Beautifully Bizarre Joshua Tree Has Springtime Written All Over it

Camp, hike, and rock climb your way through California’s High Desert

California’s Mojave Desert has inspired a number of monumental artistic endeavors including the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars and the iconic U2 album The Joshua Tree. But Joshua Tree National Park which lies within the boundaries of the Mojave has a landscape and special magnetism all its own. People come to Joshua Tree for their own special reasons. Sometimes it’s wilderness. Other times people come here for the music history, the diversity of raptors, or the epic landscapes. People come to Joshua Tree to find themselves. And find yourself you will—whether you’re hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, stargazing, or daydreaming about selling all your stuff to move to the desert. Here’s how to do it all on your next trip.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree is open (and beautiful!) year round. Come in the spring or fall for the best weather (but keep in mind, the park gets extra busy January through April). If you visit in the hot summer months, plan outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler just to be safe. Most people spend four hours in the park according to park rangers. But Joshua Tree’s abundance of jaw-dropping geological and ecological sights mean one could spend days exploring the otherworldly landscape.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fuel up in the funky artist towns nearby

There are over 100 miles of roads within the park and not a gas station in sight so fill up beforehand. The quirky towns surrounding the park—especially Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley—are also your best bet for grabbing a bite and a beer after a long day in the park. Populated by UFOlogists, solitude seekers, antique dealers, and offbeat creatives drawn to the desert, there are plenty of unusual adventures to be had in town. Definitely swing by Pioneertown which served as a film set for Old Westerns in a past life and today houses the area’s most famous bar and music venue, Pappy & Harriet’s.

Joshua Tree National Park Cottonwood entrance © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting into Joshua Tree National Park

The park’s larger than Rhode Island which means there’s a lot of ground to cover. Of the three main entrances, the Joshua Tree entrance (known as the West Entrance) is often the busiest. The North and South Entrances near Twentynine Palms and the Cottonwood Visitors Center, respectively, are less crowded. Get there early; parking lots often fill up by mid-morning.

Just drive up to one of the park’s entrances and pay at the booth. A seven-day vehicle permit runs $30. Alternatively, $55 gets you a pass valid for a full year—OR, if you think you’ll visit more than one national park in the next 12 months (and you should!), NPS offers an $80 pass that buys you entry to any park for a year.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit Joshua Tree’s best hiking trails 

Once you’re all geared up with hiking boots and as much water as you can carry (seriously, it’s hot, especially in summer), it’s time to hit the trails. Skull Rock Nature Trail is one of the most popular in the park. From the Jumbo Rocks Campground, it’ll take you winding through about 1.7 miles of desert until you arrive at Skull Rock, an enormous boulder with two eye sockets carved into it by years of water erosion. It’s a pretty mild route and great for beginners. 

The second trail you should hit is the Wonderland of Rocks which lives up to its name. Pebbles, stones, and giant boulders are yours to traverse for 5.5 wonderful miles. Given the terrain, it’s considered a difficult trail so be sure you’re up to the task.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around sunrise or sunset, wander over to Keys View, the highest lookout point in Joshua Tree at 5,187 feet. You can look out across the Coachella Valley and see as far as the Salton Sea and Palm Springs on clear days.

Check out the unparalleled plant and animal life 

I’ll assume you know the park’s tall and spiky namesake: the Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the “Joshua Tree.” In Spanish, the tree is known as izote de desierto, or desert dagger, which pretty much sums it up. It’s important to remember that since these trees are native to this 1,235-square mile expanse of desert, they’re strictly protected—aka, no touchy!

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden to walk amongst hundreds of beautiful cholla. This flat loop leads hikers through nearly 10 acres of landscape dominated by the teddybear cholla. Swaying in the desert breeze they almost resemble coral (and, much like coral, should be left alone). A word of advice: do not attempt to pet this teddybear. The stem-joints can easily detach and hitch a ride due to the miniscule barbs on the spines giving it the nickname “jumping cholla.” Once they’ve latched on the spines are very painful to remove.

You’ll also spot the ocotillo (pronounced oh-koh-TEE-yoh), one of the most curious and unique plants of the southwestern United States. Ocotillos produce clusters of bright red flowers at their stem tips which explain the plant’s name. Ocotillo means “little torch” in Spanish.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is known more for its flora than fauna but there’s also plenty of wildlife in and around the park. Birding is especially popular with native species like roadrunners, raptors, and migratory flocks as well. Predators like bobcats, coyotes, and snakes also roam these parts, and—lest we forget—keep an eye out for our adorable friend, the desert tortoise!

Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise

Whether you’re brand new to climbing or navigate cliffs like a baby mountain goat, Joshua Tree’s 9,000+ climbing routes means that everyone’s welcome to give it a go. I also feel the need to note that most of the routes have truly creative names; take, for example, Yabba Dabba Don’t (15-foot climb), Breakfast of Champions (170-foot climb with 2 pitches), Room to Shroom (80-foot climb), Dangling Woo Li Master (100-foot climb), and so on. 

For a route best suited to beginner and moderate climbers, head over to the Quail Springs area, home to the ever-charming Trashcan Rock, one of the most popular climbing spots due to its relative ease and the cool shade that covers it during the afternoon. Intersection Rock also makes a great spot for novices and The Eye ends with a tunnel that opens up onto excellent views across the desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look up at the stars

Joshua Tree National Park is a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park which means nighttime can be pretty extraordinary.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to bed down at night

Of the 520 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park about half are first-come, first-serve. The others accept reservations through Recreation.gov.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to bring and other essential tips

Sunscreen and water are must-haves year-round. The National Park Service stresses that there are no water sources inside the park, so again, pack a lot of water… and then pack even more. Binoculars, sturdy hiking shoes, snacks, a flashlight, a camera, and wide-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley) are also suggested.

To avoid being one of the approximately 60 search-and-rescue operations Joshua Tree sees every year, explore the park with a buddy and always let people know where you’re going. Cell phones don’t work in most of the park so if communication is crucial bring a satellite phone and a printed map to get around.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 80 percent of Joshua Tree is officially designated wilderness—emphasis on wild. Be respectful of wildlife to avoid tangling with an angry critter. And if you remember one thing about your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, it should be “leave no trace.” Be sure to leave the park as pristine as you found it to help preserve its natural beauty for generations to come.

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

Famous Trees and Where to Find Them

With their imposing size and universal symbolism, trees are the celebrities of the plant world. But some trees can boast special A-list status.

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

—Hermann Hesse (1877–1962)

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us a foundation of integrity in his beautiful love letter to trees—how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Trees are remarkable living things. Not only do they provide shade, oxygen, and often fruit, but they can also live remarkably long—the oldest tree in the world is a 4,852-year-old bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California with the appropriate nickname of Methuselah. However, it’s not the only tree to earn well-deserved recognition. Here are five other famous trees and forests you can visit around America.

Giant Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman

Location: Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Age: Roughly 2,000 years

General Sherman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman might possibly be the most famous tree in the world. While the age of the tree is impressive (likely to be around 2,000 years old), it’s actually the size of the tree that brings it fame. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36 feet wide in diameter making it the biggest tree in the world. The tree sits in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California where thousands of visitors flock every year. Fences around the tree keep visitors from trampling on the shallow roots. General Sherman is still growing so it’s anyone’s guess how big it will eventually get.

The Big Tree before Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Tree

Location: Goose Island State Park, Texas

Age: In excess of 1,000 years

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Tree, as it’s usually known, is one of the oldest, most well known live oak trees in the United States. In its more than 1,000 years, the Big Tree has survived hurricanes, fires, and even an 1864 Civil War battle that razed the rest of the town, Lamar, to the ground. With a height of 44 feet, trunk circumference of 35 feet, and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017). The tree has its own dark history as well, as it has variously been associated with hangings, cannibalism, or pirates.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Trees

Location: Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you might begin to question your map. Where are we anyway? In wonder, the traveler pulls over for a snapshot of this prickly oddity; the naturalist reaches for a botanical guide to explain this vegetative spectacle; and the rock climber shouts “Yowch!” when poked by dagger-like spines.

Mojave yucca in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family. Don’t confuse the Joshua tree with the Mojave yucca, Yucca schidigera. This close relative can be distinguished by its longer, wider leaves and fibrous threads curling along leaf margins. Both types of yuccas can be seen growing together. The Joshua tree provides a good indicator that you are in the Mojave Desert but you may also find it growing next to a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona or mixed with pines in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legend has it that Mormon pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Today we enjoy this yucca for its grotesque appearance, a surprising sight in this arid landscape.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Location: North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique because it has over 130 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species that grow in five major forest types: Cove Hardwood, Spruce-fir, Northern Hardwood, Hemlok, and Pine-and-Oak. Other national parks have fewer than 15 native trees. Oak trees are one of the most important parts of the national park. There are 12 species of oak trees in the Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest tree in the Great Smoky Mountains is a blackgum that still stands at 562 years old. One of the tallest trees in the Smoky Mountains is a white pine tree that reaches 186 feet tall. The Smoky Mountains have a large population of tulip trees, including some that measure over 20 feet wide.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, North Carolina

Location: 15 miles from Robbinsville off Cherohala Skyway (NC-143)

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A walk through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a journey back in time. This forest is one of the Nation’s most impressive remnants of old-growth forest. The forest contains magnificent examples of more than 100 tree species, many over 450-years-old and some enormous tulip poplars more than 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 3,800-acre forest was set aside in 1936 as a memorial to the author of the poem “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer, who was killed in action in France during World War I (See poem below). The floor is carpeted with wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. This forest, part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness, is maintained in its primitive state.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only way to see the memorial forest is on foot. The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail covers two miles and has two loops: the 1.25-mile lower loop passes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque and the upper 0.75-mile loop swings through Poplar Cove—a grove of the forest’s largest trees. The trailhead parking area has a flush toilet and picnic tables.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer

Joshua Tree National Park Turns 25. But what is a Joshua tree?

Joshua Tree National Park celebrates 25 years as a national park

It should come as no surprise that 3 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park each year. California’s High Desert is a veritable wonderland of unique desert plant life, beautifully bizarre rock formations, and dreamy views, after all.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located near the Greater Palm Springs area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego, the park is best known for the oddly shaped Joshua trees which actually aren’t trees at all; they’re yucca plants.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been itching to visit, now’s a great time. The park recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. According to the National Park Service, on October 31, 1994, Joshua Tree National Monument was elevated to national park status as part of the Desert Protection Bill. The bill also added 234,000 acres to the park, bringing the total acreage of the park to nearly 800,000. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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”. Native Americans call them “humwichawa,” among other names. They are also referred to as yucca palms, and in Spanish they are called izote de desierto, “desert dagger.”

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native Americans used the plants’ tough leaves to make baskets and sandals. They used flower buds and raw or roasted seeds for food.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the trees there’s so much to see including incredible sunsets and stellar views of the Milky Way. 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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plus, there’s no shortage of desert critters including 3-foot-long lizards called chuckwallas, bighorn sheep, leaf-nosed bats, and red-tailed hawks. Also keep an eye out for American kestrels, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, and black-tailed jack rabbits. It’s not uncommon to see coyotes, rattlesnakes (five types of them make their home in the desert), and tarantulas, too. If you’re really lucky, you may spot a desert tortoise or a bobcat.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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).

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