We headed up to the west side of Joshua Tree yesterday--there's a nice loop hike just out of the west entrance, winding through those odd rockpiles Joshua tree is known for, walking through some sandy washes, and shaking down some new gear for my PCT walk next month.
We chose to do the Maze Loop, around 6 1/2 miles on the west entrance of the park, and arrived at the trailhead at 9. It took me longer than usual to get going--this is the first time I'm using some gear, particularly a solar panel and sun umbrella, and I had to puzzle out how to get them strapped onto the new pack.
The first half of the trail was pretty interesting, it went up and down around large boulders with cactus strewn about (but not many Joshua trees at all.) The barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)was really specatcular, putting out a new flush of pink spines--each cactus really did look like someone had spraypainted them.
After the third mile, the trail mellowed out, with some good views to the east over rockpiles, then it settled into a desert wash and across some low rolling country back to the car. We passed a trail to "Window Rock", which we could see hight up on a rocky ridge just south, and though we both wanted to explore up there we didn't head up there. Ah well, next time.
A bit over 2 1/2 hours later we were done. It wasn't crowded when we left (at 9am), and there was just one other car in the 4-car parking turnout, but by the time we got back there were a dozen cars parked along the road, a steady stream of traffic along the road, and a long lineup to get into the park at the entrance station. Still, the trails were uncrowded--we saw just one group of six or so, and a solo hiker--so we did beat the crowds.
The conditions and the gear
It was a bright sunny day, and a bit warmer than usual or expected, say around 75 to 80 degrees F: a warm enough day to bring out dozens of lizards but no larger critters were seen. The trail was often deep coarse sand (I can feel it in my glutes today), fine sand, or sometimes small granite gravel on top of hard granite that was more than a bit slippery in several places.
I was real curious about how my shoes would work, especially with the twinges of plantar fasciitis from last week. I started out in Hoka Stinson Lites with Superfeet Copper inserts (no heelcups), and they felt great but the lack of lugs meant I had to be careful on the boulders. That wasnt' much fun, so after a couple of miles I switched them out for Hoka Stinson ATRs--the same shoes with a lugged sole for trails, rather than a flat sole--and added the Superfeet Copper with heelcups. That was the win; I liked that combo a lot and thought "OK, I've confirmed these are the shoes/inserts I'll be walking with. What's the next thing to figure out?"
And that next thing was the umbrella--this is the Euroshrim Handsfree Trekking Umbrella. It definitely worked and kept me cooler and most of my upper body shaded, even with the lower sun angle of winter. Attaching it was interesting--you can loop the handle shock cord around a waistband strap, and then clip it to its plastic U-clips on your shoulder strap--and it pretty much stays in place, though I'm going to add one more bit of shock cord on the bottom of the handle so it stays more vertical. One drawback is the umbrella can snag on bushes as you pass them, like this nasty acacia bush I brushed against while I was climbing up a hill. The umbrella blocks the view of trail when heading uphill, and if the hillside is on the right side (I put the umbrella on my right shoulder), the bushes on that side become even more threatening. So... just fold up the umbrella down for more hilly terrain.
About the last bit of gear that needed checking out was the solar panel. I'm using the Suntactics s-Charger 5, it's lightweight and has a nice auto-retry feature. It wasn't too difficult to attach with a #1 S-biner on the top, and some shock cord on the bottom... but detaching the shock cord was tedious, so I'll just go with S-biners all around. The USB cord coming out of the panel is a bit inconvenient too, as it can hit me in the back of the neck if it's on top, so flip the panel around and all is good. The cord goes into one of the hydration holes into the pack, and is connected to the battery charger, attached to one of the interior straps with another s-biner. Note to self: when buying S-biners and shock cord, get them in a different color than black. Almost every strap and cord and attachment and buckle is black, and it's real hard to distinguish what's what in the dark or with sunglasses on.
And lastly--water. I was real curious as to how much water I'd drink in the dry desert. Some sections of the PCT have 40 miles between water sources, so 'water burn rate' is important to know. I filled up my 2 liter bag, sipped as I went along and weighed the remaining water after I got back. I drank about 700ml of water for the 6+ miles, but wasn't that thirsty when I started so I'd say that's on the low side, and one liter per six miles is more reasonable rate. And the umbrella definitely cuts down on sweating--I took it down for a couple of miles in the middle of the hike, and it was noticably warmer, even with my white thin longsleeve shirt on.