I’ve lived in them, visited them, have family and friends in them. But in the past few years, larger cities are not my preferred destinations for stress relief. I’m drawn much more to the outdoors. So when a friend I met while traveling last year said he’d be in the City of Angels for a week on a family trip, and may have a couple days of unscheduled time, I cheered and groaned.
Cheered, because he literally lives on the other side of the world. Talking and FaceTime are next to impossible to work out between work schedules and time zones that make me double check what day it is. To be on the same continent is a rare occasion, and one to take advantage of.
Groaned, because, well, LA. LA is not on my top five, ten, or fifty list. Yes, it has a lot going for it, and you can definitely have a great time there (or anywhere, for that matter). But I was needing to get out and move, and breathe, and explore, and the city wasn’t what I had in mind.
What’s a girl to do?
What we always do: make the best of it!
Two hours’ drive from Anaheim is the west entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. Stop one: grocery store. I’d arrived late the night before, and hadn’t had time to stock up on supplies. It turned into a longer stop than planned. I forgot that while American grocery stores are an annoyance for me, they are a thrilling cultural study for those not from the US. After analyzing the sheer variety of Pop Tarts and discussing berry and fruit seasons, we headed to the next stop on my list, Joshua Tree Coffee Co. I had come across this gem somewhere in my trip planning research. After the previous day’s travel and now the drive, I needed the caffeine. Stop here, and get the nitro cold brew! It’s dark, rich, creamy, and cool. Plus, it’s a block from the Visitors Center of the west entrance to the JTNP, and the perfect pick-me-up after driving from LA.
With maps and rangers’ advice in hand, we were ready to get out of the car and explore. Sticking to safer terrain, we started with Quail Springs. I’ve taken up indoor rock climbing in the past year. My skills aren’t great, but I love it: the focus it takes, how everything else disappears, the strategy involved, the strength, the movement. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable and steady in jumping around rock outcroppings, so this was fun for me. We clambered around, taking different routes, ending up in the same place. More experienced climbers with gear were working real routes – not just hopping around – and they are amazing to watch. All in all, the perfect introductory stop!
Hidden Valley was next. It’s an easy one mile loop, and lo-and-behold, where two deserts meet, in a state going through a drought, we got rained on. Not a downpour by any stretch, but just enough to have the scent permeate the air. The smell of rain in the desert is intoxicating. As much as I’d hoped for clear skies, this was a cool experience to have out here, where rain is scarce. The Hidden Valley loop trail is ideal – lots of desert vegetation, the Seussian trees, and enormous rock formations and outcroppings. On a Tuesday at the end of September, we saw a handful of other people. There were times it felt like we had the park to ourselves.
I have fond memories of visiting Skull Rock years before, and opted to take the 1.5 mile loop trail from the campground, approaching Skull Rock from a bit of distance, rather than driving up directly underneath it. Another great walk – not difficult nor long, but just a good jaunt to stretch, explore, and be in the desert. I would have enjoyed it solo – hiking alone is meditative for me. But catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in ages, and who likes the same style of travel you do, and to share that, made it all even better.
And still, it was overcast. Previous travels brought out the stargazers in both of us. I was hoping we’d get lucky at Joshua Tree, a known dark night sky area. (For those interested in the night sky, Joshua Tree is hosting a Night Sky Festival October 28-30!) I was resigned to the fact that it may not happen, despite forecasts predicting clear skies and great visibility. I finally conceded around 4:30, and we left the park to catch an early dinner.
Joshua Tree Saloon near the Park’s entrance was convenient, and surprisingly good. I’m accustomed to places this close to a tourist draw to be less-than-great, and it was a pleasant – and filling! – surprise. I probably got through a third of the enormous burger, their sweet potato fries were amazing, and the beer list hit the spot. We got to talking, and got up to leave just after 6. I was resigned to returning to LA.
I opened the door of the Saloon, and stepped out to clear skies. I may have looked slightly crazy, laughing and suddenly incredibly excited. Now we just had to get to a good spot before sunset at 6:30. A ranger had recommended Cap Rock. Picnic tables made it easy to get comfortable to watch the sun set, and the loop trail had a bench or two for great viewing as well. We opted for rocks, climbing around to good spots, and managing to work our way back down before the last light left the sky. Finding a bench, we sat and talked, catching up on life in the last year, as the light faded. I had told him to bring something warmer, and I pulled on a sweatshirt – the desert gets chilly at night. We were the only ones there. It was like having the desert and the sky all to ourselves.
As the last light left the sky, I wandered off for a solo walk on the 0.4 mile loop trail. Allowing my eyes to adjust to the growing darkness, I found the mini flashlight in my pocket wasn’t needed – though I’d recommend taking one, just in case. The path is wide and well maintained, and easy to navigate at dusk. The feeling was surreal, with the desert’s nightlife waking up around me, a vast star-studded sky above, the silhouettes of rock formations against the darkening sky.
Joshua Tree’s night skies are stunning. The Milky Way streaks across, and your eyes can’t capture or process the billions of points of light twinkling down. It was mesmerizing. Time loses meaning, minutes indistinguishable from hours, watching galaxies appear overhead. Night skies have the same effect as mountain ranges, oceans, vast deserts: a timelessness, indifference, and enormity that stretches the imagination, the feeling of being a part, a very small one, in such a vast time and place, of both insignificance, and yet, a connection to all of it, knowing that every living and inanimate thing has its place. The tension and stress faded with the light. I was finally unwinding. The climbing, the hiking, the conversation, and now the night sky… this trip may not have been my preferred destination, but now here, it was the perfect one. How could it not be, with those stars overhead?
With curiosity and courage,