The entire Coachella Valley and beyond stretched out before us — from the Salton Sea on the east to Mount San Jacinto (10,834 feet) in the center to San Gorgonio (11,499 feet) in the west.
It was mid-February, and the two majestic peaks and string of lower mountains in between were blanketed in snow — impressive even against the overcast sky.
Our perch was the Keys View overlook (5,185 feet; wheelchair accessible) at the end of a road in the western third of the Joshua Tree National Park.
It had been 39 years since my husband and I had visited the park, and gazing over this geological paradise, I wondered what had taken us so long to return.
Thank goodness for Denny and Maureen, our snowbird friends from Wisconsin who spend winters in Palm Springs.
They had invited us to stay for a weekend, and eager for a day trip, they chose Joshua Tree.
From Palm Springs, we headed west on Interstate 10, then north on Highway 62, the road to Twenty-nine Palms.
After stopping in the town of Joshua Tree to pay the entrance fee ($15 per car), we entered the park’s west gate.
Right away, the jumbled piles of rocks and boulders began to appear, and it wasn’t long before we pulled over and started scrambling. Fortunately for small kids and not-so-agile adults, these giant rock piles make for easy climbing and great picture-taking. They also beg the question: “How did they get that way?”
Geologists believe the Joshua Tree landscape began taking shape about 100 million years ago.
A combination of molten liquid, movement of the earth’s crust, erosion, fracturing, percolating ground water and flash floods combined to create these fascinating heaps of monzogranite.
We also stopped to watch some intrepid rock climbers, like so many Spidermen, scale the surfaces of giant vertical boulders.
Looking for something a bit less harrowing, we decided to hike the trail to the summit of Ryan Mountain.
We were thankful for the cloud cover, as the trail was a bit more ambitious (read “very steep”) than we had anticipated, but seeing people of all ages trekking up and down prompted us to quit complaining.
I justified our heavy breathing and rapid heartbeat by reminding my husband that just an hour before, we had been operating at nearly sea level.
The Ryan Mountain trail starts at about 4,300 feet and tops out at about 5,500 feet (suggested time for the 4.5-mile round trip is three hours).
Sweeping views all the way up helped compensate for our pain.
With that expenditure of calories, we had to head to Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace for a hardy dinner. This colorful, rustic eatery is northwest of the town of Yucca Valley (from Highway 62, take Pioneertown Road northwest). We thought a 5 p.m. dinner reservation would find us in a deserted dining room, but the palace was packed.
Families with young kids, singles, grandparents, bikers and trail-tired hikers — all were eating, drinking, dancing and enjoying the music of the Shadow Mountain Band, a great toe-tapping bluegrass/country group that kept the joint hopping.
The food at Pappy’s and Harriet’s is simple, generous and quite good; the meat and fish are grilled on a mesquite fire out back, and the fries, topped with cheese and ranch dressing, are celestial. (Less caloric options are available and the entrées also come with vegetables.) The grand finale was a sizable piece of Harriet’s apple crumb pie, topped with two scoops of ice cream and, in our case, served with four spoons.
Visit joshua.tree.national-park.com and www.pappyandharriets.com/ to learn more.
Borrego or bust
Recent rains hold the promise of a blooming desert this month. Want to see but don’t want to drive? The Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA hosts a trip to Anza Borrego Desert State Park 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 19. Narrated by San Diego State professor Phil Pryde, the trip includes stops at Dudley’s Bakery, easy nature walk at the visitor center, lunch at Borrego Springs Resort, and the 50-plus giant metal sculptures of prehistoric animals near the town of Borrego Springs. There are three pickup locations and the cost is $79. Call (760) 635-3050 for details.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.