Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees—this is one weird place. Joshua Tree National Park lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert.
The Colorado, the western reach of the vast Sonoran Desert, thrives below 3000 feet on the park’s gently declining eastern flank, where temperatures are usually higher. Considered “low desert” compared to the loftier, wetter and more vegetated Mojave “high desert”, the Colorado seems sparse and forbidding. It begins at the park’s midsection, sweeping east across empy basins stubbled with creosote bushes. Occasionally decorated by “gardens” of flowering ocotillo and cholla cactus, it runs across arid Pinto Basin into a parched wilderness of broken rock in the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains.
Above 3,000 feet, the Mojave section claims the park’s western half, where giant branching yuccas thrive on sandy plains studded by massive granite monoliths and rock piles. These are among the most intriguing and photogenic geological phenomena found in California’s many desert regions.
The result of this encounter of two different ecosystems is amazing desert flora, including those wacky namesake trees (actually a type of yucca). The Joshua Tree was revered by American Indian tribes because its leaves provided durable materials for baskets and footwear, while the buds and seeds made a healthy addition to their food supply.Joshua Tree’s beauty shines around the clock, with vibrant sunsets melting into nights filled with uncountable stars.
Crafted over millions of years by torrential rain, battering wind, and extreme temperatures, Joshua Tree National Park stretches over nearly 800,000 acres of rugged terrain. These landscapes, which can seem deceptively barren, are home to several ecosystems. Despite the harsh conditions, Joshua Tree teems with plant and animal life that has adapted and thrived in the area’s fierce climate. Joshua Tree National Park is home to large herds of desert bighorn sheep, black tailed jack rabbits, coyotes and kangaroo rats as well as a number of smaller mammals. Since it lies along the Pacific migratory bird flyway, many large groups of migrating birds can be spotted overhead or stopping to rest in the park during the winter months.
The park’s premier attractions, forests of giant branching yuccas known as Joshua trees, massive rock formations, fan palm oases, and seasonal gardens of cholla and ocotillo, can be enjoyed on a leisurely half-day auto tour that includes both “high” and “low” desert zones— although most of your time will be spent in your car. Scenic paved roads lead to viewpoints, all campgrounds, and trailheads. Roadside interpretive exhibits have pull-outs and parking areas, and offer insights into the region’s complex desert ecology, wildlife, and human history.
Start out by climbing up to Keys View, where you can get a great panoramic vista of Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio, with the Salton Sea stretching out in the distance. Then pay a visit to Keys Ranch, where you can take a guided walking tour to get a glimpse into what it was like to be an early 20th-century pioneer on this unforgiving terrain. Close by but standing in contrast is 49 Palm Oasis, where fan palms tower over a crystal-clear spring, and also nearby is Lost Horse Mine, one of the few mines in the area that proved to be a good investment. Today you can see what remains of the once booming operation with an easy 4-mile round-trip hike.
If you’re looking to do some rock climbing, Joshua Tree has more than 8,000 established climbing routes, from easy beginner scrambles to extreme vertical cracks, and camping options are plentiful with nine campgrounds. Or, head out on foot or horseback to set up camp nearly anywhere; there are only a few restrictions. Take a break from roughing it to check out Pioneertown, a, 1880s-style false-front Old West “town” where more than 50 films and television shows were made in the ‘40s and ‘50s; today, you can still see mock gunfights and see top-notch live music at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Read on to learn more about these and more things to do at Joshua Tree National Park below.
If visiting the park by car, keep in mind that there are north (at Twentynine Palms) and south (at the intersection of Box Canyon Road and Interstate 10) entrances in addition to the most commonly used west entrance. There is also an all-inclusive (i.e. no entrance fee) shuttle bus service that makes multiple stops within the park. Avoid the biggest crowds by visiting midweek.
For a review and description of the various available hikes, click on the corresponding links on the hiking trailheads map.