I grew up with a disdain for the desert, born mostly out of ignorance. I came of age in the rather lush green, humid, deciduous environment of the North-Eastern United States and held onto childhood memories checkered with grass stains and forest wandering. To me, the desert was the antithesis of those pleasant memories; a dry, hot, desolate environment void of life.
Then, we moved to a desert in 2013.
To be fair we live in an irrigated ‘high desert’ with a river running through it. Our close proximity to the Cascade mountains offers bountiful snow melt filled reservoirs that feed a network of canals from the foothills to the valley where lush green blocks of crops sit in stark contrast to the sun baked brown ridges that once held back and then released the Missoula flood waters at the end of the last ice age.
It is here that a flourishing agricultural valley produces a diverse line up of fruits and vegetables including cherries, hops, grapes, and apples in globally recognized quantities. We’ve grown to love it here and I have a new appreciation for arid environments. We even used ‘sage’ as our daughters middle name; a nod to the omnipresent sage brush that lines our favorite uplands walk which is also credited with helping Samantha go into labor.
When building our tiny house we opened up a credit card to filter the purchases through in order to accumulate airline miles. After a couple of indecisive years we decided it was time to use the free plane tickets to travel somewhere we’d never been and a desert more rugged, rural and potentially beautiful than our own became our focus. Joshua Tree National Park is nearly 800,000 acres across both the Mojave and Sonora deserts and contains six distinct mountain ranges. The area had been of interest to us for a while now but seemingly just out of reach when trying to tack it on as a side trip from our other travels. So as we wait for the PNW snow pack to melt (so we can access the mountain trailheads) we flew South, trading the rainy PNW spring behind for the seemingly always sunny South-West.
We landed in Palm Springs, CA but opted to leave the hustle and bustle of the city that was ramping up for Coachella Music Festival and seek out a quieter existence in a Valley about 45 minutes North, near the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.
Hidden in the hills above Yucca Valley is a community of people who have chosen to live off of the beaten path, which in this case is CA HWY 62 that spans over half the width of California. Our lesser traveled path becomes a slow, rolling 1.5 lane wide dusty desert road that meanders around dispersed hillside homesteads overlooking the valley floor until we end at one of the more prominent outcrops in the area, HIGH MOJAVE RANCH.
We were unable to decide which of the two airBNB options to choose so we booked both the Palm Homestead and Hilltop Homestead on successive nights. The unassuming ‘cabins’ greeted us with pleasantly bright and modern interiors updated less than a year ago by our host, Matthew. The views are expansive and the sky’s dark after sunset. If needed an additional bedroom cabin can be added to the Hilltop rental if you are traveling with friends or a larger family. For our needs the single 300 sf space was more than adequate for our tiny house family used to much tighter quarters.
The desert is a frontier where all are welcome but only a small percentage stay; a kind of societal fringe in a place that tends to be very difficult to survive on your own, both mentally and physically. At times it feels like everyone here is running from something, whether it be for the weekend or a decade (and counting). When combined with a shared appreciation of the beauty and solitude this region can offer an authentic feeling of community is fostered amidst those willing to brave the elements. More than most places, the desert seems to cling to the past; perfectly evidenced by the frequent discovery of old mining equipment partially buried and frozen in time. While it has been quite some time since the original pioneers eeked out an existence here, that thread of history runs deep in both lore and artifacts strewn about the walls of the local eatery’s and watering holes. It is under this context that the minimalist pioneer cabins, which offer just what you need and nothing more, become a poignant asset to a relaxing and reflective desert experience.
The unique part about High Mojave Ranch is that the experience doesn’t start and end in the homestead cabins that you stay in; it extends into a beautiful private high desert landscape right outside the door. A couple hundred yards puts you at ‘the eagles nest’ prominence which offers spectacular 360 degree views and a great starting point to explore the ‘backside’ of the private ten acre ranch. Each evening we put Aubrin in the carrier and set out to meander through the boulder fields under perfect temperatures and then sit on our favorite view point and watch the sunsets shadow slowly encapsulate the valley below. Despite being able to watch the sunrise from the bed, I found myself returning to this favorite spot again each morning to watch the sunrise.
It would be easy to end this post here and consider a trip to High Mojave Ranch a worth while stand alone destination but the regions main attraction is only 13 miles away and we couldn’t wait to continue the adventure into Joshua Tree National Park. The Frontier cafe provided the days caloric intake and we silently drove deeper into the park than initially planned so Aubrin could continue sleeping in her car seat.
It was on the first of three consecutive days that we learned how truly vast this national park was. A ‘Land Before Time’ vista unfolded in front of the rental car and temperatures climbed as we descended into the Pinto Basin and looked out over the Eastern half of the park nearly void of any access roads and the destination for those seeking multi-day backpacking solitude. The Joshua Trees became increasingly infrequent and patches of particular flora became noticeable at very distinct elevations especially conducive to their survival; first the Cholla Cactus and then the Ocotillo Shrub, both unlike any pant I had ever seen in my life.
The days landscapes varied from expansive flat valley basins to shoulder width cracks through warmed hued boulder cathedrals. Resilient flora put roots down in the most incredible of places and generously spaces Joshua Tree groves were flanked by boulders and mountains. Very few places offer respite from the omnipresent sun come mid-day and we found it best to seek out the higher elevations and the breezes that accompanied them.
There is emense beauty in the various prickly defense aggregations employed by these desert dwelling plants, enhanced further by the vibrant blooms that emerge from inbetween the dense network of spikes and for a small amount of time reveal a sort of delicateness, in which they beg to successfully complete the pollination process to have any chance of continued survival. Be it the need for wind (as is the case with the pinion pine) or bee’s like many cacti, even the plants require the help beyond their own ability to survive here.
While this is the end of our time at High Mojave Ranch it isn’t the end of our time in Southern California. With half of our trip still to come, I’ve already been made aware of how wrong I was about the desert and how much I’ve under estimated the beauty and resiliency of the humans, animals and plants that call it home.
…Stay tuned as we report from another tiny and inspiring desert dwelling in the coming days!
Joshua Tree Tiny Escapes, Part 1 of 2.