Joshua Tree National Park, California
In Tucson, Ariz., there is an organization called the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). One of their duties is to establish and maintain a list of “International Dark Sky Parks.” Joshua Tree National Park received that designation in the summer of 2017. Why do we want to know where to find the darkest skies? Because that’s where you see the stars. The IDA describes an International Dark Sky Park as “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, education, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” Other national parks with this designation include the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands and Death Valley National Parks.
While the west end of Joshua Tree suffers from some light pollution from Palm Springs and other nearby towns, the east side is the place to go for darkness. Situated in the desert of southeastern California, this is one national park where a night hike might be preferred, not only because of the magnificent dark sky but also because daytime temperatures in the spring and summer often surpass 100.
Once a year in November Joshua Tree is home to the Night Sky Festival. The park’s campgrounds generally fill up for that event. There are guest speakers during the day and telescope viewing posts at night. And you’ll likely get a little advice about how not to be a light polluter.
An alternative way to enjoy the night sky at Joshua Tree is to view it from your very own pod at the Wagon Station Encampment just outside the park’s boundaries. A complex of 12 sleeping pods, the Wagon Station Encampment is part of A-Z West which, according to its Web site, is “an evolving testing grounds for living — a place in which spaces, objects and acts of living all intertwine into a single ongoing investigation into what it means to exist and participate in our culture today.” That’s the kind of stuff you want to ponder while you stargaze. In addition to the Wagon Station Encampment, A-Z West features a shipping container compound, a weaving studio and ‘satellite cabins.”
The whole thing was founded by Andrea Zittel, a Bay Area artist who moved to Joshua Tree some 15 years ago. Zittel makes sculptures and installations for galleries and uses the money to fund her social experiment in the desert. There are two months a year during which you can rent a wagon station, but you have to apply with autobiographical info and be accepted. Zittel suggests it’s appropriate for those “who are engaged in cultural or personal research.”
The encampment includes a communal outdoor kitchen as well as showers and toilets. The pods themselves look like metal and wood containers that are raised off the ground. They lift open from the front and inside there is a mattress and hooks for clothing. Up top there is a transparent strip, perfect for lying in bed and stargazing.
Homesteading in the Desert
Stargazing was the last thing that Bill Keys had in mind when he settled on a mining property in 1910 in what would later become part of Joshua Tree National Park. Keys was from Nebraska and his background included a stint training with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. He worked at the mine for about five years and when the absentee owner died he filed a claim for back wages which resulted in his gaining ownership of the property. He then added to his holding by filing a homesteading claim for adjacent land.
Keys was something of a whirlwind on his new property. He continued running the mine, did some farming and started a cattle ranch. He built five dams on the property and roads running through it. He even created the area’s first elementary school, originally for his own kids, of which there were seven. In the forties, Keys had a gunfight with a local sheriff’s deputy that resulted in a murder conviction. He did five years in prison before being released and was later fully pardoned.
The Keys Ranch is now part of Joshua Tree National Park and has been designated a National Historic Register Site. The ranch house, the school, a store and a workshop are still standing and there are various tools and mining equipment on the site. Ranger-guided walking tours are available to visitors to the park.