Known for its craggy rock formations, vast desert landscape, and its namesake Joshua trees, Joshua Tree National Park is a federally protected area in the southern part of the US state of California. The park contains 30 named mountains, the highest and most prominent of which is Quail Mountain (5,817ft/1,773m).
Joshua Tree National Park contains 1,235.4 square miles (3,199.6 sq. km) of land, which makes it slightly bigger than the state of Rhode Island. It is located within both Riverside and San Bernadino Counties near the town of Twenty Nine Palms and the cities of Palm Springs and San Bernadino.
Joshua Tree National Park is located in an area with a significant amount of public land. It is just west of the San Gorgonio Wilderness and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. It is situated to the north of the Santa Rosa Wilderness, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Chuckwalla Mountains Wilderness Area.
Palen-McCoy Wilderness Area forms the park’s eastern border. Meanwhile, the Sheephole Valley Wilderness Area, Bighorn Mountain Wilderness, and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base are located just north of Joshua Tree. Mojave National Preserve is also within driving distance of the park and is a good secondary destination for keen hikers in the area.
Joshua Tree National Park is a geologist’s paradise. The mountains within the park are part of the greater California Ranges. The California Ranges extend throughout the southern and central parts of the state, along its western edge and parallel to the Sierra Nevada.
Geologically, the oldest rocks in the park date back about 1.7 billion years. However, most geologists believe that the park’s current landscape was created around 100 million years ago as magma cooled just below the surface of the Earth’s crust, creating large plutonic intrusions of monzogranite.
Eventually, the monzogranite formed a wide network of rectangular joints that were then layered with gneiss and then fractured into the shapes we see today. Over millenia, these rectangular joints eroded away to create the rounded structures found all other the park. Millenia of flash floods then eroded away the bedrock, leaving these huge boulders piled up on top of each other and sculpting out some truly fantastic geologic features, which make for great climbing and sightseeing today.
Joshua Tree National Park has a hot desert climate (BWh in the Köppen climate system), with average high temperatures in the summer months generally exceeding 90ºF (32ºC) and a highest-ever recorded temperature of 118ºF (47.8ºC). Additionally, the park receives very little precipitation, with an average annual rain total of just 5.45in (138mm).
This harsh climate, in addition to the region’s varying elevation, created two distinct ecosystems within Joshua Tree National Park.
At the lowest elevations in the park below 3,000 feet (910m), the region is dominated by the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert. The majority of this ecoregion is located in the eastern edge of Joshua Tree and is known for its collection of ocotillo, desert saltbrush, cholla cactus, yucca, and creosote bush scrub. There are even some patches of cacti that are naturally dense enough to look like natural succulent gardens in the middle of an otherwise sandy landscape.
Additionally, at these lower elevations, visitors can see the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), which is the only naturally occurring palm tree in the state. These palms occur naturally within the park’s five oases, which are very rare areas with year-round water that can sustain fertile soiled and an abundance of wildlife.
Above 3,000 feet (910m), the park is dominated by the ecosystems of the Mojave Desert, which are slightly cooler than those found in the Colorado Desert. Here, the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) occurs in both dense forests and in interspersed individuals around the desert landscape.
Although Joshua trees are the dominant species in this area, there are also piñon pine, desert scrub oak, Muller’s oak, Tucker’s oak, and California juniper. However, fairly extensive cattle grazing in the region removed much of the natural scrub that once covered the landscape.
Afterward, invasive species moved in, and have started to dominate the area. When these invasive species such as cheatgrass die, they help fuel massive wildfires that now burn hotter and for longer than those that occurred before their arrival.
Despite its aridity, though, Joshua Tree National Park is home to a surprising array of wildlife. There are actually more than 250 species of birds that either nest in or migrate through the park. These birds include the Gambel’s quail, golden eagles, greater roadrunner, northern mockingbird, and the cactus wren. The park’s oases are particularly good places to spot birds if you’re an amateur ornithologist.
Other wildlife in the park includes lizards and ground squirrels, which are the most common sightings in the region. Joshua Tree is also home to the desert tortoise, a threatened species that is well-adapted to the desert and rarely drinks water because it gets most of its hydration from the plants it eats.
There are also plenty of snakes, kangaroo rats, jackrabbits, coyotes, lynxes, and bighorn sheep that roam the park. Bobcats are an apex predator within the region, but you’re lucky if you’re able to spot one.
Interestingly, there are also a few amphibians within this desert landscape, including the red-spotted toad (Bufo punctatus) and the California tree frog (Pseudacris cadaverina). While the toad spends much of its life underground, it does come to the surface, especially after it rains. The frog, on the other hand, is most likely found around the permanent water sources in the Pinto Fault area in the northern section of the park.
People of the Pinto culture are the earliest known inhabitants of the region that would later become Joshua Tree National Park, having lived in the area between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago. Based on archaeological evidence, they likely hunted game and gathered the some of the region’s seasonal plans, but there is little else known about them beyond the stone tools and spear points that were discovered in the 1930s.
More recent inhabitants of the region include the Cahuilla, Serrano, Mojave, and the Chemehuevi people, among countless others. Descendants of the Chemhuevi are part of the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians of California and now own a small reservation near Joshua Tree National Park.
The first Europeans to visit the region and encounter the Joshua trees were led by Pedro Fages, a Spanish soldier and later the first Lieutenant Governor of Spanish California, in 1772. They came to the region in search of native people who had run away from a mission in San Diego that they had been forced to relocate to.
One hundred years later, more white settlers, who arrived after Mexico ceded California to the United States following the Mexican-American War, started to extensively graze cattle in the region. This grazing took place around the park and led to the construction of various wells and rainwater catchment tanks, which supported a cattle industry in the region until 1945.
Additionally, between the 1860s and 1940s, there were about 300 pit mines in the park, the most successful of which was the Lost Horse Mine. This mine produced about $5 million (current currency equivalent) of both gold and silver during its time in production. The nearby Desert Queen Mine also produced a substantial amount of gold, while others in the park produced iron, zinc, and copper.
By the 1930s, though, protecting the region was a focal point for a number of local activists. Minerva Hoyt, in particular, was instrumental in persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936 using his powers under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Mount Minerva Hoyt was later named in her honor for the work that she did in protecting the park.
However, in 1950, the monument was reduced in size to provide more opportunities for local mining interests. In 1994, conservationists finally got what they wanted when Joshua Tree was expanded and then designated as a national park under the Desert Protection Act. The park was expanded once again in the 2019 John D. Dingell J. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.
These days, the park is a very popular destination for outdoor recreationists. Joshua Tree has nine established campgrounds, two of which have year-round running water. There are also plenty of hiking trails and backcountry campsites for people that want to venture further from the road.
Additionally, the park is a world-renowned climbing location, having originally been used as a winter training ground for bigger objectives in Yosemite National Park. Some of the most popular climbing areas include Chimney Rock, Locomotion Rock, Jumbo Rocks, Turtle Rock, and Cap Rock.
Finally, Joshua Tree National Park is a great destination for amateur astronomy and star observations because of its dark, light-pollution free skies. In the westernmost parts of the park, visitors can see the Andromeda Galaxy as well as the Galactic Center of the Milky Way.
Joshua Tree National Park is a great destination for hikers of all ability levels. Here are some of the most popular trails in the park:
The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a short, but beautiful stroll that’s perhaps one of the most visited sections of the park. It starts at the Hidden Valley Picnic Area near Park Boulevard and takes hikers on a 1 mile (1.6km) loop through stunning rock formations and great habitat for spotting local wildlife.
The Boy Scout Trail is one of the longest established trails in the park and can be done as either a point-to-point or out-and-back hike. This trail covers 7.8 miles (12.6km) one-way as it connects Indian Cove to Park Boulevard. However, it’s recommended that thru-hikers start at Park Boulevard as this provides a mostly flat and downhill walking experience.
The Boy Scout Trail is a great way to see large stands of Joshua trees as well as some of the park’s most iconic rock formations. It also offers great views of the surrounding desert landscape for more adventurous hikers.
This 7.3 mile (11.7km) trail takes hikers to the Lost Palms Oasis from its trailhead at Cottonwood Oasis Road. It’s a great hike for anyone looking to experience two of the park’s five oases and their unique flora and fauna. However, it is quite long and exposed to the sun, so if you want a shorter hike, the trail to Fortynine Palms Oasis is a good alternative.
The trail to the summit of Ryan Mountain starts off on Park Boulevard and is a good option for people that want fantastic views of the park itself. Although there aren’t many Joshua Trees on this hike, it does provide a good workout and great views. For a more casual hiking option with plenty of Joshua trees, the nearby Ryan Ranch Trail is a solid choice.
The Warren Peak Trail starts in the Black Rock Canyon section of the park and can be hiked in combination with the Panorama Loop if you want more of an adventure. This trail takes visitors to a high point in the western part of the park and features lots of Joshua trees and panoramic views.
Here are some of the best places to stay before or after your visit to Joshua Tree National Park:
Twentynine Palms, California is located just to the north of Joshua Tree National Park and is the best place to stay if you’re looking for a campground or hotel outside the park’s boundaries. The city has a population of over 25,000 people and is accessible by State Route 62, which connects the city and the park to I-10.
San Bernadino is just over an hour by car from Joshua Tree National Park and is the largest city in the immediate vicinity of the park with a population of over 215,000 people. It is home to multiple colleges and universities and is easy to get to by road or train from other parts of California.
Los Angeles is a two and a half hour drive (without traffic) to the west of Joshua Tree. It is the largest city in California with a population of almost 4 million people and has everything you need to start your trip into the national park. The city offers excellent transportation links by road, air, or train all around the country and the state.
San Diego is located a three-hour drive to the south of Joshua Tree National Park near the US’ border with Mexico. It is home to over 1.3 million people and is a cultural and financial center of the region.
San Diego is well connected by road as it is located along I-5 and I-15. The city also has a major international airport and good train connections around the state.
When most people plan their trip to California, they don’t think about Las Vegas. However, Vegas is just a three-hour drive north of Joshua Tree National Park and is a good place to start if you also want to visit Mojave National Preserve or Death Valley National Park.
Las Vegas has a population of over 640,000 people and is home to a major international airport with great flight connections around the world. It also has a plethora of restaurants and hotels to choose from for the beginning and end of your trip.