Our ferry would be leaving Santa Cruz Island at 4pm on Sunday, May 29, 2016, and all too soon it was time to board. And the next day we would return to Chicago, concluding a ten-day trip to California that had included visiting Patrick, going to Disneyland, and camping at Yosemite National Park.
In his engrossing Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve, John C. Miles, professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University, traces the history of wilderness protection in the parks from their earliest days to the book’s present, 2008.
The history of the National Parks and other protected lands in the United States is the story of continually evolving ideas about how and why natural and historical areas should be protected for the common good. At its noblest, it is an acknowledgement that the people, collectively, own and administer the wildest, most beautiful and most historically important areas in the nation. The hows and whys of acquiring and administering these places is intrinsically tied to the concept of land held for the common good.
Almost 150 years ago, on June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting scenic Yosemite Valley to the state of California to be held in the public interest as a park (eventually the valley would return to federal control as part of Yosemite National Park). Eight years later, when Congress moved to protect the geothermal features around the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in a region that lay in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories, there was no state to give the park to, so by default it became a national park. The concept of the national park was born out of necessity.
The title of this blog is an adaptation of Theodore Roosevelt’s words upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time:
Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.
Roosevelt was talking about a great natural site before it would be protected. Already there were mining designs on sections of the canyon. Parts of it were no longer pristine wilderness, and they aren’t now, nor will be. Now, as then, there are parts of the park designated wilderness and others for heavy tourist use.
I have no illusion that the parks as my traveling companions and I will experience them are truly pristine (save for perhaps the remotest of the Alaska parks), but they are somewhere on a continuum between civilization and wilderness.
The access road to the 49 Palms Canyon Trail is directly off of the Twentynine Palms Highway. It is one of a cluster of park features that are accessed from the north via special roads and entrance stations.
The trail leads into a steep canyon to the 49 Palms Oasis, a natural oasis caused by water seeping up through the earth creating habitat for native California fan palms and other plant life. The hike is a three-mile roundtrip with a vertical change of about 350 feet.
After our sunrise visit to Cholla Garden and Ocotillo Patch, we headed back up Pinto Basin Road through Wilson Canyon, leaving the Sonoran behind and climbing into the Mohave.
We pulled into White Tank Campground, trying to make our way slowly and quietly so as not to disturb the car campers. We parked at the trailhead for Arch Rock Nature Trail, a short, .3-mile trail through a spectacular jumble of formations.
Our alarms went off at 5:30am so that we could pull on clothes and hats and jackets (it was 46 degrees) for the 45-minute drive into the park to the Cholla Cactus Garden in Pinto Basin. Sunrise was at 6:48am, but we didn’t want to have to rush through the dark desert.
We turned off of Park Boulevard onto Pinto Basin Road, which was closed due to the wash out not much further than our destination. The road turned east, and we stopped at a pullout above Wilson Canyon as the first light hit the granite formations and flooded the sky beyond.
From the beginning, the framework for our quick trip to Joshua Tree had been to watch the sunset in the Mohave Desert and sunrise in the Sonoran. We finished our walk through Hidden Valley at about 4pm, so we had a couple of hours to drive out to our motel, check in, and drive to Keys View in the Little San Bernardino Mountains before the sun set at 6:21pm.
Back in Joshua Tree, we turned east onto the Twentynine Palms Highway. About ten minutes later, we pulled into the Harmony Motel on the western outskirts of Twentynine Palms, California.
The motel’s tiny office is filled with U2 memorabilia since the band stayed at the Harmony while they were working on their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. The motel’s current owner is Ash Maharaj, originally from South Africa, who purchased the motel seven years ago. In February 2011, she completed the restoration of the Harmony’s original sign, and her stated intention is to restore the entire motel.
As she showed us to our room, she warned us to be sure and shut the door behind us right away because it opened literally into the desert.