A monumental adventure awaits at Joshua Tree


May 01, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Matt and Reggie are in heaven -- at least busy climbing toward it -- on the gigantic rocks -- huge boulders piled one on the other as if some disgruntled giant had thrown them in a messy heap.

The sun is shining and we're surrounded by serious rock climbers as well as other parents following their children's leads. Matt, 10, liked watching the "real" climbers almost as much as he liked climbing himself. Melanie, 3, was thrilled that she was big enough to follow her brother and sister on this adventure (with mom and dad close by, of course.)

We were at Joshua Tree National Monument, about 50 miles east of Palm Springs, Calif. On busy weekends, the rangers here joke, climbers outnumber the lizards on the rocks in the 568,000-acre desert preserve famous around the world for rock climbing. It's a great spot for a spring family break, too. Many families come here to camp as well as to teach the children a bit about the desert.

There are hundreds of varieties of trees and plants here as well as animals such as coyote, big horn sheep, jack rabbits and Golden Eagles. (Call Joshua Tree National Monument at [619] 367-7511.)

The Palms Springs area is still the playground of the rich and famous. Bob Hope lives here. So do Gerald Ford and Betty Ford. But the region, where the sun shines 350 days a year, also offers plenty for families who want to explore nature and get a little fun-in-the-sun.

The welcome mat is out with children's programs at local resorts, the wonderful Living Desert zoo and the 21-acre Oasis WaterPark, among other places. (Call [800] 417-3529 to get information on the Palm Springs Desert Resorts. Ask for the "R&R Club" brochure, which offers discounts for resorts, restaurants, retailers and attractions.)

Late one afternoon, we rode the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway 2 1/2 miles to the threshold of the Mount San Jacinto State Wilderness, exchanging the desert for the mountains. There are 54 miles of hiking trails here, and 11 campgrounds.

At Joshua Tree, rangers explain that few areas offer the same opportunity to see the stark differences between "high" and "low" desert. Below 3,000 feet in the eastern half of the park is the arid Colorado Desert. The higher, slightly wetter and cooler Mojave Desert is in the western part of the park and home to the Joshua trees.

The trees grow just a couple of inches a year but may live for centuries -- some growing to 40 feet tall and providing a huge apartment complex for wildlife. Some birds nest in limbs. Others feed on the insects inside. Lizards and termites live in fallen limbs.

There are hiking trails here of varying difficulty. The mile-long Hidden Valley trail winds through a rock-enclosed valley that, legend says, was used as a hide-out for cattle and horse rustlers in the 1800s. We opted for the self-guided nature trail at the Cholla Cactus Garden.

We also learned a painful lesson about the "jumping" cholla cactus: At the slightest touch, the sharp needles penetrate the skin. Reggie stumbled over one as we were hiking, getting several needles stuck in her ankle. Luckily some other experienced hikers helped us out, providing a tweezers, antiseptic cream and soothing words. Now I always carry a first-aid kit wherever we go.

Rangers here offer words of caution about being out in the desert, too. Make sure you have plenty of water -- at least a gallon a day per person. When the water is half gone, it's time to turn back. Even if you're just hiking around for a few hours, you'll need to carry snacks with you. And you'll want to dress in layers because the temperature can drop dramatically in a 24-hour period. Don't forget sunglasses, hat and sunscreen. There's no shade.

When we left Joshua Tree, the children were disappointed that we hadn't seen enough desert animals, so we headed over to the Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park in Palm Desert, which focuses on desert plants and animals and where a lot of emphasis is placed on breeding endangered species. Don't miss the Discovery Room, where hands-on activities are offered (call [619] 346-5694 to find out about programs).

"The desert," Reggie offered as we were leaving, "is a lot more than sand."

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