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.
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.
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.
Entering the park at the south entrance off I-10, our first stop was the Cottonwood Visitor Center where we picked up a map and park newspaper listing a number of ranger-led activities and hiking trails.
Half a mile down the road we took a short walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods, all planted in the early 1900s by miners and pioneers who used this spring as their source of water. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of an even more ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its bird life.
We continued north along Pinto Basin Road past Smoke Tree Wash and Porcupine Wash through Fried Liver Wash and Ocotillo Patch.
The Cholla Cactus Garden, a few miles beyond, glowed in shades of soft, silver green. We hiked the ¼-mile loop nature walk with caution as this cactus isn’t referred to as “jumping cholla” for no reason. Just the slightest brush and a piece will imbed itself painfully into your skin. Remove carefully with a comb.
As we continued north, the look of the desert changed and the temperature grew cooler. A roadside exhibit describes the merging of the Sonoran Desert we were leaving with the Mojave Desert beyond. The road snakes through enormous piles of monstrous boulders. Soon we were among the Joshua trees, whimsical looking plants with arms twisted in all directions.
Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.
Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.
It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the 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”.
Here in the Mojave, 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. Smooth 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. 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 8 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).
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