I speak for the trees.
— Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
Several small motorhomes jockey for parking spots along the cul-de-sac at the Keys View overlook in Joshua Tree National Park. Its 10 minutes to sunset and the vista over the Coachella Valley with the lights of Palm Springs winking in the distance takes my breath away. Where else with two feet planted on solid ground can you get a bird’s-eye view of the daunting San Andreas Fault? That crack sketched into the surface of the Earth is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the landscape. The menacing fault line marks one of the world’s most active tectonic boundaries; geological faults crisscross the entire park.
It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to a National Park. By simply dipping your toe into the waters of the great outdoors your world is touched by greater health, improved mood, increased knowledge, all the while you are offering support to the preservation of one of the world’s finest treasures… and, national parks are a perfect place to go play.
Joshua Tree is one of my favorites in a long list of spectacular national parks in both Canada and the United States. It is arid, untamed, and remote. The super-sized boulders and wild-armed vegetation look like something from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The night sky is dark and splashed with stars. When the wind blows, it really howls. The boulders are the size of large vehicles and the landscape is ablaze with cacti and hardy desert vegetation.
Beyond the Joshua tree forests lies a world of adventure that appeals to three important factors that compel people to enjoy it: accessibility, the draw of adventure, and inspiration.
The sprawling national park of almost 800,000 acres is the spot in southeastern California where the high Mojave and the low Colorado deserts converge. This transition zone of two distinct desert ecosystems is noteworthy creating a blended area of significant biological diversity. In desert ecosystems, elevation determines everything as desert plants and critters are extremely sensitive to the slightest change.
The park is home to bighorn sheep, cactus wrens, roadrunners, and desert iguanas. The threatened desert tortoise occasionally meanders across roadways. As in many desert settings, snakes often curl up below the rocks for shade.
On the adventure front, climbers find here a world-class climbing and repelling playground. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. It’s a true wilderness playground.
And there is inspiration. Famous artists and musicians have taken from Joshua Tree ideas that have manifested into creative works that we all know and love… anybody out there a fan of Dr. Seuss? How about U2, Selena, John Lennon, Victoria Williams, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, and Jim Morrison?
And then, there are the Joshua trees. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each is one of a kind. Every slight change of angle in your view produces what seems like an entirely different tree to look at.
Driving from the park’s northern entrance at Twentynine Palms to the southern entrance just off Interstate 10, you’ll dip from the higher elevation of the Mojave Desert section with some spots topping 5,000 feet to the lower elevation of the Colorado Desert. The higher elevations are home to the park’s namesake, the iconic Joshua trees. The lower, more arid lands are covered with the long, thin branches of the spindly ocotillo, prickly “jumping” cholla cacti, and green-barked palo verde shrubs. In springtime, it’s a blast of colorful wildflowers. Year-round, it’s a landscape with a lot of thorny vegetation encircled by rugged mountain ranges.
If you come properly prepared (water, wide-brimmed hat, sturdy footwear, paper map), the trails and rocks of Joshua Tree are a dream for hiking and world-class bouldering. Pets are not allowed on the trails or in the backcountry so plan accordingly for their comfort and safety.
We explored the main roadways and stopped to hike at spots such as the nature trails through the boulders and the luxuriant Cholla Cactus Garden. Staff at the visitors centers can help you pick a suitable trail from among the almost 30 in the park which range from easy to challenging.
The park lends itself to exploring by short road trips or via a walk from one of the trailheads.
At Hidden Valley, a popular one-mile loop winds through a rock-enclosed valley that at one time created secluded hideouts for cattle and horse rustlers. It’s was a nice way to get up close to the imposing stones. Farther down the park’s main road to the south, the Cholla Cactus Garden is a quarter-mile, flat pathway meandering through dense “gardens” of the “jumping” teddy bear cholla, a very prickly cacti known for attaching itself to unwary passersby.
The Mojave Desert part of the park is marked by jumbles of massive boulders interspersed with pinyon pines, junipers, prickly pear cacti, and yuccas. Thousands of established routes make the park a favorite destination for rock climbers.
The huge, ball-shaped masses of rock are granite that formed when molten fluid within the Earth’s crust was pushed to the surface about 250 million years ago. Over millennia of erosion, these granite boulders were left on the surface, many looking like piles of enormous marbles stacked and abandoned.
You can camp among these truck-size boulders at Jumbo Rocks, one of the park’s eight campgrounds. Only two campgrounds (Black Rock and Cottonwood) have water, flush toilets, and dump stations. Cottonwood is especially popular with RVers. At the Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds, RVs are limited to a maximum combined length of 25 feet (RV and a towed or towing vehicle); in the other campgrounds, the limit is 35 feet, space permitting.
The rustic campgrounds offer a true desert experience. Most sites are at higher elevations, so nighttime can be chilly. Joshua Tree is remote wilderness and cell phone coverage is unreliable at best. Many campsites fill during the peak season of October to May—most can be reserved at recreation.gov.
Many people come to contemplate and photograph the otherworldly Joshua trees that pepper the rolling desert of the park’s Mojave section. Growing at an unhurried rate of ½-inch to 3 inches per year, it is not a tree at all but a species of agave that can grow more than 40 feet tall. The clusters of waxy, spiny leaves provide homes for owls, woodpeckers, hawks, and many other birds. The “trees” are incredibly photogenic and one of the main reasons that people visit the park.
Despite the park’s remote setting and its dryer-than-dry ecosystem, I find that Joshua Tree draws me back again and again. It’s one of those indulgent destinations—one of the few spots to find the spiny trees, to feel tiny next to enormous round rocks, and to look upward into some of the darkest night skies in Southern California. It’s a camper’s dream.
Temperatures and weather can vary depending largely on elevation. In the winter months, prepare for chilly camping. When hiking, always carry water and warm clothing to layer. In remote areas, keep your fuel tank topped off. Be prepared for hot weather, too, as Joshua Tree is in the desert and can be sunny with very limited shade available.
Be aware that rocks, plants, animals, and historic objects are protected in all national parks. Best practice is to enjoy but to leave them in their place.
Joshua Tree is operated by the National Park Service. If you have plans to visit several parks over the year investigate the America the Beautiful Pass which is valid for one full year from the month of purchase ($80). The pass covers entry to parks and many other government-operated sites but not camping or tour fees.
Size: 792,623 acres; 591,624 of that is designated wilderness
Date established: October 31, 1994 (National Monument in 1936)
Location: Southeast California
Designation: International Dark Sky Park
Park Elevation: 1,000 feet to 5,500
Park entrance fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days
Camping fee: $20-$25
Recreational visits (2021): 3,064,400
How the park got its name: According to the National Park Service and legend of old, Joshua Tree was given its name by Mormon pioneers traveling west in the 19th century who thought that the branches looked like the biblical figure Joshua, reaching up to the heavens in prayer.
Iconic site in the park: There are many iconic sites in this park but none more so than spots from where the Joshua Tree grows. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition. Their silhouette leaning against the desert sky sings songs of the Mojave Desert, the only place this “tree” (actually a yucca plant) naturally grows.
Accessible adventure: The Jumbo Rock campground is a doorway to some of the best features of the park and it seems that there is not one bad place to camp. Each has its own unique natural feature and some level of privacy. Drive in and choose your camping spot (first come, first served), pay the fee, and set up camp. Try to arrive early in the morning so you can nab a good spot—this place is popular and therefore busy all year long.
Big adventure: Rock climbing! Joshua Tree is regarded as one of the best climbing destinations in the world offering enthusiasts from around the world thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Rock climbing is not for the faint of heart—proper equipment and training is mandatory. If you aren’t a technical climber, bouldering the tacky monzogranite rock faces offer another, really fun way to rise from the desert and catch panoramic views of this beautiful place.
Did you know?
Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado desert ecosystems come together (the Colorado desert is a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert).
According to the National Park Service website there are 93 miles of paved roads, 106 miles of unpaved roads; nine campgrounds with 523 campsites, two horse camps, 10 picnic areas; and 32 trailheads reaching out to 191 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. That’s a lot of access to Joshua Tree parkland!
Cover art of the first Eagles album (released in 1972) was captured in the Cholla Garden—one of my favorite places in the park.
The boulders that Joshua Tree National Park is comprised of is a result of billions of years of heating and cooling of the Earth’s crust, and the effects of wind, sun, and erosion.
I love it there, it’s magical … Joshua Tree is one of those special places where you feel so close to everything.”