From Joshua Tree: Happy birthday, America!

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America turned 239 this past weekend and I was able to spend it at a destination that could probably be considered kind of odd given the occasion.

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Yep – I spent Independence Day 2015 in the desert.

My friend pitched the idea of a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park less than a week before Saturday, and although was still recuperating from having been up and down the Central Coast the previous weekend, JT has been on my bucket list for some time so I couldn’t say no.

Our July 4th day trip was quite a lengthy one, but that’s a given when it comes to maximizing day trips. The park is about 2.5 hours east of Los Angeles, so we were up and about by the time the sun rose.

The itinerary was already largely set before we arrived. When we got there, a park ranger at the Cottonwood Visitor’s Center at the south entrance gave us additional suggestions on what to see and do, as well as what not to see given that we were driving around in a low vehicle.

There were five of us who explored Joshua Tree together, and we brought more than two dozen bottles of water and food to last the whole day.

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In a total of about 13 hours at the park, we were able to see Cottonwood Spring, the Cholla Cactus Garden, Arch Rock, Skull Rock, Keys View and Barker Dam, as well as watch the sunset and stargaze.

(And take staged shots imitating the cover of Abbey Road by The Beatles.)
(And take staged shots imitating the cover of Abbey Road by The Beatles.)

Although it was a long day, it didn’t feel rushed. We completed one hike (Barker Dam) and spent the bulk of our time snapping photos of the environment around us. My friends were also careful to plan the stops so that they were right along our route from south to north: we only backtracked a few times, mainly to get more water at a 7-Eleven and to grab dinner in Twentynine Palms.

A day actually turned out to be a lot of time to explore Joshua Tree. From south to north, the park is about a 40-mile drive and it’s fascinating to see the various rock formations, the Joshua trees, and the landscape, which is particularly incredible because it looks exactly the way it would in a storybook or National Geographic photograph.

Keys View
Keys View

The highlight of the day – or perhaps evening would be more accurate – was watching the sunset, seeing the stars and watching a nearly full, waning moon rise. In Los Angeles, views of the sunset are interrupted by tall buildings (unless, of course, you’re at the beach) and the view of the stars is clouded by light pollution.

Moon rise
Moon rise

Not in the desert, though.

While it’s more common to spend the 4th of July at the beach or some area where fireworks aid in the celebration of America’s independence, investing the day in an area that was not crowded at all and where there were absolutely no fireworks truly felt like a perfect place to appreciate the good things that come with being American.

How lucky were we to be able to wander around the desert safely and actually be in one of California’s ecosystems?

My friends and I spent about $30 each for the whole day in Joshua Tree. The cost would have been different if we had to rent a car.

Here are some helpful bits of information and tips about what it’s like to do a day trip:

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Bring lots of water. Really, though. It doesn’t hurt to bring more than you need, and you can always take home any leftovers. If you’re planning on just driving most of the time, you won’t need that much, but it’s always helpful to bring extra in the event of spontaneous hikes squeezed in or an extended period of time spent outside for photography purposes. If you find yourself running out of water, the visitor’s centers sell Niagara water for $1 each, and they’re a tad bit larger than the average bottle. Just keep in mind they close at 4 or 5 p.m. depending on what day it is. There’s also the option to drive out to Twentynine Palms for more water.

Bring a hat and sun block. It’s hot, and it’s the desert, so protect the skin and head.

24 - joshua-tree-national-parkDo some research. It’s not too hard to get away with winging a day trip to this desert park if you stop by the visitor’s center and spend a good 10 to 15 minutes speaking with a park ranger to figure out what you want to do in your time frame. However, to really maximize the day, as always, it’s helpful to find out what you can about the area online. Check out a map of Joshua Tree and see if you’d like to do any number of hikes or if you just want to make stops, take photos and read the information boards.

The park entrance fee is $20 for vehicles and is valid for seven days.

The Joshua Trees are located toward the northern area of the park.

If you like to climb, Joshua Tree is a treat! The rocks provide a really good grip so you virtually won’t have to worry about slipping. Even if you’re not an avid climber (like me), it’s hard not to find it fun to climb the rocks so easily.

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