Only slightly more than 1000 miles away from my home here in Montana, lies a small National Park in the heart of the Mohave desert of southeastern California. Franklin Roosevelt designated this area (without needing Congressional approval) a National Monument back in 1936. Congress changed its status in 1994 to that of a National Park.
The Joshua Tree is a unique and unusual plant and although this park is named after it, do not expect to see an abundance of Joshua Trees here, especially in the eastern half of the park. I carefully researched, then charted out my brief 16 hour stay on this, my maiden voyage to Joshua Tree, and was rewarded for my efforts.
I entered the park from the Joshua Tree Visitors Center, NW entrance. This is a very small, understaffed facility with limited parking lot and long lines of eager tourists like me, wanting to question a ranger, or to buy a souvenir. Not worth the time so just proceed into the park, stopping at the West Entrance Station to pay, retrieve your map, and ask a question or two.
Immediately you’ll find wonderful rock piles of huge boulders of every size and shape. Picturesque vistas abound! I was there in February so the park had not yet greened up but the day was a perfect blue-bird sky with just under 80 degrees temperatures, wonderful for hiking.
One of the major attractions I was looking forward to was the walking tour of the Keys Ranch homestead. Nothing I read warned me to make a reservation in advance, so I was very disappointed to arrive at the gate finding it locked with signs warning me to stay away. It is rare to find cell phone service anywhere in the park, so I reluctantly turned around.
Hidden Valley was a great stop with an easy 1 mile loop trail of walking among the rock formations and desert flora and fauna. More than anything, I hoped to spot a desert tortoise but did not. A lovely picnic area too.
Transitioning from our below sea level elevation, we headed up to Keys View, at over 5000 feet, to overlook the valley, mountains, and desert below us. We could clearly see both the San Andreas fault and the Salton Sea. Cooler temperature, somewhat windy, and with lots of people jockeying for the viewpoint, we did not stay long but headed back down to the desert floor and wide-open spaces!
The roadway is curbed, with limited pull-outs. And the signs for various landmarks are typically only at the turnoff, giving no warning. (And no place to turn around and go back) My advice is to go slow and have a navigator with the map giving ample warning for upcoming attractions you’re wanting to see. I cannot imagine the chaos of being in this park on a crowded day. Seems like more than radiators would be boiling over.
I noticed a larger than normal Joshua Tree with a pull off across the roadway. It was only later, when viewing the photos, that the enormity of this tree was realized. There are no signs alerting passerby’s to this remarkable tree that is hundreds of years old. You see a Joshua Tree grows about 3″ per year for the first 10 years. The growth rate slows to half that for the remainder of its life, upwards of 1000 years. I think this tree was my most favorite thing to see in all of JTNP. And I hope you’re able to spot it too. I’d give you specific directions, but I don’t have any.
My second most favorite place in the park, was the Cholla Cactus Garden. Now, I did not have this on my “my do” list for the park, and only stopped here because it’d been a rather dull drive for 20 minutes or so, with nothing notable to see. (I mentioned to my companion that I pitied the people who entered from Cottonwood or Twentynine Palms visitors centers, going only on the north-south road. The most interesting and diverse sights in the park are on the road to the west of that north-south roadway. And if I had only driven that portion of the park, I would have been left wondering why anyone saw the importance of making this a park!
That being said, we arrived at the Cholla Cactus Gardens as the sun was slipping behind the western mountains. Although there were a lot of people out among the cacti, it was still a stunning sight to see. Erase from your thoughts any typical definition of “garden”. Mother Nature alone has planted and tended to this area, a wild-field of Cholla’s just barely starting the spring bloom. I think you’ll agree it was beautiful!
Once more, our road trip scenery became rather dull and monotonous as we continued south at the end of a perfect day of wandering. We stopped at the park exit, to see my first sight ever of a desert oasis. This area was closed off with an industrial strength chain-link fence (unable to find any angle for photographs that didn’t have the fence in it) to keep visitors out of the oasis. This wasn’t worth the stop. There are several other oasis in the area, like Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve, well worth a side-trip.
Overall, I truly loved Joshua Tree National Park and was so happy for our decision to include it in our travel plans. I can’t wait to go back again for a more extended stay, and will definitely make reservations to tour the Keyes ranch–a good reason to go back! I hope to camp in the park next time, to witness sunrise and sunset over the giant rock formations, and to take some of the longer hikes.
And next time, I’ll try to make my trip in March, even though the temperatures will be hotter, the blooms should be on the desert plants, adding frosting to the cake of this delightful place.