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Posts Tagged ‘joshua tree national park’

It seems like we’d taken every road available to cross southern California—all four interstates (yes we’ve even gone through Vegas on I-15) as well as backroads like State Route 62 through Twenty Nine Palms which we got to by driving through Joshua Tree National Park. While they’ve added distance as well as time to the journeys, the detours have provided ways to see backcountry SoCal that many people never experience.

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The Salton Sea © SR Euston

This trip we chose to return from LA via I-10 through Palm Springs and then head south at Indio. Looking for lunch we ended up at Mecca, a crossing of the roads where we continued south around the eastern side of the Salton Sea on State Route 111.

I’m not sure what I expected but it definitely wasn’t this: a beautifully glistening enormous lake, 228 feet below sea level, the largest in California with a 380 square mile surface compared to Lake Tahoe’s 193. This particular iteration of this inland sea, a sink which has been alternating between flooded and dry for thousands of years, was created by Colorado River overflow flooding which began in 1905 and was finally blocked off in1907.  Since being closed off from the river, the sea now receives water only from a few small rivers; its major source is runoff from the adjacent farmland in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys.  Consequently, salinity rises each year and is now 25% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In 1930 a National Wildlife Refuge was established; in 1955 a state park.

The ecosystem is a study in contrasts and conflicts. On the one hand, the fish, introduced tilapia especially, continue to thrive and the Salton Sea is considered by some to be the most productive fishery in the world. On the other hand, it’s so productive that periodically there are massive die offs, probably the result of overpopulation leading to oxygen depletion. The blazing summer temperatures don’t help either. Evaporation increases the Sea’s salinity and reduces the ability of the water to hold oxygen.

On the third hand, the Salton Sea with its mix of marine, freshwater, desert, wetland and agricultural lands, is considered California’s “Crown Jewel of Avian Biodiversity”, with over 400 species sighted, second only to the Texas Gulf Coast. Several million birds migrate through annually relying on its ready supply of food. On the other (fourth?) hand, major bird die offs have happened periodically, particularly in the 1990s when 170,000 eared grebes, as well as 1000 endangered brown pelicans and 15 to 20% of the white pelican’s western population died, probably from an deadly mix of avian viruses and bacteria.

From the crusty shoreline (which looks a little like Yellowstone’s mineral hot springs) we easily spot white pelicans and black necked stilts. Rather than sand, the beach is made up of millions of fan shaped translucent fish scales and a lot of dead fish.

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

Shoreline, Salton Sea © AME

An eerie feeling of abandonment hangs in the air.  Forlorn, almost abandoned.

What’s happening to the Salton Sea?

Next: Salton Sea past, Salton Sea future

For general park information see: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=639 and http://seaanddesert.org/facts.html.

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Of course desert wildflowers aren’t the only showy displays in the Mojave. There are the Joshua trees themselves.

Generally described in terms like bizarre, twisted, strange and gangly (the plant specialist in the park brochure even uses the term “grotesque”), we find vast Joshua tree forests along the loop trip through the park’s northern portion anything but. Different or unique for sure, but hardly worthy of John Fremont’s description, “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Maybe the problem is that Joshua trees aren’t, in fact, trees at all. They’re members of the Lily family—a monocot and subspecies of flowering plants that include grasses and orchids, as well as Fan Palms which we discovered years ago at the end of the park’s Lost Oasis Trail.

Below is a slide show of Joshua trees and their environs so you can judge for yourself. We even unearthed a photo of Fan Palms taken in the early 90s. I guess if you’re looking for a sugar maple or a doug fir you might be disappointed. But if you’re looking for another desert denizen (like that other desert “tree” the Saguaro) then, like us, you may find these fibrous giants rare, fascinating, maybe even closer to something from a fairy tale than a horror story.

AMONG THE JOSHUA TREES

All Photos © SR Euston

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Entering off Interstate 10 last April, we took a brief byway tour of Joshua Tree National Park in hopes of seeing desert wildflowers. About 12 miles down a standard desert side road— narrow, winding and in some places almost washed-away—we got to Cottonwood Spring and its campground. Along the way and at the campground we saw wildflowers in abundance.

While not the sensational banks of color that California poppies or lupine present on grassy hillsides, desert wildflowers can be quite spectacular against the dun background of dirt, sand and rock. In the desert washes and canyon hillsides, flower colors from white to yellow to pink to red to blue stand out like banners announcing the arrival of spring. This year at the Park, the Joshua Trees themselves were especially prolific. Unlike most years when only a small percentage bloom, virtually all the trees were covered with blossoms in mid-April.

Joshua Tree Blooms

Joshua Tree Blooms

Scientists have a variety of theories as to the why—some think it’s because of “just right” weather conditions, others that it signals a desperate sign of drought and climate change. And the headlines bear these theories out. “Prolific Joshua Tree Bloom Could Signal Warming Climate” (KPBS, April 17, 2013) to  “Blooming Joshua Trees Wow Watchers, Surprise Scientists” (the California Report, April 19, 2013).

From the Huffington Post:

“Something mysterious is happening in the Mojave Desert’s Joshua Tree National Park. The reason may be grim but the effect is beautiful.

“It’s more than interesting, it’s probably unprecedented in anybody’s recent memory anyway,” Cameron Barrows, a research ecologist at the University of California, Riverside, told ABC…He’s talking about blooms on the Joshua trees that are larger than locals say they’ve ever seen.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/joshua-trees-bloom-video_n_3070822.html)

The theory is that with the past two years of significant drought (in the Mojave annual average rainfall ranges from two to five inches, with last year posting only 0.7 inches) Joshua Trees have gone into survival mode, prolifically producing seeds to insure long-term survival.

Will it work? Or will the icon of the Mojave disappear? With reports of little to no reproduction in the last 30 years for some areas in its range it’s hard to be optimistic.

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