is because I wanted to see a mountain lion,” Carney says. Ironically, in his three working years, he has not seen a single one. Tourists come in and show pictures of mountain lions—others tell stories—but he has yet to actually see one of these elusive and notoriously shy creatures. “I don’t care if I get bitten or scratched; I just really want to see a mountain lion,” Carney says.
Lalumiere is involved in the raptor conservation project. Raptors and climbers tend to enjoy the same areas because they both like large, technical boulders. To counter the overlap of interests, when raptor nests are found at a climbing location, the park issues closure signs. “It’s a volunteer closure when there is wildlife activity in climbing areas. People normally respond well to them,” she says.
There are more than 250 different species of birds in the park, and children who have grown up with Wiley Coyote cartoons will be delighted to know that the Greater Roadrunner is a permanent resident. Occasionally, there are issues with some of the local animal residents. “The mice out here are suicidal; they wait for the headlights and then run right in front of your car,” Carney says. He explains how rangers have taken to driving with one foot on the brake, jolting the car to a stop every few minutes at the slightest hint of a mouse. “A lot of people who come through the park don’t realize the research that goes on,” says Lalumiere. Recently, a new species of trap door spider was found by a local ranger who named this new insect Bono, after the lead singer for U2.
Almost named “Desert Plants National Park”
Many plants thrive in Joshua Tree besides the Joshua trees themselves. In fact, the park was almost named “Desert Plants National Park” because it is home to more than 750 plant types. “The fact that they’re here, and that they’re surviving is amazing,” Carney explains. The desert is known for the amazing wildflower display it puts on every year. “One of my favorite things about Joshua Tree is looking at the wild flowers. I believe it’s more than 50 flowering species. I love to look for them every spring,” Karina Chappell explains. Chappell, wife of David Chappell, associate professor of physics at ULV, worked for the Joshua Tree National Park Association from 2006-2012. “The Desert Five Spot is by far one of the most sought after flowers that bloom in the park,” Chappell says. The Desert Five Spot is a small pink or purple flower with five red spots at its petal base. “In my experience, the more you know about the desert, the more interesting it becomes and the more connected you are to it,” she says.
Unfortunately, Joshua Tree is plagued with species of foreign plants, specifically the Mustard plant and prairie grasses, which are wreaking havoc. In recent years, the invasive plants have filled in the gaps between native species. “Now you get a lightning strike, and it just starts to spread,” Carney says. To prevent these fires, the park invites visitors and local residents to pull up as many Mustard plants as they can.
“We are a world-class climbing area,” says Carney. Visitors come from all over the world. He hears climbers tell each other that this is the climbing place to be. “It’s completely exposed; you get some really good views, and you’re on top of the world.” The park encompasses part of the San Andreas Fault line and is home to hundreds of other faults as well, including the Blue Fault and the Pinto Mountain Fault. “I went with some guides in the Hidden Valley. It’s known for its rock climbing for sure,” Chappell adds. Professional rock climbers can come for a challenge while an energetic child can easily jump like the local Big Horn Sheep from boulder to boulder. Visitors scramble on top of boulders for the perfect picture while others hike, climb and jump throughout the treacherous but exhilarating Wonderland Rocks. “It’s about 12 square miles of just straight granite boulders,” explains Christian Delich, a park ranger. “This is probably the most special place in the rocks, although if you get lost, you’re in trouble.” The Wonderland Rocks is a popular area. “The first time I walked in the Wonderland Rocks, is my favorite memory,” Chappell says. She also encouraged visitors to walk the Barker Dam Trail. “Walk that trail if you don’t walk anything else,” Chappell says. “It’s a compelling landscape and kind of draws people into it.” Unfortunately, Joshua Tree, like any other National Park, has its set of problems with visitors. “We’ve been having an issue with spray painting and carving into the rocks. In a three-month time span, all these names were carved into the dam,” Lalumiere says, referring to Barker Dam graffiti.
Deserts are known for extreme temperature variances between night and day. “There’s a season where people sometimes climb in their underwear,” laughs Bernadette Reagan, park climbing major. “There’s a lot of college kids who come wearing all sorts of different kinds of tights,” Reagan observes. “It’s kind of fun to see people wearing crazy clothes. It’s almost a tradition.” Reagan is a bit like the rocks she loves. Her personality seems a bit foreboding, but visitors soon get to see her sense of humor. “I really like climbing in Joshua Tree; it was an excuse to stay and a bonus to get paid.”
“Monza Granite outcropping is what a lot of people come to see,” Carney says. There are rock outcroppings throughout the park, some with names, some without, all making Joshua Tree unique. “Another interesting place is Pinto Mountain [located in park center], but no one goes there. There’s no trail; it’s rocky,” Delich says. Unlike at most parks, Joshua Tree has many places to hike where there literally are no trails. Visitors should remember to always bring a compass, water and use their best judgment.
Visiting the park
There is more to do at Joshua Tree than climbing rocks. “There’s hikes; it’s beautiful. You can see so many different kinds of animals, from lizards, to raptors to bighorn sheep,” says Lalumiere. Visitors drive to Keys View in the evening to see the world-renowned sunsets. “In the fall, you get a sky that just catches on fire,” Carney says, who also posts these pictures on Facebook. “It’s not that the pictures are so great; it’s just that you can’t take a bad picture of that,” he says. “Star gazing is also a favorite activity in the summer. It’s high in the sky and clear in the sky compared to La Verne,” Chappell says. The desert sky lights up with trillions of stars; often the Milky Way and sometimes nearby planets are visible to the naked eye. It is a sight that never grows old. The park offers night sky programs to provide tourists an even better way to view the night sky.
Camping, too, has become a standard way to view the park since it takes more than one day to take in all its wonders. There are many important essentials campers need to remember such as food, sunscreen, proper gear, water, water and more water. “Right here we have a prevailing west wind that comes up in the morning and in the afternoon,” says Michael Thomas, an employee for Joshua Tree National Park Association. “It affects the campers, particularly the tent ones. Let’s put it this way: there’s a lot of free tents out there somewhere.” Thomas moved to Joshua Tree to be close to his son who was training at the local Marine base. He holds a seasonal job with the Association and year-after-year, its leaders ask him to come back. “So here I am today, as of March first, its 11 years, so I must like it,” Thomas says in his dry sense of humor that seems to click with Joshua Tree. The Joshua Tree National Park Association is a highly respected and valued organization. “Some of our rangers often take classes to be more educated. The association is a partner of ours; they help us out in a lot of ways,” Carney says.
Joshua Tree has massive numbers of foreign visitors every year. “They buy these passes by the droves,” Carney says. A wide range of nationalities come to the park. British accents, Australian accents and Asian languages echo on the park trails. Carney explains that many foreign visitors say, “If you really want to know what’s best about the United States, then visit their National Parks.” People in foreign countries see the desert in old John Wayne movies, so they flock to Joshua Tree. “Some come here expecting the Sahara, and the Sahara we’re not,” Thomas drawls. The California deserts have been home to many movies. Part of Seven Psychopaths, starring Christopher Walkins, was filmed right next to the Oasis Visitor Center.
Visitors experience Joshua Tree many ways. The park allows for motor vehicles, mountain biking, backpacking and even horse back riding. Asked what one should take away from Joshua Tree, Thomas answers, “Nothing physically, but mentally, this is a unique experience—unlike you can find elsewhere.” He pauses for a minute. “Probably unique to the world.”