22 Jan Exploring the Magic of Joshua Tree National Park: What to See, Do and Know
Joshua Tree National Park is from another planet – wide open desert filled with bizarre trees, piles of boulders the size of mountains, gold-mining ruins and surprising oases, surrounded by craggy mountains in the distance. This amazing park summons travelers from all over the globe, particularly climbers who love the mild winters and abundant climbing opportunities. Joshua Tree is a fave of locals too, who frequent on weekends. It’s easy to see why. From crystal blue skies and breezes in the day to colorful sunsets that drift into endlessly black nights, filled with millions of stars.
We were impressed to say the least.
SoCal is an area we haven’t traveled in much, so we were excited to see Joshua Tree for ourselves. So often a place that people rave about can be underwhelming by the time you get there, but much like Tikal or Xilitla, the people were spot on. Joshua Tree is truly epic.
It wasn’t just the landscape, which obviously blew us away. But the energy of the people that flock there: kind, friendly and respectful of the land around them. We felt that we were in good company.
Meet the Joshua Tree Family: Ecoregions, Flora & Fauna
Joshua Tree is located about an hour east of LA, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. This ecological crossroads provides habitat for almost 500 species of fauna – hundreds of birds, as well as many mammals, reptiles, insects and even a couple of amphibians! Diurnal animals like the ground squirrel are the most commonly seen, but waking up at dawn or keeping an eye out around dusk may provide a special glimpse into the true abundance of animals that live there. Snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and black-tailed jackrabbits are a few of the species you may see.
The flora in this park is wildly impressive as well. Over 750 vascular plants grow in Joshua Tree, many of them annual wildflowers blooming in spring. Among these are incredible cacti, rare plants and, of course, Yucca Brevolia, the Seuss-like namesake of the park. Surprisingly, the desert even hosts bryophytes, such as lichen and mosses on its famous rock formations.
Joshua Tree National park is comprised of 800,000 acres of land, showing evidence of volcanic activity, plate tectonics, and erosion that left behind everything from sand dunes to granitic monoliths, dry lakes and riverbeds to life-providing oases. This variety nurtures the park’s intoxicating wild beauty.
Joshua Tree National Park: The Story
Ten thousand years ago, the land underwent a massive transformation. Rivers of glacial ice that covered the area melted, creating lakes, swamps and grasslands, an excellent habitat for prehistoric animals like the mammoth and mastodon.
Our earliest recorded evidence of human existence in Joshua Tree National Park comes from projectile points found in a dry riverbed in the Pinto Basin by archeologists, William and Elizabeth Campbell, in the 1930s, dated 4,000-8,000 years old.
Native Americans including the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla later inhabited the area, adapting to the dryer climate we know today. Despite this, the area which is now Joshua Tree was seen as a veritable “supermarket” due to the abundance of plant resources like, “acorns, mesquite pods, pinyon nuts, seeds, berries, and cactus.” They used “plants for making bows and arrows, cordage, baskets, mats, seed-beaters, and other articles as well as for medicines. They hunted bighorn sheep, deer, rabbits, birds, amphibians, and reptiles” (quotes from archaeologist Charlotte Hunter). All told, the land offers 121 plants used for medicine, food or building materials that have been identified thus far.
The energy of these early people lives on through their petroglyphs; we find ourselves dreaming of their days in this surreal paradise.
Later in the 1800s, the great push west moved cattlemen and their herds into this land; gold-diggers started their search in the area and finally homesteaders built homes, created farms and dug wells. In 1936 FDR named Joshua Tree a national monument, inspired by the work of Minerva Hoyt, Frances Keys and Elizabeth Campbell. Women, often overlooked in the history of westward expansion, were especially important in protecting the ecology and history of this beautiful place.
Things to Do: Hikes & Camping
We camped in Jumbo Rocks campground, which was out of this world. The massive piles of boulders shelter you from the wind and are fascinating to look at and fun climb on. That would definitely be our pick for camping in the park.
Our first hike was a small, 1.5 mile loop passing Barker Dam (which is outrageously gorgeous and definitely worth seeing). There are some boulders to play on, reeds in the water and petroglyphs beyond the dam.
The next day we hiked Lost Horse Loop, passing abandoned mining shafts, catching spectacular views of the valley below and getting a nice workout on the 6.7 mile trail. Check out this vid we made on the trail below!