Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Joshua Tree Park

A psychiatrist and a GP hike a desert wilderness of unexpected beauty

At first glance, a desert seems like a wasteland: a vast stretch of earth with little life or variety; an inhospitable expanse of rubble, sand and desiccated plant life. When my wife Sally and I visited Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California last February, the reality couldn't have been farther from our assumptions.

This 325,000-hectare national park is filled with more than 700 species of plants all thriving in their unique environments. In fact, the area was first proposed for preservation in the 1930s because of its incredible diversity of plants and wildlife.

A junction of two distinct ecosystems, the park offers a spectacular place for hiking, rock climbing and nature photography and welcomes more than a million visitors each year. The purplish grey hues of the Colorado Desert form the eastern section of the park, characterized by hardy, evergreen creosote bushes, tall, whip-like ocotillos with their annual red flowers and spiny cholla cactus.

In the western arm of the park, the Mojave Desert is higher and moister -- an ideal home for the park's famous namesake, the Joshua tree. These surreal looking trees (a member of the lily family) grow very slowly, about two centimetres annually, and can only be found in a few American states.

In the mid 1800s, Mormon immigrants named the tree after the biblical figure, since its branches seemed to be stretching out to guide them west to the promised land. They are an oddity, but they are also one of the most spectacular sights in the park, especially in spring when they bloom with creamy white blossoms.

Some of the animals that call the park home include bighorn sheep, six species of rattlesnake, kangaroo rats, ground squirrels, lizards, jackrabbits, tarantulas, desert tortoise and many types of migratory birds. Most animals in the desert are nocturnal, but a watchful eye will often spot birds, lizards and other small animals that are active during the day.

Along with the spectacular and diverse plant and animal life, the park also includes some of the most interesting rock formations in California. Huge granite rocks and canyons are abundant and make the park one of the most popular places for rock climbing.

We didn't get out on the rocks ourselves, but watched as climbers tackled some of the 4500 established climbing routes. For those with the urge to don a harness or even simply boulder along the lower routes, there are plenty of options in the area.

On our first day in the park, we took a leisurely stroll along a nature trail to Hidden Valley in the northwest section of the park.

This was a 1.5-kilometre loop to a picnic area and a fitting introduction to the area. Along the way we saw a number of Joshua trees and walked among rock formations reminiscent of the settings of old cowboy movies.

In keeping with the Western feel, our next walk was along the 6.5-kilometre Lost Horse Mine Trail. Legend has it that a man named Johnny Lang stumbled upon a gold mine while looking for his lost horse in the 1800s and named the mine after his blessing in disguise. Lost Horse Mine produced approximately 255,000 grams of gold during the late 19th century before closing in the 1930s.

We stopped at the abandoned work site where a 10-stamp mill used for crushing rock and other aging pieces of equipment were still sitting in the desert -- signs of the work that once took place there. Old shaft entrances are also visible although some have been filled in.

 

On the hill across from the worksite you can still see the remnants of the small town that used to house the miners. As with most ghost towns, visiting this place gives a sense that the people simply vanished in mid stride.

As we were leaving the park that evening, we drove to the end of the road at the western entrance to Key's Point. There was a stunning lookout from which we could see the entire valley and Palm Springs spreading out below.

A large wind farm was another point of interest on the outskirts. What a strange vision: miles of streamlined propellers on tall white stalks stretching in every direction and providing energy to the area.

On our second day in the park we headed for its southern entrance. From there we embarked on a 13-kilometre hike to one of the more stunning sights in a desert -- a palm oasis.

Five palm oases are scattered in the park and they indicate the few places where there is water. Not surprisingly, wildlife abounds in these lush retreats.

Our hike to the Lost Palms Oasis meandered along a dry, sandy creek bed with cacti on both sides. Although the creek bed suggested the recent presence of water, for most of our walk, we didn't see a drop. We passed through an impressive canyon lined with cacti before reaching the oasis which, to our joy, wasn't simply a mirage.

When we reached the rocky bluff above the oasis, we paused for a picnic lunch, awestruck by the beauty of what lay below. Lush, green palms covered the base of the canyon in stands. We couldn't see any running water; underground springs fed the vegetation. This was a definite wow moment on our desert journey and well worth the hike.

At the end of the day we took a short half-a-kilometre stroll on the cholla garden nature trail. We saw a beautiful array of teddy-bear cholla cacti in gorgeous, colourful bloom. The scene resembled a coral reef. We were also fortunate to experience the true splendour of a desert sunset.

Our two days in Joshua Tree National Park gave us a taste of this diverse desert environment -- and we had only scratched the surface of the park's many attractions and trails. Along with hiking and rock climbing, the park is an excellent place for backpacking, camping, horseback riding, star-gazing and bird-watching. There are interpretive programs and scenic driving tours of the area and soon there will be an additional 45 kilometres of biking trails.

If you're looking for a desert adventure without having to travel around the world, Joshua Tree National Park is a place the whole family can enjoy.

In keeping with the Western feel, our next walk was along the 6.5-kilometre Lost Horse Mine Trail. Legend has it that a man named Johnny Lang stumbled upon a gold mine while looking for his lost horse in the 1800s and named the mine after his blessing in disguise. Lost Horse Mine produced approximately 255,000 grams of gold during the late 19th century before closing in the 1930s.

We stopped at the abandoned work site where a 10-stamp mill used for crushing rock and other aging pieces of equipment were still sitting in the desert -- signs of the work that once took place there. Old shaft entrances are also visible although some have been filled in.

 

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