When I was a boy, our family often camped at what was then Joshua Tree National Monument. (It’s now a National Park) We were often there around Easter. We sometimes went with neighbor families but often it was just our family: my parents, sister, and dogs. We loved Joshua Tree. We usually stayed in a campground called Indian Cove. You can see from the photograph above the desert was rich with Joshua Trees, bushes, cacti: Barrel Cactus, Jumping Cactus, Prickly Pear Cactus, and flowers of all sorts: Ocotillo, Indian Paintbrush, many others. It was not the stereotypical image of the desert that’s “just a bunch of sand.” The natural life there amazed me.
Joshua Tree National Park was also filled with these amazing rock formations. As you can see from the photographs, they are enormous, interesting, and– to a boy like me– totally climb-able. We crawled, climbed, jumped, shimmied, scooted all over these rocks. I can hardly believe our parents just let us go but they did. Back in the day, we didn’t have the constant monitoring so many children have today. We climbed everywhere. I recall a couple of times getting in a spot I was a little scared to get out of– but I always did.
One day during each visit, we’d take a hike to a different part of the park, a place called Rattlesnake Canyon. I suppose it was so named because there were snakes there but I don’t remember seeing any. Rattlesnake Canyon meant pools of water. The rock formations there were smoother than in the campground and there was water everywhere. Many of the pools were filled by waterfalls from higher pools. There were frogs, palm trees, tadpoles– everything kids could want.
Another of our day hikes often took us to an oasis called 49 Palms. I don’t remember if there were actually 49 palm trees but there were many. 49 Palms also had pools, springs of cool water, and lots of frogs.
I loved these trips. The desert air was dry. The sky was brilliant with stars at night. Most of the time we camped there we had a medium-sized camping trailer, a Fireball. But we often slept in tents. Food always seemed better when we camped too. I remember most having fried potatoes cooked over the campfire. Marshmallows at night. Lots of water. It was the desert but if you were prepared– and preparation meant water– you were fine.
I think my parents relaxed out there too. They had coffee with friends in the mornings and played cards with neighbors in the evenings. We’d have sandwiches for lunch and something good for dinner.
The Southern California deserts are amazing places. Joshua Tree National Park is so unique. I’ve never seen such rock formations, such landscape anywhere else. The cool nights and mornings, the hot afternoons– all this made for a kid’s paradise. And the climbing. We couldn’t get enough. My sister and friends who came along– we’d be all over those rocks– all day.
The desert’s reputation for barrenness is undeserved. It’s full of life. Like most things in life– you just have to know where to look.