Joshua Tree National Park is home to many wonders. It’s a playground for hikers and climbers, photographers and star gazers and anyone really with a backpack and desire to explore. Spanning nearly 800,000 acres (about the size of the entire state of Rhode Island) the park is the intersection of 2 different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado – where the diverse ecosystems of each are married together to create a unique and evocative desert landscape rich with varying flora and fauna.
Sleeping giant rocks collide with a seemingly endless sky and countless species of cacti and other desert plants commingle beneath the shadow of the park’s namesake trees. Primarily concentrated in the western section, the Joshua Tree is actually not a tree, rather it’s part of the yucca family with its twisted Dr. Seuss-like branches and thick waxy leaves. Legend has it that the tree was named by Mormon pioneers who thought it resembled the biblical figure Joshua with his hands outstretched to the sky in prayer. These trees can grow more than 40 feet tall and it’s believed that they can live for an average of 150 years.
Prior to being established as a National Monument in 1936 and later a National Park in 1994, the area that is now Joshua Tree was once home to American Indians and later cattle ranchers, gold miners and homesteaders. Despite the size of protected land, most points of interest are concentrated in a few key areas around the northwest and southern portions of the park where you’ll find visitor centers and other facilities. Tons of maps for the park are available online here.
When I first started planning my visit to Joshua Tree I found it hard to decide which areas to divide our time between. Some visitors may choose to start with a drive out to Keys View, a scenic overlook high above the Coachella Valley (we actually did this last on our way out of the park). Another great place to start is the Hidden Valley, which is an easy 1 mile hiking trail through a rock-enclosed area right off of Park Boulevard.
We instead began with the Barker Dam trail, a 1.1 mile loop that circles through a wonderland of towering rocks, desert plants and wildlife and past the early 20th century dam that was built to hold water in this otherwise dry area.
From the same parking lot we connected to the trail for the Wall Street Mill. This old gold milling site dates back to 1930 during a second Depression-era “gold rush”. The 2.2 mile hike is littered with remnants of the past, from rusted trucks slowly decaying into the desert to the shell of an old pink ranch house (look for a minor footpath opposite the windmill).
Continuing through the park you’ll find a handful of other hiking spots and areas of interest including the appropriately named Skull Rock and Arch Rock. We intended the latter to be a quick photo opp turned out to be a fun adventure climbing our way through a playground dominated by boulders, including the aforementioned arch.
We also ventured southward to the Cholla Cactus Garden, a dense field of thousands the so-called “jumping” cholla that seems to come out of nowhere. These fuzzy-looking cacti may appear harmless (they are also sometimes called teddy bear cholla), but the branches have a tendency to break off and attach themselves to an unwittingly host. It’s definitely wise to stay on the boardwalk path and admire these extraterrestrial plants from a distance. Although a bit far, this was a worthwhile stop as it also allowed us to see the terrain change as we drove between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. We did not have the opportunity to venture to the Fortynine Palms Oasis or the Lost Palms Oasis at the north and south entrances of the park respectively.
Our day spent at Joshua Tree was incredible to say the least and we could have easily spent more time there. It’s one of those places that’s even bigger and more beautiful than any photo could do justice. Simply put, Joshua Tree is a place you must see in person to appreciate all that it has to offer. Here are just a fraction of my favorite photos, which I hope inspire you to venture out to the park yourself. I know I am definitely looking forward to returning to Joshua Tree someday again soon.
Also Good to Know
We stayed at the Kimpton Rowan Hotel in downtown Palm Springs and made a full day out of our visit to Joshua Tree (although we could have easily spent more time in the park or even gone back another day to see more). If you have a car it’s an easy hour-long drive from the city. Also nearby is Pioneertown, a revitalized Old Western town turned 1940s movie set that makes for a fun place to explore. With harsh desert sun and soaring summertime temperatures that can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Joshua Tree is best enjoyed in the fall, winter or spring months when temperatures are more mild. It’s also important to note that there is minimal cell service and no food or water facilities beyond the visitor centers so you should bring more than what you think you’ll need (the recommendation is a minimum of 1 gallon of water per person per day).
JOSHUA TREE BY THE NUMBERS
- Established as a National Monument in 1936 by Franklin D. Roosevelt and later a National Park in 1994
- Spans nearly 800,000 acres
- Stretches across 2 unique desert landscapes – the Mojave and the Colorado
- Highest elevation is 5,814 feet and lowest point is 536 feet
- More than 30 hiking trails
- Nearly 500 campsites
- Attracts 3 million visitors per year
- Joshua Trees can live up to 150 years and grow more than 40 feet tall