Reflecting on the Dangers in Joshua Tree

Note:  This post also appears on T.M. Schultze’s website.
Desert Monsoon by T.M. Schultze
Desert Monsoon by T.M. Schultze

Autumn is only a few weeks away and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the Summers in Joshua Tree.

As most of you know, the desert in Summer is a dangerous place.  Water is usually scarce, heat is overwhelming, and it is easy for judgment to be impaired.  The Mojave, Chemehuevi, and Serrano who left their imprints on the park area usually migrated during the hottest months to the Colorado River area where water was plentiful or the San Bernardino Mountains where the climate was more hospitable.

It is not likely there were year-round residents in Joshua Tree National Park until the ranching and mining days, and certainly there wasn’t comparable foot traffic to what we see during what is the park’s slowest season.

There are definitely reasons to see Joshua Tree in the Summer, from the monsoons, to night photography, to marveling at the heat adapted flora and fauna that call the Park home.

The Missing

July 27th was a pretty normal day in Joshua Tree National Park.  The high in town was 101 degrees, which is about 7 degrees below the historic average.  This was also the day that Joseph Orbeso and Rachel Nguyen apparently disappeared hiking the Maze Loop of the park.  We did not include this area in our photo guide because it was just in the park and wasn’t one of our favorite spots.  This shouldn’t be a location you would expect a couple to disappear, but during a Summer day anything can happen.  Unfortunately, they have disappeared without a trace.

The Maze Loop seems to be an unlikely place for a couple to disappear.  But the trail’s proximity to the West Entrance means that many people stop to check it out.  Most of the trails in Joshua Tree aren’t marked all that well.  Foot trails create diverging paths.  Arroyos separate and intersect.  Rock cairns may exist until the next flash flood washes them downstream.  Absent a map, GPS, or detailed knowledge of landmarks and rock formations, the chance to get turned around are easy.  That is the sad part of this disappearance; the couple was not far from people’s homes.  But that is how easy it is to get lost.  Joshua Tree could do better to more clearly mark their mainstream trail systems.

This brings me back to another disappearance that I think about every time I visit the park.  Bill Ewasko disappeared in the early Summer on June 24, 2010 (see Tom Mahood’s incredible write-up here).  He is believed to have set out for Quail Mountain from Juniper Flats and has never been found.  The volunteer search effort has been extraordinary, and conducted by the same person(s) who located the Death Valley Germans who were missing for 14 years (should be noted, the parents were located but the children were never found).

The search for Bill Ewasko has been so detailed, complete, and covered so much ground that it is astounding that he has never been located.  This year, it appears that the main person searching has given up on the quest.  Others are still trying to piece together what happened.

Sometimes I sit on a rock staring up at Quail Mountain pondering what could have happened.

That is how rugged and forbidding these wild places can be, even a National Park with ~ 3 million visitors a year.

I’ve hiked much of the Juniper Flats route, up through several of the foothills that Quail Mountain sits above.  I’ve even thought about sifting through brush and junipers trying to see if I can find him.  But then I realize:  I am alone and I could easily make the same mistakes that Bill did.  Bill is probably resting in peace in some kind of rock shelter, and it pains me to think he isn’t home with his family.

The Dangers

These places are dangerous.  Even in the other seasons, the dangers abound.  It is my hope that Mr. Orbeso, Ms. Nguyen, and Mr. Ewasko someday make it home.

I reflected back to one such moment for me a few years ago.  I was traveling solo to an arch that I had previously visited but could not get into a great position to photograph.  The climb up to it was difficult on its own, but then you had to descend into a hole and them climb up to it.  This was not something I should have done alone.

As it turned out, I got stuck in the hole portion and could not get out.  There was nobody around.  Even screaming wouldn’t have helped.  I imagined I would be found there days or weeks later expired.  While I did manage to free climb out of it, I could have easily fallen and been seriously injured doing so.  I was relieved when I got back to the top and was able to climb down the larger rock face, but I realized I was lucky, and some people aren’t.

Needless to say, Jeremy and I decided to not include this location in the Book.  There are other locations too, particularly in the backcountry.  We thought about including many great sights such as the Red Obelisk, Garrett’s Arch, etc..  We decided the chance of serious injury just wasn’t worth it.  Besides, the people who really wanted to see those places can find them elsewhere on the internet.

This is not to speak of the rock climbing deaths that happen will all too much frequency in Joshua Tree.

Be Prepared

As Fall arrives, the days get shorter, and temperatures are more bearable, the park will come to life again.  The dangers will still exist though.  I hope everyone can reflect on the people who aren’t so lucky. Use your experience to be sure you are prepared, packed, safe, and cautious while enjoying one of the greatest of the United States National Parks.

Stay safe, my friends.


2 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Dangers in Joshua Tree”

  1. Have search parties ever become lost in Joshua Tree? Does safety increase with numbers, as expected?
    We have facades to disguise cell phone towers as trees and exposed pipes as rocks. Why not put in more trail markers, even just outlines of paths using rocks?
    I know these types of stories are valuable to anyone considering visiting Joshua Tree, but more so for young adults who have a false sense of invincibility.
    If the park has a “No littering” rule, can’t they also have a “Must have GPS to enter the park” rule? After all, being ill-equipped for personal safety usually ends up devouring man-power and other resources.
    I get why some highly experienced hikers are shaking their heads about Rachel and Joseph, because this type of tragedy is avoidable and the adventure seekers/risk takers don’t consider how their loss of life will affect loved ones.

    Public schools have indoor recess during triple digit heat. Shouldn’t a national park close its trails on such days?

    P.S. Happy belated birthdays, Rachel and Joseph. 🙁

    • Hi Yesenia, I think recent developments have shed more light on what likely happened to Rachel and Joseph. It is incredibly sad. I don’t believe adding regulations is warranted or even desirable. But, we all need to do as much as we can to be as safe as possible and treat the dangers inherent to the outdoor wilderness with caution. Though a tragedy, I do hope both families can get some closure.


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