Two Desert Gems in California: Death Valley and Joshua Tree

If you are jaded by visiting famous theme parks and other mainstream tourist attractions overseas, and would like to savour something quite different, the wonders of nature, tucked away unobtrusively in various parts of the United States, await your discovery and exploration. Like jewels of incomparable beauty, these national parks encapsulate the country’s diverse landscapes – ranging from the barren deserts, volcanoes, canyons to glacier-clad mountains, rain forests and grasslands. Together, they make up its scenic diversity that beckon one to quietly imbibe their serenity, spirituality and timelessness.

In one of our trips to California to visit our son and family living there, my wife and I and our other family members visited two contrasting desert gems: Death Valley, about three hours’ drive from Las Vegas and Joshua Tree, approximately one hour’s car journey from Palm Springs. They can be combined conveniently with excursions to these two famed desert cities.

We knew instinctively that we had arrived at Death valley when the mundane landscape changed abruptly into an awesome expanse of brutally harsh desert setting, with absolutely no visible vegetation or sunlight shelter in sight. On both sides were overlapping craggy mountain peaks of solidly barren rocks in disparate shapes, colours and rock formations. I was simultaneously inspired and intimidated by this inhospitable, oppressive and seemingly inhuman environment surrounding us. It was refreshingly novel and starkly different from any scenery that I had ever come across before.

At its well-equipped Visitor Information Centre, which gave us a an excellent overview of Death Valley, I was surprised to learn that this national park supports a wide spectrum of plant and wild life, including the rare bighorn sheep.

In summer, it is one of the hottest and most tortuous places on earth, with the average daytime temperature of 50 degrees C. Some parts can reach near boiling point. The earliest European explorer to set foot on this natural furnace in the 16th century was Juan Batista de Ansa who called it aptly “Land of the dead”, not knowing that the native tribes once inhabited it. In 1849, a small band of gold seekers stumbled upon it , believing, erroneously, that they had found a shortcut to the rich gold fields of California. For several weeks, they tried in vain to find a way out. When their provisions and water ran out, they had to burn their wagons for firewood in order to roast their beasts of burden for food for survival. Fortunately, they found an exit route in the nick of time. Taking a last look, one of them said thankfully, “Farewell, Death Valley”. Hence, its name.

Today, several hundred people work and live there, catering to the needs of a growing number of around 1.3 million tourists per year. This desert is 225 km long, and has a good but winding network of roads. A sturdy car, experienced driving and plenty of drinking water are essential. A two-day stay, and taking it leisurely, will enhance your enjoyment of this desert gem.

Our first adventure stop was Dante’s View (inspired by Dante’s Inferno), which rises 1650 m above the sea level. It commands a sweeping vista of the valley, whose floor was covered by thick layers of  crusty salt deposits, but was a lake in prehistoric times. With imagination, one can visualise the hapless gold-rush fortune hunters trapped there and battling for their survival. Zabriskie Point, made famous by Antonioni’s film of the same name in the 1960s, affords a starkly different spectacle of the uniquely overlapping multicoloured mud hills of Golden Canyon, a gigantic cluster of nature’s masterpieces which stretched out all around us. It is at its most awesome in the morning light. A fair distance away is Bad Water, which, at 85 m below the sea level, is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. I tasted the sodium chloride and sulphate-filled water in its small pool; it was utterly revolting and undrinkable. A straight trail led to a large track of salt bed, which I mistook as a placid lake when seen from a distance.

Bad Water in Death Valley - the lowest point in the western hemisphere (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Bad Water in Death Valley – the lowest point in the western hemisphere (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

To me, the most pleasing sight  is the Artist’s Palette. These multicoloured hill mounds, so uncannily resembling the painter’s stock-in-trade, has to be seen to be relished. I was immediately overwhelmed by their sublime beauty, accentuated by the mild sunlight.

By comparison, Joshua Tree presented a more hospitable and gentle image. In the Chinese geomancy parlance, it symbolises the Yin (feminine) element, while Death Valley is the dominant yang (masculine) force. Home of the unique and rather untidy-looking Joshua trees that thrive in its cooler and wetter highlands, it owes its name to the early Mormon travellers who likened its outstretched branches to the raised arms of the biblical Joshua. Thanks to the world-renowned Irish rock group U2, which cut an album in 1987 in praise of it, its fame has spread far and wide.

A Joshua Tree (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A Joshua Tree (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is about 255,330 ha in size and can be traversed comfortably by car in one day. Within this national park are astonishing and formidable rock and boulder formations, punctuated by lush oases of diverse flora and fauna that add colours to an otherwise barren landscape, not to mention the occasional coyote lurking in bushes, waiting to pounce on its intended prey. Simply put, it is a living desert that can satisfy the different tastes of visitors who come to seek its manifold visual delights. Its numerous exciting trails will be a joy to hikers and campers. Some will lead you to abandoned mines, geological wonders, palm oases and, in spring, an abundance of plants and flowers. One can also observe birds and animals at close quarters.

It is reputed to be one of the best places on earth for rock climbers, who find its imposing granite rocks both challenging and irresistible. We saw a group of Germans honing their climbing skills, before attempting the more arduous conquests elsewhere.

Two of the scenes are etched in my memory. The summit of Key’s View commands a panoramic view of this stunningly beautiful park, with its contrasting contours of the mountain terrains and the ever-changing moods of the desert beneath them. Our party enjoyed thoroughly the hour-long trek of the Hidden Valley, whose strategically placed massive boulders made it a haven for the horse thieves during the Wild West era.

The rugged desert became more subdued as soon as we drove into the lower region. The Joshua trees disappeared suddenly and were replaced by the ubiquitous Cholla cactus and palm trees, interspersed by a variety of botanical species.The temperature too had warmed up several degrees.

To round-up our adventure there, it was great fun walking the longish trail to the fascinating Lost Palm Oasis, which came close to being a paradise on earth. Featuring a large grove of palms, set against an alluring desert landscape, it is one of the few places in this park where water, a rarity there, occurs naturally near the earth surface to enhance its charm and ambience.

Hotel rooms in Death Valley, from the four-star to motels, are relatively expensive. Food is available at these establishments only. There are no hotels or motels in Joshua Tree, but are plentiful in nearby affluent Palm Springs. The best times to visit these two places are between April and November when they are cooler.

Lam Pin Foo

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5 thoughts on “Two Desert Gems in California: Death Valley and Joshua Tree

  1. Your brog is superb! Very interesting… I need to take time to read because there is many article:-)

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