There is beauty in California’s deserts. Places that are seemingly barren possess a wild and rugged allure that draws adventurers by the thousands. Moreover, a closer look reveals the marvel of resilience. Hundreds of species of plants and animals have adapted to their harsh environmental conditions to survive and thrive. About 130 miles from Los Angeles, California where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet, is such an unexpected jewel. Joshua Tree National Park is home to a diverse population of species, including the famed Joshua tree.
The kids and I explored Joshua Tree this past April during the second half of our spring break. We stayed at the Wyndham Indio less than 30 miles from the park and enjoyed relaxed days in the resort’s lazy river, basking in the glow of sunny days and mild temperatures. Of course, it’s not a vacation unless we visit a national park or monument, so we headed over to Joshua Tree National Park to enjoy some new scenery and new hikes, with U2’s 1987 album ‘The Joshua Tree’ blaring, because what else would we be listening to on this adventure?
The western half of the national park is part of the Mojave Desert, and is at elevations over 3000 feet above sea level. In addition to Joshua trees, there are pinyon and juniper, along with prickly pear cactus and Mojave yucca. To the east lies the Colorado Desert, below 3000 feet in elevation. This region is dominated by creosote bushes. There also grow feathery green palo verde trees, branched spiky ocotillo, brittlebush, and cholla cacti. Joshua Tree is also home to a surprising number of animal species. According to the NPS site, the park is home to about 57 species of mammals, including jack rabbits, coyotes, deer, and a number of different species of bats and rodents. There are over 250 species of birds that either stop at Joshua Tree in the course of their migrations or call it home year round.
The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is an unusual, tree-like plant, however it isn’t really a tree. The consensus is that it is a type of yucca, which are related to asparagus and agave. Joshua tree, like other species of yucca are endemic to the southwestern United States, especially to the California and Arizona deserts. The ‘trees’ yield clusters of white flowers in the early spring. Their evergreen, spear-shaped leaves are pretty, but beware, they can be sharp. One of our scouts learned that the hard way when he got cut by a tree on an unrelated outing outside the park.
In addition to some truly interesting plants and animals, Joshua Tree has some interesting geology. The kids loved climbing these giant piles of granite rocks. These seemingly random rock piles were the result of plate tectonics and volcanic activity. Geologic uplift and weathering created the stacked rock formations.
There are many miles of hiking trails that take you among the Joshua trees, cactus gardens, and more. There are also many areas for rock climbing. This sport has only grown in popularity, so check out the NPS site for more information, along with words of caution.
Some things to consider:
The best times for visiting are between October and April when temperatures are milder. An added bonus for a trip in early spring, following the winter rainy season, are the wildflower blooms. We visited Joshua Tree in early April, and enjoyed pleasant weather for hiking as well as the end of the lovely floral blooms. Before you head out, be sure to check weather forecasts and bring plenty of water and sun protection.
There are four visitor centers with two located just outside the park itself. We stopped at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center to pick up our junior ranger books. As usual, the kids each picked out a souvenir before heading back into the park. Otherwise there are few facilities within the park.
We’ve never done it together as a family, but camping in Joshua Tree is very popular. There are several campgrounds, such as Jumbo Rocks, that are available by reservation only September through May. June through August has limited first-come, first serve availability. Check the NPS site for more details and a list of campgrounds within the park.
There is no cell service inside Joshua Tree National Park. Be prepared to disconnect and enjoy an adventure, however you also won’t be able to rely on a phone if anything happens.
Joshua Tree National Park is a truly wild and beautiful place. That said, it is a desert wilderness that can be unforgiving even to the experienced hiker. There are trails that are hard to discern from their surroundings and areas where it’s pretty easy to get lost. Couple that with extreme weather and you have a recipe for disaster. It seems that several times a year we hear of people getting lost in Joshua Tree or even dying. I even experienced this. My boys went ahead on the trail and were almost lost, to the point where we calling a search. Fortunately they headed back to the car as the rangers were heading out, so it was a lesson learned and nothing worse. It is so easy to lose sight of the trail. For that reason, it is very important to stay together, pay attention, and carry and use maps.
Even with all the adventure and misadventure, I’d totally go back to Joshua Tree. There’s so much that we couldn’t do in a day; I’d love to go back and camp when the weather’s nice. Remember, hike safely and have fun. Happy trails!
For more information and source info:
Sticker can be purchased at the Visitor Centers or here.
Photos by Rochelle Haas