It’s Joshua Tree National Park’s most dangerous hike. Not because of the extreme heat, rattlesnakes, or rugged terrain, but because of the “teddy bear” cactus. It sounds cuddly, but it’s not. You are literally surrounded by cacti in the Cholla Cactus Garden. It’s one of the shortest hikes in Joshua Tree, but could easily be dubbed its most dangerous one. It’s weird, awesome, and captivating at the same time. If you’re not careful, it could also be extremely painful. The Cholla Cactus Garden is a dense cluster of cholla cactus that almost seems out in place in the vastness of the Pinto Basin, but is truly right at home.
On this edge of the desert region, you get panoramic views of the Hexie Mountains, Pinto Range, and of course the Pinto Basin. Cholla cacti are common in the Colorado (Sonoran) Desert, but the closely packed grove of cacti looks like something out of this world. As you drive up to the Cholla Cactus Garden, the sea of creosote bushes shimmering in the sunlight looks like a mirage of lush green. The closer you get, the more the garden reveals its spiky secrets.
From a distance, the top of a cholla appears to have soft, silvery bristles, which is why it’s dubbed “teddy bear” cholla. If you try to hug or even touch the bear, you’re screwed. Each spine is tipped off with a microscopic barb. Even if you simply brush up against it, the spines can penetrate your shirt, pants, shoes, and skin (extraction is extremely painful).
The other nickname of the cholla is not as cuddly as “teddy bear.” It’s “jumping cholla.” The balls of spines easily detach from the plant if touched. On the ground, the detached joints generate into new plants forming the dense stand of cloned cholla in the Cholla Cactus Garden. After you park, grab one of the self-guiding nature trail guides. It tells you all about the cholla cacti, the geology of the landscape, the weather, and wildlife like the desert wood rat and cactus wren. My friend Kat and I were so intrigued with the birds’ nests nestled in the needles of the chollas.
Walking on boardwalks through the sea of chollas on the 0.25-mile loop was one of the freakiest hikes I’ve done. It felt like we were on another planet. I kept stopping and admiring these spiky plants ranging in color from silver to green to brown and black.
As you stand on the edge of the Pinto Basin, you are getting an incredible geology lesson. The basin was formed when movement along fault lines uplifted the surrounding mountains and gravity pushed the land in between down. There once was a shallow lake that is now filled will sand and gravel because of erosion and a change to a drier climate over time. When you take in the expansive view of the basin, remember this – the mountains were once very tall. Now their bases are covered in their own rubble.
That rubble is why this dense cholla stand exists. The loose gravel and rock crevices allow for good water percolation for the 4″ average rainfall the area gets each year. This well-drained slope is one of the few places in Joshua Tree National Park where the “teddy bear” cactus can flourish. It’s a spiky sensation!
I’d love to go back in mid- to late February through mid-March when the chollas are blooming in an explosion of color. Another word of caution during this time, there’s also intense bee activity. Guess that’s another stinger in the desert.