Monday, May 1, 2017

Hiking through the Temporal Garden of Eden

We hiked this trail on the last day of our family spring break trip, yet it is the first one that I write about. Not that the others weren't pretty - on the contrary. That entire trip was amazing. This hike, however, was the big cherry on the pie. The best spring hike I've had in a long, long time. Read on: you'll see for yourselves. 

Date: April 20, 2017
Place: Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, California
Coordinates: 34.023629, -116.077685
Length: 4 miles in and out
Level: easy (when it's not too hot).

We came to Joshua Tree NP with Grandma Quail for whom it was the first visit at this park. Naturally, we spent the first day of our visit going to all the 'must see' places, such as the Hidden Valley and the Cholla Garden. On our second and final day, however, I insisted on hiking a new trail, preferably away from the multitudes that crowded the park. There were several options on my short list and I selected the Pine City trail which seemed, on map, to suit our group abilities. Pappa Quail needed some convincing so I told him that the ranger I had talked to yesterday said there were pinyon pines there, so there might be a chance to see the pinyon jay, which had so far eluded him. That argument did the trick and promptly we were on the dirt road our way to the trailhead.
The way to Pine City Trailhead
Still on the way there I noticed on the roadside something pink low to the ground. "Verbena!" I yelled and stopped the car. I stepped out with my camera and Grandma Quail stepped out too.
Last year we drove all the way to the south most tip of the road in Death Valley NP to see the sand verbena in bloom. Now I was thrilled to see this beautiful plant blooming in Joshua Tree NP.
Desert Sand Verbena, Abronia Villosa

Even before entering the park that morning I has stopped along Twentynine Palms Hwy because I saw a low, white-flowering shrub and sent PappaQuail out to take photos. Now I saw that very same plant blooming next to the verbena on the way to the Pine City Trail.
California Evening Primrose, Oenothera californica
Pine City Trail lead to the Desert Queen old mine and it's an in and out trail. There is a small parking lot by the trailhead, and a pit toilet that was unusable on the day we were there because a hive of feral bees were using it, and many of them were buzzing angrily around the parking lot.
We didn't linger long in the parking lot. Making sure to take plenty of water with us we took to the trail right away. 
Our Pine City Trail hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS
Before I set one step out of the parking lot I was already clicking my camera. There were so much bloom about!
Desert Tidytips, Layia grandulosa
We had barely started our hike and it was already shaping up as the best wildflowers trail of my spring.
Desert Larkspur, Delphinium parishii
As might be expected, this post is long and full of images of wonderful desert flowers. I did leave some out, although it doesn't look like it. It was hard to choose. The species I left out will be represented in subsequent posts of our hikes of different trails.
Desert Chicory, Rafinesquia neomexicana
 The scenery was of a typical Mojave desert: the low shrubs, the yucca, the cacti, most of them in full bloom. Added to these were plenty of annual wildflowers, many of them were small.
The Mojave Spread
Really, really small. Belly flowers, in jargon.
Yellowray Fremont's Gold, Syntrichopappus fremontii
Most of the blooming annuals were completely new to me. I'd say about 90% of them I have not seen before. Not in bloom, anyway.
Fringed Onion, Allium fimbriatum
For some of them I couldn't even tell their family.
Desert Calico, Loeseliastrum matthewsii
Even the grasses with their simple, green flowers looked so lush and beautiful. It's beyond me to identify this one from my photos. I guess I'll just have to go there again ...

Pappa Quail and the chikas were ways ahead, making good progress on the trail, while I was slow in coming literally held back by the plants. Grandma Quail was happy to linger in the back with me. In her I found a kindred spirit who appreciated all the flowers, even the tiniest ones.
Pygmy Poppy, Eschscholzia minutiflora (Desert Dandelion in the foreground)
Although far ahead, my family kept me in mind. And so I was torn from my reverie by their excited shouts to come over quickly. I rushed ahead and found them all pointing at an orange flower low to the ground. They knew enough to tell it wasn't a poppy, and Pappa Quail even suggested that might be a lily. It sure was! A mariposa lily of a species new to me. I was very excited indeed. 
Desert Mariposa Lily, Calochortus kennedyi var. kennedyi
We continued on. About 50 yards further we saw another mariposa lily. and then another. And another. In fact, we saw quite a few of these beautiful lilies on our hike. Not numerous enough to form a cover, or even a patch, but certainly showing a good presence.
Pine City Trail
The chikas also made the next discovery - they saw a desert horned lizard poised on a rock off the trail to the west. They also had identified it - it was a 'horned toad' lizard, like the ones they had seen in Carrizo Plain National Monument last year. I snapped a few shots but the lizard was too far away for my wide angle lens so we waited patiently for Pappa Quail too come along with his big birding lens.
Desert Horned Lizard (horned toad)
We had to wait for him because he was the one lingering behind at the time - there were birds about.
We kept going and soon things were back to normal: Pappa Quail and the chikas ahead and me with Grandma Quail behind. stopping by every dot of color  to check it out more closely.
Desert hyacinth, Dichelostemma capitatum
 Not every time those spots of color were flowers. Sometimes it was the fruits, like those of the Lomatium which had already finished blooming by the time of our visit.
Desert Parsley, Lomatium mohavense
Not too long passed before the head group shouted back at me once again: this time it was an Indian Paintbrush - a genus very familiar to me from the Bay Area. Yet this was the desert species, like the one we had seen near Bridgeport last year. It stood out in its intense red top leaves, both advertising and protecting the delicate blossoms between.
Desert Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja chromosa
One of the most dominant plants about, and certainly a Mojave desert icon, is the yucca. Not often to I get to see it bloom in its own natural area (there are plenty a planted yucca in the Bay Area and even Joshua Trees). As I was getting up close and personal with the luxurious yucca bloom i noticed that the flowers were crawling with little black insects. Whether pollinators, herbivores, or both, I couldn't tell.
Mojave Yucca, Yucca Schidigera
The area was also full with species of a plant family that I've seen there many, many times. This time, however, I got to see them in bloom. I mean the cacti. Those prickly, hostile-looking plants whose leaves evolved into thorns and who keep their stem storage of water well protected, were putting on a spectacular show of colors.
Beavertail Cactus, Opuntia basilaris
Not all cacti were blooming, but even those that didn't were quite a sight.
Mojave Kingcup Cactus, Echinocereus mojavensis
 This particular species of cactus was just beginning its bloom season. Most individuals I saw there had only the red cap of thorns atop their stems. Some had their first flowers open.
Mojave Kingcup Cactus, Echinocereus mojavensis
The trail was nearly level and almost completely straight forward. The surrounding scenery, however, changed with the distance. And so it was that we cleared one hill ridge and before us, straight to the west, a big snow-capped mountain popped into view. That, I found out later, was Mount  San Gorgonio (a.k.a. Old Greyback), the highest peak of the San Bernardino Mountains. I stood and stared at it for a long time before moving on.
San Gorgonio
The view of San Gorgonio stayed with us for a good length of the trail and every now and then I'd lift my eyes from the flowers below and wash them with the cool and inspiring image of the snowy mountain. Needless to see, it is now on my 'wanna go there soon' list.
Fremont's Phacelia, Phacelia fremontii
Lupine is a big family in California, and several species represent it in the Mojave Desert. I would have almost missed this one below. It was so small and was just beginning to bloom. Once seeing the first individual however, I was on the lookout for others, and found them, too.
Bajada Lupine, Lupinus concinnus
 The familiar Mojave Buckwheat was present as well, nearly all in the 'just about to' blooming stage, which is just as beautiful as the full bloom stage. 
Mojave Desert California Buckwheat, Eriogonum, fasciculatum
Pappa Quail approached me and asked for a nice wide shot that will capture the color cover of the desert ground. That wasn't very easy to do because the plant society there is very patchy and the sweeping views are dominated by the well-spaced shrubs rather than the mats of tiny annual wildflowers. I did try my best, however, and the image below shows a nice patch of the woolly Daisy in a large enough space between the shrubs. Still, it is not even closely resembling that sensation of a flower-saturated ground cover that we saw there.
Daisies mat
Noon time descended upon us quickly, and it was getting quite hot. The chikas started mentioning lunch and all of us thought it was a good time for a break. We decided to hold a lunch break at the next shade we find to sit under.
Now, finding a good shade to sit under along that trail was somewhat of a challenge. There were plenty of yucca and creosote about, none of which is a good shader. There were junipers too, beautifully shaped junipers. But most of them were not suitable to sit under.
California Juniper, Juniperus californica

The trail crosses a couple of dry washes along which the shrubs grew larger and where even small trees were present. We found a place shaded by a a combination of shrub oaks, junipers and pinyon pines and sat down for a break.
And may I just add that it's good to clear the seat area of pinyon pine needles before settling down there because these needles are hard and sharp.
Desert shade
After some rest I got up and started exploring our rest area. Little red balls growing on the oaks near us got my attention. They were not acorns, of course, so the other explanation would be galls. A closer inspection and the accidental popping of one of these which revealed a white, juicy larva confirmed these as galls.
Galls on Shrub Oak, Quercus turbinella
A bit further up the trail: Different oak - different galls.

We took the time at out rest stop but eventually got going again. The scenery started changing too from the relatively flat fields of shrubs to a more hilly terrain with the iconic piles of red granite boulders.

I was also seeing different plants there. Like this little cacti that I really wished were blooming because apparently their flowers are especially gorgeous. To my disappointment I saw nonethat were blooming along the trail that day. Only another reason to go back there when they are.
Fish Hook Cactus, Mammillaria diocica
But I did see there another cactus, a very familiar one. that was blooming. It was the first time I've seen this species in bloom in its natural area, outside of botanical gardens and other human-managed landscapes.
Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus cylindraceus
Pappa Quail too was seeing new things, like this black-throated sparrow. These little birds were singing their hearts out from the top of yucca plants.
Black-throated Sparrow
As we approached the rock piles they started taking shapes, forming fantastic images in my mind.

A yucca watcher sleeping on her yucca watch?

I saw more new flowers as we approached the boulders. Not all little yellow belly flowers are daisies - on a closer look there were quite a few other little yellows there, some not even composite.
Golden Linanthus, Leptosiphon aureus
My family advanced on, following the trail that curved around the boulders. I lingered behind and climbed the lower ones of the pile. In a wide crack between two large boulders I made another neat discovery: a rockcress.
Rockcress, Boechera sp.
Meanwhile, Pappa Quail was making his own discoveries. I've seen some of these lizards too, but Pappa Quail has got the better photos of them.
Common Side-bloched Lizard
 Near the rocks also grew the Nolina plants like those we've seen before at the Hidden Valley of Joshua Tree. Apparently they do better near the granite boulders than out in the field of yuccas.
Parry's Beargrass, Nolina parryi
 I too finally passed the first pile of large boulders and hurried along to catch up with my family. 
I slowed down again almost instantly because I had to check out the low purple-flowering shrubs that started appearing in good numbers along the trail.
Little leaved Ratany, Krameria erecta
Pappa Quail checked his GPS and announced that we are getting near the end of the trail. There were plenty of rock piles and lots of flowers, but no old mine in sight. What I did see was a nice carpet of white desert pincushion flowers.
A mat of Desert Pincushion
Once again my family was out of my view, this time with Grandma Quail. I was left alone to check out vegetation and I had lost the count of time.  I had also lost the count of the photos I was taking.
Ericameria sp.
The cactus scene was now dominated by the cholla. They look very cute but I don't recommend hugging one - their thorns are nasty.

The cholla too were just beginning to bloom. Most had a few flowers open and many more buds in the pipeline. It
Silver Cholla, Cylindropuntia echinocarpa
Spaced between the cholla were hedgehog cacti in near full bloom. It is amazing how such prickly plants produce so beautiful and delicate blossoms.
Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii

I passed a gap between the hills on my right and looked on the view to the east. The outlines of several mountain ridges extended to the horizon as far as I could see.

The terrain was much rockier now and the area must have inspired many a rock garden landscape, but I doubt any human landscaped garden could have topped this.

The trail ascended a small hill and there there was a sign announcing that the trail was no longer maintained beyond that point. There I also caught up with the rest of the Quails. They had already been at the view point at the top of the hill. Pappa Quail said that it was the 2-miles mark. We did not see the old mine and neither of them wish to go down the unmaintained trail and look for it, and since my main objective for being there was the wildflowers I shrugged and contented to stop there. But not before I too had the chance to go up and look at the view north to Yucca Valley.

I lingered for a while on that hill, talking to a couple of other hikers that came along. then stepped down slowly, reluctant to leave this pace behind, not wanting to go back. Not just yet.
Desert Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua

There were many sphinx moth flying about, but their youngsters were also present en force, crawling and munching along. The young eat the plants and the mature pollinate them. It's a complex relationship :-)
A sphinx moth larva 
Protected between the rocks or under larger shrubs were delicate little plants with thin, thread-like stems and small, fine flowers. I ignored the sight of my family disappearing down the trail and knelt to take a closer look.
Desert Sandwort, Emeregone macradenia

I slowly started on my way back. And even then I was seeing plants that were new to me, that I had overlooked on may way up.
Star Gilia, Gilia stellata

By the large boulder I caught up with my family and Pappa Quail showed me the rock wren he was watching. Apparently there was one less sphinx moth flying about.
Rock Wren
The way back was a slight downhill and our pace quicker. Still we stopped for a break - at the same spot exactly where we had stopped on the way up. Everyone slumped down on the gravel under the thin pinyon shade but I was restless again so I left them there and went about to explore. I went up the nearby hill, meandering between the rocks and the shrubs, careful not to step on the tiny wildflowers or to rub against a cactus. I got a a high spot and looked around. To the west I saw trails and the large iconic boulder aggregates that attract climbers. I saw the cars and the people and I looked away. Ro the south stretched out the valley through which we had hiked and I could see past the parking lot and far beyond. I looked and let my imagination roam, forming a fantasy that I would one day backpack there, through the infinite desert.

I wish I could stay there longer. I sighed and started downhill. I walked down in a field as thick as I've ever seen of blooming cacti, all of them hedgehog cacti, nearly all of them in full bloom. The sight was absolutely spectacular, my photo doesn't capture it well enough.
A field of Hedgehog Cacti, Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii
After reconvening with my family we continued on. By that time I was no longer holding back or trying to save memory on my camera card. I was pointing and clicking almost automatically at everything I saw, regardless of the repetition numbers.
But then again, no matter how many yucca one can photograph, each of them has its own personality and deserves a photo, right?
Mojave Yucca, Yucca Schidigera
Besides, some of my nicest shots were taken on the way back.
Wallacee Woolly Daisy, Eriophyllum wallacei
I now paid closer attention to plants I had overlooked because they didn't have as colorful flowers.
Low Woollygrass, Dasyochloa pulchella

Some of our wildlife encounters also happened on our way back to the parking lot. This lovely swallowtail butterfly was enjoying the bloom spread even more than we were, I believe.

Swallowtail on Mexican Bladdersage, Salazaria mexicana
Just before getting to the parking lot I looked back and snapped one final shot of the field of yucca, that Mojave look. I don't know when I'll be there next but I sure hope it won't take me too long.

The last time I was at Joshua Tree National Park was four years ago. I was there with my botanist friend whom I invited to California to admire the big desert bloom. Well, that spring turned out pretty weak in terms of bloom, flowing yet another dry winter. We did see some bloom, mostly in Joshua Tree NP, but it wasn't the big spectacle we had hoped for.
I wish my friend could have come this spring. I wish I could have visited Joshua Tree NP for more than two days. I feel very fortunate to have been able to be there and experience this superbloom. There's nothing compared to it. Not in sight, not in feeling. That's what being in the Garden of Eden is like.
By the way, we did not see any pinyon jays on that hike. 

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants.


  1. This is realy amazing! I also wish your friend could be there now... maybe with her husband this time :-)

    1. My wish too ... and it's all about timing. We tried, but the universe didn't time it to our convenience.

  2. million wows. I am *so* green with envy right now... you guys had an amazing trip!!! this is wonderful!!

    1. My goodness. I was thinking about you the entire time. I felt like I was photographing for you too. We'll try for it again one day, right? Hopefully the universe will time the next superbloom accordingly :-)