For those of you attempting to keep track of our incessant audibles, you may recall that we were at one time planning on going from Bryce National Park to Zion National Park. From Zion, it would have been a reasonable six-hour drive to Indio, California, where we had made reservations to stay through the Memorial Day Weekend (moving around over that weekend would have been very challenging, since all the campgrounds are full).
But, since we diverted to Lake Powell, the drive from there to Indio is over 500 miles. That is a pretty long day of travel, so our trusty tour guide (Therese) had reserved a campsite in Williams, Arizona, at a place called Grand Canyon Railway RV Park. Expecting an easy travel day of 200 miles or so, we unhurriedly left Lake Powell at 9:30. We took Route 89 south to Interstate 40, which is in pretty bad condition for long stretches. That, combined with heavy truck traffic and road construction made for less relaxing driving than hoped, but we still made reasonable time and pulled into the prospective park at about 1:00. However, Grand Canyon Railway RV Park was not very inviting – it looked like a crowded parking lot, and was right next to a railroad track. I’m not sure we would have even had enough room to put our slides out. Thus, we declared this particular audible to be a busted play, and started a quarterback scramble, continuing on to Indio as was our Plan B (or C, or whatever it was).
Our revised route had us continuing on I-40 west, and then turning south on US 95 just over the California border, to Route 62, and then California 177 to I-10. As we drove along, the sandstone canyons that are scenic in Arizona gave way to just plain old desert – miles and miles of desiccated landscape with no sign of human habitation at all, and not particularly scenic, either. In some places on 62 and 177 (both two-lane highways in good condition), we would see only one car or truck coming the other way per mile, with no other vehicles traveling our way in sight. There would be one town, if you could call it that, every 30 miles or so. What do the people who live out there do in the desert? I have no idea.
We had started out at an elevation of 3800 feet, temperature about 75 degrees. We got as high as 7600 feet on the way to Williams, with the temperature falling into the 60’s. But after we had rejected Williams and set out for Indio (elevation 13 feet below seat level), Therese checked the weather on her smart phone, discovering that the high for the day was forecast to be 106. And as we continued toward it through the desert, the outside temperature reading on the Dutch Star reached as high as 113 – that was about 2:45, when we stopped for fuel and lunch. Somewhat surprisingly, the dash air conditioner, which is engine driven, was able to keep the cockpit of the Dutch Star at a comfortable temperature despite the extreme heat.
It was also quite windy, and descending on Route 62 toward Indio, we had a headwind that must have been at least 30 – 40 mph. The closer we got to Indio, the higher the winds. In fact as we arrived to the outskirts of the Indio (which is quite a bit bigger than we expected), sand was blowing across the road, and the air was a dusty brown.
By the time we finally reached our destination, about 7:45, it had cooled down to the high 90’s, and we were in a more sheltered area where the winds were a more reasonable 20 mph or so. The odometer read 5677, so we had covered 520 miles.
Our Indio “campground” is called Motorcoach Country Club, and it is in a different league (and price range) from most RV Parks. It is like Riverbend (see second post) in that most of the “campsites” are owned by private parties, who deck them out with fancy casitas and landscaping. They must come for Indio’s cool season, which is definitely over by May (far less than half of the sites are occupied). A few of the owners rent them out to transient lowlifes such as ourselves. It is an oasis of green in the desert – there’s a small par-3 golf course, 3 pools, 3 tennis courts, and a nice restaurant in the clubhouse (however, that’s “closed for the summer” currently).
Having missed dinner, we headed to the Indio In-n-Out Burger. For those of you who haven’t lived in southern California, In-n-out is the best fast food burgers in the area, possibly in the world. Even Therese, who normally wouldn’t touch a hamburger with a ten-foot pole, let alone a fast food burger, ordered their signature “Double Double”. The “dubs” were just as delicious as I remembered them from my Caltech days 35 years ago, and their sawdust-tasting French fries were similarly unchanged.
When we got back, we took an extended walk around the 400 site Motorcoach Country Club. The extension was because it was pitch dark and we somehow missed a turn and went around part of it twice.
On Thursday, we got up reasonably early to visit Joshua Tree National Park before the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, the forecast was for a high of a comparatively cool 98 today. It was about an hour drive to the park. To get there, you take I-10 east, and pass through Indian Canyon. There is a huge windmill farm there, and it’s easy to see why – the winds were howling through there, must have been 40 miles per hour.
Shortly thereafter, you turn onto Route 62 north , and climb about 3000 feet to the entrance. Joshua Tree National Park includes two different desert climates, the cooler, higher Mojave desert from 3000-6000 feet in the western part of the park, and the hotter, lower elevation Colorado desert below 3000 feet on the eastern side of the park.
The Joshua Tree, for which the park is named, are not really a tree at all, nor are they a cactus. They are actually members of the lily family. They grow in large numbers in the Mojave desert section of the park, and are nowhere to be seen in the Colorado desert section.
The other major feature of Joshua Tree is the large number of rock piles. These are unlike the sedimentary sandstone rocks that make up the landscape in the Utah and Arizona deserts – they are monzogranite rock, formed by magma below the surface getting pushed near the surface, and then the softer surrounding rock eroding away from the action of water and wind, leaving the distinctive stacks of harder rock.
Not far from the northern entrance is the Hidden Valley trail, a one-mile loop through a valley that was used as a hiding place by cattle rustlers in the late 1800’s to about 1910. The geology of the Mojave desert section of Joshua Tree is well represented.
Other desert fauna are common, too, with yucca plants, scrub oak, juniper and many varieties of cactus.
We didn’t see many birds, reptiles or animals, most of which have the good sense to stay in during the day and come out in the relatively cool evenings. But we did see one good-sized lizard sunning itself in Hidden Valley.
One cactus of particular note is the Chollo (pronounce Choy-oh), which requires particular soil and rain conditions to thrive, that occur at only one location in the park, called the “Chollo Garden”. It is located near the transition from the Mojave to the Colorado desert. The Chollo is a beautiful, but particularly nasty cactus (at least to human beings, there are several species of birds and lizards that make their home in and around them) because the thin spines are capable of piercing clothes and even shoes, and have barbed ends that are painful and particularly difficult to remove. There are warning signs to avoid any contact with the plants at the beginning of the nature trail that winds through it, advice which we were careful to observe.
It is a large national park, and we didn’t drive through the whole thing. We exited at the Twenty Nine Palms Visitor Center, where there is the Oasis of Mara. It was at one time natural Oasis, but due to changing water flows caused by one of California’s relatively recent earthquakes, the natural spring dried up, and now they pipe in water to maintain the small pool and vegetation.
Joshua Tree is an interesting desert landscape, and well worth seeing. It is not as dramatic or as visually spectacular as the canyon scenery in the Utah parks we had seen the previous week.
Anyone who is concerned about overcrowding of the planet should make a trip to the western part of the US. If someone can figure out some way of making it fit for human habitation (cooling it down a bit and distributing water to it), there is more than enough room.