We decided despite the government shut down we were going to attempt to explore Joshua Tree National Park since we were within 3 hours of the south park entrance.  Unfortunately on our drive to the park and in the park we couldn’t get the park maps to load due to poor cell service.  This proved to be a bit challenging for planning.  

We found that the park gates were open yet the Cottonwood Visitor Center was not.  The visitor centers are so nice for many reasons but a couple things we have been relying on them for is Jr Ranger Programs, maps of the park, suggested hikes with descriptions, length and difficulty as well as additional information about the park’s history and the wildlife and land formations we see within the park.  Joshua Tree NP is so large that there are actually three visitor centers.  We were hopeful that the northern Oasis Visitor Center would be open.

The first campground we got to was Cottonwood Campground at 3,000 ft elevation and it was nearly empty (midweek of course).  The pay station was decommissioned as well as the reservation requirement of half of the campgrounds within the park.  Since we still didn’t have cell service, we decided it wouldn’t be smart to camp here not knowing where the hikes were we’d like to explore and what areas were most scenic.  There are 8 campgrounds within the park so we wanted to be sure we were camping at one close to the destinations we wanted to explore.  

We had decided we would camp somewhere outside the park boundaries where we got phone service in hopes that we could download maps giving us more information.  However, in finding a turn around we discovered a nice hike within walking distance from Cottonwood Campground.  Therefore we ended up staying our first night there so we could easily access the close trail in the morning.  The weather was in the 60’s but the wind was howling all day which made it feel much colder. 

Cottonwood Campground

Mastodon Mine Loop

The girls slept like poo which gave us an early start on the trail the next morning.  The wind had died down overnight so even though it was a chilly morning, once the sun came up it warmed up to a comfortable hiking temperature.  

Something we noticed right away was the difference in “soil” from other parts of the desert we had explored so far.  Previously in other parts the ground had been dusty, clay, powdery, ashy, medium rocky and sandy but here it was covered with tiny 1/4” sharp pebbles.  It almost resembled sand from a distance because of the beige color but upon further inspection it was tiny rocks.

We noticed that all the boulders around were great to grip with your shoes to climb but also extremely sharp!  The rocks are like giant extremely course sand paper, obviously where the tiny ground pebbles came from.  We confirmed this observation when our 3 year old scooted her way down a large rock and ripped out the buns seam of her overalls.  My “to sew” pile never disappears while we are traveling.  Actually, now that I think about it, it is rare to have it empty at home in Portland either. :P. Kids will be kids.

Climbing the grippy but sharp rocks

We went on a 2.5 mile loop trail that led us through small pebbly dry washes and up through rocky ledges.  We kept seeing scat in the dry river bed and it occurred to me that the pebbles resembled cat litter.  It was like a giant litter box for foxes and coyote!  Don’t worry, it wasn’t THAT much scat.  We hiked slow and steady as always with the girls “starving” every 10 minutes and with frequent stops to climb rocks and dump out rocks from their shoes.

It was very beautiful though with lots of tall yucca, yellow flowering brittle brush, baby pink and purple bladder sage, teddy bear cholla, blooming ocotillo, jojoba (used as a coffee drink by Cahuilla Indians) and of course the frequent creosote bush (looks very similar to an azara which we have in Portland).  The desert was also filled with birds chirping, lizards crawling and the occasional jack rabbit hopping about.  It was definitely the most life we have seen in a desert yet!

Yucca and a view

This part of the desert is considered the California Desert and the elevation isn’t high enough for the Joshua Trees to thrive.  Therefore, we didn’t see any Joshua Trees on this hike.  We did however end the trail by seeing a desert oasis with a grove of beautiful California Fan Palms.  It was so neat to see in the middle of the desert.  We couldn’t get too close because it was roped off due to mining contamination but it was beautiful to see from the trail.  

The girls did really well for most of the hike until we got to a parking lot and still had to hike 0.5 miles back to the campground.  Then, our little one was pretty darn miserable.  Ah well, my oldest and I told stories and did our best to cheer our little one up.  

We ended up finding a map which was left in a box at the closed Cottonwood Visitor Center!  Hurray!!  It didn’t tell what hikes were around but it gave us a map which was much needed.  We chose Belle Campground to stay at for our next night.  We found a perfect site with a large rock cove protecting most of it.  It gave the girls lots of climbing opportunities and it was beautiful!  They even discovered a cave between the rocks in our site!  It filled up quick!  By afternoon snack time (it was a Friday) there were only 2 sites left.  

Belle Campground campsite

Wind Down / Errand Day

Well, we learned that late the night prior, the government FINALLY decided to open up again (for a brief time anyway). Thank goodness! Our national parks and many other places and persons have been suffering. Justin went into town to do some errands and we were hopeful that the visitor’s station (which oddly enough is outside of Joshua Tree National Park) would be open and able to hand out Jr. Ranger Books now that the shutdown was temporarily over.

It was a super windy day and since we were due for some errands anyway it worked out great to have the girls and I stay back at camp while Justin went off on his own. Justin stayed in the morning just long enough for our 5 year old and I to do some schooling.

This is a side note but thought it might be helpful for some people to hear. Our schooling that particular morning wasn’t smooth by any means. We have great days and some not so great days. On our best days my 5 year old and I are in sync and she is able to learn a concept and run a mile with it, blowing my socks off! On bad days, my daughter wines for most of schooling in turn making me frustrated and little schooling is completed. On this particular morning we were doing some division, multiplication and fraction work which went great! She’s got it down pat. Then for some reason a switch was flipped and she did not want to have anything to do with writing. It is so tricky to get out of that funk once she’s in it.

Something my daughter and I have found helps keep schooling running smoothly is to have a rhythm of schooling for a time each morning. Nine times out of ten, when we take days off, it takes a good 1-2 days of wining school sessions to get back into the rhythm. It also helps to have some nuts on hand. For different children different snacks would work however I never give her treats. The idea isn’t to be rewarding her but instead to be keeping her belly full to help her focus. When equations are getting confusing, we pause and shake it out. Quite literally, we get up and shake out our body, have a nut and refocus with a clearer mind. Homeschooling isn’t always easy but it certainly is rewarding! It’s always good to have some tricks up my sleeve and to get my 5 year old noticing what helps her do better. For example noticing what method she prefers learning; is she a visual learner or an auditory learner. As we learn these things together it shifts the way I teach her and how to make learning more fun!

Okay, back to the windy day. For part of the day the girls climbed and played on the amazing rocks just outside Wobbles and part of the day they helped me bake. I was able to set up a little computer work station in the bathroom for me so I could watch the girls play out the back bathroom window. It was pretty nice while it lasted. :). I usually write this blog after the kids go to sleep but since our 3 year old hasn’t been sleeping well, I’ve been too sleepy to blog in the evenings. This opening during the day was perfect to catch up.

Joshua Tree climbing on rocks

The girls and I decided to make a healthy version of blondies. I figure, why make it from scratch and still add most of the unhealthy stuff that comes in the deserts in stores, right? Might as well make them tasty AND a healthier desert! I split my batter in half and cooked one half in a glass pie plate and the other half in a metal 9″x9″ brownie pan. It worked beautifully!! The recipe said to bake it for 30 minutes at 350*. Our oven is weak and takes a long time so usually I bump up the oven temperature and plan on almost double the cook time. Yes, that means pies take almost 2 hours! This time I bumped the temperature to 375* but I was pleasantly surprised that they both cooked in 40 minutes! This is an all time record!! The power usage was so minimal I could have done that a couple times over and still have been okay to run the furnace at night. That’s even without the help of the power from Dimes (as Justin had him out for the day). I think the key was splitting the batch in half so it was thinner. Noted!

Blondies in the oven

After our treats were done in the oven we had time to spare (since we had allotted an hour for the blondies to cook). So, we decided to explore the Belle Campground. We had so much fun discovering caves, rock bridges, rock forts and mini slot canyons. The girls found a giant rock near our campsite that they called their ship. We each had beds, there were secret passageways and all sorts of other details they created.

Lying in their beds on their ship

After Justin got home, we all warmed up with some honey tea and fresh warm blondies. Justin had successfully brought back Jr. Ranger Books and reported that all the rangers were so cheery and happy to be open again. He also learned that tomorrow night campers would be required to start paying again. Something that in my opinion should have been enforced when the government was shut down.

Just relaxing…

That night, the girls discovered a new hideout in the camper! Under Justin and my bed there is a storage space that we keep bins of non-perishable foods in. However, when some of the bins are out, it makes for a perfect fort for the girls. Justin and I were able to have a conversation with one another without any interruptions and when they were screaming (in happiness of course, not in pain :P) it was muffled enough that it didn’t set off the fight or flight reaction in us. :). They had a blast! We’ll know now to do that again.

Under bed kid storage

Wall Street Trail

The Wall Street Trail, just off the very popular Barker Dam Nature Trail, was not busy in the slightest. The trail meanders through the Mojave Dessert with spur trails leading to various remnants of past homesteaders.

Wall Street Trail

We also spotted a cactus we hadn’t seen in the wild until now. It was called a beaver tail cactus. It looks almost identical to a prickly pear cactus but without the long spikes protruding. Don’t be fooled though, as with the prickly pear cactus this cactus too has tiny nettle-like spikes that will lodge themselves into your flesh and be very painful to remove.

Beaver Tail Cactus

The first spur trail led to the remains of a homestead building. When I read this description for the hike, I was thinking this once was an old wooden cabin without electricity or running water. You know, Laura Ingalls Wilder style. We were a bit taken back to find that this building was built from pre-made bricks, cement and had metal pipes and such sticking out everywhere. I’m sure folks live in more primitive places than this today. It’s just seemed a bit funny to hike into the desert to find a dilapidated semi modern looking building. I felt cheated.


Other spur trails led to old rusty cars from around the 1940’s. It was neat to see what materials they used and how well they held up over time and through the weather. But again, it did seem kind of funny that we were hiking in the desert to visit broken down cars.

Broken down car on the Wall Street trail
This one still drives!

There was also an old wind mill and a two stamp mill machinery used to aid in mining gold. It was a gold ore crushing mill. I was surprised how much of the mill was still intact. It was neat to imagine what it was like when it was up and running. The hike was a nice leisurely walk that gave us a look at many desert plants that we hadn’t seen before.

Skull Rock Trail

The next day we decided to do the 2 mile Skull Rock Trail loop. We started at Skull Rock (didn’t get a good look at it since we were leaving it for the grand finale) and looped around through Jumbo Rock Campground and back through the Mojave Desert along trails and washes to end at Skull Rock again.

Skull Rock Trail

We again saw a handful of new plants on this hike which were fun to identify and learn more about. We also noticed the rocks on this hike often had lines of other lighter colored rock in them. It looked almost as if someone had drawn a line through the rocks. We knew the lighter lines of rock were clearly made from something different but weren’t sure what and also we weren’t sure how they got there since they followed no vertical or horizontal pattern in relation to one another. We later learned that when molten rock cools underground it shrinks, causing cracks to develop. Later more molten rock squeezes into these cracks and hardens creating these lines called intrusions. Pretty neat, huh? In some spots, these intrusions were so large and textured they looked like giant teeth!


When we got to the part of the hike that looped through Jumbo Rocks Campground we took an unintended but fun detour through additional campground loops which gave the girls lots of opportunities to explore new rocks. We found this one campsite that had two amazing caves and a beautiful slot “canyon” in it. Such fun exploring that! We also took this opportunity while passing through the campground to use their picnic tables for some tasty lunch.

On the loop back the girls bided their time taking turns taking pictures of one another. The girls put some time into composing their shots near picturesque places.

In total we hiked 2.5 miles and did that within a 5 hour period. Ha! We’re pretty quick!

Squeezing through!
Skull Rock

So long Joshua Tree! It was a beautiful park. Next we were off to Palm Springs.

Joshua Tree Jr. Rangers