Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona: A Worthwhile Pit Stop along U.S. 93

Most travelers who visit Arizona are surprised to find that the state has such a unique and diverse topography. Flat desert with saguaro, craggy rock summits, ponderosa pine forests, and frosty snow-capped mountains and all this terrain can be accessed by highways and by-ways. One of the most beautiful drives in Arizona is the Joshua Forest Parkway also known as Scenic Route 93.

Although the Joshua Tree National Park in neighboring California gets far more attention, Arizona’s Joshua Tree Scenic Parkway is pretty spectacular too. While not an official park or destination, there are a few spots to pull off and take in the sights. It’s unique, especially looking to the west where a ridge of mountains serves as a magnificent backdrop.

But did you know you can drive through a Joshua Tree forest in Arizona? It’s true. On U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup, a 7-mile stretch of road graced on both sides with Joshua Trees and other hardy desert plants.

If you ever find yourself cruising U.S. 93 between Wickenburg and Kingman, do yourself a favor and plan a quick pit stop to see Arizona’s own Joshua Tree Forest.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re like a lot of people when you hear Joshua Tree, one of two things come to mind:

  • Joshua Tree National Forest in California
  • The fifth studio album by the rock band U2

In the 1980s, Joshua Trees became immortalized after the release of the U2 album by the same name. The image of the band in the California desert with a lone Joshua Tree in the background made the yucca specious illustrious with fans, many of whom roamed the California countryside in search of the exact spot in which the famous photo was taken. (The Joshua Tree shown on the U2 album died in 2000 and a plaque now commemorates its place in history.)

While California has the greatest concentration of Joshua Trees and a dedicated National Park, Arizona has a scenic parkway dedicated to the unusually distinct shrub. Along U.S. 93 between Wickenburg, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada there is a small but concentrated stretch of Joshua Trees that is worth a stop.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But first, what is a Joshua Tree?

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) is actually not a tree at all. It happens to be the largest variety of yucca and can grow to more than 20 feet at an average of only one-half inch per year. It provides a habitat for many birds, mammals, and reptiles—and a spectacular visual for us humans.

Why is it called Joshua Tree?

When Mormon settlers first saw the plant they dubbed the Joshua tree; it reminded them of the Biblical story in which the bushy-bearded biblical leader reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. When Territorial Governor John C. Frémont caught sight of it during an 1844 trek through the Mohave Desert, he called it “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree quick facts:

  • New seedlings may grow at an average rate of 3 inches per year in their first ten years then only about 1.5 inches per year after that
  • The trunk consists of thousands of small fibers and annual growth rings making it difficult to determine a tree’s age
  • Each plant has a deep and extensive root system with roots reaching as many as 36 feet deep
  • Can live for hundreds of years; some specimens survive a thousand years
  • The tallest trees reach about 49 feet in height
  • Flowers grow in panicles that appear from February to late April
  • Joshua trees usually do not branch until after they bloom
Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The drive, which is familiar to anyone who’s road-tripped from Phoenix to Sin City (or vice versa), officially begins near the small town of Wikieup, a dot on the map that’s better known for its pie (you’ll pass Luchia’s) than for its tourism cachet. Other landmarks in town include the Snoopy-piloted Wikieup arrow along with the Wikieup Trading Post and Eat at Joe’s Barbecue as well as the creosote-peppered hills that surround Bronco Wash.

Heading south on U.S. 93 around Milepost 127, you’ll come to the Big Sandy River, and unless it’s been raining, the river is probably just that—big and sandy. Beyond the Big Sandy, sheer, eroded cliffs loom speckled in spots with saguaros and scrub. Pale, striated canyon walls straddle the highway—green, yellow, white, and taupe—and the mountains stretch for miles in front of you.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Milepost 147, you’ll start seeing giant boulders piled on top of each other. They look like hoodoos with saguaros in between. The rocks are an interesting sight but not as interesting as Nothing. Blink and you’ll miss it but Nothing was a real Arizona town and you’ll see it off to the left. It’s marked with a sign and a pile of … well, junk. You’ll have to see it for yourself but Nothing really is something.

Joshua trees become the focal point of this drive around Milepost 162. One of the first you’ll see is a large, gnarly fellow off to the right, and then several more in rapid succession. They’re reminiscent of the baobab trees made famous in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and if your imagination is active, you might see a little blond boy emerge from the trees with a dog and a well-protected flower in hand.

Joshua Tree Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By Milepost 169, the forest of Joshua trees is dense and you’ll see a sign that reads, Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona. It’s a label that formalizes the obvious—that this is an incredibly scenic drive that passes through one of the most spectacular landscapes in the Southwest.

The route continues to Wickenburg, a classic Old West town that celebrates the state’s cowboy heritage with the Desert Caballeros Museum and a string of Western-themed shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to visit, but the highlight of this drive is the trees. Or, rather, the Yucca brevifolia.

Worth Pondering…

I speak for the trees.

—Dr. Seuss, The Lorax