Joshua Tree National Park: Otherworldly Desert Wonderland

America’s national parks are busier than ever with most reporting a record number of visitors during the past several years. But the beautiful thing is that once you’re out hiking a trail, there’s plenty of room for all.

For the first time in its 74-year history, Joshua Tree National Park topped the 2-million visitor mark in 2015. Despite its large number of annual visitors, Joshua Tree doesn’t seem particularly crowded. Pullouts at wayside exhibits offer ample parking spaces and roads throughout the park exhibit none of the congestion that is fairly common in many of the most popular parks.

Related to the yucca bush, the Joshua tree was named by Mormon pioneers heading west. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Related to the yucca bush, the Joshua tree was named by Mormon pioneers heading west. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lack of congestion is due in large part to visitation being more evenly spread throughout the year, compared to Yellowstone and many other national parks that experience especially heavy visitation during a limited number of summer months. Rather than a short summer season, Joshua Tree enjoys an extended season that runs from fall all the way through spring.

A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

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

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

Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

The slow-growing Joshua tree, which graces much of the park’s desert ecosystem, is probably the most famous resident of the park. Named by Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s, the tree’s unusual shape reminded them of the Bible story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Joshua trees have been described as ugly, but we have always found them fascinating. Their spiny leaves and trunks are interesting all by themselves but in addition each one has an unique overall shape. The odd-shaped stick figures offer an opportunity for your imagination to run the gamut in trying to figure out what the shape of each plant resembles.

The trees bloom in spring between February and April, and they are pollinated by the yucca moth, which spreads pollen from tree to tree while laying her eggs in the flowers. It’s hard to tell the age of a Joshua tree since they don’t have growth rings. In fact, they may not grow at all in very dry years, but many in the park are hundreds of years old, while others may be even older.

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

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

Native Americans of the Cahuilla tribe, who have lived in the southwest United States for thousands of years, call the trees “hunuvat chiy’a” or “humwichawa.” They used the leaves from the trees to make woven baskets, sandals, and other useful items, and ate the seeds and flower buds.

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

With eight different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

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

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

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

Leave a Reply