Deserts are desiccated landscapes of raw earth populated only by the heartiest of life forms, right? Yes. And ironically, they can also be places you go to witness some of the loveliest wildflowers you'll ever see.
Some years, during the height of spring bloom season, the flowers are so thick that the colors roll all the way across the usually bleak landscape and vanish into the horizon. Other times, you have to seek the blooms out one at a time, like little treasures. At night, huge, ghostlike blossoms open to the moon and later wither with the sun. Then the ephemeral colors are gone, and you'll wonder if the whole thing wasn't just a mirage.
Given the desert's fickle patterns of rain and temperature, you can't always predict when, where, or even if the flower show will occur. But plan a likely route anyway, then be prepared to change those plans and go where the flowers may be.
A spectacular and rugged 16-mile loop in Joshua Tree National Park will entertain you even if the blooms aren't peaking. From Indian Cove, hike the Boy Scout Trail to a camp not far from Willow Hole (watch for bighorn sheep). Then scramble and boulder-hop to Rattlesnake Canyon in the Wonderland of Rocks, and descend back to Indian Cove.
Each spring, I wait with bated breath for word about the bloom, and then do my best to catch it before it passes. Sometimes I settle for cactus flowers and perennially blue skies. Other times I have to take care not to crush dozens of beauties with my tent. Either way, I've never regretted a spring desert hike, and I've taken some I'll never forget.
Getting to Indian Cove
From Twentynine Palms on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, drive 10 miles west on CA 62, and go south at the signed entrance to the Indian Cove campground and trailhead.
The best month to go is March, but be prepared to experience the desert's wonders anytime from late February through early April.
Desert Hiking Guides
Hiking California's Desert Parks, by Bill Cunningham and Polly Burke (Falcon Publishing, 800-582-2665; $16.95).
Theodore Payne Foundation, southwest desert-wide flower hotline, (818) 768-3533.
Joshua Tree National Park, (760) 367-5500; www.nps.gov/jotr.