There is beauty in California’s deserts. Places that are seemingly barren possess a wild and rugged allure. 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 western half of the park is part of the Mojave Desert, and is at elevations over 3000 feet above sea level. In addition to Joshua trees, which are endemic to the area, you will find 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 grows feathery green palo verde trees, branched ocotillo, brittlebush, and cholla cacti. Joshua Tree is also home to a 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 in 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.
On this trip over Spring Break 2019, we stayed at the Wyndham Indio east of the park. After spending a couple days hanging out- getting mani-pedis with the girls, shooting hoops with Nate, and enjoying breakfasts on the porch- we drove to Joshua Tree National Park. In my opinion, the best vacations are those that are spent in a park, and this trip was no exception. Being early April, it was the perfect season for exploring the desert, with the weather being relatively mild and the end of the wildflower blooming season. We left for the park in the morning and after a quick stop at Starbucks for some morning fuel, we drove on, listening to our desert road trip playlist which of course included U2’s album, The Joshua Tree.
We first entered the park from the south entrance closest to Indio off Interstate 10. We enjoyed the drive through the park, taking in the desert scenery, and plotting out where we wanted to spend a more extended amount of time later in the day. We exited and headed to the Oasis Visitor Center and picked up a few souvenirs and our junior ranger books. Using what we remembered on our first drive through, the kids and I filled out our books and turned them into the ranger. After being ‘sworn in’ as junior rangers and enjoying our picnic lunches at the tables at the center, we headed back into the park to explore more.
I enjoyed the scenery; Joshua trees standing tall in the dry desert ground, the teddy bear cholla, as well as flowering cacti and a scattering of wildflowers reaching the end of their short blooming season. The kids on the other hand enjoyed more the interesting geology of the national park. They loved climbing the giant piles of granite rocks about the park. These seemingly random rock piles were the result of plate tectonics and volcanic activity. Geologic uplift and weathering created the stacked rock formations. This made for some really interesting scenery, as well as fun for the kids. I allowed them some time at Jumbo Rocks to play before heading to our hike to Barker Dam and the petroglyphs nearby.
There are miles of hiking trails that take you among the Joshua trees, cactus gardens, and more. There are also many areas for rock climbing if that’s more your thing. This 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. Also in the early spring, following the winter rainy season, are the wildflower blooms. We visited Joshua Tree on our spring break in early April, and enjoyed pleasant weather for hiking as well as lovely floral blooms. Before you head out, be sure to check weather forecasts and bring plenty of water.
There are four visitor centers with two located just outside the park itself. We stopped at the Oasis Visitor Center to pick up our junior ranger books. Of course 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 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, but 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 dangerous 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. We even experienced this. My boys went ahead on the trail to Barker Dam and were almost lost, to the point where we almost called a search. It is so easy to lose sight of the trail. For that reason, it is very important to stay together and have 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!
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Photos by Rochelle Haas