I arrived at Joshua Tree National Park on New Years Eve expecting to walk right in and get a spot. My companions had camped there the same season a few years prior and found the park to be relatively empty of people. But, here we were, and the park was completely full, apparently having been booked solid for weeks.
The cashier at an outdoor recreation shop outside the park told us we could camp on the nearby dry lakebed which belongs to the bureau of land management, and although there would be no facilities, it is free and we could do as we liked. We immediately took up the alternative, setting up our tents under a crystal blue sky with 11-thousand foot mountain San Gorgonio majestically presiding over us to the west.
After setting up camp in this area devoid of anything green, we wandered over to the park to check out the rock structures and namesake Joshua trees. Since we only had a few hours of sunlight left, we decided to hike Ryan Mountain, an easy 3 mile roundtrip adventure with about a thousand feet of elevation gain that many people agree yields the most rewarding views of the park. In fact, my friend Laurie had suggested I make the hike a priority. I was excited to get to the top and take in the view.
One of the most interesting things about the park is that it serves as a dividing line between two different types of desert: the higher and cooler Mojave to the west and the lower and hotter Colorado to the east. As we made our way to the top, I tried to get a sense of the changing ecosystem.
We arrived at the top of Ryan Mountain about an hour before sunset, and took a break to eat snacks and shoot some photos with other day hikers. We chuckled at the fact that many people had their cell phones out, the peak being a rare spot of reception in the park.
On the way back down the trail, the sun was setting, with beautiful orange light reflecting off the distant rocks. I couldn’t stop thinking how tiny the rocks looked from just a few hundred feet up. A few hours earlier I had been down among the rock climbers scrambling their way to the top of the outcroppings, where I felt tiny in the sea of granite.
As I reached the bottom of the trail, the twilight settled into a linear color gradient spanning pink to blue. I wanted to get to the car and off my feet, but I had to keep stopping to snap photos. All in all, I’d say the Ryan Mountain trail is a pretty excellent introduction to the wonders of the Southern California desert, and one of the absolute best ways to spend my last hours in 2013.