Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are some of the most iconic figures of the southwestern deserts. While most often associated with California and Joshua Tree National Park, a tiny portion of their range extends into our corner of southwestern Utah. Not actually a tree but rather a tall gangling species of yucca, Joshua trees are frequent companions on low-elevation hikes in the St. George area, where the Mojave Desert makes its last stand before disappearing into the higher altitude mountains and valleys of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin.
Like many species of yucca, Joshua trees don’t flower every year, but instead only when temperature and rainfall conditions are favorable. We had yet to see a flowering Joshua tree in our three years in Utah, only the dry brown stalks of blooms gone by. This winter has been abnormally wet however, and in early March we started to notice large flower buds forming on a handful of Joshua trees (in the median of Interstate 15) that we drive past regularly. By the end of March, the bloom was in full swing! We decided to head into the Virgin River Gorge of extreme northwestern Arizona for a closer look.
Joshua trees produce truly massive flower stalks: 1-2″ feet long and densely packed with large, rubbery, cream to nearly yellow-colored petals. Perhaps even more impressive are the flower buds, which resemble gigantic green and purple artichokes in the days and weeks before the flowers emerge:
This year’s Joshua tree bloom wasn’t limited to Utah and Arizona. Throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees have been flowering in large numbers, thanks to a series of wet and cold winter storms over the past few months. In fact, some Joshua trees in California were observed blooming as far back as last November. This fact may seem innocuous, but actually gives ecologists cause for concern given that Joshua trees are pollinated by just one insect: the yucca moth. Yucca moths are the sole species with the proper behavior and anatomy to pollinate the Joshua tree. Consequently, Joshua trees are 100% dependent on the yucca moth for reproduction and survival, while the larvae of the yucca moth are similarly dependent on the Joshua tree seeds for nutrition. For these symbiotic species to survive, the timing of the Joshua tree bloom must coincide with the life cycle of the moth. As climate change warms the southwestern deserts, there is concern that this could cease to be the case, as described in the linked article above. Joshua trees are a keystone species of the Mojave Desert, providing food and shelter for a host of other animals large and small. A decline in their populations would be devastating for the desert as a whole.
All of this is reason to work toward protecting our remaining stands of Joshua Trees, and a reminder to always be mindful and respectful when photographing sensitive species and landscapes. The “superblooms” of poppies and other wildflowers in the southwest over the past few months have highlighted the ecological damage that occurs when swarms of folks looking for their next Instagram photo descend en masse on delicate landscapes without regard for the environment.
Fortunately, many photographers are aware of the threat photography can pose to these beautiful environments and are working to combat the problem. I’m pleased to share that I have joined Nature First: The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. The goal of Nature First is to promote responsible nature photography through adherence to seven core principles:
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
Use discretion if sharing locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles
If you are a nature or landscape photographer, check them out and consider joining. Following these principles will ensure that spectacular events like Joshua tree blooms are still around for future generations of humans and yucca moths to enjoy!
Tucked away at the terminus of a winding gravel road in the Dixie National Forest near the Utah/Nevada border, Pine Park would probably be a beloved national monument or state park were it located literally anywhere other than Southern Utah. We’ve been fortunate to come across quite a few places that fit this profile: stunning, unique, reasonably accessible, and—here’s the big one—empty. Places like Zion National Park may be bursting at the seams, but vast swaths of Southern Utah remain deliciously deserted. On a warm and beautiful weekend in early May, we had Pine Park pretty much all to ourselves!
The main draw at Pine Park are the spectacular rock formations carved into the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. Tuff is a deposit of consolidated volcanic ash combined with rock, mineral, and glass fragments that forms only in very explosive volcanic eruptions. Pine Park sits on the margin of some of the most voluminous and expansive deposits of tuff in the world. Collectively, the thousands of feet of tuff scattered across large swaths of Nevada and western Utah represent a time when, for lack of a better descriptor, all hell was breaking loose across what is now the Great Basin. The Tuff of Honeycomb Rock is just a hair under 12 million years old, and thus one of the youngest deposits from this intense and violent episode of volcanism.
While the backstory of the tuff is intriguing, the real allure is the wonderland of creamy white spires, domes, and hoodoos emerging from the otherwise nondescript juniper, ponderosa, and piñon pine forest. Weathering and erosion have sculpted a masterpiece at Pine Park. In many places, the architecture almost resembles Bryce Canyon, albeit whitewashed, and with no maintained trails (several Forest Service trails wind through this area, according to the official map, but we had difficulty following them for any more than a hundred yards past the trailhead) the many pockets of eroded tuff are truly a blast to explore.
The tall, stately Ponderosas and a small stream give Pine Park a high-altitude feel, but in reality it sits at just 5700 feet above sea level, plenty low and warm enough for a plethora of wildflowers to be in full bloom during our visit:
The 47 mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road slices through some of the most otherworldly terrain in Southern Utah, connecting Highway 89 in the south with the Bryce Canyon region in the north. Mostly unpaved, some GPS devices have been known to lead travelers down this road in the name of a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park. When dry, Cottonwood Canyon makes for a wonderful scenic drive and is indeed a shortcut. But in the days following rain or snow, the layer of clay-rich shale the road follows for most of its length turns into a veritable morass, and renders the road impassible regardless of how many-wheel drive your vehicle might possess. Coming from the south, the road initially follows the broad valley of the Paria River drainage, before leaving the river behind and heading up the narrower valley of Cottonwood Creek. This portion of the road passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; other sections used to as well before the monument experienced its recent “downsizing.”
We recently took a three-night camping trip to explore Cottonwood Canyon and some nearby areas. Our first stop was Yellow Rock, near the south end of the road about 13 miles from Hwy 89. Yellow Rock is a massive dome of Navajo Sandstone, easily visible from the road as is rises high above the jumble of rock layers alongside Cottonwood Creek. While the hike to its summit is not long, getting there requires a moderately-difficult scramble up a hidden rocky chute littered with loose boulders. Hiking poles/sticks highly recommended. After scrambling to the base of the rock, the real fun begins. After a few years living in Southern Utah, it is natural to assume that you’ve seen every color, pattern, and texture of sandstone that can possibly exist, but then Yellow Rock comes along and proves you wrong:
While the abundant cottonwood trees lining the canyon bottom were still quite leafless, even in early April other signs of spring were beginning to show in this high desert. Traversing across Yellow Rock, we encountered many pockets of Desert Paintbrush, Anderson’s Buttercup, and Manzanita in sandy stream bottoms or in crevices in the sandstone, already in full bloom:
On our final night, we camped near the north end of the road, not far from Kodachrome Basin State Park, where we were treated to a spectacular sunset and even more stunning dark, moonless night skies:
No Southern Utah camping trip would be complete without a saunter through a slot canyon, so on the way home in the morning, we made a quick detour to Willis Creek Canyon. At the beginning of our trip, we had briefly probed the famous Buckskin Gulch, just south of Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona, but were quickly turned back by waist-deep mud & debris pools that were emanating quite possibly the most foul stench to ever besmirch this Earth. In contrast, Willis Creek Canyon is a rare bird in Southern Utah; a beautifully sculpted slot with no technical obstacles to rappel over, and no putrid cesspools to wade through. Instead, a small babbling brook winds through the sandstone narrows, seemingly oblivious to its own high-quality handiwork: