In the mid-nineteenth century, a group of Mormon settlers crossed the Mojave Desert in California. They spotted a tree they had never seen before. Its outspread branches reminded them of a biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands to the sky in prayer. And so they named it the Joshua tree.
The Joshua tree
The Joshua tree is part of the yucca family. They can live for hundreds of years, grow up to 50 feet tall, and has root systems that can reach more than 30 feet. It’s strange shape, branches curved at random, is due to its blooming, which only occurs after both proper rainfall and a winter freeze. Thus, Joshua Trees do not bloom every year. The tree is pollinated by the yucca moth, which lays its eggs inside the flowers of Joshua tree blooms.
Joshua Tree National Park sits at the confluence of the Mojave Desert and the lower and dryer Colorado Desert in California, about two hours east of Los Angeles. If you like desert scenery, the unique meeting point of these two distinct ecosystems makes for some truly incredible sightseeing.
The beauty of the Mojave desert, rocks and Joshua trees
Most of what you’ll want to see will be in the northern portion of the Park, which is the higher elevation Mojave section. There, one of the largest Joshua tree forests grows alongside beautiful rock formations, all ripe to be explored. Hidden Valley is my favorite place to take a walk among the Joshua trees, but some of the best moments are just pulling over at the side of the road and finding the perfect Joshua tree to call your own! The terrain is largely flat, unless you are up to rock climbing, and can easily be walked with or without a marked trail. Just remember to bring water; it can get very hot here in the summer, even at the higher elevations. (There can be snow in the winter, though daytime temperatures are normally moderate.)
These rocks at Hidden Valley were just made for trying to scramble up! I failed
To truly understand the unique place Joshua Tree National Park occupies, drive out to Keys View. There, at an elevation of just over 5,000 feet, you will find a beautiful view of the lower Colorado Desert, all the way to the Salton Sea. Take a moment to look behind you at the Mojave for a sense of comparison. This is why Joshua Tree is important. Seeing two ecosystems crash together instills a sense of awe in me, and it will in you, as well.
For many people, the southern portion of Joshua Tree holds little appeal. The Colorado Desert, with its lower altitude and lesser rainfall, doesn’t have Joshua trees, and it can seem like a wasteland in comparison to the Mojave. However, even if the vast desert landscape doesn’t sing to you, there are two reasons to drive south. One is practical: the Park’s southern boundary sits just off of Interstate 10 east of Palm Springs, and your loop will then be complete. The second is the Cholla Cactus Garden, an incredible ribbon of these beautiful plants stretching to the horizons.
The Cholla Cactus Garden is worth a trip to the southern portion of the Park
This one looks like Baby Groot!
The namesake tree is what really draws visitors to Joshua Tree National Park. But what would happen if the Park no longer was home to Joshua trees? Climate change is devastating these amazing plants. A 2001 study found a high probability that their range will be reduced by up to 90% by the end of this century, with none left within the Park’s boundaries. This would be terrible, and is just another reason we must all act to reduce the effects of climate change. A world without Joshua trees is a world that is a bit uglier.
Expect your visit to Joshua Tree National Park to last about 4 hours, plus any longer hikes or walks you intend to take. Services inside the Park are limited, so fill up your water bottles and use the facilities at the Visitor’s Centers. And then open your minds, your cameras, and your hearts to these wonderful beacons of joy!
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