Joshua Tree National Park

While I’m not on a quest to collect as many National Park passport stamps as I can, I do enjoy visiting parks that I pass near during my travels. While I won’t go so far as to say I regret bypassing Joshua Tree National Park while cannonballing from Los Angeles to Quartzsite, it has definitely felt like unfinished business that I needed to address before leaving the general area. One reason for my stay at Van Life Campground: Joshua Tree was to do exactly that.

The campground is about equally distant from the park entrances in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Since I was already in Joshua Tree anyway, I visited the welcome center across the street from the saloon, then enjoyed the five miles of twisty road to the park entrance. I have to admit that while driving through the California desert, where much of the series was filmed, I couldn’t get this particular version of this particular song out of my head, so I must share it with you to play and help set the mood I was in.

Upon approaching the gate, a ranger ahead of it used hand motions to ask if I had a pass. I held up my “America the Beautiful” pass, and he waved me directly into the bypass lane to enter the park without stopping. The housing developments stopped, and the raw beauty of sand, rock formations, and, of course, Joshua trees began.

The drive through the park was fun, not in a speed demon kind of way (like I could in this van anyway), but for the scenery, and the gentle swerves and curves of the road. It took about an hour to pass through and pop out the other entrance near Twentynine Palms, where I once again had to show my pass. I’m not sure why we need to show a pass to get out as well as in, but I’m not going to argue with the nice rangers.

A beautiful thing about the “America the Beautiful” pass is unlimited access to the parks. The drive in the van was fun, but I knew I would enjoy this more on my motorcycle. So the next day, I went back and repeated this route — sort of — on two wheels.

That rather pleasant five miles before the gate became an absolute blast on the bike, with lots of turns, leans, and combinations of one turn leading into the next. You absolutely do not have to ride the optimum racing line through the turns to get through them safely — at least not at the speeds you should restrict yourself to on the street. But I enjoy doing it anyway for the satisfaction of nailing it when I get it right, and the low stakes if I get it wrong since I’m going slowly enough to not leave my lane if I mess it up.

This time, the extra ranger wasn’t there to divert people with passes to the bypass lane, so I waited in line with everyone else. When I told the ranger at the booth I had my pass in my pocket, he told me trusted me, and sent me on through, knowing it’s a bit of an ordeal to do this on a motorcycle. I thanked him and proceeded on my way.

Another advantage of the bike is that it’s much easier to pull over anywhere I want. If I can’t stop in time to check someplace out, a U-turn is simple. Here’s one of the places I stopped and walked to, an enormous natural rock pile with a lone Joshua tree standing there. It’s hard to judge size in a picture, but this tree was about 20 feet tall, which puts it somewhere between 80 and 160 years old (they grow 1.5 to 3 inches per year). This is a pretty average size for a tree in this park, which makes most of them more than twice as old as I am.

The main road was certainly more fun on the bike than in the van, but it still felt like I was passing by the scenery. While off-road riding is strictly prohibited, there are many dirt roads that branch off the main paved roads through the park. I consulted the map I got at the visitor center the previous day and went exploring a few of them.

This was a game-changer. It wasn’t about the difficulty of the dirt riding, which was not very difficult at all. What changed was that instead of passing by the scenery, I was passing through the scenery. I was an active part of it. At times I had to adjust where in the lane I put my bike so that I wouldn’t get whacked by a Joshua tree on the edge of the road. It’s not that I was closer to nature, but directly in it. That, plus the almost complete lack of traffic on these roads less traveled, made this a much better way to see the park.

I explored several of these dirt offshoots from the main road. I went several miles down Geology Road, but eventually, it got more and more sandy. There’s a one-way loop at the end that’s recommended only for high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles. Since I only have one-wheel drive, I turned around when the going got tricky. But I did make a bit of a personal breakthrough in my sand riding skills, which were nonexistent less than a year ago. I’m getting better about standing when the going gets slippery. Finally, I gained the confidence to do this on a sandy road, and it worked quite well. As I like to say at the conclusion of a crash-free dirt ride, “No whammies!”

Eventually, I ran out of dirt roads to explore without traveling far out of my way. Pinto Basin Road will take you from near the Twentynine Palms gate all the way down to Interstate 10, an additional 35 miles away. I’d definitely like to see that sometime, but today was not the day to go exploring that far. Like the previous day, I left the park through the Twentynine Palms gate. Once again, the ranger wanted to see my pass before I left, and I actually had to get it out of my pocket this time. No big deal — that’s the rules.

Joshua Tree National Park is all it’s cracked up to be. I barely scratched the surface of places to see and go in the park, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s likely I’ll make another trip through here sometime, this time including Pinto Basin Road to see a huge part of the park I haven’t had the opportunity to travel through yet.

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