We slept in the transition zone between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. A five minute walk to the northwest put us firmly in the Mojave, amidst the Joshua trees. A stroll to the south, beyond the enormous boulders ringing our campsite, provided a vista over the wide valley of the northern reach of the Sonoran desert. It was like hangin' ten in a different desert every time you turned around.
The icon of the Mojave is the Joshua tree, a fascinating plant to be sure. I was as much taken by the sheer numbers, the forest of them, as by the plant itself. But for me the iconic part of the park was the massive outcroppings of boulders, stunning in their size, changing constantly in the light.
By night, and they were long and magical winter nights, we slept outside under the stars, marking the progression of time by the changing positions of the constellations overhead. Time awake was spent counting shooting stars and listening to coyotes call across the distances or the hoot of a lone great horned owl.
By day we hiked. Forty-nine Palms Oasis was our most adventurous hike, three miles round trip up and over a rocky ridge and down into a deep canyon where a steady water supply creates an oasis that is the antithesis of the surrounding landscape, and a magnet for water seeking wildlife. Views from the trail were spectacular, the rock pile mountains dotted with red barrel cactus. Rounding the ridge line before descending into the canyon the upper section of the oasis was visible over a smaller ridgeline, the dark green of the palm fronds like a shadow at the base of a mountain.
Arriving at the oasis was as much an auditory adventure as a visual one -- Gambels Quail clucked unseen in the grasses and the thatch on the California fan palms rattled with the constant motion from its sheltering occupants who were calling to each other, perhaps warning others of the two-footed interlopers. Cottonwoods and tangles of mesquites shared the space, their snarls of desert mistletoe guarded by phainopepla protecting the ripe red berries whose one note calls reminded me of a child learning to whistle. Areas of standing water were crowded with grass and willows and reeds. We heard tumbles of rocks on the hillside above the oasis, behind the palms, but never saw the big horned sheep that were the likely culprits.
The next day we made several shorter hikes in some of the more visited spots in the park. We took the gently rolling trail to the aptly named Skull Rock, educated along the way by the many interpretive signs.
Barker Dam was next and despite their seriously deficient rainfall last year, getting less than half of their normal four inches, there was still a bit of water at the base of the dam, built 60 years ago during the short lived effort at cattle ranching in the area.
One of my favorite walks was at sunset down the wash south of our campsite. After a day of walking around families with over-excited children, the wash provided the quiet solitude we prefer. The low sun lit up the boulders and cast long shadows across the wash. There were no interpretive signs, but we learned more about that part of the transitional desert on that walk than on any other. Some "knowing" requires no words.