Our first stop of the day was to the Oasis Visitor Center. The Park Rangers gave us plenty of information on things to do for the day, and places to go. It was early, we had food and water, and we were ready to tackle the park ahead of us. The three mile drive from the visitor center to the park gate doesn't seem like an incline, but if you look behind you in the car you realize that you're slowly gaining altitude as the town shrinks in the mirror behind you.
Our first adventure inside the park was at Split Rock, this 2.5 mile hike though the desert was an experience. We were greeted by giant boulders and long shadows from the morning sun. The air was still cool this morning, especially so on the shaded side of the rock formations. Nevertheless, we made our way along the easy to follow trail. There were a few climbers off in the distance either hanging out atop the rocks, or slowly making their way up the rocks. Perhaps in a future visit I'll give that a try, right now I'm not much of a rock climber.
After finishing up Split Rock, we drove down Park Blvd. towards Keys View. Our intention was to see what that location was like for sunset. We had a beautiful, unobstructed view of the Santa Rosa Mountains rising thousands of feet above. We could just make out the Salton Sea, the haze made it blend in to the desert floor. The San Andreas Fault was equally as visible between the mountains and us. The short hill was an easy paved hike up and we decided this would offer us the best views for sunset, which was still 4 or 5 hours away.
Since we only had two days here, we decided to drive down to the Southern section of the park, Cottonwood. In the middle of the day, with the sun at it's most intense, that drive seemed like it was quite long, and quite a drag, we made it though. While at the Cottonwood Visitor Center, we listened to a Ranger talk, and got some information about the lower Colorado Desert area of this part of the park. There were some hikes to do, but we were not feeling up to them, the sun was too intense, instead, we turned around back towards the main part of the park.
We did stop at the Ocotillo Patch and the Cholla Cactus Garden on our return North. Recent rains made most of the Ocotillos flourished with their small green leaves, much different from my experience of them in Saguaro. The Cholla Cactus Garden was phenomenal. All of these Cholla cacti growing densely together in a small patch. The short 0.3 mile hike through the garden was well worth it, there was no shade from the sun unfortunately.
By the time we got back up to the main part of the park, we still had about an hour to kill before sunset. We stopped at Skull Rock and explored the area then because there was more parking than earlier in the day. The Skull Rock area was one of the suggestions for sunset that the Park Ranger mentioned to us, unfortunately I didn't see any great views. The low sun caused much of the inner rock formations to be deep in shadow, and there wasn't as much a trail through most of the area as it was a series of "paths" through which you could climb some rocks to get up higher and further. None of it was technical at all, though it was rough on your hands and difficult to handle with a camera strapped to you.
When we did make it to Keys View, we had about 40 minutes of time before the sun was going to set for the day. We were surprised to find that the valley below us was full of low hanging clouds and fog. In my opinion, this enhanced our view of the area, it made it seem like we were atop a high mountain.
Later in the evening we came back into the park to get some photos under the legendary dark skies of the park. Sadly, there was a quarter Moon in the sky drowning out the Milky Way. That did allow me to get some very nice photos of the Joshua Trees illuminated with the moon, and a flashlight though.