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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cholla Cactus Garden - Joshua Tree National Park

Until this trip, I never thought cactus could be, well, really stinking cute.  This trip to Cholla Cactus Garden proved just that.  If you are traveling to Joshua Tree National Park, this quick little walk to a garden of ridiculously adorable cactus should be on your list.  While not an exciting hike or grand adventure, this was probably one of my favorite stops in Joshua Tree National Park. 

Driving along the road from the southern entrance, you can see one or two spread out throughout the landscape.  All the sudden, you arrive at the Cholla Gardens and the cactus are everywhere.  You can walk a path between the chollas, taking in these very cool plants (in the family of aloe!) among the mountains.   It is a sea of green, silver, gold and brown.  The cholla's distinct color and shape set against the mountain landscape make for some amazing pictures.  See for yourself.  

Be warned, as cute as they are these plants have a fierce sting which has given them a few different nicknames. The Cholla (pronounced choy-ya) is a general name given to a variety of different cacti such as the Teddy Bear Cholla, Silver Cholla and Pencil Cholla.  Joshua Tree has several cholla species throughout the park.  Because of the Chollas ability to "jump" from the desert to your clothing, they have been nicknamed the "jumping cholla".   They are one of the "most feared" cacti in the southwest and a close look at these spines will tell you why.  

The name "Jumping Cholla" was derived from the way the joints of the cactus break off easy and "jump on" to you .  The spikes and branches break off very easily after being only slightly bumped or disturbed.   Be very aware as you walk around as they aren't just on the cactus, they are all over the ground as well.  As new joints age, they detach readily from the parent plant. Watch the ground carefully as you walk for these stray pieces of cactus scattered next to the trail.  While they may look dead and broken, new cactus start growing from the broken-off joints and the garden will continue to grow and renew itself.  

What makes the cholla cacti so feared among desert hikers?  The chollas actually have hollow spines that can easily attach to whatever they touch.  If there is moisture, such as with skin, the tips actually curve once they have made contact, locking their spines in place just underneath the skin's top layer.

The biggiest problem with this garden is where it is located in the park.  Many visitors enter in and out through the northern visitors center, and the garden can be easily missed.  This stop is a little far from the other popular spots in the park but if you are driving the road through the park (as we were) it is right off the main road.   We entered through the Cottonwood Visitor's Entrance, passed Cholla Gardens (first stop!), and out the main Joshua Tree entrance. If you do come from the north entrances, you will have to continue south down Pinto Basin Road to see the garden. 

The "garden" is located 20 miles north of the park's Cottonwood Visitor Center along the Pinto Basin Road and is at the south end of Wilson Canyon. The small forest of chollas lies just south of the geographical break between the Mojave Desert to the north and the Colorado Desert to the south.

Two Deserts, One Park 
What is the significance of these two deserts in the park... glad you asked ;)  The Mojave is a higher, cooler desert more attractive to Joshua trees, Mojave yuccas, even pinyon pines, scrub oaks, and junipers. Driving through the northern part of the park you will see an abundance of Joshua Trees.  The Colorado Desert, a fragment of the much larger Sonoran Desert, is below 3,000 feet in elevation and is hotter than the Mojave. This setting is more favorable for cholla, ocotillo, and creosote bush.  I don't think we saw any Joshua Trees until we crossed over into the Mojave.  Mojave cooler Joshua Trees.  Colorado hotter cactus. 
While the desert is the right climate, it still didn't explain why there were so many Cholla in this one area.  Turns out, the abundance of cacti in this location is the result of a reliable water supply at key times of year for the plants.  
If you came to see the chollas (as you should) there is a short loop hike you can follow to walk among the chollas.  This is also a perfect hike for those hotter desert days.  While the heat can be too intense for some longer hikes, this is the perfect quick jaunt to see one of my favorite aspects of the park. Park at the lot and follow the 1/4 mile loop hike/path around the cactus.  While they look adorable, do not (I repeat, do not!) touch the chollas.  I saw several people trying to get cactus needles out of their fingers and out of their shoes.  They look sharp, it is sharp - end of story.  Follow the path, take a few pictures, but don't get too close.  I am no expert (but now I desperately want to be a cactus expert) but I think the majority of the cholla in the garden are the teddy- bear variety.  

This was my favorite part of the park.  The fuzzy round hues of gold green and brown together against the mountain landscape with blue skies and puffy clouds made for some great pictures.  A fun way to stretch our legs on the National Park drive.  Happy Cholla-ing and don't touch the cactus. 

Hike on,

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