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.

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.

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!

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.

Frank’s Guided Desert Bird Walk

Every Sunday Frank leads a bird walk through the Thousand Palms Oasis. Today, however, most of the trails are still closed from the flash flood of October 13th. So we take a short walk around the Palm House. Jeff and I don binoculars and off we go.

Frank wears a perpetual smile and a vest covered with patches of all the places he has gone bird-watching. He carries his viewing scope and sets it up for crystal clear up-close observing. Then he plays the different bird calls on his iPad to attract more birds.

Below is a list of the birds I have seen in the desert oasis:

Cactus Wren

Very common where cholla cactus and mesquite brush grow, this bird has a very recognizable raspy voice. ( (courtesy Brian E. Small)


Yellow-rumped Warbler

With its trademark yellow rump patch, this warbler survives the winter eating berries all along the western coast of the United States and Mexico. ( (courtesy Laure W. Neish)


Bewick’s Wren

Common and widespread in the west, this wren enjoys the habitat of desert washes. ( (courtesy G. Lasley)

Song and call


In the desert Southwest, this bird arrives to announce the beginning of winter. Phainopeplas and mistletoe rely on each other. The birds eat the berries of this parasitic plant. After the berries pass through the birds’ digestive track, the seeds stick to the branches of the mesquite tree and sprout new clumps of mistletoe. ( (courtesy Bob Steele)


Western Tanager

The western counterpart of the scarlet tanager, this bird often shows up in the desert during migration. ( (courtesy Glenn Bartley)

Song and call

Great Horned Owl

Widespread and common throughout North America and parts of South America, this big bird is aggressive and powerful in its hunting. It is sometimes known by nicknames, such as “tiger owl”. ( (courtesy Johann Schumacher)


Barn Owl

Preying chiefly on mice and rats, the desert offers a good foraging territory. ( (courtesy Steve Young)


Long-eared Owl

This medium-sized owl favors habitats with dense trees for nesting and roosting and open country for  hunting. Streamside groves in deserts make an ideal environment. ( (courtesy Brian E. Small)

Bill snap and squeal near nest

Red-tailed Hawk

This is the most widespread and familiar large hawk in North America. An inhabitant of open country, this soaring bird is no stranger to the desert. ( (courtesy Tom Vezo)


Gambel’s Quail

The Sonoran desert is home to this distinctive bird, often abundant near desert streams and waterholes. Often found around mesquite thickets, foraging flocks are called coveys. (


Costa’s Hummingbird

The desert might seem like a bad place for a creature that feeds at flowers, but it is the favored habitat for this hummingbird. ( (Sid & Shirley Rucker)


Bird audio links copyrighted by National Audubon Society Bird Song Collection.

While We Are Away…

The Flash Flood of October 2018

On October 10th, Jeff drives to Denver with our dog Casey to stay with his son, David, for a few days and visit with his son, Andy, and his family. Emjay, Jasley, Jace, and Eliska are off school for the week.

On October 12th, my grandaughter’s first birthday, I fly to Ohio to attend “Reaganfest” on the 14th:

The “Von Kelly’s Estate” is alive with the sights and sounds of celebration, the taste and smells of bratts, kraut, Bavarian pretzels, and warm potato salad, and the feelings of love.

Reagan “Von Kelly” dresses appropriately for the occasion…

…and looks up to her big brother Oliver with anticipation as he sings, “It’s somebody’s birthday!” all morning long.

The boys don their attire.

The cousins… (Leah, Reagan, Lydia, Caleb, and Oliver)

The smash cake…

…gets smashed, sort of. At least it’s all over Reagan! Oliver enjoys a chocolate oatmeal mountain cookie.

Reagan changes clothes to open gifts and I take a pic of the “Von Kelly” girls.

Oliver helps Reagan unwrap presents.

Daddy’s little girl…

Lots of new toys to play with…

Meanwhile, as October 12th turns into October 13th, rain drenches the Preserve. Even though the Preserve itself only received 5/8 of an inch, the Little San Bernardino Mountains that abut the Coachella Valley were hit with 2-3 inches of rain that poured down the alluvial fan plains causing 5 foot flash floods.

I thought Gregg was kidding me when he sent me the text. Then he sent me the following pics that I took seriously:

Notice the mud line on the sign. The water streamed over the boardwalk railing flattening all the salt grass in the wetlands.

Even the Palm House did not escape some damage.

Trails close.