Summer Road Trip 2019: Ambling Through the California Desert

This post was co-written by Amy Edwards and Beth Fortson.

In this installment of the Summer Road Trip series, we make our way to the desert where we find ourselves at the lowest point in North America, and later, staring at the tallest mountains in southern California. Join us as we explore Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park!

Along the way, we find ourselves at the lowest point on the North American continent, Badwater Basin, located in Death Valley National Park.  This site sits 282 feet below sea level, but may host a temporary lake after heavy rains in the region.  Interestingly, the National Park Service points out that in order to have exposed, dry land below sea level, the climate must be extremely dry, causing very rapid evaporation of any water that accumulates there.  Another fun fact – Death Valley was not created by erosion, but rather by movements in the earth’s crust. The Cartographic Branch preserves maps in the series 77-CWMF, “Civil Works Map File, 1818-1947,” that show the physical features of the area and identify potential sources of water.

RG: 77, Civil Works Map File, US 542-47.  Panamint Valley and Vicinity (Atlas Sheet 65d), Showing a Partial Section of Death Valley in the Upper Right Corner (NAID 143870639).


While Death Valley may seem like a barren lifeless place, I can attest to it being one of the most beautiful places that I have visited.  Far from being easy to get to, or even what one might call “off the beaten path”, visiting this national park takes intentional planning. At approximately 2 hours out of Las Vegas or about 3 1/2 hours out of Los Angeles, it is not a location that you just wind up at. However, should you decide to make the effort to visit, you will find it well worth the trip. From the breathtaking views at Zabriskie Point, to the gorgeous sand dunes at Mesquite Flat, to the drive leading out to the colorful sand in the formations at the Artist’s Palette, to searching for endangered Death Valley Pup Fish in seasonal creeks, Death Valley has something to offer to just about every adventurer.


As we take our leave from Death Valley, we hop on the road and head south for another California desert park – Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP). Hopefully, you haven’t had your fill of desert parks just yet, so grab those cameras and keep the sunscreen handy! 

Decades before a main graded highway was established to gain access to the area, few motorists tackled the primitive desert roads to see these iconic trees. These photographs from the Historical Photograph Files of the Bureau of Public Roads show cross country road-trippers stopping to take photographs with the flora of the area. These photographs were probably taken south of today’s park boundary near the Coachella Valley. 

Without the preservation efforts of California resident, Minerva Hoyt, the area may not have survived. The threat of land development and cactus poachers fueled her tireless efforts to obtain protection for the land, and was ultimately successful, when, in 1936, the land gained national monument status. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that the monument was upgraded to a national park.

Set on approximately 800,000 acres, the park’s elevation varies from 536 feet to 5,814 feet above sea level. Visitors can see blazing sunsets from the Key’s View lookout point that provides panoramic views of the Coachella Valley as well as Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio – the tallest mountains in southern California. This black and white photograph from series, 18-AA, “”Airscapes” of American and Foreign Areas, 1917-1964,” shows a view of Mount San Jacinto and a bit of the valley floor beneath it.

As you drive and hike in the park, don’t be alarmed if you hear booming in the area! It’s most likely training exercises being conducted at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in Twentynine Palms, California. The Combat Center encompasses roughly 1,100 square miles making it the largest Marine Corps base in the world. This base is a mere eight miles or so from the north entrance to JTNP. Training is conducted 350 days of the year, and, when heavy artillery is used, can be heard and felt in neighboring communities. A number of photographs of training activities that took place aboard MCAGCC can be found in the series, “Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files, 1982-2007.

As we make our way out of the desert, and head to points west, don’t forget to say, “Hi!,” to the unofficial desert welcoming committee standing tall in the valley. Have you visited Death Valley or Joshua Tree? Let us know in the comments! 

Local ID: 48-DPA-06-14-08_K_Joshua_NP_L1020718. “Joshua Tree National Park [and environs, viewed during southern California visit by Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and aides].”

2 thoughts on “Summer Road Trip 2019: Ambling Through the California Desert

  1. I grew up in the Mojave Desert! I also spent a fair amount of time camping and rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. I’m so glad you were able to showcase such special places!

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