Day 29: Joshua Tree National Park, CA / by Wookie Kim

Today was heart-pumping; I crossed paths with a rattlesnake and almost got stranded in the dark on top of a pile of rocks.

I'd enjoyed my day in the mountains, but I was ready to make it into the deserts of California. I'd find that at Joshua Tree National Park, just a couple hours east of Idyllwild.

I started the day slowly. I took advantage of the free Astrocamp breakfast (which made me miss the good old days of unlimited meal plans in college), and wrote a couple blog posts since I had wifi. Then I said goodbye to Kyle and made my way out of the San Jacinto Wilderness and down into the Coachella Valley. It was refreshing to start the day with a scenic drive down the east side of the San Jacintos.

Once down in the valley, I noticed something quite disturbing while cruising. The temperature.

Stepping outside for a lunch pitstop in Banning confirmed just how hot it was. Given that Rim-to-Rim was so close, I didn't want to bake in the sun. I was almost glad I'd be arriving at Joshua Tree late in the afternoon.

At 2:30 p.m., I arrived at the visitor center. I loaded up as many water receptacles as I could (there's no water inside the park), and headed in to find a campsite at the Jumbo Rocks campground, which is known to be one of the most unique and beautiful around. I managed to snag a nifty spot, right up against the base of a pile of jumbo rocks. I pitched my tent up against the rock, so that it would be in the shade. And then I was off!

My first stop was Barker Dam. Ranchers built this dam to provide water to cattle. It was a short loop, which, in this heat, was a good thing. As soon as I turned the corner, I noticed that someone was modeling on the rocks. I could see why. The backdrop was perfect.

I continued around the loop, and observed the varied plants and rocks. The clouds were pretty, too.

I finally made it to the dam. I was surprised by how much water was in the reservoir. If I were living here, I'd live right here, I thought to myself. (Life is always better near water.)

The loop ended quickly because it was just over a mile. But my little jaunt didn't end without a pleasant (and scary) surprise. Ahead of me, I noticed a couple stopped on the trail. Turns out a rattlesnake was rattling at them.

It also turned out that the rattlesnake simply wanted to cross the road. We stepped well back, and let it cross.

Ahead of us, there was another pair of hikers approaching. We warned them from afar that there was a rattlesnake on the trail. We all waited. Eventually, the rattlesnake made it to the other side. It then disappeared into a crack in the rocks (now I understood why the signs always say to never put your hand in a crack in the rocks!).

That was certainly an exhilarating way to end the Barker Dam loop. But I couldn't end the day with just 1.5 miles of trails! I was off to the Hidden Valley trailhead. The scenery was immediately different. It was far more rocky here.

I kept a chill pace, but wasted little time completing the loop. It was still really hot, even though it was past 5:30. I observed the cacti up close, and I also noticed that some hiker had left behind an unopened can of beer. I was tempted by it, but chose to leave it be.

My final stop for the afternoon was the Keys View. This was a high point facing the southwest and looking down into the Coachella Valley. On a clear day, you could apparently see the San Andreas Fault and even Mexico. Today was not a clear day. The smog hung thick in the valley. I later learned that Joshua Tree had the lowest air quality of all our national parks. This is because the pollution from major California cities (e.g., Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco) flowed with the easterly winds into the valley. It is the areas of land that are slightly inland that pay for the pollution created by coastal cities.

And then I was done for the evening. I headed back for Jumbo Rocks. I was ready to cook a quick meal, and then catch the evening ranger talk. Seeing the park as sunset was approaching was interesting because the land held a different hue. It was basically tinted orange.

I came back to Jumbo Rocks as the sun was setting. I climbed up a small pile of jumbo rocks and observed the campground. All around me, people were up on the rocks, taking selfies and just taking it all in. The purple-to-blue spectrum was a familiar one. It was still mesmerizing.

The ranger talk (my third) was on climate change. Ranger Christian went through a concise but compelling presentation on the way humans have contributed to the warming of our climate. He tied the global problem to the park itself--climate scientists predicted that, with the rising global temperatures, the Joshua tree would be close to extinct by 2100.

By the time I got back to my campsite, it was almost 10 p.m. I knew I needed to go to bed, since I wanted to catch the sunrise from atop the rocks. At the same time, the pile of rocks I wanted to view the sunrise from seemed challenging to climb. I decided I'd get on top of them now to preview their difficulty, and also try my hand at some night-time photography.

The pile of rocks I wanted to climb looked like a trail cairn, except, instead of little pebbles and stones, the cairn was made up of gigantic rocks. I'd seen it earlier, just after the sun had set. Now I would climb this pile.

I got 90% of the way to the top without any issues. I'd started (indoor) rock climbing with a coworker back in January, so I had at least some minimal rock climbing skills to put to use here. I'd mainly avoided the bouldering walls, but here I was, bouldering on actual boulders--and doing quite alright!

But the last rock was massive and steep and made me pause before climbing it. It was only a tad smaller than the rock right below it, which meant that any kind of "ledge" was very small; if I fell off, I'd fall a good 20-30 feet to the ground. It was also quite dark, which made it hard to see the rock's crevices (I did have a headlamp). In spite of this, I (foolishly?) ascended. I patted my hands around the sides of the rock, feeling for a crack or groove that my hand could securely grip. I then found a new foothold, stepped up, and repeated the process, step by step, as carefully as I'd ever done. I was almost to the top when I really started struggling. I needed just one more step with my right foot and then I'd be able to pull my body up the flat part of the rock. But I couldn't reach a good handhold. I paused briefly, took a deep breath, and reached up again. Finally, I'd found what I needed. I scrambled up to the top. I was now on top!

It was an amazing feeling. I'd not really planned to use my rock climbing skills on this trip. And here I was using them to my advantage, to get a great viewpoint. From the ground, the pile of rocks hadn't seemed that tall. But looking down, my tent seemed very small. I realized I was now quite high above the campground. Like towering high. And I'd just climbed up here spontaneously.

 A view of my tent from the top of the pile of rocks. (This photo was actually taken the following morning, at sunrise.)

A view of my tent from the top of the pile of rocks. (This photo was actually taken the following morning, at sunrise.)

I was now ready to test some manual exposures. I wanted to see if I could capture the campground at night. Even though it was past 10 p.m. (and quiet hour time), I could hear and see lots of activity. Maybe I could capture it visually? The almost-full moon provided good ambient lighting, so I knew that I could get pretty clear views with a medium-length exposure. I finally settled on 8 seconds as a good exposure time. It was really cool to see the campground light up.

The camera, I was learning, was an incredibly versatile tool. It could capture light in a way that the human eye couldn't. I was impressed by what I had done without a tripod--I'd just balanced the camera on the rock, angled it, and hoped I could hold the camera steady with my hand. I now felt ready to capture the sunrise, and was doubly ready for bed. I put my camera away.

And then I panicked. I realized that I hadn't thought about how I would get down the pile of rocks. Generally, climbing down rocks in this situation is harder. Given how challenging the ascent had been, I wasn't sure how I'd manage getting down. I began by telling myself a lie: it would actually be easy to get back down. I tried. As expected, I soon reached a point where I felt like my feet were dangling, but I was still too far away from the boulder below me. I twisted my head and saw that the distance to the rock below was actually not that great. But--and this was an important but--because the rock below was almost the same width as the rock I was on, I had absolutely no wiggle room. That is, if I dropped down and rolled even a few feet, I'd go flying off the side.

This was a pretty scary moment for me, and definitely one that I hadn't intended to be in. In fact, this was the first time during this trip where I felt like I'd made a true mistake. I was frozen on the side of the rock. Thankfully,  while clung frozen, I was in a very secure position on the rock. But my mind was far from secure. It whirred, and calculated options: (A) try to reach one more foothold below, (B) drop down but risk tumbling off the ledge, and (C) scramble back up to the top and call to other campers for help.

I couldn't decide. I spent a minute or two, still frozen to the side of the rock, debating my options. Pretty soon, though, my palms were getting sweaty (and I obviously didn't have a chalk bag!)--I needed to act soon or I'd slip off anyways. Instead of hastily making a decision, I decided I'd go back up to the top and regain composure.

I'm glad I returned to the top. After taking 5 minutes to catch my breath and dry my palm sweat, I'd come up with a new option: (D) find another way down. I wasn't thrilled with this option, because on the first ascent, I'd seen no way up but the one I'd taken. But I figured it was at least worth a shot. It was certainly possible that there were some routes that were easy to do on a descent but hard to do on an ascent, and vice versa.

Turns out (D) was the right choice. I found a side of the rock with a shallow decline. I butt-scooted to the edge and saw a fairly wide mini-boulder below. I could climb down partially and drop down onto that boulder without the risk of falling off. And that's exactly what I did. Once I was on that mini-boulder, I easily descended back to my campsite.

I still couldn't believe what had just happened. I'd actually been contemplating yelling out to my campground neighbors, who I'd spoken to earlier, for help. I don't even know what help they could've provided, but that's kind of how desperate I was at the time. But I'm glad I took some time to make a calm, calculated decision, because that's what led me to climb back up to the top and brainstorm new possibilities. Sure, I could've tried option (B) while clinging to the rocks. In fact, I have a feeling that I could've dropped down and maintained my balance enough so that I wouldn't roll or fall over. But I thought about the outcome if I couldn't stay in one spot. And that was enough to make me reject that option.

This was a heart-pumping way to end the day. And what a day it was! As my adrenaline faded away, I became very sleepy. I crawled into my tent, closed my eyes, and sighed a deep sigh. And then I fell asleep.