Joshua Tree National Park … Again

Click for images from Joshua Tree NP
Click for more bird portraits
from our Texas roadtrip.

A phone call home reminded us that the transition from winter to spring in southern Oregon can be unpredictable. What was spring skiing in sunny weather a week ago has morphed into snowy roads and heavy precipitation in Ashland. Meanwhile, we’re basking in sunshine and enjoying the nearly 800,000 acres of Joshua Tree National Park, a safe distance from LA.

The trip down was choreographed so there wouldn’t be ridiculously long drives while still chipping away at the roughly 2,000 miles to Texas. We’re on our way to the 45th reunion of my Peace Corps group in Austin. In the 238 nights in our camper truck, we’ve learned that any combination of 200 miles or 4 hours pretty much maxes out our tolerance for marathon driving and allows us the opportunity to enjoy our destination before heading out the following morning. Our traveling companions are fellow returned PCV’s who live in Portland and we decided to caravan and share each other’s favorite destinations en-route. The drive down from Ashland was a blaze of shades of pink accentuated by flowering Western Redbuds at their peak. Spring green grasses was the common denominator and we glimpsed shooting stars under the oak woodlands as we passed. After an overnight visiting family in central California, we followed a tip and camped at the Buena Vista Aquatic Recreational area, actually a holding pond/lake for the California water network that allows speed boating but no swimming for fear visitors would become propeller bait.

Buena Vista Aquatic Recreational Area campsite

We arrived on a Saturday night and appreciated having a reservation otherwise a campsite on the water would have been only a dream. Buena Vista is on the west side of I-5 and not far from Bakersfield, and attracts locals with their big RV’s, boats, and stereos. Our neighbors were thoughtful, however, and the visit was quite satisfactory—an early morning stroll netted us an oriole, a Hutton’s vireo, and a dozen or so abandoned beer cans.

The intent of our next day’s drive was to access Joshua Tree National Park without driving through LA, so we opted to take back roads through Mojave, Lancaster, and Palmdale. Palmdale was quiet and features a lovely complex of city offices and a public library surrounding a large park. We found some trees across from a fire station, began our lunch routine, and the four of us settled into our portable chairs around a small camp table. Well into our snack, a fireman walked over and kindly asked, “You folks aren’t from around here, are you?” He went on to say we’d parked in a really dangerous part of town and, merely an hour earlier in broad daylight, there was a drive-by shooting in a nearby neighborhood. Nobody was hurt, but he suggested we pack up and get on our way. We didn’t argue and added #256 to our list why we left LA in ’77.

The drive from Buena Vista to Joshua Tree NP seemed longer, partially due to the monotony of desert driving. It was interesting to see enormous solar “farms” covering hundreds of acres of remote land and consisting of thousands of solar panels harvesting sunlight. We know a solar engineer whose company remotely manages these installations and never imagined their immensity. Prowling about on Google Earth picked them up easily if you know where to look.

View from Joshua Tree’s Ryan CG.
Click for more images from Joshua Tree NP.

What we didn’t anticipate was California school’s spring break, and Joshua Tree was packed. Advanced planning had our first night’s site reserved at Black Rock campground, and we struck off the following morning for the interior of the park hoping to find someone departing on a Monday morning. By noon the park was completely full but we secured a lovely spot at Ryan campground with an expansive view of massive rock formations all around us. Joshua Tree is really a magnificent spot and features a myriad of well-maintained trails for all abilities of hikers. We spent a couple hours hiking to Barker Dam, a former cattle rancher’s irrigation system. Both are now gone, and the water provides habitat for a variety plants & wildlife. A week before departing on this adventure, we’d been introduced to the popularity of rock climbing when hiking the loop trail at Smith Rock near Redmond, OR. We learned that Joshua Tree is the destination of choice for southern California climbers and that partially accounted for the scarcity of campsites.

Click for more pix of the Superstition Wilderness.

After a couple nights in Joshua Tree (next time it’ll be a week), we plied the I-10 to Phoenix motivated by hot showers, comfy beds, and a visit to the Superstition Mountains north of Tempe. The drive was a remarkable yellow from the flowering Palo Verde trees. The Ocotillos’ orange-red blossoms highlighted the scene. The changes in elevation was sensed by the varieties of plant—Saguaro cacti welcomed us on the hillsides as we approached the western reaches of Phoenix.  Our new friends, Joyce & David, guided us on a truly remarkable 5-mile hike through several ecosystems in the massive wilderness, and the birding was fabulous. There was plenty of water due to a recent rain, and the flowers and wildlife responded. We fortunately visited the area in late March and were hiking in sunny skies and 80° temperatures.

It’s really wonderful to rise before sunrise, step outside in tee-shirt weather, and reflect on the varied adventures we’ve experienced during the past 6 days. We don’t expect WIFI for several days, so this’ll have to do for a spell.

Sightings (irregularly updated):

I-5 corridor: Black Squirrels (more common to the east coast and introduced to select locations in central California. You know what happened next.)

Buena Vista Aquatic Recreation Area:

Bullock’s Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, House Finch, Western Kingbirds, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Black Phoebe, Northern Mockingbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbird, American Crow, American Coots

Joshua Tree National Park:

Le Conte’s Thrasher, Gamble’s Quail, Acorn Woodpecker, Canyon Wren, Rock Wren, Cactus Wren, Phainopepla, Scrub Jay, Loggerhead Shrike, Verdin, Hooded Oriole, Costa’s Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black-throated Sparrows, White-throated Swift


Brewer’s Sparrow, Gilded Flicker, Cactus Wren, Phainopepla, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, Black Phoebe, Verdin, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Northern Cardinal, Canyon Towhee, Canyon Wren