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Desert geography at Joshua Tree National Park

During our visit to the Palm Springs area, we enjoyed exploring Joshua Tree National Park, best renowned for the tree of the same name. The Park is located about an hour’s drive north of Palm Springs in the Mojave and Colorado deserts and covers over 750,000 acres of protected land.

Joshua Tree National Park

We first espied the grotesquely misshapen limbs of the Joshua tree about 3,000 ft. above the valley floor. The tree’s branches, which balloon at the end into spiky protrusions about the size of a human head, seem to belong more fittingly in the landscape of some long-forgotten childhood dream. The Joshua tree has been described as “stiff and ungraceful … the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom”. Never before had we seen a tree that presented such a nightmarish effect. Its distorted arms reach heavenward … perhaps entreating one to find a hidden beauty in its strange appearance.

Joshua Tree National Park

After a short discussion with the staff at the western entrance to the Park in the village of Joshua Tree, we decided to join a ranger-led hike. The schedule of these hikes is posted in the each of the three main entrances to the Park. However, before entering the Park (which has no services), we received an authoritative warning to carry at least one gallon of water per person at all times … situations in this wild and untamed land change quickly and dramatically.

We met Andrew, our ranger, at the trailhead to the Forty Nine Palms Oasis. He explained that our hike to the oasis, one of five within the Park boundaries, was akin to a main highway leading from the solitude of the rural countryside to the commotion of a bustling city. Joshua Tree National ParkAlong the way, Andrew regaled us with many stories of how the various plants and animals have adapted to the dry desert environment, described how the early Indians used some of these plants and educated us about the life cycle of the Joshua trees and its importance to the desert ecosystem. As we crested the ridge, we spotted over 50 native fan palms towering skyward which signaled the final destination of our hike. On our descent into the “suburbs” and the closer we came to the source of water at the oasis, the more activity there was around us as numerous animal tracks or “minor roads” joined the main trail. Also, the more lush and vibrant the vegetation became. The oasis itself, with its clear pools of water, was a hive of activity and is an important life source and home for many species of flora and fauna. En route, Andrew pointed out a variety of small holes, doorways to the homes of tarantulas, desert and kangaroo rats, lizards and several varieties of venomous snakes. He also taught us to keep our eyes open: to search the ground below our feet for footprints of the coyote and bobcat and to distinguish between their differing gaits; and to scan the skies above for sightings of golden eagles, hawks, ravens, hummingbirds and other migratory birds.

We also enjoyed strolling along several other interesting interpretative trails throughout Park. Informative signs along the trails gave brief explanations about the Park’s rocky outcroppings as well as a short history of the geologic evolution of these ancient rocks. We were much impressed by Skull Rock. This immense granite boulder is so named because of its huge eye sockets. These deep hollows were carved by the erosive powers of nature’s elements and now peer sightlessly across the valley.

Joshua Tree National Park

Despite an average rainfall of less than four inches per year, the number of plants that have found a way to survive is most impressive. Cottonwoods, pinyon pines, juniper trees, jojoba and creosote bushes, senna, desert lavender and brittlebush as well as a number of cacti flourish in the Park. We were lucky enough to see the towering lacy white flowers of the nolina cactus, which only blooms in occasional years.

We must thank Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a wealthy California matron, who was nicknamed “Apostle of the Cacti”, for her foresight and dedicated efforts in establishing the Park in the 1930s. Her hard work ensured the preservation of a wide variety of animal and plant life, including the illusive bighorn sheep, the endangered desert tortoise and the unique Joshua tree. Our hikes throughout the Park enabled us to discover that the Mojave and Colorado deserts, which at first seemed stark and uninteresting, in fact displayed an amazing diversity of desert geography.

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