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

6 Unique Rock Formations

These amazing rock formations remind us that nature is still the best artist of the universe

Geology may sound boring on the surface but when you gaze your eyes on these incredible rock formations, you will find them anything but dull. Passionate rock lovers from around the world plan vacations to see some of the country’s strangest landscapes.

Many of the most spectacular formations are in the West where the mountains and canyons are younger and haven’t been softened by erosion and age. These craggy profiles and volcanic monoliths have intrigued humans for millennia.

Rock on with these six unusual rock formations below from Arches National Park to the Texas Hill Country.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah

Providing a dramatic craggy backdrop for many a cinematic Western movie, Monument Valley runs along the border of Utah and Arizona within the 26,000-square miles of the Navajo Tribal Park. U.S. Highway 163 scenic byway barrels through red rock buttes and spires.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The names of the formations offer lots of Wild West flavor: Grey Whiskers, the Totem Pole, the Sentinel, and the matching Left and Right Mitten Buttes which the Navajo believe represent the hands of the Creator. Director John Ford shot seven westerns here most starring John Wayne including The Searchers (1956) with the landscape playing a featured role. There’s even has a spot in the valley named after him: John Ford’s Point.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rocks of Sedona

You’ll find spectacular red rock buttes like those surrounding Sedona scattered throughout the Southwest but these particular rocks have something that sets them apart: mystical vortexes. Even if you’re not an adherent of the New Age movement, plan on visiting at least one of Sedona’s famous vortexes. They’re at some of the most gorgeous spots around town.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vortexes are thought to be swirling centers of energy that are conducive to spiritual healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Believers identify four primary vortexes: Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Airport Mesa.

El Morro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro in New Mexico

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country.

El Morro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot. This massive mesa point forms a striking landmark. In fact, El Morro means “the headland.”

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock in Texas

Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills north of Fredericksburg. It’s a half-mile hike to the top but an unforgettable experience. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- to 40-story building.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One billion years ago, this granite was part of a large pool of magma or hot liquid rock, perhaps seven miles below the earth’s surface. It pushed up into the rock above in places, then cooled and hardened very slowly turning into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away. Those pushed-up areas are the domes you see in the park. The domes are a small and visible part of a huge underground area of granite, called a batholith. The Enchanted Rock Batholith stretches 62 square miles; most of it is underground.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, Utah

These knobby, colorful columns of red rock are just as weird as their name: hoodoos. The word hoodoo means to bewitch which is what Bryce Canyon’s rock formations surely do.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hoodoos we are talking about are tall skinny shafts of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins. Hoodoos are most commonly found in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains. While hoodoos are scattered throughout these areas, nowhere in the world are they as abundant as in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park. At Bryce Canyon, hoodoos range in size from that of a human, to heights exceeding a 10-story building.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch of Arches National Park

The largest arch on the planet, Landscape is rightfully famous. It is amazingly thin, delicate-looking, and photogenic. Landscape is an awesome sight; the amazing width of the stone arch, held in place by such a delicate, slender center. Only a few years ago, a short spur trail passed directly underneath the arch. Because of recent rock falls from the underside of the arch, visitors are no longer allowed to travel underneath the fragile-looking rock span.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch is located near the end of the Devils Garden Trail. There is more to see within the Devils Garden then just the impressive Landscape Arch. Private Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Wall Arch, Double O Arch, and the Dark Angel pinnacle are all within this rocky playground.

Worth Pondering…

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.

—Neil Armstrong