Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 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”.

Here in the Mojave, winters are harsher and more precipitation falls than in the Sonoran Desert which is lower in elevation and generally hotter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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).

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Out and About In Southern California

Start your Southern California journey in the Coachella Valley

Southern California boasts a diverse geographical terrain—you can experience the desert, sandy beaches, and snow-capped mountains all within just a few hours drive.

Shields Date Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your Southern California journey with something sweet by visiting Shields Date Garden in Indio and you’ll find yourself in a date oasis where the Shields have been growing their own since 1924. Enjoy a date milkshake, a variety of date-centric dishes in the garden café, or educate yourself by viewing a short documentary on the cultivation of this exotic fruit. Be sure to also take a stroll through the garden in the back.

Shields Date Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established in 1970, The Living Desert started as a nature trail and preserve dedicated to preserving desert flora and fauna. Now a remarkable zoo and botanical garden representing desert environments around the world, The Living Desert contains lush botanical gardens representing 10 different desert ecosystems. Located in Palm Desert, the Living Desert showcases more than 430 desert animals from the deserts of four continents with appropriate dry climate landscape.

Coachella Valley Nature Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio, and their neighboring desert cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. An escape from winter’s chill, it is also a destination filled with plenty of places to visit and things to see and do. Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, biking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many great trails from which to choose—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs. Located at the entrance to the canyon, the Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center, at 500 West Mesquite, just west of Palm Canyon Drive, offers exhibits, an observation deck, and a theatre room for viewing a video that narrates the legend of Tahquitz Canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East of the desert cities, Joshua Tree National Park protects two unique desert climates. In the eastern part of the park, the low altitude Colorado Desert features natural gardens of creosote bush, cholla, and other cactus. The higher, moister, and cooler Mojave Desert is the home of the Joshua tree, a unique desert plant with beautiful white spring blossoms. A third type of environment can be seen at the six palm oases in the park, where water occurs naturally at the surface and creates a whole new ecosystem.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to desert flora and fauna, the western part of Joshua Tree National Park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and owners of high-clearance vehicles can explore these craggy formations on a series of signed dirt roads that penetrate the park.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state parks in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country. Situated northeast of San Diego and due south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Born during the 1870s gold rush, Julian is a small town cradled in the mountains, surrounded by apple orchards. Julian is at its most charming―and busiest―during the fall, when leaves change color and local apples ripen. Stop by an apple orchard to sample local varieties not found elsewhere, pick up some of your favorites, or pick your own. Any time of year, Julian cafes serve apple pies and sell whole ones.

Julian Pie Company © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a recent visit to Julian, we bought four pies, one each at Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pies, Julian Cafe, and Apple Alley Bakery.

Mom’s Pie House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer