Bajada Nature Trail
Joshua Tree National Park
By Michael Kaufman
Inside of Joshua Tree National Park, short nature trails introduce visitors to the ecological variety of the Southern California desert. One may learn a great deal about their surroundings and take in the natural beauty without having to go on a long, strenuous hike. One example is the Cholla Cactus Garden Trail; located in the southern, “Low Desert” portion of the park, the trail offers visitors a relatively easy walk through an eye-catching landscape. Recently, I was pleased to discover another such path in the park’s Low Desert area, this one offering an opportunity to view a wider variety of plant-life than the Cholla Cactus Garden: the Bajada Nature Trail.
The Bajada Nature Trail is located at the park’s southern entrance, about one-and-a-half miles from the “Mecca/Twentynine Palms” exit (Exit 168) on I-10, making it within the reach of even the most casual of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park. The trailhead is located at the eastern side of Cottonwood Springs Road, where it can be accessed from a parking lot that is, in essence, nothing more than an elongated and slightly-widened turnout. The trail itself is a loop a 1/4-miles long, dirt trail. Its purpose is to offer visitors an up-front glimpse into the plant-life that abounds in a desert bajada. A bajada is comprised of sediment that has spilled from the sides of mountains over a long period of time. As stated by the interpretive sign at the start of the trail, this sediment, is better able to retain water than that outside of the bajada, and thus contains more vegetation. The various types of plants that survive in the bajada are identified by the plentiful metal signs located along the trail; by the time a visitor has completed the loop, he or she will have a fairly basic understanding of the ecology of a low-desert bajada.
Creosote and brittlebush bushes dominate the landscape of the trail. The hardy creosote is ubiquitous to the hot desert regions of the Western Hemisphere, and are common in both the Mojave and the Colorado Deserts. Looking south from the trail, the creosote bush dominates the landscape: their leaves form a continuous green carpet, broken at various points by small trees. The impression that lasts is that of a South African veld. The brittlebush is a broad-leafed shrub, wherein the leaves are grey during dry periods and green after periods of rain; they seem to be the most common plant along the trail itself. At the time I visited, the leaves of the brittlebush were still slightly grey. After learning that the bajada had a higher density of desert plant-life than usual, I was hoping to see thick stands of ocotillo; alas, there were only two that I saw along the trail. I felt some consolation by the fact that, in mid-February, the ocotillos were completely covered with fresh leaves, although they had not yet flowered.
Most eerie are the hardwood trees one can see along the trail: the ironwood and palo verde. An interpretive sign states that bajada is the only location inside of Joshua Tree National Park where the ironwood tree grows. From a distance, the ironwood is an unnerving sight: its trunk is short, gnarled and pale, and its branches look bare. It reminds me of the types of trees one sees in a haunted forest in a fairy tale. Up close, one can observe the clusters of small leaves lining the ironwood’s branches. I was eager to see some palo verdes during my time on the trail, and I was pleased to see several prominent specimens. Unless there has been a heavy rain, the palo verde may not have any leaves; when I visited, leaves were only beginning to bud along the tips of the branches. In the palo verde, green bark supplements photosynthesis that is ordinarily carried out in the tree’s leaves. Unlike the palo verdes one can see planted in some front yards, those along the trail have large pale patches on their trunks. I don’t know the reason for this, but I suppose one explanation could be the presence of desert mistletoe in many Low Desert hardwoods, which saps the nutrients from its host.
If you have forgotten your high school biology, a stroll along the natural trail may reintroduce you to one of the basic lessons of life on earth: that some organisms live off of others without contributing anything in return; this is what biologists call “parasitism.” An interpretive sign along the trail explains one such prominent example: the relationship between the desert mistletoe and desert hardwoods. The mistletoe is a plant lives off of host trees, such as palo verde or ironwood. They are a common sight along the trail and driving north along Cottonwood Springs Road. The parasite is clearly distinguishable from its host, as the former appears as a thick, dark web of vines wrapped tightly around the midsection of its host’s trunk. Upon close observation, one notices the fleshy berries hanging from the mistletoe’s vines.
To be candid, I had expected the bajada to appear more lush and covered in vegetation than what I actually saw, based on what I had read about the trail online. With the exception of brittlebush, creosote bush, ironwood and paloverde trees, the scenery is actually quite sparse. The trail is a good place to learn about desert ecology and to stretch one’s legs after a long drive, but don’t expect any truly amazing sights. It is easy enough for most visitors, which is good for those unused to hiking. For more captivating scenery, one needs to drive a few miles north and visit two turnouts; driving north, the first one will be along the southbound lane of the road, while the second will be along the northbound lane. There are interpretive signs at these locations, but they do not describe the features specific to the sites; instead, the signs provide broad descriptions of the geological and biological aspects of the Colorado Desert (or “Low Desert”) vis-à-vis the Mojave Desert immediately to the north. The signs prove helpful in that they state which types of plants grow where in the Colorado Desert; for example, the signs state that the ocotillos tend to grow along the slopes of the hills, which helped me to seek out the plants as I scanned the nearby hills. Be sure to bring binoculars.
I recommend Bajada Nature Trail for those passionate about desert botany, as well as for casual day-trippers. The trail’s short length and lack of striking scenery have little to recommend to serious hikers. At the very least, the bajada does provide a clear contrast to the boulder-strewn, Joshua tree-laden plateaus to the north, thus offering the visitor a more complete experience when visiting Joshua Tree National Park.
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