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Joshua Tree National Park

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Prickly Plants, Outlaws and Settlers: A Jaunt through Joshua Tree National Park

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Cattle rustlers, gold prospectors, Mormons, settlers and scientists are a short list of the array of people who have hidden or used Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park is located some 130 miles just about due east of Los Angeles, California. Back in 1936, Minerva Hoyt, a community activist and desert lover, saw the irreplaceable importance of the region and convinced Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim the area as the Joshua Tree National Monument. In 1994, the US Congress designated it as a national park. No one in those days would have imagined that you would get to the park via an eight lane freeway infested with maniacal drivers.

Whimsical Joshua trees

Whimsical Joshua trees


Ryan Ranch ruins

Ryan Ranch ruins



Joshua Tree National Park is named after the multi-branched Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) which is native to the park and surrounding region. Curiously, the Joshua tree belongs to the agave family and is not a true tree in that it does not produce a trunk with annual rings. For the first few decades of its life, the tree grows as a vertical stem with no branches, growing a very slow ½ - 3 inches per year. In time, side branches start growing out in every which direction forming the distinct, whimsical shape of the tree. A typical tree can grow to 20 feet tall and live for 500 years.

The park is unique because this is a place where two distinct desert ecosystems of totally different appearances and climates meet.

The higher, moister and slightly cooler Mojave Desert (greater than 3,000 feet in elevation) makes up the western half of the park. The area is filled with Joshua trees, pinyon pines, junipers and scrub oaks growing among the towering jumbles of granite boulders and rock piles.

Mojave Desert

Mojave Desert

The low, dry Colorado Desert (less than 3,000 feet in elevation) makes up the sparse, forbidding eastern side of the park. It’s characterized by wide open spaces and sparse vegetation consisting of spidery Ocotillo, the rather prickly Cholla cactus, yucca cactus and the Creosote bush scrub.

IMG20180124092351__2_.jpgFlowers of the Cholla cactus

Flowers of the Cholla cactus

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

Not all is flat in the desert. There are six distinct mountain ranges in Joshua Tree National Park. Quail Mountain in the Bernardino Mountains, at 5,816 feet, is the highest peak in the park. The 1.5 mile easy jaunt up Ryan Mountain gives a bird’s eye view of the expansive Lost Horse and Pleasant Valleys from its 5,185 foot summit. I get a panorama of not only the vast Coachella Valley but also the rather unnerving San Andreas Fault from the lookout at Keys View.

Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault

Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault

The geological history of the park is rather splendid. Some of the rocks in the park are 1.7 billion years old. Much later, from 250 to 75 million years ago, tectonic plate movements forced volcanic material to the surface and formed granites, including monzogranite, the towering, weathered and cracked boulders much favoured by rock climbers who abound in the park.

Hidden Valley

Hidden Valley

There are 307 kilometres of hiking trails within the park, most accessible from parking lots adjacent to the road, or from the eight designated campgrounds. Most of the trails make for an easy walk and are well marked. It takes no stretch of the imagination to picture yourself in a time when outlaws roamed and hardy pioneers settled into the region. A one mile loop trail in Hidden Valley winds in and amongst cracked monoliths and rock piles where cattle rustlers were said to hide. A short stroll to the ruins of the brick and adobe Ryan Ranch, a homestead established in 1896, gives you an idea of the isolation and hardships endured by the early settlers.

Ruins of the Ryan Ranch

Ruins of the Ryan Ranch

Ryan Ranch

Ryan Ranch

Each ecosystem in the national park houses its own range of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. In the Colorado Desert you could be lucky to sight a Kit Fox in pursuit of a Kangaroo Rat while a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake or Zebratail Lizard lie hidden in the rocks. In the Mojave Desert an American Kestrel may soar above the ground, hunting for an Antelope Ground Squirrel or Black-tailed Jackrabbit while a Scott’s Oriole or Western Screech Owl perch on the raggedy branches of a Joshua tree. A sighting of a Desert Tortoise, Bighorn Sheep or Greater Roadrunner would make anyone’s day. My critter sightings consisted of three jackrabbits, a coyote, two bunny rabbits and the bighorn sheep road sign.

Bighorn Sheep road sign

Bighorn Sheep road sign

Joshua Tree National Park is a popular location for an array of activities including hiking, rock climbing, painting, camping, photography and stargazing so it can be a very busy place. The roads are narrow and windy, and occasionally a tortoise will slowly make its way across the road, causing mild excitement and bad traffic congestion. Plus, it can be very hot, particularly in the summer, so it is advisable to take ample water.

There are three main entrances into the park: West Entrance Station, North Entrance Station and the Cottonwood Springs entrance. You cannot get out of paying an entrance fee. If you are not set up for camping, motel style accommodation can be found in the villages of Joshua Tree village and the wonderfully named Twentynine Palms. I stayed in the Safari Motor Inn Motel in Joshua Tree which reminded me so much of the motels I stayed in when my family traveled in the '60s. The community of Joshua Tree is a place where you can just chill out, cruise, eat juicy spareribs while downing a beer with men wearing checked lumber jackets. It is a step back into time with dreadlocked artists and musicians, massage therapists and magical mystery tour camper vans and buses easily sighted.

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I didn't have much time to delve into the nooks and crannies of the park, but in my wanderings, I did discover a few tidbits of interest about the park:

Legend has it that early Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert named the Joshua tree after the biblical figure of Joshua because they reckoned the branches resembled Joshua’s arms upraised to the heavens.

It was in the Mojave Desert that Elizabeth Warder Crozer, a desert archaeologist, recognized and studied the relationships between prehistoric humans (the Pinto people) and their changing physical environment which was treated as breakthrough advances in North American archelogy.

A modern day cremation occurred in the park at Cap Rock in 1973 when Gram Parsons, a country rock star and former member of the band the Byrds died of a drug overdose. His body was taken into the park by a friend in a hearse where the coffin was torched. People with a morbid sense of curiosity still go and visit the site despite there being nothing left.

Posted by IvaS 20:10 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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