Venture into the Picturesque Mojave Desert
You’d never expect a desert to be so teeming with life. Joshua Tree National Park — named for the prolific members of the yucca family that populate its western end in the high Mojave Desert — is home to palm oases, wildflowers, hundreds of resident and migrating bird species, and for hundreds of years sustained Native American cultures that foraged for provisions in its scrublands.
Once, hardy homesteaders, prospectors, and ranchers tried to live off the land here. Few prospered, and many failed, but they left their mark — a history that’s still preserved by the park service. Earlier inhabitants dating back to prehistoric times left stone tools, spearheads, and petroglyphs.
These days, the park is as much a recreational hotspot as it is a living museum of natural and cultural history. Hikers are drawn to its rugged trails and resplendent springtime wildflower fields. Stargazers marvel at the clarity of Joshua Tree’s night skies. Rock climbers ascend monadnocks, testing their limits on the bare desert boulders.
Whether you’re looking to intensively explore the desert or take it in from the comfort of the park’s many access roads, Joshua Tree National Park has loads of sights to see and things to do.
Activities in Joshua Tree National Park
Hiking and Backpacking
Hiking and backpacking in Joshua Tree National Park provide opportunities for visitors to get acquainted with the desert on a first-hand basis. Many challenging day hikes afford spectacular views of the surrounding region, including the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Salton Sea, and various oases with palm trees.
Backpackers must register with the park before heading into the wilderness, and be prepared to carry out whatever they carry in. Remember: Joshua Tree National Park is a desert environment where there is virtually no water available for human consumption. Popular backpacking trails include the scenic Canyon View, Panorama Loop, and Warren Peak trails in Black Rock Canyon, the Convington Flats and Crest trails (great for checking out the park’s famous Joshua trees and other wildlife), and the trails near Cottonwood Springs (popular in spring for wildflower hikes).
Joshua Tree National Park was once considered an ideal off-season training ground for climbers that wanted to keep active while Yosemite was snowed in. But over time, the park’s many climbable rock formations have garnered a loyal following of their own. The park’s faces and boulders were formed by magma that cooled below the surface, which was then eroded into round shapes by groundwater. The largest of these are called monadnocks, and they are very popular ascents for fans of “traditional-style crack, slab, and steep-face” rock climbing.
There are more than 500 archeological sites and 88 historic structures in Joshua Tree National Park. This diverse historical record includes Native American petroglyphs and pictographs, as well as homesteader artifacts like Samuelson’s Rocks and preserved sites like Keys Ranch.
The dark night sky above Joshua Tree National Park is free from a lot of the light pollution that hinders most Americans’ views of the cosmos. Visitors to the park can check out the celestial splendor with binoculars, telescopes, or even the naked eye. If this is your first time viewing the night sky so far from civilization, you’re in for a treat. Ranger-guided stargazing programs take place periodically at the Oasis and Cottonwood visitor centers.
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
Seasons, Fees, and Reservations
Joshua Tree National Park is open all year, and each season offers a variety of activities highlighting different aspects of the desert for visitors. Because of extreme temperatures that routinely climb into the 100s, summer is the least popular time to visit the park. Winter days are comfortable, but the nights are freezing.
Spring and fall are high time for ranger-led programmings like walks, hikes, and campfire talks. Visitor centers and wayside exhibits, accessible from the park’s main roads, provide year-round information, education, and other resources. In early spring — typically at the beginning of March — the Mojave Desert blooms, blanketing it in cream-colored Joshua tree panicles, yellow tickseed, and other wildflowers. Cacti add flowers later in April and May. Visitors during this season should be sure to check out the park’s southern Cottonwood Springs area. Spring is also a great time of year for birding.
Standard entry to Joshua Tree National Park costs $15 per vehicle or $5 per person arriving on foot, motorcycle, or bike. Entries are good for seven consecutive days, and special passes are available. Visitors can reserve camping spaces at Black Rock or Indian Cove, but most of the park’s campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Backcountry campers must register their vehicles prior to heading into the wilderness.
Points Of Interest
On a clear day — which can be rare, due to recently worsening air quality — you can see Mexico from the top of wheelchair-accessible Keys View. Other visible areas include Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and the San Andreas Fault. This overlook on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains is a 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard. There’s also a turnout for the Lost Horse Mine day hike further up the road.
Covington Flats is home to some of the park’s largest Joshua trees, pinyon pines, and juniper trees. An 8-mile round trip hike from a popular picnic area leads to Eureka Peak, which offers great views of Palm Springs and the Morongo Basin. There are also numerous backcountry trails in this part of the park.
Black Rock Canyon is a good destination for first-time park visitors, but it’s also the trailhead for the 35-mile-long California Riding and Hiking Trail. Many short day hikes abound here, with ample opportunities to view wildlife.
Wildlife in Joshua Tree National Park
The most famous inhabitant of Joshua Tree National Park is probably the tree species for which it is named. Dubbed so by Mormon settlers because the uplifted trees’ limbs recalled a Biblical story where Joshua raises his arms to the sky in prayer, the Joshua tree is a member of the yucca family that is native to the American southwest. These trees flourish in the high Mojave Desert particularly in Queen Valley and Lost Horse Valley but maybe threatened by climate change and non-native species.
Joshua Tree National Park is home to more than 250 bird species, many of which stop at the park during their winter migrations. The desert’s lack of dense vegetation makes it easier to spot birds there than in other habitats. One bird that visitors can see at Joshua Tree all year long is the greater roadrunner. This speckled member of the cuckoo family is common to the western and southwestern United States and Mexico. When startled, it runs rather than flies, using its long tail to keep its balance. Its diet includes small reptiles, insects, and other ground-dwelling birds.
Another bird to look for in the Mojave Desert is the Ladder-backed woodpecker, which derives its name from the black-and-white bars that run horizontally up its back. Adult males of the species have a red crown and can be spotted boring into large cacti, where it hunts for grubs. Cavities that these birds make in cacti also serve as nesting sites.
Desert Bighorn Sheep
Three herds of desert bighorn sheep live in Joshua Tree National Park. Visitors can see them at Eagle Mountain, Wonderland of the Rocks, and throughout the Little San Bernardino Mountains. While they prefer steep, rocky terrain like their mountain-dwelling cousins, these sheep are specially adapted to desert life. They have thinner coats and can go for days without water. In fact, during particularly wet years, the sheep can get all the water that they require just from grass. However, ewes who are nursing lambs must drink every day.
History of Joshua Tree National Park
The earliest people to be active in the area of Joshua Tree National Park most probably found the region to be quite different from the desert landscape that dominates it nowadays. As glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age, drainage in the Pinto Basin supported grasslands that were home to large animals like mammoths, mastodons, and even bison. Hunter-gatherers known as the Pinto Culture hunted these beasts for food, leaving behind large caches of stone spearheads and carving tools.
As time passed, the region began to dry out, the large animals began to die out, and native peoples had to adapt. Instead of hunting large game, they hunted smaller animals and began to rely on a diet of seeds and other wild plants that prevailed in the increasingly arid region. Although there’s scant evidence linking the Pinto Culture to the tribes that came to be associated with the area by the time Euro-American explorers arrived, one thing is certain: the desert people knew how to make the most of their surroundings. Where U.S. surveyors saw only rock and scrubland, American Indians saw food and raw materials that were the foundations of their way of life.
But rough terrain didn’t keep new settlers from trying to eke out their own lifestyle in the western desert. Cowboys drove herds seasonally from one area to the next in search of adequate water and pasture. Miners hunted for gold, and later, homesteaders broke ground in the tough land. From 1863 to 1977, U.S. citizens could claim 160-acre parcels of land in the Mojave Desert by building a cabin and an outhouse on it. After 1936, this practice was forbidden in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
While a few wet years in the early 20th century enticed many homesteaders to come and try their luck in the desert, the rains did not last. Most homesteads failed, but the Keys Ranch met with a degree of success — holding out for 60 years before becoming a historic site administered by the National Parks Service. Joshua Tree was elevated to national park status in 1994.