Monday, October 11, 2010

Kat & Zak's Joshua Tree Vacation


On Friday October 8, Kat and I packed up our rented SUV and headed east to the Mojave Desert.

We'd planned this trip for months; not long after she got me my first good telescope in June, we knew we'd have to depart the light and air pollution of the Los Angeles area to really get a good look at the heavens. So, we looked around online and found a place to stay that seemed pretty cool, and filled out their online reservation form.

As the date got closer, about a week before our trip on a whim I decided to give the place a ring and confirm our reservations. "Reservations?" asked the older-sounding gent on the phone. "No, we couldn't have taken reservations for that weekend. We have a scrapbooking convention in town. Been booked for over a year. Whadja say your name was again? Nope, nothing in my system, sorry."

Well, that wasn't good. We'd made all kinds of arrangements to be out of town for the weekend and timed it for a new moon for the best skygazing environment, and now we seemingly didn't even have a place to stay. For a short while, things weren't looking very promising. I immediately started looking all over the web for alternative ideas, but every place I found either seemed outrageously expensive or was some craphole on the side of Highway 62 where we absolutely did not want to stay. Finally, a few hours later, I stumbled across a bed & breakfast place called the Desert Lily. The pics on the website looked cool, and I felt even better about it after calling and speaking to the innkeeper, Carrie Yeager. Not only did it seem like the perfect place, but it was actually cheaper than the place that lost our reservation. More on Carrie and the Desert Lily in a bit.

Hitting the Road
So Friday 10/8 came along, and the first thing we did was go pick up a rental car that would be appropriate for our journey. Kat had reserved a small SUV for the trip, but when we arrived at the rental place, someone pulled up with a car they were turning in. It was a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo X 4x4, and the rental guy at Enterprise asked if we'd like to use this vehicle. Well, duh! I have nothing but good things to say about this car... spacious, smooth as silk on the freeway, and able to easily tackle the dirt roads and hills of the desert. Plus, it had good AC and a nice stereo. Massive win.

After getting the car, we swung by the grocery store for supplies, then by Target to get a few necessities (sunblock, a new backpack, a first aid kit and so on). Then, after a brief stop for lunch, we hit the road! Uh... well, I should say we got onto a parking lot that doubled as the 91 East freeway. It was Friday afternoon at about 3:00 by then, and Los Angeles traffic is notoriously horrible before weekends. It was bumper to bumper for the first 70 miles of our trip, but Kat and I were in a great mood, listening to music and chatting as we rolled slowly along. The route we chose took us along the 91E, up the 605N, and east along the 60 until it turned into the 10. Then, straight up Highway 62, which leads directly to Joshua Tree... a nice 150-mile journey through Southern California.

Our journey to the desert and back again.

Finally, after four hours on the road that should have been no more than 2-1/2, we found ourselves pulling off 62 and heading down Park Boulevard. By this time, it was dark, and as I took a right onto the dirt road leading to the Desert Lily, I hit the brights on the Jeep. Suddenly, we were surrounded by cactus, scrub, and the ubiquitous Joshua Trees. Kat's eyes were big as saucers, and we continued down the bumpy dirt trail (very thankful we were in a large SUV) until pulling into the Desert Lily.

Carrie, the Desert, and the Night Sky
We'd seen plenty of photos of the Desert Lily as we got ready for our trip, and while the photos were great, none of them did justice to the experience of pulling up to the place at night. It's obvious that much care went into the design of this little oasis in the desert. It's simply beautiful. We walked in and were greeted warmly by Carrie, who showed us around the place a bit and let us know that, anticipating our interest in checking out the stars, she'd invited a sky guide to come over later and give us a tour of the night sky. I especially liked Carrie pointing out some of the little cabins situated around the B&B, explaining that they were a good place to go "smoke pot and have sex" if we were so inclined. I had a feeling we'd come to the right place. Carrie also keeps fresh-baked cookies and a variety of wines out for guests to enjoy at their discretion. The entire vibe there was above and beyond our best expectations.

After dragging our stuff into the room, we joined some of our fellow guests in the back of the main building and set up the telescope. But even without the scope, the sky was exhilarating. Den, the sky guide, was full of information and was an entertaining speaker as well. We saw things in the sky that night that we'd never be able to see in detail anywhere near LA. Jupiter, in particular, was incredible; we saw the four Jovian moons with incredible clarity. Then, with Den's assistance, we learned to located the Andromeda galaxy, and used the telescope to get a picture-perfect view.

As Kat and I watched the sky, you could hear coyotes howling. I'm not talking about howls from miles away; one sounded to be within 100 yards of us. The entire evening was mind-blowing, and after a quick dinner of snack foods and sandwiches we'd brought with us (we were too tired to even think about going into town to eat) and nice glass of merlot, we settled into our room and went to sleep.

Saturday in the Park
We made sure not to sleep in too late, mostly because the breakfasts at the Desert Lily Inn were one of the highest rated aspects of the whole place; we didn't want to miss it! And let me tell you, you don't want to miss it either if you visit there. On Saturday 10/9, Carrie made us a meal that began with a fruit dish in a bowl of yogurt combined with cottage cheese, followed by french toast made of cinnamon raisin bread that was stuffed with fruity cream cheese and topped with bananas, pecans, and syrup. It was out of this world. The guests of the B&B -- Kat and I plus a couple from Culver City and a couple from Switzerland -- all ate together outside on the patio at a beautifully set wrought iron table. It was a luxurious way to start the day! Speaking of which, the weather couldn't have possibly been nicer; it was in the high 70s and low 80s with clear, bright blue skies for the entire time we spent in the high desert. Fall and spring are the right times of year to go.

Yummy breakfast time!

The view from our front door.

The Desert Lily is awesome times infinity.

Being that we were on vacation, we were in no urgent hurry to do anything. The area around the Desert Lily, being several miles off the main drag, is basically situated in the park itself, and is a magnificent place to cruise around. We saw tons of lizards, rabbits, desert quail, and other creatures walking along in their natural habitat, all within a few yards of the hotel! I also took the opportunity to allow the desert vibe to inspire me, playing a couple of improvised tunes on guitar that I captured in audio and video recording.

Exploring around the B&B.

Desert session.

A little before noon, we jumped into the Jeep and headed into town (swerving a couple of times to avoid the desert bunnies hopping across the dirt trail). After a quick lunch and a stop by a store to get good wide-brimmed hats, we went back and drove up to the western entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.

Full of awe from the moment we enter the park.


Kat and I must have sounded like complete idiots; every sound we uttered for the first 10 miles into the park was incomprehensible gibberish. "Whoa! Look at- oh my GOD check out the.. OOH! WOW!" and so on. Pictures do not do this place justice. We cruised along, not having a very specific plan, but with a map at our side and Nick Drake's Pink Moon playing on the stereo, we drove along in awe of the plant life, abundant desert animals, and jaw-dropping rock formations that surrounded us.

Only a few miles into the park, we stopped and got out to take photos (which we ended up doing many times throughout the weekend). Eventually we found ourselves at the Hemingway Buttress, a spot very popular with rock climbers. We took photos and watched while people climbed up and rappelled down the amazing formations. I climbed a rock too; granted, it was only about ten feet high, but it made for a good photo op.

I'm on a rock.

The desert is beautiful beyond compare.

Our next stop was at the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. This was one of the highlights of the entire trip. Hidden Valley isn't a long hike; the entire loop is just over a mile. But what a mile! It curves in and out of the rocks, and up and down small hills and valleys. Only a few small signs along the way belie the fact that you're not on your own in the middle of uncharted territory. We saw amazing plants and animals everywhere. I'm happy to report that we were responsible with all of our excursions, taking backpacks full of water (and drinking it all the time), using plenty of sunscreen, and making sure we didn't wander off in the wrong direction. The desert is full of wonders, but many people have died there due to poor planning and inability/unwillingness to stay on marked trails. We were also responsible to the desert itself, not leaving behind a trace and not disturbing anything that was there.

Steak, Music, and more Stars
As the sun started to descend in late afternoon, we decided it was time to head back to the Desert Lily. Upon arriving (the folks there patiently listened to us raving about the park... I'm sure they're used to it), we asked Carrie about some dinner possibilities. Kat was in the mood for a steak, and Carrie suggested we go to Pappy & Harriet's, up in Pioneertown. She even made reservations for us. After a shower and a change of clothes, we drove up the steep road and ended up at the restaurant. It's a terrific roadhouse that doesn't have to try and be authentic; it's the real deal.

As it turned out, our trip coincided with the Joshua Tree Music Festival, and there were obviously lots of music-loving hipsters around. We got seated right away thanks to Carrie's pull in making our reservations, and both ordered nearly identical dinners (dinner salad, then rib eye steak with garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli). The food was phenomenal, and having this honky-tonk band (I'm pretty sure they were called the Shadow Mountain Band) performing while we ate and laughed made the night all the more fun.

After driving back to the B&B, we once again set up the telescope and spent a quiet night looking at the stars and planets. As the night grew late, we found ourselves exhausted but happy. I had a glass of ruby port and some chocolate, and then we headed into our room for some much-needed sleep.

Easy Like Sunday Morning
We awoke on Sunday 10/10/10 to another glorious desert morning, and situated ourselves at the patio table. We started with a similar first course of fruit and yogurt (and coffee and juice, of course), but Carrie managed to outdo her previous effort by serving us this unbelievable breakfast pizza. It was phyllo dough topped with cheeses, potatoes, peppers, onions, and an egg over easy, along with asparagus and tomato on the side. Yum!

The Desert Lily on Sunday morning.

Local bunny.

Since our departure that day was the end of our stay at the Desert Lily, we got all of our abundant stuff loaded back into the Jeep, and eventually said our sad goodbyes to Carrie (sad in that we'd have loved to stay longer). As we drove down the dirt path away from the B&B leading back toward the main street, we had another unexpected nature encounter. I slammed on the brakes after seeing something in the road, missing it by mere inches. Backing up slightly, I told Kat to lean over to my side of the SUV; there was a beautiful gopher snake, about 5' long, stretched out across the road. After a couple of pics, we continued on toward the park.

Mister snakey says "Sssssssss."

Our first stop on Sunday was at Quail Springs, a little picnic zone that had rock climbing. We took some snapshots and meandered around for a bit, then hopped back in the Jeep and headed for our highest elevation yet: Keys View. It's at 5,125 feet, but the panorama from the top is unlike anything I've ever seen. You can look all the way down to the Salton Sea at 230 feet below sea level, and within your field of vision you also see San Jacinto Peak at 10,800 feet. You can also follow the San Andreas Fault as it runs north. Just incredible!

Cruising around Quail Springs.

Looking a mile downward (and upward) at Keys View.

After winding our way down, we stopped at Cap Rock, where we sat and enjoyed some snacks, and then walked the very short nature trail there. It was perfect, considering we didn't want to overexert ourselves before the long drive home. As we rounded a corner, we ran into yet another surprise: a wedding was being held at the far end of the trail, and just as we approached them, we got to hear the newlyweds say "I do" and kiss. Another head-shaking moment on a trip that had been chock full of them!

Kat and I enjoy the short walk around Cap Rock.

Leaving Cap Rock, we made one more stop, driving up the dirt road to the start of the Lost Horse Mine Trail. That, however, is a six mile day hike, and we certainly weren't about to tackle that at the moment. Instead, we drove back down, and after a quick stop for lunch, got on the road to start making our way home. I'm happy to report that our drive back was much more smooth than our drive in; there was barely any traffic the entire way, and we covered the 150 miles in just over two hours, even with a stop in Riverside for gas.

Memories Galore
Kat and I are unanimous: our trip to Joshua Tree was one of the best vacations we'd ever had in our lives. Even after three days, we felt that we were leaving much too soon, with so much left to see for the next trip. And believe me, there will indeed be another trip. Kat already stated this in no uncertain terms within a half hour of our arrival! I find that I'm already looking forward to our next adventure in the Mojave Desert.

Farewell for now, joshua Tree! We'll be back soon enough!

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