Located in southeastern California, Joshua Tree National Park is one of America’s most rugged national treasures. Sections of two separate deserts are included in the park, the Mojave and the Colorado Desert, making it home to many unique plants and animals. These hardy organisms have learned to adapt to the harsh conditions, creating separate ecosystems in both the higher altitudes of the Mojave Desert and the lower altitudes of the Colorado Desert. Named for the Joshua trees which grow natively there, Joshua Tree National Park was declared a U.S. National Park under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, although it had stood as a U.S. National Monument since 1936.
A Quick History of the Park
Measuring in at 1,235 square miles (790,636 acres), Joshua Tree National Park is the 15th largest national park in the U.S. by size. According to the U.S. National Park Service, over 1.25 million people now visit the park each year, although it was first inhabited by members of the Pinto Culture over 8,000 years ago. By the 1800’s cattlemen drove their herds to the area in order to graze on the available grass, while those hunting fortunes of gold dug tunnels and created mines in what is now the park. The area was further inhabited by homesteaders in the early 1900’s who left their mark on the land as well. Since becoming a national monument in 1936, Joshua Tree National Park protects 88 historic structures, 19 cultural landscapes, and 501 archeological sites within its borders. The park also boasts a museum collection with over 123,000 pieces that are made available to researchers and the public by appointment only.
Hiking and Camping in Joshua Tree National Park
In addition to the vast historic treasures found at the park, Joshua Tree National Park’s biggest attraction is its scenery. Giant changes in elevation contribute to drastic weather changes and spectacular views of distinctly differing environments. Along with the large swaths of Joshua trees, visitors will be visually treated to bleached sand dunes, rugged mountains, giant rock formations, and dry lakes. Visitors can get close to nature by experiencing one of the 12 self-guided nature trails that the park offers. These easy hikes, ranging from .25-1.5 miles, get you up close and personal with some of the parks natural elements. For more experienced and ambitious hikers, 35 miles of the California Riding and Hiking Trail falls within the park’s borders. The NPS states that hiking the entire trail will take 2-3 days, although shorter hikes of 4-11 miles on the trail are possible. Hikers who are planning to stay overnight are required to park and register at one of the park’s 13 backcountry registration boards. The NPS also recommends that you bring layered clothing due to the sometimes extreme temperature changes (up to 40 degrees in 24 hours). They also advise that each person brings one gallon of water with them for each day they plan to stay in the park.
Joshua Tree National Park has 9 different campgrounds that are available to overnight campers. The park also allows for backcountry camping. In addition to the Joshua trees found in the park, there are 5 different fan palm oases. There are 10 mountains in the park with peaks that top over 5,000 feet in elevation, making Joshua Tree National Park a destination for rock climbers and mountain bikers alike. Be sure to check out Keys View, as well. Just a 20 minute drive from Park Boulevard down Keys View Road, you will be enchanted by the views of the Coachella Valley, which drops off over a mile below. You will also be able to see the San Andreas Fault running through the valley. From here, you will also be able to see the highs and lows of the area. The 11,500 foot snow-covered peak of San Gorgonio Mountain is visible as is the glistening waters of the Salton Sea, situated 230 feet below sea level. On very clear days, you may even be able to see Signal Mountain, which is actually located in Mexico.
Joshua Tree National Park Ranger Tours
Signing up for a ranger tour can also be a great way to explore the park. Guided tours, evening programs, and patio talks are some of the options offered if you are interested in learning more about the park from the rangers who work there. These programs will enrich you with information about the natural history of the area, as well as how humans, wildlife, and vegetation have adapted in order to survive in this rugged environment. One of the most popular tours is the Keys Ranch Guided Tour. Here, you learn about how William F. Keys and his family worked this unforgiving land for over 60 years as you tour the remains of what was once their ranch. The tour is half a mile in length, lasts 90 minutes, and costs $5.
Joshua Tree National Park is truly a place like none other. So, get out there and explore this unique corner of California! Be sure to bring enough water, layered clothing, and be safe!