Monday, November 16, 2015

Joshua Tree National Park: The Maze

Searching for the trail in The Maze
 Joshua Tree National Park is known as a climber's park. The rocks are big, easily accessible and there are plenty to choose from. Our visit to Joshua Tree was a mission of discovery, and that meant throwing on our packs, topping off water bottles, and hitting the trails. Our first stop was a trail called "The Maze". Peculiarly, it wasn't listed on our map. We stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center beforehand where a Park Ranger drew an "X" on our map. "We don't advertise the Maze," said the ranger. Apparently too many people get lost there.

Still looking for The Maze trail.
 We reached what we thought was the parking area the ranger directed us to, and set out toward rock formations in the distance. We weren't sure if we were in the right place, because although The Maze is an official park trail, there is no official trailhead or signage of any kind. When we reached the rock formation I turned around and took a bearing with my compass to the van to be safe. The Maze, like the rest of Joshua Tree, is a desert. And like the Sonoran Desert that I'm used to, trails can be hard to find because the ground is covered in sand everywhere. We picked a direction we thought looked good, and ventured on.

Looking for a trail
I was a little hesitant charging off trail in a place called the Maze. Route finding was challenging because the entire area is covered in huge boulders and rock formations that looked like literal mounds of piled rock. Between these rock piles were dozens of dried washes that could easily be confused for trails. The landscape was otherworldly. In fact, it reminded me of Mars (minus the plant life of course). Coming from Phoenix, much of the plant life was familiar. There were plenty of cacti and agave. But it's the bizarre Joshua Tree that really made it feel strange. The animal life was plentiful as well. We saw a coyote, a jackrabbit, a tarantula, and sheep tracks in a wash. Eventually we reached a high point with great views of the area where we finally spotted a trail. 

The Maze
Joshua Tree
 The trail we found led us to a sign that told us we were on the Maze Loop trail. It began by following a dry creekbed through lush desert vegetation. We wound around boulders and over saddles on rocky hills. The trail eventually took us high enough to give us some picturesque views of the park. The rocky landscape stretched to the horizon, and stirred my imagination and desire for exploration.

Finally on the trail.
 As the sun sunk low on the horizon we began to wonder if we had lost the trail. We hadn't seen any other hikers since we started, and the footprints in the sand that we had been using as directional ques were gone. In the distance we spotted a truck and realized that we had unwittingly looped back to the road. My compass told me that we were way south of where we parked the van, so we left the trail (which we weren't sure was a trail anyway) and parallelled the road back to where we started.

Back to the van off trail.
I'm not sure how long this hike is supposed to be, but we guessed that we had done 6 or 7 miles. Probably half of that distance was off trail. The landscape was beautiful and the hike was moderate as far as the difficulty is concerned. The toughest part was just figuring out which way to go. During the hike we only saw 4 people, which turned out to be the least amount of people (by far) we saw in the park during our whole trip. For me it was an amazing introduction to Joshua Tree National Park, and I couldn't wait for more.

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