TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. - The sky was a blaring blue, the sun deliciously warm, and the desert floor a tapestry of color. Desert bluebells and yellow and white tidy tips nodded above carpets of butter-yellow goldfields and purple mat as we hiked Cottonwood Spring trail through the southern end of Joshua Tree National Park.
On one side, a Costa's hummingbird shared a yellow-flowering creosote bush with a crested phainopepia that was whistling a sprightly song, while on the other, a white-tailed antelope squirrel skittered out of view. The air was pleasantly scented by the pungent creosote bush. And all around, the geologic landscape created millions of years ago was like an outdoor sculpture garden with heaps of jumbo boulders and balanced rocks amid a living history of tectonics and erosion.
Spring is to California's southeastern deserts - Joshua Tree, Mojave, and Anza-Borrego - what autumn is to New England. From February to June, depending on rainfall and snow melt, the deserts are alive with color as flowers, cacti, shrubs, and trees come into bloom and migratory birds make their way north.
People come every year, and the display can be anywhere from ho-hum to splendid. This year it has earned an "above average" grade from Jennifer Imhoof who was answering questions about the best wildflower viewing areas at the Cottonwood Visitors Center.
Joshua Tree National Park is less than an hour's drive from Palm Springs and Palm Desert, two upscale and tourist-friendly Coachella Valley communities nestled amid the dramatic Little San Bernardino, Santa Rosa, and San Jacinto mountains. Along with the geology, flora and fauna, and the creature comforts the twin cities provide, the area boasts some of the best weather in the country. While temperatures may dip into the low 50s at night, daytime temperatures this time of year range between 70 and 90, and humidity is low.
Where humans have settled in this valley, there are gorgeous plantings - sparks of bougainvillea, a botanist's fortune in cacti and succulents, birds of paradise with enough queenly flower spikes to stock a Harvard Square florist shop, and huge clusters of snapdragons and petunias.
Tourists come here to golf at more than 100 courses, gamble at dozens of casinos, troll the art galleries and antiques shops that line Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs and El Paseo Drive in Palm Desert, or take in performances at Palm Springs' Annenberg Theater and Palm Desert's McCallum Theatre.
We were there for the nature show. We had visited Joshua Tree National Park in November when the desert surprised us by already showing signs of bloom. The park is immense, almost 800,000 acres, and we wanted to explore it more fully in spring, hoping for a good blooming year. We weren't disappointed.
Shortly after we turned from Interstate 10 onto Highway 195, which leads to Cottonwood Spring, we were teased out of the car by the sight of Mexican goldpoppy, fiddleneck, freckled milkvetch, Canterbury bells, sand blazing star, chuparosa, and Arizona lupine filling the roadsides and decorating chunky rock piles.
Along the park's miles of trails, diverse environments from south-facing desert flats to the park's five fan palm oases provided opportunities to wander through canyons, scramble over boulders, explore old mills and building foundations, and climb for views of the Eagle Mountains and the Salton Sea. Meanwhile, if you're lucky you'll see exotic migrant birds like western tanagers and indigo buntings. We saw a roadrunner as peculiar looking as the cartoon critter.
Joshua Tree comprises two deserts or ecosystems: the Colorado Desert located along the eastern half of the park below 3,000 feet and home to stands of red-flowering ocotillo cactus and the dangerously spiny but sweetly named teddy bear cholla cactus; and the higher, cooler, and wetter Mojave Desert on the western side, where the Joshua tree, a giant member of the lily family, grows.
With dagger-like spines that bear clusters of whitish-green flowers at its branch tips from February to April, the park's namesake depends, like all plants in the desert, on well-timed spring rains to bloom. Joshua trees are surprisingly fragile; winter freezes can kill them. They grow quite slowly; the tallest in the park at 40 feet, located in an area called Queen Valley, is about 300 years old.
More than 1.25 million people visit each year, but because of the park's size, it's possible to get away from the crowds. Along with miles of hiking trails, bicycling is permitted on both paved and dirt roads; off-road vehicles are banned. Rock-climbing is popular here with certain restrictions, including registration at entrance stations and visitors centers.
Annual wildflowers tend to bloom in March and April while cacti bloom later in the season, ending by June. The park entrance fee of $15 per vehicle is good for a week, and the park doesn't close, so you can drive out at night to see the stars that bloom in the skies.
Yvonne Daley, a freelance writer in San Francisco and Vermont, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.