Where Deserts Meet: Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases.

Late afternoon shadows enhance the beauty of Joshua Tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches.

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Colorado deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree, but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive, with spur roads to specific attractions.

With 813 species of plants, Joshua Tree is renowned for its plant diversity. No wonder that when the area was first proposed for preservation in the early 1930s, the name suggested was Desert Plants National Park.

The park consists of two deserts: the Colorado in the eastern section, which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as creosote bushes, spidery ocotillo, and jumping cholla cactus; and the Mojave in the western part. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

The Joshua Tree is just one of hundreds of plants native to this national park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related to the yucca bush, the Joshua tree was named by Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua, pointing westward to the “promised land”. The tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a giant member of the lily family and is not to be confused with Yucca schidigera, the Mojave yucca, which has longer, wider leaves.

Here winters are harsher and more precipitation falls than in the Sonoran Desert, which is lower in elevation and generally hotter.

The fascinating geologic landscape of Joshua Tree has long fascinated visitors to this desert region. Exposed granite monoliths and rugged canyons testify to the tectonic and erosion forces that shaped this land. Washes, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, desert varnish, igneous and metamorphic rocks interact to form a pattern of stark desert beauty.

There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park.

Jumbo Rock has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden walk (¼-mile loop) is well worth a visit. The Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

There are also several oases to explore. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its bird life and is easily accessible.

Photo tip

Joshua Tree National Park has no shortage of amazing wildlife, scenery, and fascinating rock formations to photograph. Of course, the park’s Joshua Trees are the main attraction, their odd silhouettes outlining the skyline at sunset.


Joshua Tree National Park

Cholla Cactus Garden nature trail is a pleasant walk in the park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

Admission: $15/vehicle (good for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping: $10-15/night in 9 campgrounds; reservations available October-May at Black Rock and Indian Cove through recreation.gov ($9 booking fee)

Location: 3 miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Utah Trail in Twentynine Palms OR 25 miles east of Indio on I-10

Address: 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277

Contact: (760) 367-5500

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no

name, where the streets have no name…

— Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

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