Saturday, April 16, 2016

Joshua Tree National Park (Cottonwood), 4/11/2016

With a forecast for sunny weather, we made plans for another visit to Joshua Tree National Park. We prepared dinner in the crockpot, packed a picnic lunch plus plenty of water, and headed out around 10 am. This time we made our way to the southern entrance to the Cottonwood Visitor Center. About an hour from Desert Hot Springs, it is an easy drive primarily on I-10 east.

Our first stop was at the Bajada Nature Trail a half mile from the park entrance on the right before the Cottonwood Visitor Center. This is an easy, accessible, 25 mile loop trail with interpretive signs about the plants found here in the Colorado Desert. A bajada is the slope at a mountains base that has been formed by eroded sand and gravel. Plants have access to more moisture that is trapped in the soil of the bajada. Below are some that we saw here.

Creosote: Most common plant of the desert; many animals live in/around them.

Ocotillo: Drop leaves in drought; regrow leaves and have fire-red blossoms after rain.

Ironwood: A plant of the Sonoran Desert found only at this bajada in Joshua Tree.

Brittlebush: Provides winter food source for bighorn sheep.
Deadwood: Can last for centuries; termites help break them down returing nutrients to the soil.

Our next stop was the Cottonwood Visitor Center. There are displays about the Cottonwood area here as well as a small gift shop.

We made a quick stop at Smoketree Wash, an exhibit north of the Visitor Center. Below is a smoke tree that thrives on the ground water along the wash. Dogs are not permitted trails at Joshua Tree National Park, but when we let her out of the car next to the road here for a few minutes. 

Turkey Flats: The Pinto Mountain alluvium (below the mountain in the distance) was formed by the rock, gravel, and sand washing down the slopes and canyons. This area was once a turkey farm, hence the name. The endeavor was not viable due to the arid conditions and distance to markets. 

Continuing north on Pinto Wash Road, we stopped at the Ocotillo Patch located a short distance after Fried Liver Wash. These thorny multi-stem shrubs are not cactus, but are woody deciduous plants. The leaves, however, are not season dependent, but rain dependent. Due to the recent rain, the ocotillo are covered with short green leaves in red blooms at the top of their spiky stems. We have seen many of these plants in the desert, but this is the first time we have seen them in bloom. 

A short distance north of the Ocotillo Patch is the amazing Cholla Cactus Garden. There are literally thousands and thousands of densely concentrated cholla that occur naturally here. This cactus has two nicknames: "teddy bear" cholla because they appear to be covered with soft, silvery bristles (that are actually barbed at the tip and are painful when they penetrate the skin); and "jumping" cholla because the "joints" easily attach to anything that passes by (we have experienced this and so has Sadie when hiking in the desert!)

A .25 mile loop trail through the garden provides the opportunity to see these crazy plants up close. Pick up a self-guiding brochure of the nature trail for additional information about the garden. 

The dead discolored spines are frequently seen at the base of a plant, but the healthy cholla continues to grow. The top part will eventually fall off and continue to grow by rooting in the sandy soil of the desert. 

The remains of the dead cholla are ideal homes for the desert wood rat (aka pack rat). This animal thrives in the desert and derives water from plants and seeds it eats. They use the spiny joints of the cholla to protect the next from predators (coyotes, kit foxes). They do not, however, deter snakes, the primary predator of pack rats. Check out the nest in the photo below (although we have never seen one as they are nocturnal).

The nests are full of debris that the pack rats collect over the years. If one family moves out of a nest, another one quickly moves in. Nests that are 10,000 years old have been found!

The cholla also provide well-protected nesting sites for many bird species, but especially the desert wren. Birds can land on the on the bristles without harm (wow!)  We have seen many cholla cactus here in the SW, but this is the first time we have seen so many in bloom. 

Be sure to stop here and walk the loop trail if you are at Joshua Tree National Park. I have never seen anything like it, and likely never will again! 

Because we had visited Joshua Tree before, we wanted to hike the Barker Dam Trail. En route along Park Boulevard, we stopped at the Hall of Horrors (not sure why it is named that!) where there is a short trail to interesting rock formations. There are many large Joshua Trees at this stop. Check out the fruit that remains after the blossoms fall off. Both the blossoms and fruit provide food for many desert mammals. The fibers of the Joshua Tree were used by Native Americans to make baskets, sandals and mats. Also shown is a beaver tail cactus in bloom. 

There are over 6,000 rock climbing trails in the park. Here are four climbers we saw today. 

Barker Dam: There is a great 1.3 mile loop trail that leads to the dam built by cowboys with stones in the late 1800s and early 1900s to water their cattle. The Barker & Shay Cattle Company built the lower stone dam in 1902; and, the Keys family added the upper concrete portion in 1949. Today the small lake attracts wildlife in this arid climate.

Here are some of the sights we saw along the trail. 

It's always a treat to see the bright blooms of plants in the desert. Below is desert mallow and a claret cup cactus.

Leaping lizards! We saw them everywhere here!

Native Americans have carved petroglyphs onto canyon walls and boulders. Some of these have been traced over with paint, to the detriment of the original work. Nonetheless, we always enjoy finding these gems of our country's Native American culture. 

We ended our visit today by departing at the West Entrance station near Joshua Tree, CA. Admission to the park is $25/vehicle. Our Senior Pass gets us in for free. For additional information about this beautiful park, check it out online. This place is definitely worth the visit. Make the time to see it if you are anywhere in the area. It's 2+ hours from Los Angeles.


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