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Joshua Tree National Park, California

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Did You Know … ?

  • Joshua trees don’t have growth rings, making it hard to calculate their ages.
  • Prospectors developed about 300 mines within today’s park, most not worth much.
  • But, the park’s Lost Horse Mine produced gold and silver worth about $5 million today, between 1894 and 1931.
  • Early proponents of the Joshua Tree park considered calling it Desert Plants National Park.
  • Joshua trees must blossom before making branches; straight trees have never bloomed.

Living deserts

The Joshua Tree National Park, well to the south in Southern California, is large (nearly 800,000 acres) and encompasses parts of two different desert ecosystems — the Colorado and the Mojave deserts — that are at once stunning and stark. It is an engaging place for those fascinated by the ways delicate ecosystems remain viable.

Considered from another angle, this park looks weird, in part because of its oddly — even grotesquely — shaped namesake Joshua tree. Furthermore, the landscape was shaped by strong winds, occasional torrents of rain and earthquakes. Rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths reveal just how vigorously Mother Nature has manhandled this terrain.

Elevation makes the difference between the two deserts, with Mojave the higher, slightly cooler and wetter of the two. And, for a touch of something different, in the westernmost part of the park, above 4,000 feet, the Little San Bernardino Mountains provide habitat for juniper and pine trees.

Although the critters are not always visible, the park protects a wide array of animals. The bighorn sheep are the largest, but the birds are the most satisfying for their numbers and their visibility. Further, under the right springtime conditions, the deserts come madly alive with wildflowers. For some people, the birds or the flowers (or both) are reason enough to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The park’s surreal geologic formations are another visual draw and good reason to tote the camera.

Among the active, rock climbing is the big thing. The park counts around 8,000 climbing routes. In addition, there are options for mountain biking and numerous charted hiking trails of varying lengths. The park has nine campgrounds, too.

Almost 85% of the park is managed as wilderness. The more ambitious can take hiking and camping to a higher level by strapping on the backpack for a multiday foray into the backcountry, setting up a campsite each night, abiding by park guidelines and regulations for protection of the environment.

Finally, the park service warns that active visitors must plan for heat and sun with sunscreen and water, and be aware that rain in the mountains can cause flash floods.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Explore the park on a mountain bike, keeping to the park’s backcountry roads, per current requirements.
  • Fill up the backpack and venture into the backcountry. Set up camp for each night of the outing. There are regulations associated with overnighting in the park.
  • If a birder, take note of any eared grebe standing around. The bird can’t take off from land. The park asks visitors to report sightings of the stranded grebes so they can be transported safely to a water site.
  • If you love this, devote a visit to rock climbing.
  • Combine hiking with birding. Look for the feathered critters at Lost Palms Oasis, 49 Palms Oasis or Smith Water Canyon, sites that require extensive hiking to get to.
  • Visit sites of old mines, remembering that they are likely unsafe to enter.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Attend one of the field classes offered by the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park. The institute, in Twentynine Palms, Calif., offers classes in the arts, cultural history, natural science and survival skills.
  • Choose one of the several day hikes outlined at the park’s Web site.
  • Spend some after-sunset time in the park to study the Milky Way and the stars that interest you.
  • Joshua Tree encompasses part of the Mojave Desert. Consider expanding the Mojave experience with a visit to the Mojave National Preserve, 90 miles away.
  • Look for herds of desert bighorn — and be aware there are rattlesnakes in the park, too.
  • Focus, literally, on your photography options during any excursion into the park. Rock formations and the oddly shaped namesake trees promise satisfying results.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Take a ranger-led walking tour of the Keys Ranch. Reservations are necessary. There also are some special tours for photographers.
  • Keep an eye out for the earthquake faults that crisscross the park. The San Andreas Fault can be observed from Keys View.
  • Time your visit for the spring months when wildflowers bloom. It takes some luck or spontaneity to be on hand in a year of a so-called super bloom.
  • Attend a ranger-led session devoted to the animal or plant life in the park.
  • The park is noted for its variety of birds (250-plus species), some resident, some in transit. Carry the binoculars and look for them.
  • Joshua Tree has eight picnic areas. Choose one and spend a relaxing afternoon at your al fresco dining.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the National Park Service at www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm