Oh yeah I need my car – the return West and the desert

After a brief return to the East coast, I flew back to Las Vegas where I had ditched my car. I was on the east coast for a few days basically to tell my parents (with my girlfriend…well, fiance at this point in the story) that we were engaged. After just 3 days back on the East Coast, I flew back to Las Vegas to retrieve my vehicle. Luckily I parked Sally in the shade, so the 115 degree Vegas heat wasn’t too hard on her. When I got to the Las Vegas airport, it was 10pm and a chilly 98 degrees.

I quickly drove out of the city and just over the Arizona line on US Route 93. My campsite for the night was on the south side of Lake Mead National Recreation Area at Kingman Wash. I wanted to explore Lake Mead on the south side of the lake the next day. It looked like there was a lot going on when Lily and I were at Boxcar Wash a couple of weeks earlier. Of course we were roasting all day in the heat, so I’m not sure what I was thinking by going back to Lake Mead. I’ll attribute my poor judgement to travelers fatigue. As soon as the sun came up, I quickly got out of the Lake Mead area and headed back into Vegas to determine my plan, try my luck a little, and appreciate the air conditioning.

California is nice

One of my friends told me, on multiple occasions, that something is pulling me to California. “You keep going back” he says. He is right, there are certainly parts of California that are amazing. California has every landscape (just about) and climate in one US state. Something is certainly drawing me back there, especially after I decided to go back (again) before driving East.

I also convinced my fiance to fly to Los Angeles, meet me, and drive to the East coast together. I couldn’t show her everything that I saw on the road, but I could show her as much as I could. But, we would have to drive home in less than a week, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing. Either way, I had 5 days to get to Los Angeles, so I decided to make the most of my remainding “alone” days and explore along the road to California.

In the desert, you can’t remember your name

Departing Las Vegas – I’m not sure what the point is telling people the color of the lights on the sign to the right

I departed Las Vegas after finally determining that I’m not a big gambler. I spent some time at the Venetian and Palazzo (free parking!). The Strip is a very interesting place, but it’s not for me. I felt compelled to get a picture of the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign as I headed south on Interstate 15. After re-entering California, the Ivanpah Solar Plant makes its presence known. It looks like something out of a movie. Thousands of solar panels on the ground re-direct sunlight to focus at the top of three towers to generate electricity. You can “see” the light. I am totally on-board with renewable energy, but I felt like I might go blind looking at it. Has anyone studied the effects of the towers on driver eyesight? Anyway, if you are on I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, you can’t miss it.

I think I like the desert. It’s a strange place for sure. I’m an East coaster. Pick any direction, you will not find a desert within 1,000 miles. So I am not very familiar with the desert, but I think it’s easy to get used to. If you have water and food (and maybe some shade), the desert can be just as interesting as any forest, lake, or mountain.

I will say this though: the desert is not the best place to visit in August, when it’s hot. At least most of the Mojave is high desert, so the temperature is not as high as it could be. That’s what I told myself anyway.

I didn’t find myself doing anything too strenuous in the Mojave, at least not for long. When I did stop to look around, I spent a long time, much longer than I normally would. I don’t think I was seeing mirages. Maybe it was my brain telling me to take it slower as the desert was sucking water out of me like a sponge. Maybe this is why the tortoises move so slowly. I could feel myself slowing down; maybe not to the point of not remembering my name, but I understand how you could get there.

What can brown do for you?

Near the north entrance to the Mojave National Preserve
Near the north entrance to the Mojave National Preserve

I planned to make it to Big Bear Lake on this particular day, but I inevitably found something along the way to explore. I exited I-15 onto Cima Road, initially because I started seeing Joshua Trees and I wanted a picture. Just past the gas station, I stopped to take a picture of the “tortoise crossing” sign, which I thought was funny, and the Joshua Trees. Unfortunately I didn’t see any tortoises during my time in the desert.

As I was taking pictures, a UPS delivery guy walked across the road from the gas station and asked me what I was doing. My UPS buddy was Joe, and he loves the desert. Joe told me he drives his route for UPS because he likes the area between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He told me what I could see in every direction. He said if I headed down the road I was on, it was the back way into Joshua Tree National Park.

For some reason, the “back way” has a certain appeal to it. We like back stage passes and we liked it when our friends let us in the back entrance to movies. For some reason, even after all of the alternatives that Joe the UPS guy gave to me, I decided that Joshua Tree was the way to go. After about 20 minutes of Joe providing me with all of the local desert descriptions, he finally let me go.

I appreciated his insights. Talking to people that are into the outdoors and hearing where “the locals” go really makes a difference. He made the desert sound way more interesting. Talking to Joe totally changed my trajectory too. Instead of heading to Big Bear, I decided to continue down Cima Road into the Mojave National Preserve. I totally forgot to give him a squirrel sticker. Well, hopefully I can catch him the next time I’m in the desert.

Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve Map

After deciding to explore the desert, I ventured farther down Cima Road, stopping at the Teutonia Peak Trail for my day’s hike. I wasn’t planning on hiking in the desert, but this trail was only a 3 mile round trip and it would provide me a good viewpoint to see more than I could from the road.

I was actually looking for the Mojave Cross that Joe had mentioned earlier, but I pulled over at the Teutonia Peak Trailhead just before the cross.

Teutonia Peak

The great thing about the desert is you can make your own hikes. You can just walk from point to point and you don’t have to worry about trampling many plants. It’s 99% sand. I wouldn’t advise wandering into the desert without a plan, or in the summer heat for that matter, but the desert is wide open. I stuck to the trail of course. What really convinced me to hike the Teutonia Peak Trail was the sign at the trailhead that stated that the trail passes through the highest concentration of Joshua Trees on the planet. Worked for me. I saw a fair amount of Joshua Trees in Death Valley, but the Mojave Preserve is loaded with them.

Near the top of Teutonia Peak

The hike to Teutonia Peak and back took less than 2 hours and it provided an easily accessible view of the surrounding mountains. The first half of the hike is flat walking along the Joshua Tree “forest”. I didn’t see any rattlesnakes, but that’s the only thing to watch out for. The plant life is quite diverse. I was not expecting that. Along the way, there are prickly pear cacti (or tuna) that looked good enough to eat. I guess if I got desperate, I could dig into some cactus fruits.

The Mojave Cross

The Mojave Cross is easily seen from the road

The last thing Joe the UPS guy told me about was the Mojave Cross, or White Cross, dedicated to World War I veterans. It was originally constructed in 1934, and rebuilt in the early 2000s. It was subject to a legal battle several years ago which wound up making the land around the cross privately held so that a religious symbol was not on federal land. I didn’t even think of that as an issue, but I’m glad it’s still there. It’s a good landmark if you are lost in the desert.

The desert landscape

Looking south (and downhill) toward Cima – near Teutonia Peak

After a good hike and a tourist stop, I finished my drive through the Mojave National Preserve. The Joshua Trees become very dense for a long stretch, and then almost disappear as the elevation decreases. The road runs through the old mining establishments of Cima and Kelso. The Kelso dunes also appear on the horizon in between the mountain ridges. It looks like an awesome place to explore, but maybe not in the summer. It’s difficult to imagine how it was living in these ghost towns during the heydays of the mining industry.

I eventually made it to Interstate 40 and setup just south of the preserve. There are so many free camping locations in the desert; I think because there aren’t many areas that anyone wants you to stay out of. Nobody feels like enforcing a “no overnight parking” sign in 110 degree heat, especially in an area this big and desolate. Luckily at night it cools down significantly and I could get a good night of rest before heading to Joshua Tree National Park the next day…

Noise Complaint

Except late at night a group of people decided to park a few vehicles about 100 yards away, play loud music, and yell until about 3 in the morning. I had no idea what time it was until I finally decided to look at my phone to discover it was 2:30am! I’m not sure what time they started, but it woke me up a couple of times. Luckily I was so tired I was able to sleep through most of it. Did I mention they were shooting guns too?

Joshua Tree National Park

Following Joe’s advice, I continued on the “back route” to Joshua Tree. After a drive through a brutally barren landscape, I made it to Twentynine Palms where I turned at the Oasis Visitor Center. After filling up on water, I proceeded to the north entrance to Joshua Tree.

Route from Mojave National Preserve through Joshua tree

Rocks

Joshua Tree is an enormous park. Two things are abundant: sand and rocks. Most of the rocks in Joshua Tree are either gneiss or granite. I suppose it is a geologist’s dream. The exposed gneiss in the park is estimated to be over a billion years old. Other than the sparse vegetation, many places in the park look like you are on Mars.

Near Split Rock with the moon setting in the background – Joshua Tree National Park
Split Rock - Joshua Tree National Park
Split Rock near the trailhead

My first stop was Split Rock, just a short gravelly drive off of the main road. No matter where you go in the park, the rocks are so much fun to climb/scramble. At Split Rock, I just walked around on the boulders and looked for bighorn sheep (no luck). After Split Rock, I got back on Park Boulevard and headed toward Queen Valley.

On my way to Queen Valley, I passed by Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rocks Campground. This was probably the most “Mars-ish” area in Joshua Tree. Skull Rock looks like…a skull. And the Jumbo Rocks are…jumbo-size. The rocks around Skull Rock make for an interesting scrambling experience. There are trails, but this is the kind of park to carve your own trail over and through the rocks.

Queen Valley

Queen Valley Road – Joshua Tree National Park

Queen Valley wound up being my turn-around for Joshua Tree; simply because I picked out a campsite just outside of the park (again) with cell service. I like not having cell phone service inside of the National Parks, but I needed contact with the outside world on this particular day. Anyway, I turned off of the main road onto Desert Queen Mine Road. You can probably drive this with any car, but 4WD would definitely make it easier. The road takes you to the Desert Queen Mine and then to Queen Valley Road. It is here that you can see, what I thought, was the greatest concentration of Joshua Trees in the world. I eventually turned back onto Big Horn Pass Road where I thought I had a chance to see Bighorn Sheep (no luck again).

Cacti

After scrambling on the boulders in several different locations in Joshua Tree, I decided to call it an early day. I would be driving back to the California coast on the next day, so I wanted to find a spot to park my car and camp out. As I coasted downhill toward the Cottonwood (southern) entrance, the landscape transitioned from the high (Mojave) desert to low (Sonoran) desert. On the way out, the road passes through a Cholla Cactus “garden” and an Ocotillo patch (technically not a cactus). The low desert has a more noticeable population of cacti and desert plants, and it is very interesting to see them appear en masse in the transition zone.

Ice ice baby

How I wished I had some. I naively hoped that the temperature would not increase as the altitude decreased. However, as I descended toward the southern exit of Joshua Tree, the temperature went from 91 to 115 degrees. What a difference a few thousand feet can make! I spent the better half of the afternoon “chilling” in the limited shade I could find. I was within view of Interstate 10, which I would be driving on the following day on the way back to the coast.

Campsite for the night outside of Joshua Tree
Shade can be a luxury in the desert

Dude, you are so far behind

This post was long overdue. The next chapter will cover (finally) the return trip to the East Coast. It wasn’t easy writing on the road on the way back. There wasn’t much stopping either (as you will see) hence the delay. Thanks for reading.

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