From the beginning of February till the end of March we lived in Joshua Tree, California. Yes there is an actual city named Joshua Tree. It holds two of three entrances to Joshua Tree National Park. Apart from short trips we’ve never spent an extended amount of time in a desert environment, and I can definitely see the appeal! In this post I highlight what we saw and where we explored. Hope you enjoy!
What was the biggest surprise about living in the high desert? Definitely it was the crazy fluctuations in weather! The WIND! Holy smokies! When researching the adaptations plants utilize to mitigate water loss I of course started reading about adaptations to wind. Yeah, I get it now. We went botanizing on multiple days when wind gusts reached 50 mph. A calm day was guaranteed 20mph winds. Mornings were definitely the calmest, with peak windy-ness occuring at the hottest part of the day. But if the wind started being noticeable in the morning, oh boy we were in for a doozy of a day! While consistent wind can be an annoyance, it truly is frustrating when attempting to photograph plants. Plant shots with our big fat fingers in the background is not optimal for uploading to iNaturalist. But mainly, they ain’t cute.
Apart from wind we watched snow fall multiple times. The low temps even left frost on our windshield. Wild! But then there were days I melted in the heat reaching over 30 degrees celsius. What fluctuations! Sunrise would feel like a deep fall chilliness and then come nine am I was already re-applying sunscreen. Truly amazing how the desert dwelling creatures and plants deal with such a spectrum of temperatures and conditions.
For the species we did observe, of course we uploaded them to iNaturalist. . . . We did some damage! For the almost two months we were in the Southern California deserts and slightly geographically beyond we documented 714 species with a total 1,236 observations.
During the week almost every morning we departed before sunrise to reach our morning hike’s destination. When daylight savings hit we swapped the morning for the evening and explored till sunset or hunger turned into hanger. Our most frequented locations included Joshua Tree National Park (Hidden Valley, Boy Scout Trail, Black Rock Campground), Desert View Conservation Area, Friendly Hills Hike, Pioneertown Mountains Preserve and a few other random spots that don’t have a name. A little bit further from the Airbnb but still worked for our weekday hikes was Whitewater Preserve and Mission Creek Preserve both which were great locations as they were slightly lower in elevation so the plants bloomed earlier there than immediately around us.
On weekends in order to find all the nifty plants, bugs and animals possible we had to drive a bit, walk a while or some combination of both. The best way to accomplish our lofty goals was to camp. So we car camped in Anza Borrego State Park for three weekends. Dispersal camping is widely available there. So it was super easy to set up our tent right next to our car and go mammal watching in the early evening straight from our camping site, or a short drive away. We attempted to camp for a fourth weekend but all the campgrounds in Orange County were full. Maybe not every single one, but we could not find a place and ended up in a hotel in the middle of Irvine. It was a treat, and having paid zero dollas for all our other weekends, the price for a bed instead of the desert floor was justified. It did feel luxurious sleeping on a real bed instead of our backpacking inflatable mattresses on the sand.
On the weekends we didn’t camp we explored all around the Coachella Valley. One site in particular was Coachella Valley Preserve-Thousand Palms, which we visited twice. During the first trip we were told off for going off trail and was escorted to the trial via a megaphone. So the second trip we were better behaved. Wooopsies. It’s kinda a miracle we don’t get told off more often as we are known for straying off trail to find the good plant spots. Shhhh don’t tell anyone 🙂
Other areas that stood out were Box Canyon, Pinto Basin, and Whitewater Preserve. The first two were quite dry, but using CalFlora and iNat records we were able to find some rarities. I really enjoyed the drive through Box Canyon which is basically like driving through a huge windy wash with low canyon walls. Pinto Basin was one of first ever stops when we arrived, but the plants just never really materialized (besides Bladderpod and Desert Lavender) due to the lack of rain. We did find a Kit Fox carcass and a Loggerhead Shrike victim, spotted by Naturalist-in-training sister Clara.
Prior to coming to the desert we really hadn’t spent much time with any desert dwelling plants. It was actually pretty exciting learning a whole new swath of plants. I’d say we became pretty good friends with those pictured above, and many others! While the cacti were sometimes a real pain to navigate through I thoroughly enjoyed their funky shapes and gorgeous flowers. If interested in more cacti fun this post is for you.
What makes a plant rare? Well, many things, and it depends on what agency/organization/government level is giving the definition. Plants could be given a special status due to limited quantities, declining populations or habitat, uniqueness and other similar qualities. Living in California means living amongst a great array of diversity due to the geology and mediterranean climate. The California Floristic Province covers most of the state, so California endemics are all over the place!
In terms of limited range most of the plants I have above only grow in the slice from Southern California to the Northern Baja area; these include the Thistle Sage, Cliff Spurge, and San Diego Wild Cabbage. But the plant with an even narrower range is the Catalina Mariposa Lily which only grows around the LA area.
In terms of special status the stream orchid is vulnerable in the US. We found this puppy right along a small but mighty stream working its way through a fan palm oasis. On first pass we didn’t see it, but on our way out Mr. Eagle-eyes-Trevor spotted it. Woot woot!
By iNaturalist standards, the Orocopia Mountains Spurge only has nine total observations on iNat. Eeeek! We found this spurge pretty easily with the help of CalFlora points. The San Diego Wild Cabbage has only 200 observations on iNat, which is still pretty good!
Well what creatures and plant friends did we make while in the desert? Loads! Here is a selection of wildlife we found throughout. The White-tailed Antelope Squirrel was definitely the most common and abundant critter we saw. Truly hilarious to watch. Perching on boulders to survey the land, munching on grasses, chasing after each other or dive bombing into holes they were endless entertainment. But when night falls the Kangaroo Rat and other rodent buddies like the Desert Woodrat take over the landscape. We tried our luck at night time mammal watching using our headlamps either by foot or by Trevor periscoping out of our car’s sunroof. On our first attempt only I saw Kangaroo Rats, but our next couple of tries were much more successful. In one particular spot they were everywhere! Yes, they do indeed hop! When above their underground burrows or not hiding in thick brush these little fur balls were often quite calm. But the moment you make significant noise or movement POOF they are gone!
Coyotes and Black-tailed Jackrabbits were a common sight too, as long as your head was up and scanning. Holy smokes these jackrabbits can run! When unfortunately spooked I’ve watched them run like a real predator were on their heels. I’ll always remember as I watched one climb up a hillside in Indian Canyons so quickly not tiring at all all the way to the top, and out of sight down the other side. Impressive!
The creature that I thought would be more elusive but I actually observed at least four times was the Desert Bighorn Sheep. Our initial sighting was probably the best when a herd sauntered by on the cliffs just above the road at the entrance to Whitewater Preserve. Observing them so close was a true treat. A mom with three young kids was telling them “Look kids you’ll never see this again in your life!” Probably true. . .
Bug hunting definitely came in waves. A couple high points with a lot of small peaks, but with some stagnant portions in between. One of the high points was during our second camping trip to Anza-Borrego when we camped South of Shelter Valley but North of Mesquite Oasis. On a night walk mainly aiming for mammals we could not ignore the oodles of insects crawling on the sand. One in particular that we grew a fondness for was a beetle that we nicknamed “fuzzy bear.” While he is pretty fuzzy but ain’t no bear, is scientifically known as Edrotes ventricosus, a Darkling Beetle Family member (top left photo).
At the Airbnb we rented we set up two moth lights, but the dang wind and cool conditions at times hampered who showed up. But Mr. Beetle man Trevor documented many great insects throughout the whole time living in the Mojave desert. We also observed quite a few rarities. For example, Phobetus palpalis, the beetle in the top right photo, was a first for iNaturalist. Ophryastes mixtus, the weevil in the middle column and first row is a third record for iNaturalist. Lastly, the small orange and metallic moth, Neoheliodines vernius has only 16 observations on iNat.
These photos only show a small reflection of all the insects we found, but on a better precipitation year I’m sure there would be many more! Just another reason to come back when the California drought decides to pause.
Wow the desert landscapes were really impressive! Expansive at times, and others times tight. From narrow canyons to large basins the consistent quality that I found really intriguing was the texture. Perhaps I just didn’t notice the variety of textures in west coast forests, chaparral and grasslands before because that’s so common to me. But I was really amazed by the diverse textures of the desert. Sharp and sturdy yuccas, soft flower petals, rough sandpaper-like sedimentary rock, to the leathery and succulent leaves of the evergreen shrubs, there is so much diversity to touch!
When exploring these landscapes in search of plants I’d often stumble upon interesting things like bones, abandoned buildings and unfortunately trash. But I even found some adorable rock art! How fun!
But sometimes I took a moment to sit, relax, grab a granola bar or muffin and nature journal!
But when back in the house I also got to try out nature interpretation via Zoom.
While in the desert I finished my online California Naturalist course. Woot woot! An official California Naturalist! I loved many aspects of the course, including introducing me to nature journaling and getting practice interpreting nature. But being a naturalist is a lifelong endeavor and once safe outside I’m excited to get outside with fellow nature nerds.
Hope you enjoyed this small insight into what we got up to while living in Joshua Tree. We are currently living amongst old oak trees in Northern California and will be making our way more north every month or so.