Joshua Tree National Park… After and Before…

After the Flashflood and Before the Partial Government Shutdown

The Little San Bernardino Mountains of JT overlook Thousand Palms Oasis. It’s a nice counterclockwise, day-drive loop from the south to west entrances.

It’s our day off and we want to look down over Thousand Palms Oasis from Keyes View.

Entering from Exit 168 off I-10, the south entrance, we see why this portion of JT was closed after the October flash flood. Dried mud still stains the park road and sandy remains are still piled up where the washes intersect the route.

From the  Cottonwood entrance we drive through the Colorado Desert on the way to the Mojave Desert.

The rocks really rock the washes blooming in green.

Piles of boulders stand alongside desert yucca.

Smoke trees and creosote line the road as we continue.

We arrive at the Pinto Basin and learn that a now extinct river once ran through here offering a cooler, wetter climate for a native culture to exist along its riverbank. (National Park plaque)

Between 1931 and 1935 self-taught archaeologists, Elizabeth and William Campbell, discovered many small campsites and chipped stone tools throughout the valley. These leaf-shaped points, scrapers, and choppers were different from other tools discovered in the area. Radiocarbon testing confirmed the existence of a vanished people from over 9000 years ago – – – The Pinto Culture. (National Park plaque)

As we continue along the Pinto Basin toward the Ocotillo Patch and Cholla Gardens, we notice a large desert plant with dark leaves and withered white flowers tinged with the color lavender. Since no cars are behind us, we stop and back up so I can get a picture. Later we learn that this plant is called Datura, or Jimson Weed, often found along roadsides and washes where the sand is constantly disturbed. (

A perennial that loses its leaves in the winter, the flowers open at night and shrivel in the day. But don’t be fooled by this exquisite trumpet-shaped bloom!

Datura is extremely poisonous; all of its tissues contain chemical compounds known as alkaloids. The concentration of toxic levels varies from plant to plant. All parts of all datura plants are poisonous and can be fatal if ingested. Despite the grave risk, this night-blooming plant has been used since ancient times by spiritualists, holy men, medicine men, witches, and modern day recreational drug users as an hallucinogenic. (

So… moving right along, we discover a patch along our drive dotted with ocotillos.

This thorny multi-stemmed shrub is not season dependent, but rain dependent. Following a sufficient rain, the ocotillo puts forth a cluster of leaves above each thorn with a flourish of green. The ocotillo may grow and drop leaves as many as 5 times per year. (National Park plaque)

We arrive at where we visited before, the amazing Cholla Gardens! Seriously, out of nowhere, cholla cacti are EVERYWHERE.

Soon after recovering from our “cholla overdose”, we turn west onto Park Boulevard and are greeted by our first joshua trees in the Mojave Desert.

This area is more heavily trafficked. We pull off across from Skull Rock and walk a less popular but awesome trail filled with spectacular photo ops!

Up close and personal with the desert mistletoe “sponging off” the mesquites…


And pencil chollas…

Beaver-tailed cactus…

Rocks… mesmerizing rocks…

Finally we head to Keyes View… our main destination:

Keyes View overlooks Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve and the San Andreas Fault. With binoculars, Jeff helps me locate the Preserve parking lot.

Circled in the photo below is the location of Keyes View as seen from Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve:

Leaving Keyes View through a forest of joshua trees…

This is our third visit to Joshua Tree NP and it never disappoints. Next time we want to explore the north entrance and hike Ryan’s Mountain.

Willis Palms and Herman’s Hike

We start from the Thousand Palms Oasis parking lot trailhead and cross the street to hike to Willis Palms alongside the Bee Mesa.

Indigos bloom.

Insect galls grow like pom-poms on creosote bushes.

Desert trumpets swell.

Pencil cholla spread.

I’m not sure what this is…

Or these leaves…

Dodder colorfully covers smoke trees like an ill-fitting toupee.

We cross the street again to reach the parking area and trailhead to Willis Palms. Broken glass warns visitors not to keep valuables in their car.

We head toward the palms looking for the trail that bisects the grove.

Cat’s claw… Notice the thorns pointing downward.

Willis Palms has survived 2 fires, one in the early 1980s and the other in 2010. As long as the crown of the “grass tree” survives, the palm is still alive and continues growing fronds that fold into skirts.

The black trunks, green and yellow fronds, and blue sky make a beautiful picture!

We never do find the trail through the grove, so we continue along the wash heading west, on a gorgeous, sunny, and warm day where blooming creosotes pose against the blue sky.

These sand-colored hills are remnants of the ancient seas that once washed the valley. If you dig deep enough, you will find seashells.

We hike through the wash and follow it as it curves to the north. We’ve taken this segment of the trail before, but from the opposite direction, so we know it leads up to a ridge that loops back to the trailhead. Trail signs are scarce as we wind (what feels like forever) through an enclosed valley searching for the trail leading up to the ridge.

At last…

We reach the top and have to make a decision. Do we head back to Willis Palms and retrace our steps? Or do we take Herman’s Hike back to Moon Country and Simone Pond and then proceed to where we started at the parking lot trailhead?

Jeff and I make an executive decision and turning around is no longer an option. We’ve reached the halfway point now, so Herman’s Hike it is and up we go.

Behind us you can see the valley wash we just hiked through.

Desert verbena crawl in the desert soil.

Almost to the top of Herman’s Hike, you can see San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains.

On the top we rest beside a pile of rocks and eat a mix of cashews and raisins and drink water.

Heading down we encounter lots of blooming desert trumpets with very tiny yellow flowers. These striated curly green leaves with red veins eventually send out tall shoots.

We reach the switchbacks overlooking Moon Country Canyon.

Four and a half hours later we arrive back home, tired, sweaty, and thirsty. We have no idea how many miles we hiked or how hot it is temperature wise. We just know we had so much fun and enjoyed glorious views. The desert is really growing on us!

Moon Country

The Moon Country Trail is an extension of the McCallum Trail. It’s been a month since the October flash flood so Jeff and I decide to take the 4+ mile hike out and back to observe the water damage and examine the work of our repair efforts.

We head northwest from the Palm House Visitor Center along the boardwalk. White threads spread across the surface of the natural spring. These wisps are the tips of the palm roots.

The salt grass lays across the oasis channel, crushed by the weight of streaming water.

The new boardwalk hovers over the mud. An 80- foot section was built between 2 original sections. Now the boardwalk continues throughout the wetlands of the riparian forest.

The San Andreas Fault is so evident as we leave the palm grove and step out into the Colorado Desert. The hills inch up every year and the green arrowweed, creosote, cheese weed, and indigo thrive in abundance with a water source below. We are walking along the Mission Creek Strand of the Fault.

A plank guides hikers across a newly formed rivulet. To the left is the driveway to Chimney Ranch where the Powell family still owns homesteading property and living quarters. To the right, a boundary of rocks lines the trail to Simone Pond.

Beyond the line of rocks, notice the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the source of the flash flooding that wiped out most of the vegetation in the wash.

In the distance is an RV where David and Athena are staying. They are Preserve Hosts too, returning for their second winter.

David and Athena live about 3/4 mile west of the Palm House Visitor Center. The tree stumps are from cut-down Tamarisks, an invasive tree that sucks up precious water.

Tamarisk logs line the trail of the washed-out wash. Before drying out, the wash was a lake!

A phainopepla rests on a mesquite bush near the mound of red-orange desert mistletoe.

A creosote, confused that it’s springtime, starts blooming with its yellow flowers.

Meanwhile, the alkali goldenbush’s flowers fluff into seeds.

Desert holly… Jeff and I identify as many plants as we can.

On our hike through Moon Country, we stop and head to Vista Point.

Below is McCallum Grove shadowed by the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

And that’s the parking lot for Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve circled below.

We descend Vista Point and continue west along the ridge of the Moon Country Trail. The peak of San Gorgonio Mountain guides us.

As we descend the ridge we see the switchbacks of the Herman’s Hike Trail. And there’s a trail sign.

We know Moon Country is a loop so we continue west as the trail sign indicates.

After awhile, we realize we should have headed back when we came down the ridge. The sign should have read Moon Country Canyon instead. So, no problem… our goal now is to find the end of the box canyon.

With every turn, we think we are at the end only to find out we are wrong. The canyon hills are beautiful and entice us to continue.

Finally, we reach the end and turn around. I guess our 4-mile hike is becoming a 5+-mile hike.

As we connect with the McCallum Trail again, we loop around to the “jack rabbit house”. This pink building is an example of the minimum structure required to be built on homesteaded land.

Also, from this return loop from Moon Country, you get a good view to the entrance to Chimney Ranch, private property owned by the Powell family.

A Cottonwood Tree log…

And we’re back at Palm House. The fronds below blew down from yesterday’s wind storm.

Pushawalla Trail

Across the Street…

We cross Thousand Palms Canyon Road and head to the Pushawalla ridge.

At the top we look over at Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. Squaw Hill is in the left foreground and evidence of the San Andreas Fault is marked by the notable greenery on the right and the more barren land on the left. Also note the hills pushing upward on the left, separating the Mission Creek Strand of the fault line from the Banning Strand.

We head east along the top of the ridge.

A barrel cactus stands alone in front of the Little San Bernardino Mountains of Joshua Tree National Park.

The Hidden Palms reveal themselves from above.

After a mile or so we descend from Pushawalla ridge and follow the trail to Pushawalla Palms. Circled below is a white “mark” on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. This is the location of Keyes View from Joshua Tree National Park.

The southwest side of Keyes View ridge drops nearly a mile in elevation into the Coachella Valley. The San Andreas Fault, stretching 700 miles from the Gulf of California to the Mendocino Coast north of San Francisco runs through the valley and can be seen below. (

Yes, Keyes View looks down upon us, Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. It is so much fun to point out that white spot on the ridge from our parking lot. Sometimes we tell visitors to give us a call when they arrive there so that we can come out and wave to them!

The trail circles around a plateau heading toward Pushawalla Palms.

And then… Seriously… this is the “trail”?

We scramble down the rocks and into a canyon and find the old rusted Model T car wreck.

The canyon leading to or out of Pushawalla Palms is commonly called Car Wreck Canyon. No one knows the story of how the automobile got there and if, indeed, it is a Model T.

We pass the car wreck and continue along a wash toward Pushawalla Palms.

We pass through the palm grove and ascend along a rise, before heading down again into a canyon wash.

Water is still trickling off the Little San Bernardino Mountains from the October 13th flash flood.

Below is a great picture of the palm tree roots. Notice how the straw-like tendrils reach toward the water source.

We pass a trail sign for Horseshoe Palms and continue walking through the canyon, looking for a sign directing us back to Pushawalla ridge.

But that doesn’t happen.

So, we retrace our steps and head back to the sign for Horseshoe Palms.

The palm fruit hanging from the fronds of the palm tree below, looks like a pair of earrings to me.

Once again we scramble rocks to climb out of the canyon and find the trail that takes us back toward the ridge of Pushawalla.

Instead of returning along the ridge, we opt for the lower trail along the wash. Unfortunately, we take a false trail and yet again scramble down more rocks where we find a couple of hikers breezing by on the real trail.

Fortunately, we hook up with the proper wash trail as we head back to the Preserve and I capture close-ups of barrel cactus.

Next time we hit this trail, Jeff and I will start in the wash and return on the ridge, just to find out where the actual wash trail begins!

Native Plants and Their Uses

Marcia leads a guided hike pointing out native desert plants and explaining how they served the lifestyle of the native Cahuilla Peoples. That’s Marcia below in the green cap.

She is so sweet and knowledgeable. I thoroughly enjoy working with her and learning from her. We’ve repaired trails together and raked and cleaned up fallen palm fronds in the Wilhelm picnic grove. A retired elementary school teacher, Marcia is a Master Gardener and leads a weekly hike Wednesday mornings.

The University of California Master Gardener Program is a public service and outreach program. In exchange for training from the University in home horticulture and pest management, Master Gardeners offer volunteer services to the general public. (

Since the McCallum Trail is still closed from October’s flash flood, we walk up Squaw Hill and then head across Thousand Palms Canyon Road to the Indian Palms Trail.

Alkali Goldenbush

This medium-sized shrub is related to the sunflower family. Clusters of small yellow flowers appear in the fall, attracting bees and butterflies. The Cahuilla prepared a poultice by boiling the leaves to help heal sores. They also soaked the leaves in a pan of boiling water and inhaled the steam to remedy colds and sore throats.

Since this shrub grows quickly and the foliage comes in thick, the Cahuilla used the plant as a windbreaker. They often surrounded their homes with a border of alkali golden bush. (

Honey mesquite

This was one of the most important plants in the Cahuilla diet, providing pods and beans. The fresh green pods were processed into a beverage and the dried beans were ground into a flour.


Marcia just happens have some flour for us to sample. This gluten-free ground meal is smoky and spicy. It reminds me of a tangy rub or marinade.

The wood was the best, hottest-burning firewood. Larger limbs were used for construction and slender branches could be made into arrows.


This desert plant needs an ample supply of water year round. It grows around the oasis and desert wetlands.

The roots and sprouts were roasted and eaten by the Cahuilla. Raw roots were a cure for diarrhea. The long slender stalks were woven into walls and covered in mud to build roofs. The Cahuilla also used dry arrowweed stalks for arrows.

Cattle spinach

This plant with very tiny leaves is an important source of minerals and salt for grazing cattle and sheep.

The iconic desert tortoise and other animals depend upon this plant for food and shelter.

Desert holly

This silvery plant is not related to the holly bush we are familiar with, but it’s leaves are similarly shaped.

It is one of the most heat-tolerant plants in North America. The light-colored leaves reflect light and heat, enabling the plant to conserve water. In severe drought conditions desert holly will even shed its leaves. Although there are no recorded uses of this plant by the Cahuilla, the leaves taste a bit like potato chips when chewed. A native snack food maybe?

Golden cholla

Native to the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico,  this species of cactus is found in the Sonoran, Mojave, and California Deserts.

Golden cholla commonly occurs in desert dry wash, creosote bush scrubs, Joshua tree woodland, and Pinyon-juniper woodland communities. Many native cultures ate the bumpy, spiny, tan fruit.


Not to be confused with the plant that produces the tar or petroleum product, it is sometimes referred to as Indian Penicillin. It gets its name from the resinous odor of its small and waxy leaves.

The Cahuilla used this plant to treat many common ailments. A tea prepared from the stems and leaves relieved sore throats, colds, stomach, and bowel maladies. The steam from the boiling tea helped relieve congestion. It was also used to help heal wounds, prevent infection, and treat dandruff. Seriously? Dandruff? I can’t imagine why the Cahuilla would worry about white shoulders. An itchy scalp… more likely.

Creosote is THE SMELL of the desert after it rains! There is nothing like that aromatic fragrance that lingers in the air. Marcia keeps a few sprigs of creosote in her shower to enjoy.

Indigo bush

Unremarkable in its dormant state, rains color it with bright green leaves and mauve stems followed by a cloud of purple blooms.

The Cahuilla steeped the branches in boiling water to produce a light yellow-brown dye for staining baskets.

Smoke tree

So wispy and pastel, leaning every which way in hues of yellow and green, this photogenic tree thrives in desert washes.

The seeds of smoke trees depend upon the washing water and flowing debris to open them and encourage germination.

Desert trumpet

This slender, leafless plant grows to 2 feet and bears tiny yellow flowers.

It was once thought that the inflated trumpet-like stem portion was caused by irritation from insect larva living inside. But this is no longer a valid theory. The Cahuilla used the bulge as a means to smoke tobacco.

Brittle bush

The silvery leaves of this plant are covered with insulating white hairs that deflect the sun and conserve water. In the spring it produces yellow daisy-like flowers. During dry spells it will often lose its leaves.

The leaves, flowers, and stems were boiled to relieve toothaches. The Cahuilla also warmed the plant’s sap or resin and applied it to the chest for pain.


A perennial grass found in wet alkaline areas, the Cahuilla scraped the salt globules off the blades of leaves to use as a food condiment.

The stiff salt grass stems were also useful as a cleaning agent and a handy way to scrub off the spines and thorns of cactus.

Desert Wishbone Bush

I thought the leaves were supposed to resemble wishbones, but I have been told that the branches are shaped like wishbones. This plant is a member of the Four O’ Clock family and grows in desert flats and canyons.

The October rains bring early blooms to the desert…

These purplish-magenta flowers of White Rhatany capture our attention.

The stalked puffball below is the Desert Shaggy Mane Mushroom that prefers the dry, sandy environment of the desert.

As we head back across the street to the parking area, an Indigo bursts out in purple flowers.

Jeff and I are becoming familiar with all these desert plants. As we take our hikes we try and identify as many as we can. The desert is a spectacular place!

Hidden Palms Trail

There are at least 10 hiking trails throughout the Preserve and as the name Thousand Palms implies, many lead to palm groves. The McCallum Trail passes through 2 groves, a riparian forest and a large pond oasis. To get to Squaw Hill from the Visitor Center 2 smaller palm groves line the trail. Indian Palms is a set of 2 groves separated by a hill.

Today we visit Hidden Palms tucked into a small canyon across the street and southeast from the Visitor Center.

Harlan, one of the trail guides walks with us as we head toward the ridge of Pushawalla through the wash. Most of the trail disappeared after the recent October 13th flash flood and I take some photos to share with our Preserve Manager, Ginny Short.

The sign below leads to Willis Palms. Can you find the trail? Neither could we.

Instead of hiking up the switchback and cutting through the ridge of Pushawalla to get to Hidden Palms, we follow Harlan to learn more about desert plants and observe new growth and blooms from the recent rains. (We head toward Willis Palms.)

Meanwhile, I practice identifying plants and shrubs, such as arrowweed below.

We head south and pass the hill to Pushawalla Ridge.

Looking back, I take a pic of smoke trees in the desert wash.

Desert trumpet is plentiful here. Harlan explains that the oblong swells along the stem are filled with carbon dioxide and the Cahuilla used to fill them with tobacco to smoke.

The brittle bush below is not dead.

The leafless plant surprises us with its sticky amber resin.

Nearby is a blooming brittle bush.

After showing us his secret off-trail spot to observe blooming plants, Harlan departs and Jeff and I continue south toward Willis Palms. We are taking the roundabout trail to Hidden Palms that takes us parallel to Thousand Palms Canyon Road and Washington Street.

Looking back… Cheese weed thrives among dead smoke trees in the wash. Across the street the palm grove of the Smoke Tree Ranch Trail stands to the left of Squaw Hill.

A babbling brook trickles along the wash beside the trail; the result of the recent flash flood.

Smoke trees…

The artistic effects of salt and sand striations…

Bobcat tracks…

And coyote tracks…

The hills… Notice how they look raked, almost as if a giant hand scraped its fingers down through them.

As we head east parallel to Washington Street, golden cholla cactus glow in the sunlight.

At the road to Covered Wagon Tours we head north toward Hidden Palms.

A cluster of beaver-tailed cactus greets us. Notice the tiny pink bud ready to bloom.

The thick palm skirts create the optimum habitat for desert wildlife.

We walk through the palm grove and take the trail to Pushawalla, cross over the ridge and return to the Visitor Center.

Indian Palms Trail

The 2nd Trail to Re-Open

The first trail to open is Squaw Hill, a short 300-foot ascent with a few gentle switchbacks leading to a great viewing area of the valley surrounded by mountains.

I help repair part of the 2-mile out and back Indian Palms Trail leading to 2 separate palm groves. (Who knew I’d be helping repair hiking trails when I retired? I mean, I read about volunteer working vacations opportunities and always thought, “How cool!” But now I am actually helping restore trails damaged by the flash flood of October 13th in the Coachella Valley Preserve.)

A few days later Jeff and I check it out.

The trail to Indian Palms begins in Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve’s parking lot.

We head out early in the day…

…and cross the street carefully to the east side of Thousand Palms Canyon Road.

The trail is well marked.

The mud in the wash is still wet and riddled with well-preserved bobcat tracks.

We take a left and hike toward the north palm grove first.

The water source is not visible but the California Fan Palms are evidence of its availability.

Barrel cactus, creosote bushes, and sandpaper plant stand watch among the rocks of the Indio Hills.

We follow the loop around the grove. Notice the younger palm trees with their frond petticoats. The taller palm tree looks like it has survived a fire with its blackened trunk and high skirt fronds. But it’s alive and well and even producing palm fruit dripping off its right side.

Here’s a great close-up of four-wing saltbush.

So much palm fruit, too high to pick…

Out of the loop, (hehe) we head to the south grove.

Water rises to the surface…

And lush palm fruit is within reach!

On our way back I finally get close up and personal with a barrel cactus.

With the McCallum Trail temporarily closed, the Indian Palms Trail receives lots of visitors.