I love biking in the morning.
The air is crisp as the sun slowly starts to warm me. It’s only 4 miles to Ryan Mountain from Jumbo Rocks Campground. Most people on this Saturday morning are still sleeping. It’s 7:00am and the sun is already making me feel toasty as I pedal. I have a lack of tolerance for crowds when I’m in nature which is why I’m already headed to Ryan Mountain.
Saturdays = crowds.
As I swing into the parking lot, there’s only two cars. Score! I strip off a layer of clothes, long johns and my thermal shirt, and replace the biking plates on my sneakers with the rubber bottom they came with. Yes, I’m weird enough to keep that because I like my stuff to stay nice even though I’m told it’s not necessary, on top of not wanting to sound like I’m tap dancing up the mountain.
Water: check. Nuts and fruit: check. Cameras: check. Excitement: check.
Even after the 34 miles I did yesterday, the old gams feel up to the challenge of the 2.8 mile loop. Wait…that’s it? And only 1000 feet of elevation gain? I guess it’ll be a nice warm up for any other hiking I do today. I couldn’t help but giggle when I read the information sign: The moderately strenuous hike takes about 2-3 hours. Does that include hanging out at the top?
About 45 minutes later, I was at the top. That includes all the moments of me fooling around with cameras and taking pictures, admiring the scenery. I’m not a strong hiker back in Colorado, but apparently the drop in elevation has made me into Wonder Woman.
What I found at the top was breath-taking. The 360 almost made me weep. Maybe because it was so starkly beautiful. Maybe it was the odd congruence of this single moment representing my whole life and this spiritual trip that I was biking. Maybe it was the absolute surrealness of the landscape and my imagination saying that dinosaurs should be seen traipsing across the valley.
I vote for option D: all of the above.
If you are ever in Joshua Tree National Park, make Ryan Mountain the one trail you definitely hike. Go in the morning. Besides it being beaming ass hot already at 10:00am (that’s when I started my descent) you also beat the crowds. There were tons of people on their way up as I bombed back down the mountain in 30 minutes. Make sure you wear decent sneakers. There’s a lot of gravel/sand on the trail and covering large rock steps. I saw a few people almost go down due to slipping. Also, the early morning gives you a bit of shade. Once it hits noon, there is zero shade on that mountain. There’s also a false summit so keep hiking until you see the summit marker.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch some of the big horn sheep hanging out. I did. I heard a pair of Frenchmen behind me (not part of the wildlife in JTNP) so I called them down to where I was and pointed out the 4 sheep just chilling in the morning shade near the summit. After talking with them, my one idea about the French was solidified. If you’re from anyplace in France except Paris, they ask you what you think of the French. The correct answer is: I like the French but Parisians are snobby.
The ride back to Jumbo Rocks was much easier than I was expecting. It was pretty much downhill to Ryan Mountain but that grade wasn’t grueling to get back up. There’s just this one part of the road that looked like I was going uphill yet I was gaining speed without peddling. You’ll find a bunch of spots like that throughout Joshua Tree. It’s the weirdest thing ever and just adds to the mystery of the place.
Back at the batcave, most of the campers were out for the day by 11:00am. Lunch, a quick little nap, and I was ready to explore the rocks. I wore flips flops (should have worn sneakers but it was way too hot) and headed off to see what this Skull Rock was all about.
No lie. It does look like a skull.
Remember how I had said that the rocks were alive? Well, they are. The rocks in different areas feel a different sort of alive. The ones to the south in Cottonwood and in the Pinto Basin have a quiet giant feel. The ones at Jumbo Rocks practically scream out to you “Come play on me!!!”. Hidden Valley rocks are majestic yet welcoming. And the ones closer to the West Entrance have a very chill hangout feel, kinda like they smoked a lot of pot and are telling each other jokes.
I spent an afternoon/evening exploring Jumbo Rocks and didn’t even see a quarter of what was there. It’s a massive rock labyrinth. Since I was alone and didn’t want to pull an Aron Ralston, I carefully bounded over and around the rocks, finding neat little niches, flowers just blooming, and large happy cacti. Once in a while I would take a break and soak up the heat from the rocks or watch some rock climbers getting it.
As I returned to my camp, the next door neighbors invited me to join their fire for some smores. Hells yes! We spent a pleasant evening getting to know each other. They were a father/daughter combo out on an adventure from Seattle while she took a semester off college. With a belly full of marshmallows, I bade them good night and safe journeys (they were leaving in the morning). I drifted off to sleep with thoughts of my next expedition.
My legs might hate me again tomorrow night…