A section of the Southern California desert larger than Rhode Island, Joshua Tree is home to some of the most mind blowing and bewildering terrain anywhere in the country. Created as a National Monument in 1936, Joshua tree didn’t actually become a National Park until ’94, when the Desert Protection Act laid down the laws conserving this eight hundred thousand acre patch of California. Since then Joshua Tree has grown immensely in popularity, attracting almost one and a half million viewers a year, the park has gone from an anonymous clump of desert to some of America’s most beloved wilderness. The meeting place between the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua tree houses a special blend of wildlife from both, most of which is found nowhere else on Earth.
Joshua Tree is named of course after the Joshua Tree’s which pepper the landscape, ranging from one or two in little clusters to entire forests of them. The Joshua Tree is actually not a tree at all, but rather a unique species of “Yucca”, native only to the Mojave desert. Named by the Mormons who settled in the Mojave centuries ago, Joshua Trees are the main reason most people come to the park, though they are hardly all the park has to offer. Found in the northern Mojave section of the park, if you’re driving in from the west entrance, you’ll begin to notice them almost immediately. Gradually at first, they’ll begin to dot the horizon. Their twisted limbs grasping at some unseen objective, curling nonsensically in the greatest act of contortionism found anywhere in the high desert. Trees of every shape and size line the road, some with a single towering stalk, rising up to fifty feet into the air. Others branch out exponentially, creating a canopy of spiky green and white puffs, situated at the end of each branch. They have roots that can grow as deep as forty feet into the desert sands, straining for every single drop of water in a fierce competition to survive the brutal summers. Some can even grow to be over a thousand years old, a feat almost never achieved in such harsh and volatile conditions as the Mojave desert.
The park is split at about three thousand feet above sea level. Above this line lies the Mojave, below it, the Colorado. Each has amazing and unique wilderness to offer, though if you only have a short amount of time in the park, see the Mojave. For the purposes of this post I’ll talk about each separately, as they really are completely different worlds in their own rights. Our journey into Joshua Tree started at the west entrance, which is just a ways off highway 62 as you approach the top of the park boundary. Driving through the park to the north entrance is one of the best ways to experience it in my opinion, though you won’t see any of the Colorado, you’ll get a nicely varied meal of Joshua Tree’s most famous and iconic features. The first thing you’ll start to notice, as I’ve mentioned, is the Joshua Trees. They look a twisted combination between a tree and a medieval weapon. Their trunks rise into the sky much in the way of any regular tree you might come across, right up until they branch off. The branches remain almost as thick as the trunk, and skew off at all angles. Their length covered in a tan cloak of dried spines from years past, the end of each branch suddenly exploding into vicious looking balls of bright green spikes. They don’t just look menacing though, in fact, these spikes are so sharp that birds like the loggerhead shrike even use them to impale their prey. That being said, unless you’re thirty feet tall and enjoy grabbing painful looking objects, you don’t need to worry about getting stuck by one.
As you continue onwards, before you even know it you’ll be in an outright forest of them. Literally thousands line the horizon, everywhere you look you can see their wild limbs curling up into the air. Hedgehog cacti and prickly pears start to pop up inbetween the Yucca, antelope ground squirrels dart between the spines on their eternal quest for food and shade. Soon though, you’ll begin to notice the second most famous aspect of the park, it’s many monzogranite rock formations. It’s one of the most bewildering sights I’ve ever come across. It looks as though a giant got extremely bored and spent a decade or so picking up every boulder in the land and stacking them in neat little piles all about the park. Millions of years ago, volcanic activity pushed this molten granite up through the Earth and into the overlaying rock. As it cooled, it began to crack and split in almost perfect vertical and horizontal lines, crisscrossing the entirety of each clump. As these now fractured piles of granite continued to get uplifted, groundwater began to seep down into these cracks, both physically and chemically eroding the rock until it began to literally slice it apart. Over time as the water worked its magic, the edges of these chunks became more and more rounded, the gaps becoming greater and greater. Then, when the earth above them was finally eroded away, they slowly fell together and the gargantuan boulder fields of Joshua Tree were revealed.
These great heaps are in no small part what makes Joshua Tree so famous, especially in certain circles. Joshua tree is known for three things the world over, the first of which is of course the Yuccas themselves. The second of these is the boulders, which form supposedly some of the best rock climbing terrain on the planet, and draw climbers from the far corners of the globe. The third, is the night sky, but I’ll get to that later. Anyways, so you’ve seen the Yucca and the boulders, driven through Hidden Valley and Jumbo Rocks, and made it to the north entrance. Now what?
Now, you go hike to see an actual desert oasis. There are three notable oases in the park, only one of which is located in the Mojave section. The 49 Palms oasis, located on the northern boundary of the park, is about a three mile round hike into the foothills of the Pinto mountain range to find a pristine field of green buried in the savage desert sands. One of the most amazing experiences of my life was hiking out into these oases, traveling through the barren hills and the heat, only to turn a corner and be faced with something you only hear about in legend. A patch of lush green rises from the sand, the iconic palms rising some hundred feet or more into the sky, tilted out at angles and creating a complete canopy of shade for the ground beneath. Fed by underground springs, they grow in the tightest of clusters, the dead leaves from decades past covering their trunks in a great tan shield, protecting them from the unrelenting sun. Desert iguanas and kangaroo rats scrurry about between the palms, insects buzz from tree to tree, life makes itself known in great abundance, here in this single spot of reprieve. The other oases you can see are the Cottonwood Spring oasis and the Lost Palms oasis. Cottonwood is the easiest to get to, as its right off the road from the visitor center of the same name. The Lost Palms is by far the most impressive of the oases, but it’s a grueling seven mile hike through the desert mountains, and can be incredibly dangerous in the summer months. That being said, while the best time to see the park is the spring, each of the four seasons bring out new and incredible facets of the area, and it can be argued you should go during each of them.
Now, if you’re seeing an oasis you’re probably in the southern section of the park, which means you’re in the Colorado. This also probably means that you took the road leading west, but instead of heading to the north entrance, turned towards Highway 10 and the south entrance. Driving down this road you’ll start to notice the changes almost immediately after you turn. The Joshua Trees fade out of view, the Boulder formations are replaced by the little San Bernardino mountains, and the terrain becomes much more rugged, not to mention hot. The first thing to see on this road is the Cholla cactus garden. An enormous field of Cholla and other cacti stretching as far as the eye can see. The Cholla grow for miles, situated a few feet apart, their limbs twisting about in a tangled mess of short gleaming spikes. They go from an earthy brown at the base to a bright yellow nearer the tips, little cylindrical tendrils of cactus flailing about, stuck in a chaotic freeze frame of desert savagery. As beautiful as it is, you should be warned that the area is literally covered in bees. It’s recommended you turn off your car’s air conditioning fifteen minutes before parking, as the bees are mostly interested in water, i.e. The condensation forming on the bottom of your car and it’s cooling systems. This also means they’re very interested in you yourself, or rather the water you’re sweating out in hundred degree heat. While they probably won’t attack you outright, they will absolutely land all over you in an effort to quench their thirst. If you’re someone who can’t handle that, the high desert may not be the best choice.
Before reaching the Cottonwood springs at the bottom of the park, you’ll also run into the Ocotillo patch. The Ocotillo are another variety of unique desert plant, however they are found only in the Colorado. Just as strange as everything else here, the Ocotillo is a bush-like plant comprised of roughly five to ten long green spindles, covered in tiny spines. In the spring they bloom little red flowers at the tip of each spike, their tall slender stalks blowing gently in the wind which rolls down off the mountains. The lower elevation Colorado desert is also home to some unique animals too, such as the kangaroo rat and kit fox. Diamondback rattlesnakes also call the desert home, but they typically come out in the evenings, so limit your backcountry exploration to the daylight as much as possible.
So you’ve seen the deserts, waded through some cacti and maybe even stumbled into an oasis. Whats next? you may ask. Easy, you wait for it to get dark. Joshua Tree is famous for it’s night skies, and rightfully so. Never before have I seen stars like those in Joshua Tree. After waiting about an hour for it to get dark, the sun finally began to disappear behind the boulder fields, and little by little the stars began to make themselves known. Slowly at first, a few would begin to peep out directly above us, where the sky was darkest. Before long though, it seemed every time I looked away, more stars had come out, to the point where the entire sky was a field of brilliant white specks. Another hour passed, and the Milky Way itself began to show, a hazy strip of white stretching across the night sky and down over the horizon. It grew stronger and stronger as I lay out on the cool desert sands, watching as shooting stars zipped past with such ferocity as to leave a glowing trail lingering behind for almost a full second. Finally, with all traces of the sun gone, the night sky was in full swing. It was the perfect image, a planetarium made real. I remembered sitting in the museums, laid back in those lounge chairs as some instructor rattled off the constellations, the artificial sky above me so perfect, so well defined it could only exist in theory, or maybe Antarctica. Yet here I lay, in Southern California, the night so clear I could watch the satellites go by like minuscule lethargic meteors, their faint orange glow weaving between the pinpoint lights of the galaxy. The Milky Way spanned the great black dome like a thin wispy cloud of light, fading in and out at certain points, leaving tentative gaps where the inky blackness of space poured through, only to be ventilated by a million rays of light. Light that traveled across all of space only to get snatched away from its ultimate destination by my very own eyes, less than a second from completing it’s lifelong journey to the ground.
I lay out for hours, watching the stars shine and the meteors whiz past, the haze of the Milky Way gently wandering through the sky above me. I was so still, so captured by the wonders of space that wildlife began to approach me as though I were just another facet of nature. A coyote came within three feet of me, casually wandering through the area on the prowl for something to scavenge, but scampered away at the first sign of movement. Geckos ran past my head, one was even bold enough to climb onto my leg, before scurrying off into the night. The squeaking of bats filled the air as they awoke from their slumber and took to the skies in search of moths, their silhouettes briefly illuminated every time they passed in front of a star. Desert spiders meandered around beneath the boulders surrounding me, retreating back into their woven homes whenever the glow of my flashlight passed near them. If you do go to Joshua Tree, I implore you, spend a night in the park. Do whatever it takes, just make the time. It’s an experience you’ll never forget, and by far the best thing the park has to offer, in my own humble opinion.
Joshua Tree is a park of many, many facets. Some of them obvious, others not so much. It’s not somewhere you can just drive through, not somewhere you can see in a day and leave, having gotten your fill. It’s the kind of place that’s filled with corners, literal and otherwise, each and every one begging to be explored, urging you to just keep going a little further, to round just one more bend, but of course it never stops there. The further you go, the more you see, the more you want to see, the more the park seems to come to life. Each season, each hour of the day even, offers something new and unique, something you can’t find anywhere else but here, in the forests of Yucca and the fields of Cholla, beneath the Milky Way and inbetween the great boulder fields. Every hike I went on, I ended up kicking myself for not going that extra distance, no matter how spectacular it was, I couldn’t help but wonder what I might have found had I just explored for ten more minutes, on and on ad infinitum. Sadly, there’s only one remedy for this ailment, this pervasive sense of incompletion which plagues it’s visitors so. They just have to keep coming back. And so will you.