The desert air is dry and warm, even on this late fall day. The heat of the summer has faded, but winter rains – rare even during the later months – have yet to quench the thirst of the earth. Blue skies, white clouds, brown dirt, gray rocks: the colors combine on the canvas of my mind with the greens of desert plants, a sort of Army green, but varied in its shading. It is this green I have come here to see.

Joshua Tree National Park is one of California’s gems. Though less famous than its cousins Yosemite, Sequoia, or Death Valley, the site, nearly 800,000 acres straddling the border of two mighty deserts, is every bit as worth a visit. I’ve visited before, and try to make it here at least once a year. That it can be done as a day trip from Los Angeles makes Joshua Tree easier to access than some of the other parks in the state.

To say that one has seen the desert because one has been there once is impossible. Deserts are as varied an ecosystem as can be found, and Joshua Tree is the easiest way to see this. Elevations in the park range from about 1,000 feet in the Colorado Desert to more than 5,500 feet in the Mojave Desert, and each one offers a completely different – and unique – set of wildlife. I am here to see one in each desert.

To come to Joshua Tree and not spend time among its namesake plant would be akin to visiting the beach and refusing to look at the ocean. Yucca brevifolia is by all appearances a fairly normal looking tree with some fairly unnormal looking branches. But it isn’t a tree at all, despite the name. A Joshua Tree is, as the scientific name would suggest, a yucca, more closely related to agave than to the average tree.

The namesake plant

Named by Mormon settlers to the area who were unaware of the future taxonomy and relations of the plant, the Joshua Tree can be quite large, growing to nearly 50 feet in height. And with a growth rate of about 1.5 inches per year on the main “trunk,” that can translate to trees reaching a thousand years in age. The plant flowers in late winter (March is the peak), and is pollinated solely by the yucca moth, although many bird species also make their homes among the Joshua Tree’s evergreen leaves.

A variety of sizes and shapes

Joshua Trees only grow here, at slightly higher elevations in the Mojave Desert – and are considered a major indicator species for how that desert’s area is defined – because, while they are perfectly evolved to survive the dry desert heat, they depend on a winter freeze in order to bloom. Here at the higher elevations of Joshua Tree National Park, they will get that, whereas the lower Colorado will most often not. This small natural range makes Joshua Trees one of the more vulnerable species around, hence the protections offered both by Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve, and it is estimated that due to climate change, they will have lost 90% of their habitat by the end of the 21st century. And the species that once helped Joshua Trees spread, the Shasta ground sloth – fossilized dung has been found to contain Joshua Tree leaves, seeds, and flowers – has been extinct for about 13,000 years. With no other major migratory animal eating the Joshua Tree’s seeds, extending the current range would be difficult to do naturally.

They are just so unique and awesome

Many, if not most, visitors to Joshua Tree National Park don’t even visit the Colorado Desert side. Bereft of the namesake yucca, much more barren, and devoid of most of the lovely rock formations that make the Mojave portion beautiful, the lower elevations seem like a wasteland in comparison. However, missing a visit would be depriving oneself of the second of Joshua Tree’s amazing denizens: the teddy bear cholla.

Teddy bear cholla sounds cute, and it actually is, at least if one ignores the sharp spines covering the entire cactus. Native to the northern portions of the Sonoran Desert – of which the Colorado Desert is part – the teddy bear cholla is found in clusters. The reason for this? While the cactus does flower and fruit, its main method of reproducing is via segments detaching and being blown by the wind – or transported sticking out of an unsuspecting animal. These stem segments then form their own plants.

A teddy bear cholla in bloom

Here at Joshua Tree National Park, the Cholla Cactus Garden is home to more teddy bear chollas in a single place than perhaps anywhere else. Ranging from tiny to five feet tall, they stretch as far as the eye can see. More impressively, it is possible – so rangers say – that these all came from a single individual cactus! While other chollas can be found throughout the Colorado Desert portion of the park, the sheer magnitude of the cluster here is incredible, defying what would be observed elsewhere.

Can you believe these all might be clones of a single individual? And this is just a tiny fraction!

Some people come to Joshua Tree National Park for the rock formations, others for the animal life. Me? I come for two impressive plants, and a trip here would be incomplete without seeing both of them up close. These are the most amazing denizens of Joshua Tree!

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