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  • Writer's pictureLinda Kinning

Sniffing the Desert | a Nose Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Updated: Apr 4

Scent notes
  • Creosote | smoky, woodsy, fire starter

  • Sage | herbal, sacred, earthy 

  • California juniper | pine, woody

  • Rain | freshly bringing it all together


I spent 30 odd years underestimating the desert. I’m embarrassed to admit that I once thought it was a barren wasteland of red dust and, lacking trees, couldn’t possibly be an ecosystem meant for people. I’m still partially convinced of the last point, but I’m grateful to know how thoroughly wrong I was about the rest of it. The first time I got to know the desert was in Baja California Sur — I was struck by the vibrancy of the green cacti and the pink flowers that dotted the ground like splatter paint. The sun was warm and the dry heat meant I didn’t sweat immediately. It was bliss. I could see a rich landscape, and feel the dramatic temperature drops, and while the air was quieter than a forest, the landscape amplified sounds in a way that made me pay attention. 


But I didn’t notice the SMELL of the desert until a trip to Joshua Tree in March 2024 — I was ready for the sun and the color palette of rich reds and bright blue skies. But during the three days I was there, it rained. At first this looked like disappointment — I had left Chicago precisely to get away from grey skies and seasonal depression. 


The rain started to patter and the clouds thickened over the mountains. Before I could lament this unexpected scenery, the winds gave me the greatest gift it could muster: the overwhelming scent of creosote as thick as the clouds and fresh as rain. 


Of course I didn’t know it was creosote then. I just knew I found my new favorite scent and I had to find the source responsible for perfuming the desert so fully and so quickly. A cactus-rich landscape isn’t the best place to go sniffing around with a tender, curious nose, but it does immediately reduce the list of suspects. 


I knew I was looking for a plant, likely one with green leaves and some heft. I found the source quickly in the chaparral. I respectfully crushed it between my fingers, held it in my palms, and greeted the desert with something far more intimate than a kiss: a full bodied inhale. 


I spent the rest of the weekend following my nose around the desert and picked up a few other notes that fill in the experience of the desert as a place where mystery, spirituality, beauty, and danger lurk. It’s no surprise to me that so many of our most spiritual scents: palo santo, sage and juniper come from the desert. This is a place that reminds you consistently that it can kill you. So when the desert gives you something that’s comforting and calming it feels like a gift. Like something to be cherished and honored and appreciated.


Here are my notes for more deeply recognizing the gifts of the desert. 


Creosote 


Creosote (larrea tridentata) is native to the Mojave desert and is one of the oldest organisms on earth, with some individual plants estimated to be over 11,000 years old. Their leaves are are coated in a sticky resin that is toxic to most animals but it's exactly this aromatic coating that perfumes the desert after it rains and gives the plant its antiseptic and antibacterial properties.


It is often described as having a strong, resinous, and medicinal aroma with hints of tar and spice. Some people find the scent of creosote bush to be pleasant and reminiscent of the desert environment, while others may find it too strong or pungent.


Smells like: grandmother desert's medicine cabinet, rain in the desert, a firework lit by lightening



Sage (White and Desert Purple)



There are many varieties of sage in the desert, but white sage and desert purple sage are the most common in Joshua Tree. You can't stop by a gift shop in this region without seeing smudge sticks of sage bundled up as offerings to purify and calm the spirit. This tradition of sage smudging is from Native American spiritual and ceremonial practice and is indigenous to the lands where sage grows -- primarily in the American West.


Sage has a distinct, earthy, and herbaceous aroma. It is often described as having a warm, slightly peppery scent with hints of pine and camphor. Depending on the variety of sage, the smell can vary slightly, but overall, sage is known for its aromatic and soothing fragrance.


Smells like: falling asleep under a blanket of soft sage leaves and knowing you'll wake up with a clear head


Juniper 


California Juniper (juniperus californica) is a native conifer commonly found in pinyon woodlands and in the desert chaparral. Like sage, juniper is also used in ceremony for purification and resilience and has common culinary uses.


Desert juniper has a distinctive and pleasant aroma, often described as woody, aromatic, and slightly resinous, with hints of citrus and earthiness. Many people find the smell of desert juniper to be calming and grounding, evoking a connection to nature and the rugged beauty of arid environments.


Smells like: gin and tonic in a forest


Starting places for taking your nose on a walk in the desert


These are suggestions, experiment with what works for you. Leave room to be surprised


Follow the wind — smell where it takes you

1. Close your eyes. Take a moment to focus. Inhale.

2. Turn 90 degrees — repeat 4 times.

3. Open your eyes and orient yourself

4. Take 10 steps in the direction your nose tells you

5. Close your eyes. Take a moment to focus. Inhale.

6. Repeat sequence until you’ve learned something new


Nose bath

Admittedly this isn’t the sexiest name but it’s the best way I have to describe the immersive experience of rubbing herbs between your palms and forming a cup of scent to dip your nose in

  1. Responsibly pick a thumb length’s worth of creosote, sage, or juniper and rub between your palms — generating heat and kneading the fibers

2. Inhale deeply.

3. Share with a friend (optional)


Try mixing the herbs — how does that change the overall sensory experience? Which scents change? Take over?




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