Explore The Outdoors / Explore The Parks

“In God’s Country” in Joshua Tree National Park


“I wanna run, I wanna hide.  I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.”  Those are the first words of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  Those are the opening words of the legendary rock band U2’s album The Joshua Tree.  For years I had wanted to go to the mythical and magical place depicted on U2’s album cover.  So, I went into my first visit to Joshua Tree with high expectations.

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As soon as we drove into Joshua Tree National Park, it stirred something in my soul as I embarked on the spiritual quest only the desert’s vast landscape of a blend of void and hope can provide.  Wandering through the desolate and rugged harshness of the desert, the words of U2’s famous ballad “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” played over and over in my head.  Guess it was metaphoric for my life and the eternal search for happiness.

The endless views of rock formations, weathered trees, and scrubby vegetation will leave you wondering how anything survives in this desert that is a mecca for hikers, wanderers, off the grid seekers, and of course U2 lovers.  Fitting for our first stop in the park – Skull Rock.  I had heard folks talk about and seen pictures of the rock formations in Joshua Tree, but it wasn’t until we started hiking the Skull Rock Nature Trail that I could fully comprehend the sheer size of the gargantuan boulders stacked up in bizarre formations drawing you in like a magnet attracting a coin.

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Skull Rock itself is a forbidding formation that’s not far off the road.  Seeing the sunken in depressions for the eyes in a rock formation that truly does look like a skull, immediately made me ponder the dark side of the desert.  Being a meteorologist and adventurer, of course, I know the dangers of heat, exposure, and lack of water in an arid environment.  Death can happen quickly out here…and Skull Rock symbolizes that.

The entire loop of Skull Rock Nature Trail is 1.7 miles.  We stayed on the south side of Park Boulevard.  After a few moments at Skull Rock, my friends and I dispersed for our own explorations of the weathered rock formations and shallow gullies.  From climbing on and off gigantic boulders to admiring tiny desert flowers, each of us was seeking something.  Perhaps it was solitude or simply just needing to be out of touch with the rest of the world for a bit.  The trail itself is pretty easy to keep track of in the sandy desert landscape.  Walking along I couldn’t help but notice how erosion had smoothed out the jumbo rock formations and marveled at the scrubby vegetation somehow thriving in the harsh landscape.

From there we drove over to Hidden Valley.  It is one of the most iconic and heavily visited parts of the park, yet we had it pretty much to ourselves that day.  It’s an enchanting valley surrounded by enormous mounds of monzogranite.  It’s a favorite of rock climbers or just day hikers wanting a huge bang for your buck without a lot of effort.

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You enter Hidden Valley through a corridor of boulders.  The pathway opens to a still rugged but lush valley that I could easily see how it would have been an oasis for the pioneers, Mojave Indians, cattlemen, outlaws, and others many years ago.  My friend Kat and I immediately went to the left to follow the loop, which is an easy mile.

So the story goes, the McHaney Group allegedly used Hidden Valley as their base camp for their large cattle rustling operation in the Southwest in the late 19th century, until they turned their efforts to gold mining and developing the Desert Queen Mine in 1895.  In the late 19th century, there were abnormally high rainfall amounts (10 inches a year) helping to create a lush valley.  The fact that it has a protective wall of massive granite formations was enticing to the McHaney Group for a hideout for their cattle.

As I ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the rock formations in and surrounding Hidden Valley, I got giddy when we saw saw first a lizard then an iguana, both sunning themselves on some of the rocks.  I will admit, I was thankful not to see another common slithering creature, the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (I would encounter one of those later on another hike in the park).

The desert is a perfect place to realize everything isn’t always as it seems.  Take the tree for which the national park is named for.  The Joshua Tree isn’t really a tree because it lacks tree rings.  The “trees” are members of the yucca family.  Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century gave the trees their name because the shape reminded them of a Biblical story about Joshua raising his hands up to God.  While the desert may seem desolate and lifeless during the day, at night it is a whole different world with everything from coyotes to desert tortoises moving about the park.

As I took in ginormous rock formations in the vast desert landscape against the blue sky, the lyrics of U2’s song “In God’s Country“ filled my head – “Desert sky…dream beneath a desert. The river runs but soon run dry.  We need new dreams tonight.”

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Ironically a couple of hours in the desolation gave me rejuvenation.  Call it spiritual re-connection, a revival of dreams, or just simply a renewal of hope.  Journeys are literal when you put one foot in front of the other on a trail.  Journeys inward are tougher.  Hike Joshua Tree National Park and the journeys will intertwine.

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Like our souls, the desert is a complex woven masterpiece of hope, despair, faith, and fear.  A visit to Joshua Tree evokes some sort of spiritual pilgrimage.  It’s the magic of desert “In God’s Country.”

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