Sunday, February 2, 2014

Looking for the Lost Palms of Joshua Tree National Park

Date: March 12, 2013
Place: Joshua Tree National Park, California
Coordinates: 33.73692, -115.81019
Length: 7 miles in and out
Difficulty: Strenuous

Our desert tour was nearing its end. The weather, which was very cold and even stormy when we started, has gradually warmed up. After our tour of Hidden Valley, my friend announced that it had warmed up enough for us to go camping. So we spent the night at the Cottonwood Campground, at the south part of the park. We were lucky - it was a moonless (and cloudless) night and we had a great time trying to make out all the constellations we could see. A full starry night is a rare treat for me. I hardly get to see stars in the light-polluted and murky-aired Bay Area.
After a blissfully quiet night we packed our gear and headed to the Lost Palms Oasis trailhead.
Palms and poplars at the Cottonwood Oasis: the Lost Palms trailhead.
Papa Quail and I hiked this trail about 10 years before but I didn't remember much of it. I did remember the extreme heat, and the wildlife encounters: hummingbirds and a rattlesnake at the oasis.
Mojave Yucca, budding. (Yucca schidigera)
The weather on our hike this time was perfect: sunny and warm, but not hot. My friend and I decided to skip the short Mastodon Peak loop and went directly eastward in the way of The Lost Palms Oasis.
The trail begins up a shallow wash and, passing on the second chance to go up Mastodon Peak, it continues on a high plateau.

There are no Joshua trees in this part of the park. There are, however, plenty of large ocotillo bushes all over the place. Perfectly adapted to the heat and aridity with their tiny, seasonal leaves and their large, ominous thorns, they send their spiraling, non-branching branches upward, reaching for the cloudless big blue.
We were there a month too early to see the ocotillo in bloom. We did, however, fond one ephemeral ocotillo in a different locale in the park that was blooming. Bright red blossoms, like hand-held torches. Here's a photo of that early-blooming ocotillo:
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Photo taken at the Ocotillo Patch, Joshua Tree NP
Little birds chirped all around us. They were mainly sparrows, though not the species we usually see in the Bay Area, like this black-throated sparrow:
Black-throated Sparrow
Or this chipping sparrow:
Chipping Sparrow
And of course, the phainopepla bird that can be seen guarding almost every desert bush:
Phainopepla, male
Although we saw no Joshua Trees on that side of the park, the rock formations we saw along our path were no less impressive. For some time, for example, we walked along a long granite wall so straight it looked almost as if laid down by people:
And in another place, the wall was weathered down into a line of jagged granite teeth:

Some of these rocks really enticed our imagination:
Desert sentinels
Interesting weathering marks:
Rock zipper
The rocks are there year round, of course. But the reason we went there in March was to see the desert flowers in bloom. I was there, at the south region of Joshua Tree National Park that we finally saw many wildflowers.
Blazing Star (Mentzelia albicaulis) 
There were plenty of flowers along the high sections of the Lost Palms trail. It took awhile, though, before we realized they were there.
A ground photo from a standing person's height. Can you see the plowers? 
There are so tiny! Merely half an inch above the ground. There were many patches of them, though. All we needed was to kneel down before the white crowns.
Mojave Desert Star (Monoptilon belloides) 
Once we knew where to look, they were suddenly everywhere, those tinsy-winsy beauties.
Wallace's Wooly Daisy (Eriophyllum wallacei) 
So we walked on with our eyes on the ground. (Not meaning to say we ignored the larger vegetation around us). 
A sample of the Mojave plant community and its humble beauty. 
About half-way the trail enters a wash and follows its route.

At that point the temperature got high enough and we were worked out enough to have welcomed the shade of the junipers that grew along the wash.
California Juniper (Juniperus californica)
Then the trail climbed up again and we found ourselves transversing a plateau once more. A splendid view stretched before us, of a mountain range and a blue lake below it: we had a direct view of Salton Sea and the Santa Rosa Mountains.
A view of Salton Sea and the Santa Rosa Mountains
Time was passing and the sun was right above us. As we approached our destination, about half a mile before the oasis, we were looking down at the trail as it descended sharply into a deep ravine:

We started down, slowly and carefully. Almost immediately my friend kept with delight: right before us were flowers so conspicuous and so pretty that we stopped for a good long while and photographed them from every possible direction. My friend, who was somewhat disappointed of the weak bloom we have encountered in the past week was finally satisfied: she has found her 'wow!' flower.
Scarlet Milkvetch (Astragalus coccineus)
While the scarlet milk vetch was definitely the botanical highlight of our hike, we soon run right into our zoological highlight: a chuckwalla lizard, sunbathing on top of a rock next to the trail.
Not as close as the flower, but it sat there for a long time and we had a zoom lens.
It was all downhill from there: straight to the Lost Palms Oasis.

I suppose there are hikers who settle for gazing at the saught-after palms from the height of the cliff. The descend into the oasis is steep and narrow and, although short, is the most difficult part of the hike.

What awaits below, though, is worth every drop of sweat. The Lost Palms Oasis is home to the largest grove of California fan palms within Joshua Tree National Park.
California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) 
And for a good reason too: there is water there. Open water. Close to the surface ad above it.

Wherever there's water, there's life. My friend and I, hot from the hike, sat down in the shade and appreciated the birds.
House Finch
We weren't alone there. Behind one of the palms, on a large slate of granite, was a couple busy with activity that I would normally find fascinating enough to witness. This couple, however, belonged to my own species, which made us feel bit awkward, and eventually move away.
The day turned really hot by then. We made our way slowly up to the trail and headed west back to Cottonwood.
Jack Rabbit
Although the sun was already on its way down, the heat only intensified. We walked silently, making a few rest stops wherever we found a bit of shade.
Perfect camouflage: a Western Zebra-tailed lizard on the gravel
As we got near Cottonwood, we saw a small group of youth heading out east toward Lost Palms. They asked us how long it was and we told them, adding our opinion that it was already too late to get there that day. They listened, said nothing and continued on. Soon we realized that the 'small' group was just the spearhead of a much larger, and a very stretched out group of hikers, all young and in various states of undress. They were very spread-out and many of them seemed already tired and dragging their feet. What was even more alarming: they carried very little water with them.
We finished our hike and drove quickly to Cottonwood ranger station to report that ill-prepared group. I guess they eventually did turn back since we didn't hear of any disasters in the news later that night.
I bring this story here as a warning and an example. The leading cause of fatality in desert hikes is heat stroke. Anyone going on a desert hike should be wearing sun protection, carrying plenty of water and pacing the hike according to the time and ability. With adequate planning, this trail is a true treasure for hikers and desert lovers.

Many thanks to my friend עננת for identifying the plants and lizard. And an extra-special huge Huge thanks to her for this big desert trip and for that special time of us together! Can't wait till we get to do that again     :-)


  1. it was a beautiful hike, the scarlet milkvetch was really beautiful! and the chuckwalla was very impressive!
    I enjoyed reading your descriptions, especially I laughed when I read I supposedly "announced" that it had warmed up enough for us to go camping. as I recall, it was more like "well, OK, if you really want to, and you think it'll be fine..." - and I must admit this was the best camping night I ever had. and I really enjoyed star-gazing.

    1. Excuse me if I don't recall the exact words ... You know how hopelessly optimistic I am :-)
      I'm glad your camping experience with me was a good one. I personally sleep better out on the ground than in any hotel room, and only recently came to terms with the fact the for most people it is the absolute opposite ...

  2. I only now got to reading this... Thanks for the reminder for that trip. You had wonderful time.

    1. Over a year ago now ... and I cannot wait for the next opportunity to go there!