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Bea Helman

The Hidden Magic of Joshua Tree National Park

When most people think of Palm Springs, they think about lying by the pool, scouting modern furniture from the fifties, and sweating. But when I think of Palm Springs, I think of Joshua Tree. The Internet will tell you that this particular portion of southeastern California became a national park in 1994, and that is named for the yucca trees native to the park. It’ll tell you that Joshua Tree’s grow quickly and that you could eat the buds. But here’s what I’ll tell you: the name ‘Joshua’ was decided on by Mormons who thought that the tree’s natural form mimicked that of Joshua praying to the sky in an episode of the Bible, and that the sun sets on the rocks just right and that you can get great tacos in the small town right before you drive in. I’ll tell you that there’s a candy store in town and that you can freely camp and cook and wake up to snow in the desert. I can tell you this, because it’s real: the hidden wonders of Joshua Tree are something you have to experience to believe.

The first time I went to Joshua Tree National Park, it was with a boy I loved very much. We camped out at the Ace Hotel (one of the weirdest and best places in that desert) and spent most of the few days we were there climbing rocks and eating blueberries. It turns out that the town of Joshua Tree has a remarkable farmers market on Saturdays– it’s full of honey and home-grown tomatoes and berries that will stain your hands those deep summer colors– so we sat on the rocks and ate tiny berries and almonds out of huge bags and climbed on the roof of the car to see further into the horizon.

Joshua Tree

Bea Helman

 

The next time I ended up in Joshua Tree, I was in the middle of losing that very person and felt like I needed to be somewhere fully and completely larger than me. Standing in a desert looking up at rock formations that had tumbled together into something enormous and marked seemed like the only option. Sometimes you just need to see something beautiful and stare at it until your worries start to straighten out. I dragged my somewhat reluctant family with me and went back to that weird and wonderful hotel. It’s the kind of place where bingo night is populated by busty locals who climb into sandy taxis at the end of the night and have permanently huge hair. It feels like the 1970’s, only contemporary.

The day after we arrived, we ended up in Joshua Tree in the middle of the afternoon. Winter light is clearer and sharper there than in summer, when objects blur at the edges and everything vibrates with heat. The park looked the same, but it felt different.

We parked the car and ran through the trees, toward rocks that looked like rising dough, glowing purple and perfectly grey in the almost-setting sun. I had to remember to look at the ground, because some of the best cacti live down there. Seeing something like this exist for itself is a grounding phenomenon. Joshua Trees stand twisted but stable, and brambles flower amongst their roots. The beauty rises from the dusty earth unadorned, yet somehow, my white converse didn’t get dirty. I heard people laughing just to laugh and hear it ring out loud. The sun didn’t fall down on us. No berries this time, but I came with three people that love me, always.

It turns out you can find magic if you look for it in unexpected places.

If you ever find yourself driving to Joshua Tree, don’t freak out if you don’t see anywhere to eat; you won’t starve. Wait until you arrive and then go to Crossroads Cafe. Get the tacos or any of the Roadside Specials. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, this place has you covered. If for some reason you decide you need to go elsewhere, The Natural Sisters Cafe is nearby.

Joshua Tree

Bea Helman

Joshua Tree, like many national parks, harbors a certain beauty no matter where you stop and wander. Do, however, try to make it to the Cholla Cactus Garden and to the Hidden Valley. Take some random roads. Make it your own. The park will provide you with all the camping and hiking information you need, so take it seriously. Bring or buy water and layer up. Go to Key’s View and look over the world for a while. Climb a rock and sit on the top in the sun. Stay at the Joshua Tree Inn and wear a lot of denim. Go find Skull Rock. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have anyone to split a bag of almonds with: Joshua Tree is an inspiring haven, and you’ll enjoy every second of the adventure.

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