Ed Abbey, White Courtesy Phone


Cholla Garden, Joshua Tree National Park

Here’s one of those little “slice of political life in the desert” things. There’s a road through Joshua Tree National Park called Pinto Basin Road that’s seen better days. It washed out rather badly a year ago, in a series of monsoon storms, and it was closed for months — leaving most of the park inaccessible to Winnebagos. Winnebagi? I can never remember which declension that is.

Anyway, the road was in rough shape even before the storms. It’s on alluvium and generally just a couple inches thick, which means that each time a passing Winnebagus rolls slightly off the edge of the pavement the roadbed deteriorates just a little. Some of the road’s stretches have limited sight distance due to going around alluvial fans and down into washes and such. It’s perfectly safe if you drive the posted limit, which never gets higher than 45 miles per hour, but no one ever drives the posted limit because it’s out in the middle of the godforsaken desert with “nothing to look at” except at the sanctioned pullouts, where you’re encouraged to pull out and look at a sign that explains to you that you’re in the middle of the godforsaken desert. So people try to drive at 55 mph or more, and every so often a speeding Winnebagum catches the edge of the road and rolls over into the desert. A few fatal accidents have resulted.

So the Park Service has been meaning to upgrade the road for a while: the 2011 storms merely made it mandatory.

The road, by the way, is perfectly wonderful as is. A few days before the storms broke it last year Annette and I drove it in her Mini Cooper, which has approximately seven ångströms of road clearance, and we did just fine. It was late at night — we’d been in the Park watching the Perseids — and we were the only people on the road for miles, driving at 35 mph, blocked from cell service and radio contact, finally able to bring in an AM radio station from the Navajo Reservation. It was a nice night.

Anyway: they’re widening the road by two feet, increasing the sight distance in some places, and presumably making the roadbed a bit more robust. I’d known about that for a few months.

What I didn’t know is this.

One of the sanctioned pullouts along the stretch of road is the Cholla Cactus Garden — a gorgeous patch of teddy-bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) that’s one of the most-visited spots in the Park. I took the photo above there 12-odd years ago. Annette and I went there on one of our first dates back in 2008, went for a walk through the cacti, and returned to find my (late lamented) Jeep full of hundreds of angry bees. (“This date is going well,” I thought to myself at the time.)

Since the spot is so popular, there’s a large-ish dirt parking lot there. And as part of the road project, they want to improve the parking lot. They’re going to pave it and stripe it, which is just and fitting. It’s way the hell out in the stinking desert, but the dictates of civilization must be obeyed.

But the Park Service also wants to “upgrade” the parking area. The plan is to bring it up to 20-30 auto spaces and add an area for drivers of Winnebagae to moor their crafts.

So they are going to expand the parking lot to allow people to get out and enjoy the cholla. In order to do so, they are pushing the parking lot about 30 feet into the Cholla Cactus Garden. And due to the Cauly Exclusion Principle, which states that a Winnebago and an arborescent cholla cannot occupy the same space simultaneously, the chollas have to move.

Which means that in order to facilitate tourists’ ability to get out and look at the chollas, the Park Service is putting a parking lot where the chollas are.

The park service starts digging up an acre of chollas October 15. They’re going to be replanted in another area of the cholla patch that the Park Service has declared in need of revegetation. According to the local magazine the Sun Runner, about 800 mature chollas will be moved out of the way of the Winneba[suffices], and as many as 600 of them are expected to survive replanting.

The National Park staff includes super-smart botanists who are very likely as competent to keep transplanted Cylindropuntia bigelovii alive as anyone on the planet. And I’m guessing those botanists didn’t come up with this idea.It’s not the biggest evil in the world, and the road project is definitely being paved with good intentions. But still.

Anyway: you have a week to see the Cholla Cactus Garden as it once was. When you park on the dirt, roll up your windows so the bees don’t get in.



  1. JCfromNC says

    Wow. “Hundreds of angry bees.” A memorable date indeed. So… how did you sweet-talk them out of the Jeep so that you could take your date home? I’m assuming you weren’t in reasonable walking distance, being out in the middle of the godforsaken desert.

  2. says

    We moved slowly and calmly, opened every single window and the hatch in the back, gently brushed the bees off the front seats, steering wheel and footpedals, and then drove for about ten miles with everything open. Not so much as a sting.

  3. Ichthyic says

    I have very fond…. and not so fond… memories of the cholla garden.


    sunsets in the garden where it practically glows gold and red:


    not so fond…

    inevitably every time I wander the patch, a branch of cholla that has dropped on the ground gets stuck to the bottom of my shoe, then ends up stuck in my calf.

    I use it as an object lesson for everyone I take to Joshua tree the first time.

  4. unclefrogy says

    sounds like a plot element from a farcical satire but it is just normal?

    uncle frogy

  5. Ichthyic says

    I seem to recall hearing that the cholla in the garden may mostly be clones of a single individual.

    You know anything about that Chris?

  6. says

    Haven’t heard that about that patch, and a quick cursory google reveals some cut-paste lore but nothing authoritative so far.

    It’s not in any way implausible, of course: the things are fragile, as you’ve demonstrated to yourself, and the sections that break off root readily. I can imagine a Shasta ground sloth ambling past 13,000 years ago with a cholla stem stuck on her fur and dropping off in the center of what would become the Cholla Cactus Garden. So there’s the argument from credulity.

  7. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    “Teddy bear cholla” is a conspiracy. The spiky bastards chose that name deliberately to throw us off guard, so that when they decide to leap out and plunge their horrid, barbed spines into our sweet mammalian flesh we’ll be vulnerable and unsuspecting. And they’re not even the worst of the cholla…there’s something very wrong when the spines get through denim and stick into your skin firmly enough that they’ll actually pull through the denim rather than releasing their hold on you.

  8. gregoryhilliard says

    Those spines can be tough to get out because they are small and numerous. I had to do it for a little girl on a Scout outing in the White Tanks. All I had was a small set tweezers from my tiny Swiss army knife. Then the troop leader showed up when I was almost done and pulled needle-nose pliers out of her fanny pack. She says she always takes a pair when hiking in the desert. Lesson learned.

  9. Ichthyic says

    The spiky bastards chose that name deliberately to throw us off guard, so that when they decide to leap out and plunge their horrid, barbed spines into our sweet mammalian flesh we’ll be vulnerable and unsuspecting.

    jumping cholla was much more honest.

    and, I can tell you, there is no gold in golden cholla.

  10. Johnny Vector says

    Great, now I have a mashup of Firesign Theatre and Edward Abbey in my head.

    “All out for Fort Stinkindesert!” KA-BOOM!!

  11. says

    Transplanting Chollas is a total waste of money. If environmentalists want them saved let them save them on their own dime.

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Transplanting Chollas is a total waste of money. If environmentalists want them saved let them save them on their own dime.

    Using that logic, the Winnebagos should pay a large parking fee if they want to see the cactus on public property…

  13. Brad says

    @13, the parking lot expansion is the waste of money, transplanting is a consequence of prior idiocy.

  14. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    Transplanting Chollas is a total waste of money. If environmentalists want them saved let them save them on their own dime.

    I now quote from the Oranic Act, which created the National Park Service:

    The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
    (bolding is mine)

    The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve the resource while at the same time allowing it to be enjoyed by this generation. Think about that. Preserve it and use it. The reason my tax money is going to help pay for this is that the United Stated Congress presented this newly minted agency with that contradictory mission.

    How the NPS tries to achieve that mission can be, er, odd? at times, no question. Unfortunately, putting in a road (or improving a road) to a wonderful area inevitably degrades the resource to which the road leads. So, which part of the mission takes precedence? Preservation or use? Compared to the huge cost of improving the road (no, I have not seen any of the PMIS package, so I do not know the total price), transplanting the cholla should be a relatively small incremental cost but, given the mission of the NPS, an important one.

  15. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    Sorry about dropping a steaming load of beaurocrat on the thread. My bad.

  16. says

    So they are going to dig up part of the Cholla garden so Winnabuggers can park to view the garden. The Chollas from the dug up area will be transplanted to an area needing re-vegetation. Heres a simple solution: Leave the Chollas alone and build the car park in the area needing re-vegetation. Or is that too sensible.

  17. paulburnett says

    Spread the word that Teddy Bear Chollas are NOT to be petted. They look so cute and furry, you just want to reach out and run your hand over their velvety white coat.

    That’s why those who know take high-quality long-nose pliers with them into the desert.

  18. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says


    I never had a problem with Chollas. There is a species of prickly pear, however, that is the most evil plant on earth. No spines are visible — just little white tufts. And if you gently brush against those tufts, you have little tiny itchy needles, which hurt whenever you rub that area of skin the wrong way, for about two months. On a geology field trip (Dad tuaght geology at Yavapai Community College) to Phantom Ranch, I scrambled up a rock face to give scale to a member of the Grand Canyon series and placed my hand full onto one of those evil little fuzzy ones. I’d rather grab a fishhook cactus anyday of the week.

  19. says

    Oh, those fuzzy cacti are evil. There are a bunch planted around the biology building at the U of Utah, and when I worked there I brought in my oldest son one time (Alaric was about 8, I think), and he ‘petted’ them. Big mistake.

    I got to spend an hour in the lab holding his hand under a dissecting scope while delicately extracting teeny-tiny microscopic needles from his skin.

  20. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    I have vivid memories of Cholla from when I was in geology field camp. We were out mapping when the profs called out that we were done for the day and had to get going. I was on an elevated area, and the quickest way down was to slide down a rock face (~45deg slope) about 10 feet high, on my butt. Unknown to me, a cholla had grown in a crack in the rocks, died, and decayed… except for the spines.

    My classmates had an uproarious time yanking out spines while I laid on my front in the van on the way home. Thankfully, this was in the days before digital cameras or cellphones, or I would have been immortalized.

    Oh, and another student during the camp managed to bend down and impale himself with a spine in the knee. When he stood up, his kneecap slid over the spine, embedding it completely. He needed surgery to remove it.

  21. andylowry says

    Handy tip for desert wanderers: if you forget your pliers, cholla chunks can be removed with a pocket comb. Metal ones with a handle are best, but the standard nylon ones can be put into service if handled carefully.

    Prickly pear “hairs” are a different matter. If you are attacked by them, you are doomed. Removing your skin with a fish-scaler might work, I guess.

  22. says

    “Teddy bear cholla” is a conspiracy.

    If you go into the woods today you’re in for a big surprise.

    Those little spines are called glochids, and what’s really fun is having a job potting small cacti and getting glochids permanently embedded in the chapped skin on the sides of your index fingers.

    I’ve had good luck getting them out with repeated applications of masking tape, as though I was “waxing” them. I’ve heard that spreading white glue on the area, letting it dry, then peeling it off works well and I look forward to not having to test that out any time soon.

  23. Snidely W says

    Ha! Love the street-view on the Google Maps link [the last link in the article]. Can actually see the chollabundance. Plus, panning out really shows the extent of the alluvium.

    There are still many more “civilized” areas where there is no street view available. Makes me wonder how much individual discretion those Google Map Truck drivers have in picking their routes to map.

  24. madscientist says

    Hmmm … it’s tempting to go just to laugh at the gringos being groped by that bigloveii.

  25. Ichthyic says

    Removing your skin with a fish-scaler might work, I guess.

    hours of tedious plucking with a good pair of tweezers works for most of it.

    the ones that are rubbed in though…

    not much to do about those. I like to think that actually rolling the skin affected between thumb and forefinger to help “break apart” the spines helps some.

    I’m not sure it really does though.

    I STILL have sharp (heh) memories of the first time I got covered with those spines as an 8 year old kid, visiting my grandparents in Las Vegas and going on a desert tour. I forced them to stop the car so I could collect some cactus for my garden. The cactus in question being a species of Opuntia.

    They did try to warn me. really.

    afterwards they found it quite humorous that I now looked like I had fur… after 3 hours of screaming uncomfortableness, they no longer were laughing :P

    My aunt spent about 8 hours patiently plucking out the hundreds of tiny spines with a tweezers.


  26. Ichthyic says

    btw, I’ve also heard, but have not tried, using duct-tape to remove glochids, and others swear by using standard hair removal waxes.

  27. Z.L 'Kai' Burington says

    This is stupid. They can’t see anything from their cars anyway! If they get down on their hands and needs and crawl until blood starts to speckle their trail, then they might see something, maybe.

    Probably won’t take long in this place, either.

  28. Ichthyic says

    They can’t see anything from their cars anyway!


    sure you can. that cholla garden is quite spectacular and the plants are up to 2 meters high.

  29. Rev. BigDumbChimp says

    I wonder if it was some form of glochid wielding catus type bastard that is what I put my hand into while on a three day climb in Zion. Whatever it was it SUCKED having all those “needles” in the very implement I was relying on to get me up the wall. Rubbing up against all that nylon rope and webbing for hours upon hours of repeated actions.

    El suck.

    In a really big way.

  30. A. Noyd says

    Sooo, that’s what those invisible spines are called. A glochid-wielding cactus got me once on a camping trip. I was compelled to pet its leaves because they looked so smooth. About chewed the tip of my finger off over the next few days trying to get the spines out.

  31. Ichthyic says

    About chewed the tip of my finger off over the next few days trying to get the spines out.

    *sucks breath in quickly*

    those spines can just as easily get stuck in your tongue or the roof of your mouth.

    highly unrecommended.


  32. Ichthyic says

    btw, I’ve also heard, but have not tried, using duct-tape to remove glochids, and others swear by using standard hair removal waxes.

    in looking, I just ran across a paper that researched the various methods statistically, and found that the best method was still using tweezers, followed by white-glue with a gauze layer on top.

    best was using both: tweeze large clumps out first, then a layer of white glue with a layer of gauze on top (mostly so you can grab it easily). using both methods resulted in up to 95% removal.

    there’s a wiki on the subject too.

  33. geocatherder says

    In general, I appreciate the concern about the Winnebagae… but for the last decade of their lives, my somewhat crippled-up in-laws have seen new and interesting places via their motorhome. Should such folks be shut up in their houses because they don’t have the physical ability to see the desert as someone younger and more agile? I’m sure you all who disagree with my assessment will be glad to hear that they’re officially in from the road. Their physical disabilities have finally overcome their ability to travel at all.

    Regarding destabilization of the roads, y’all haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a 2WD convoy of university Suburbans, all driven by students, barreling down the dirt roads, behind schedule on some field trip. Been there (though I was never one of the drivers).

  34. says

    A frightening proportion of said Winnebagices around here are driven by people under 60, many of them towing H2s behind. With bikes strapped to the H2s.

    I have nothing against older folks touring in comfort. I do think that’s possible with something less than 35 feet long, though.

    And it’s an increasingly moot point as gasoline approaches 5 bucks a gallon.

  35. Ichthyic says

    And it’s an increasingly moot point as gasoline approaches 5 bucks a gallon.

    it’s pushing double that here.

  36. Crudely Wrott says

    At age seven I was scrambling up a steep hill in Wyoming when by boots slipped and I fell forward. Both hands went out to stop my face from hitting the slope; the left one hit bare rock, the right one landed atop a prickly pear.

    Those spines are more needle-like but still with fine barbs and tend to break at skin level. I managed to get most of them out with fingernails and adults wielding tweezers that very day.

    Others I extracted with my own tweezers a day or three later, from the back of my hand.

    It was a lesson well learned. Since then I’ve never been impaled by cacti again. At least not yet.

    I’ve since been most respectful of blackberry brambles and wild roses and certain decorative landscaping plants, to name but a few. Anything with sharp parts or what looks like sharp parts gets an extra close look before I touch or grab aholt.

  37. says

    I spent the week in a remote campground in a national forest where the ranger stations’ were closed, and no one noticed the huge spread of garbage from an event operator two months ago. We spent a day gathering the eight big trash bags of stuff together, and we weren’t able to cart out but four of them. There were three other chairs and an 8′ table, all piled in the bottom of a pond – luckily empty because this is a drought year.


  38. viajera says

    Agreed that as cute as cholla cactus are, those spines are pure evil. I was doing some fieldwork in the Chiricahuas almost 20 years ago (gasp), and a guy working with us accidentally brushed a low cactus and got a spine right through his hiking boots. His response? He kicked it as hard as he could. Yeah, that was smart….he was picking spines out of his toes for the rest of the trip.

    I’m similarly torn about Winnebagii. An elderly family member traveled all around the US and Mexico (where he helped out at a medical clinic) in his old converted bus, and he now has a smaller rig. It’s definitely done him good. On the other hand, I’ve spent too many restless nights in remote campgrounds where the Winnegabii towed their generators, which they late into the night to power their TVs and stereos. Totally ruins the experience for themselves and anyone else within a half-mile radius.

  39. flevitan says

    What bloody idiocy! I’ve been to and love the Cholla Cactus Garden! Calling Hayduke – time for some sugar, large boulders, napalm and/or dynamite when the cactus-pullers, earth-movers and pavers arrive.

  40. luslustigtig_ says

    My parents have a cristate form cholla in their front yard. It’s pretty damn cool.

  41. viajera says

    Calling Hayduke – time for some sugar, large boulders, napalm and/or dynamite when the cactus-pullers, earth-movers and pavers arrive.

    Sugar and cane syrup don’t work. But there are other substances that do the job quite nicely, or so I’ve heard

  42. paulburnett says

    Ogvorbis (21) “There is a species of prickly pear, however, that is the most evil plant on earth. No spines are visible — just little white tufts.”

    That would be Opuntia microdasys aka “Bunny Ears” – no overt spines, just white or golden-yellow glochids in little tufts. On a bright sunny day, the breeze will send individual glochids floating downwind. Their bronze-yellow flowers are quite pretty.

  43. kaleberg says

    The National Park Service is going a bit road crazy these days. They’re replacing one of the nature trail along Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park with a road in the next year or two. They go on kicks like this. Then they go through periods where they remove roads, and I suppose they’ll have to move all the cholla back. Ah, the whims of fashion.