Granite Glow

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With a week to go before we leave Southern California for Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, we’ve been thinking of some final activities to get in before we depart. At the top of everyone’s list was a final trip to Joshua Tree National Park, less than 90 minutes from the San Bernardino National Forest. This time around we decided to try something new, camping inside the park.

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We had spent most of our time in the Intersection Rock area during our last trip to Joshua Tree a few weeks ago, so the kids wanted to focus our climbing around Skull Rock in the Jumbo Rocks section for this visit. We found a great site in the Jumbo Rocks Campground, which offered some excellent climbing just beyond our tent as well as a hiking trail directly to Skull Rock. The kids wasted no time and sprinted to the rocks as soon as we parked in front of the site.

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After thoroughly exploring the formations towering over our tent, we walked to the center of the campground and took the connector trail to the Jumbo Rocks area. The rock formations in this part of the park definitely inspire the imagination, and we saw skulls, turtles, walruses, and a variety of other interesting forms in the monzogranite all around us. We had trouble keeping our eyes on the rocks, though, as the desert was in bloom around us, and all along the path we stopped to take a closer look at pencil cholla cactus and California buckwheat blooms.

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As always at Joshua Tree, we were equally exited to experience the park as the sun started to go down. We returned to our site and scrambled up the rocks there to watch the magnificent sunset, and from our perch up high we also caught a glimpse of a coyote making its evening rounds and of bats out catching their breakfast. By the time we settled into our tent a while later, we fell asleep watching the stars visible through the upper screen of our tent.

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The next day we made sure to get out on the rocks one final time before heading home when the afternoon heat set in. The Hall of Horrors area had always caught our attention, so we packed up and headed back towards Keyes View for our morning climb. After a few dead ends we found a way to the top of the middle formation, where we watched the moon still visible in the sun-drenched sky and played in some deep crevices in the rock. A few hours later we were all understandably worn out after two days of scrambling about, so we piled back into the car, put the windows down, turned the music up, and enjoyed a last view of the joshua trees as we made our way back to the San Bernardino Mountains.

Telescope Tales from Joshua Tree National Park

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When the kids heard they would be spending several days with Pop and Nona Five just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, they had two things they couldn’t wait to share: rock-climbing and star-gazing. Joshua Tree is really two parks in one: by day, miles of rock formations perfect for bouldering; by night, clear desert skies ideal for watching the heavens.

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We got an early start to scramble on the rocks before the heat set in, The Younger Fives literally ran the entire way from the car to the nearest rock they could climb. The limitless options for exploring kept us busy for hours, and Pop Five got a hands-on feel for why this is one of our favorite national parks as he followed the kids over, around, and even under the sea of monzogranite, formed from molten rock underground that was pushed upwards through the surface.

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We definitely needed some down time during the heat of the afternoon to recover from our climb, but after dinner we were ready to venture out into the park yet again for a completely different experience. During our last visit to Joshua Tree we had an amazing experience renting from Coyote Telescope, and this time around we decided to give the digital telescope a try. The owner, Darryl, met us just outside of the park to show us how to use the telescope and ensure we had a great night out. As always, we were thoroughly impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm for astronomy and the night sky. After walking us through how to set up the telescope, he not only gave us his tips for the best stars and planets to look for that evening, but he also provided an entertaining account of the fun facts about each one. The kids were hanging on every word 🙂 Darryl is definitely a natural story teller, and while we wanted a chance to explore the night sky on our own for this visit, we would not hesitate to go on one of his night sky tours next time around (which includes him as the personal guide and some extra powerful telescopes for viewing the stars).

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Following Darryl’s advice, we set up in the parking lot of the Boy Scout Trail, just a little ways past the Visitor’s Center and park entrance. The location was perfect, and in no time we had the base of the telescope level and the telescope itself mounted. As the sky darkened, we waited eagerly to spot three stars in different parts of the sky to calibrate the telescope. The kids shouted with glee as they started to pop out, and Pop Five entered the time and date, directed the telescope to each star and pressed the “align” button on the keypad, and we were good to go. This was all the keypad computer needed to know where everything was in the sky, and from here we just chose from the computer’s list of visible planets, stars, double stars nebulae, etc. Then the telescope automatically moved to the right position and did all the work for us.  Under the swirl of the Milky Way visible to the naked eye, we saw the rings of Saturn, the Crab Nebula where stars are born, and several double stars that separated through the lens of the telescope. It was a memorable evening to say the least 🙂

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After a solid evening of star gazing, the Younger Fives were more than prepared the next day to dig into their Night Explorer Junior Rangers booklet. This is an unusual booklet in that it is not based in a single park; instead, it can be completed in several different national parks with good star gazing opportunities (we originally picked them up in Great Sand Dunes National Park). They had fun working through activities such as a night sky word scramble and a make-your-own planet walk, in which Five of Hearts placed 8 rocks a certain number of steps apart to show the relative distance between the sun and the planets. They completed the booklets by the time we had to head back home, and earning their very cool Night Explorers patch was a wonderful way to end our visit. We couldn’t have asked for a better place for an action-packed visit with family!

Stellar Fun in Joshua Tree National Park

As part of homeschool we have been studying the solar system since we visited Bryce National Park this past November and had the most fabulous time star gazing. The kids have enjoyed working through kid friendly astronomy books, visiting a planetarium, and tracking the stars, moon, and planets as we travel. However, nothing so far could top what was waiting for us just outside the west entrance of Joshua Tree National Park: our very own telescope rental!

Coyote Telescope Rentals has to be one of the coolest businesses that we have come across. They rent out telescopes and star gazing equipment so that kids, adults, and families can get an up-close look at the night sky. The owners, Leigh-Ann and Darryl, are super enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their rental telescopes and about what to use them to look at.

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Honestly we were more than a little bit nervous to attempt to use a telescope with three young children. Neither of us had prior experience and the telescope seemed big and very expensive. However, the friendly folks at Coyote Telescope Rentals eased all of our fears and made the rental process smooth. They were great with the kids, who were each given their own red-light star gazing lantern and star chart. After meeting with Leigh-Ann and Darryl the kids were so excited to take part in such an awesome activity that they couldn’t wait for the sun to go down.

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Our rental took place just one night before the lunar eclipse when the moon was almost full and very bright. Therefore Leigh-Ann and Darrryl set us up with a telescope that would work best for viewing the moon, as most other objects would be washed out by the light of the moon. They gave us recommendations on which lenses and filters to use and then we were off to try the telescope out for ourselves.

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The Younger Fives loved helping to set up the telescope and get everything ready before it became too dark. The model that we rented could be placed on a table which made it very accessible to the kids. The moon ended up being the best object to look at as it was so big and easy for the kids to quickly find and stay focused on. They were all blown away by viewing the moon in such detail. Their excitement quickly made our fellow campers interested in what we were doing and it was great to tell them that you could rent telescopes in the area. As a family who packs light but still likes to benefit from great equipment like telescopes we just love that a business like Coyote Telescope Rental exists.

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A Taste of the Climbing Life

DSC03371-picsay It was a long shot, but one that we decided to look into. I (Five String) have always dreamed of rock climbing, and spending two weeks in the Joshua Tree National Park area seemed the ideal time to pursue that dream. However, as our emphasis is on “family” travel, I did not want to kiss the kids goodbye and head off on a climbing trip with everyone else unable to share in the experience.

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The breathtaking Intersection Rock area where we climbed.

Luckily, we found a rock climbing guide that responded to our request for a climbing trip that could accommodate a 7, 5, and 3-year-old. While he regretted to inform us that his insurance could only cover kids ages 8 and up, he would be happy to plan a morning for me that would still be exciting for the kids and allow them to share  in the climb as well. Nelson from The Climbing Life Guides proved true to his word and put together an absolutely unforgettable morning in Joshua Tree National Park, exploring the beautiful rock formations and desert landscape in a whole new way. DSC03305-picsay DSC03309-picsay As I was a newbie to rock climbing, Nelson started with a brief overview of the basics close to the ground. Five of Hearts joined in on the explanation of the gear, anchors, and basic techniques as Five Ball and High Five clambered over nearby boulders. Next he walked through the basics of belaying, where one person climbs and the other person serves as an anchor, and I got the chance to get a feel for how it would work while still close to the ground. DSC03331-picsay DSC03336-picsay Then, the real fun started. I left the rest of the Fives on the ground and followed Nelson up a rock scramble to the base of the first climb itself. He did a wonderful job explaining all the safety procedures, reviewing the communication we would use during the climb, and making sure that I had no questions. Then he began his lead climb up the rock face, placing anchors for safety along the way. When he reached the top it was my turn to climb. After a few nervous first inches, I trusted the equipment and my guide and really started enjoying scaling up the rock. My only real challenge came with remembering how to take the anchors out of the rock cracks as I went, but Nelson was able to clearly (and patiently) give me instructions from the top. DSC03323-picsay DSC03328-picsay DSC03324-picsay The kids, of course, were also having their own climbing adventure far below. After watching me at the start and cheering me on, they soon turned their attention to the many interesting boulders and rock formations that were perfect for them to explore. Upon reaching the top, I was truly surprised to realize how high I had climbed. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to wave to the rest of the Fives, tiny on the ground, and hear their words of encouragement. The surrounding rocks were truly stunning from the top of Intersection Rock, and the feeling of peace and tranquility is hard to describe. I also really fed off of Nelson’s obvious pride in my success with the climb. His smile said it all, the genuine joy of someone who absolutely loves sharing his passion with others. DSC03344-picsay

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High Five supervising from the ground.

DSC03348-picsayOf course, what goes up must also come down. Back on the ground Nelson had checked that I would be interested in repelling down from the top (instead of climbing back down), but I must confess taking those first few steps off the cliff into space were not the easiest that I’ve ever taken. Again though, knowing that I was in good hands made all the difference, and halfway down my repel I was comfortable enough to take a timid look behind me to the ground below. Once I finally reached the ground I was surrounded by the other Fives, and it it felt pretty good to hear the kids exclaim, “Wow, Dad, I can’t believe you just did that!” DSC03373-picsay DSC03359-picsay DSC03362-picsayThe second climb that Nelson had planned nearby was crowded with other climbers, so instead we set off for a very brief walk across the parking lot to climb “The Eye.” The kids were excited to have a new place to explore, and I couldn’t wait to climb again. This time the jitters were definitely gone, and I learned a lot about climbing and Nelson’s background as I asked him a ton of questions while we made the climb up into The Eye. This spacious shelter at the top of the formation was a welcome break from the sun, and we spent a few minutes resting before scrambling up the final few feet to the very top. DSC03379-picsay DSC03384-picsay The repel this time would be out away from the rock, meaning that I would be dangling completely free in the air without my feet walking down the rock face at all. Nelson sensed a little bit of trepidation on my part, especially combined with the howling wind. He suggested that instead of using the anchor bolted into the rock for the repel (which would have involved me having to lower myself over the edge before my weight caught on the rope), he could put anchors in a crack a little higher in the rock so that I would already be below the anchor when I started the repel. DSC03393-picsay I really liked this idea, but it would mean that unlike last time, when Nelson went down first, this time I would be entirely on my own. Again, he sensed the slight hesitation on my part and offered to put in a rope break, one that I would keep sliding down the rope to act as a back up anchor. These extra precautions on his part made all the difference, and soon I was lowering myself down, dangling in thin air, and having the time of my life. DSC03396-picsay After two amazing climbs and repels I expected that our time would be over. However, Nelson offered to lead everyone to The Eye by scrambling up the less steep back side of the formation and leading the kids over the more difficult sections. As we climbed he really took the time to connect with the kids and ask them lots of questions, and I appreciated that he was very mindful of their safety as they climbed up the rocks and crawled through some pretty cool caves. The Younger Fives are practically pros given all the free climbing we have done on coastlines from Newfoundland to Baja Mexico, and I think he was impressed with how comfortable they are on the rock. DSC03398-picsayWhen we finally all climbed into the shade of The Eye, I realized that this was my perfect ending to the day. It had been thrilling to climb to this height previously with Nelson, but it meant even more to me to be able to share it with the rest of the Fives. Seeing Joshua Tree National Park from above and trying something completely new as a family: it really doesn’t get any better and thanks to an excellent guide like Nelson it was all possible 🙂

Deserts in Bloom: Family Hiking and Rock Scrambling in Joshua Tree

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At the crossroads of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is perfectly suited for families. From scrambling on rocks of all sizes, to nearly a dozen short and informative nature and history trails, the park packs many opportunities to discover and learn into manageable kid-friendly excursions.

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We opted to start at the southern entrance and take the park road all the way through the park, exiting at the western entrance at the town of Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood Visitor’s Center was a great place to start our day. Inside were some great exhibits describing the animals found in the park, and just behind the Visitor’s Center we took the Plant Walk to learn about some of the cacti, shrubs, and trees we would be seeing.

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A cholla cactus in bloom.

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Learning more about a kangaroo rat nest.

From there, the road took us through the lower and hotter Colorado Desert, and we stopped along the way to take the Cholla Cactus Nature Trail. The pamphlet at the trail head did a great job explaining about these unique cacti, also known as the teddy bear cactus, and about the creatures who make their burrows using desert debris. While these cacti did look a bit cute and cuddly, we were sure to heed the warnings not to let the barbed spikes get too close to our clothing or skin.

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After finding a tiny scrap of shade cast by the Mazda5 to have a quick snack, we continued through the park, this time climbing in elevation to reach the slightly cooler Mojave Desert section of the park. Visiting in the spring definitely has its rewards, and it was fascinating to see so many colorful blossoms on some pretty intimidating looking plants.

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The highlight of our day was exploring the Jumbo Rocks section of the park. The kids loved this giant 3D maze of massive boulders and narrow crevices. After peering at (and climbing up the side of) Skull Rock, we made our way through the field of massive boulders to explore other interesting formations. Our path was never in a straight line, but figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B was certainly a memorable experience.

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Water from the dam was diverted to this trough for cattle.

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Unfortunately, park visitors have colored in the petroglyphs so they no longer can be enjoyed in their original form.

Grateful to eventually find our way back to the car and have a picnic in the shade of an oak tree, we pressed on to take the 1.3 mile Barker Dam Nature Trail. This man-made oasis, built to utilize a natural source of water for cattle, was a stark contrast to the parched landscape all around. We spotted many birds and spiders in and near the water, and we also stopped to see a Native American petroglyph site near the end of the loop trail.

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One of the many Joshua trees that give the park its name.

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In order to make it through to see the sunset and stargaze at Keys View (a peak with a paved road to the top), we took a break from the park and stocked up on cold refreshments in the town of Joshua Tree. We were thrilled to find vegan smoothies and baked goods at the Natural Sisters Cafe, as well as vegan ice cream at the natural food store next door. With the shadows getting longer, we then drove back into the park to Keys View. The sunset did not disappoint, and we enjoyed watching the stars (and planets) come out. All  in all, we could not have asked for a more informative, fun, and satisfying day in a national park.