The 800,000 acre park is a renowned mecca for rock climbers, back-country hikers, photographers, desert botanists

Joshua Tree National Park California

By —— Bio and Archives--December 23, 2009

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A welcome reprieve from the urban insanity of southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is a sprawling and remote high desert anomaly full of delightful surprises.


Named after the forests of bizarre and beautifully grotesque Joshua Trees, the 800,000 acre park is a renowned mecca for rock climbers, back-country hikers, photographers, desert botanists, and RV enthusiasts escaping the smog-choked, crime-infested Los Angeles basin for the weekend.

I was first introduced to Joshua Tree during an autumn windstorm that nearly blew our SUV off the paved road leading up to Keys View (5,185’) on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. I’m not exaggerating. We were caught in one of those infamous Santa Ana winds that periodically roar west over the high desert, through bone-dry brush and out to sea. It was a wind of such acute intensity, you couldn’t light a cigarette with a blow torch if your life depended on it.

Undaunted and determined to see what could be seen, I stepped out of our rig and battled my way to the top of Keys View overlooking the Coachella Valley. To my far left I could see the flat, shimmering and salty Salton Sea evaporating at 226 feet below sea level, and to my right, an undulating series of high mountain ridges that stretched to the western horizon.

I was stunned, speechless, flabbergasted, not because of the scenery which was average at best, but because I could actually see the mountains in the first place. On a bad day some of that far-flung L.A. smog covers the San Bernardino mountains like a thick blanket of soup that oozes into this beautiful park uninvited. The air, if you can call it that, looks like something I coughed up this morning.

imageFortunately, the fierce Santa Ana winds proved to be a blessing in disguise because it shoved all of that phlegm back into the L.A. basin where it belongs. And for one glorious week, and for every return visit over the years, we’ve been welcomed by deep blue, crystal-clear skies.


Nature packed an amazing amount of diversity into these 800,000 acres. Ranging in elevation from 900 to over 5,000 feet one will find no less than six rugged mountain ranges interspersed with broad flat valleys, sand dunes and palm oases.

There is so much plant diversity, over 813 species, they originally thought of calling it Desert Plants National Park back in the ‘30s. Depending on factors such as elevation you will find juniper, pinyon, willow, fan palms, blue palo verde and cottonwood trees. For shrubs you’ve got your Mormon tea, your creosote bushes, brittlebush, Mohave yucca and desert almond, to mention a few. And let’s not forget all the pretty wildflowers that explode in spring.

One of my favorite plants is the teddy-bear cholla which can be found in abundance right off the Pinto Basin road at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Standing 4 or 5 feet tall at maturity, the stems of the teddy bear are covered with a thick mass of extremely sharp spines, a yellowish silver-and-white in color. From a distance these desert darlings look soft and fuzzy. They’re so cute you just want to run over and give the little bears a great big hug. But don’t.

As for wildlife, 250 different kinds of birds flit about at one time or another, and if you’re fortunate you might catch a quick glimpse of some bighorn sheep that live in the park and number around 250. You might even see the dwindling desert tortoise which sadly is a delicacy for the ubiquitous raven. Oh, and there’s rattlesnakes, so watch your step. And scorpions. And tarantulas.


Of the park’s nine campgrounds, Hidden Valley is one of our favorite because it’s tucked away in a large cluster of towering monzogranite boulders. Giant sculpted monoliths, some reaching to a height of 200 feet or more, are scattered throughout Joshua Tree by the thousands offering endless fields of endless fun.

With a reputation as a world-class climbing destination, climbers and bouldering enthusiasts have been converging on the cracks, slabs and towering steep granite faces for years. It’s estimated there are over 400 climbing formations with names like Cyclops and Snickers, and over 8,000 climbing routes, some of them right there in the campground.

Better than HBO, just pull up a chair, crack a warm one and try and figure out why any sane person would lug all of those ropes and hardware up and down, up and down, all the day long. For someone like me who gets dizzy stepping off the curb it can be a tad nauseating, but entertaining, watching the young and dumb claw their way up a sheer cliff by the fingernails and then lose their grip and fall, screaming “Awesome, Dude!”


Imagining myself a hobbit, I prefer to wander around these stone giants, meander through cracks and narrow slit canyons, exploring hidden passageways and silent caves with digital camera in hand clicking and snapping for hours on end.

But if photography is not your thing, there are plenty of other activities to keep you occupied. Back-country roads are open to mountain bikes and 4x4 vehicles. You can hike to your heart’s content, even camp in the backcountry, or ride a horse, or take the popular Keys Ranch tour. For the cerebral, the park’s rangers offer a series of programs, some around the campfire. And after the sun goes down why not gaze up at the broad white strokes of the Milky Way and contemplate your relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

If you’re still bored, try your hand at yoga, or as we call it back home, stretchin’. That’s right, yoga. I thought Martians had landed the first time I saw a half-dozen skinny men in tights on top of a 100 foot tall boulder lined up in perfect formation going through their synchronized moves, reaching, twisting, bending and contorting in shapes that should be outlawed. No doubt chanting some mystic yoga tune, they rolled their organic bellies around and around. And around.

I’m not sure what was stranger, those funky-looking, twisted-up Joshua Trees you can’t help but love, or those funky-looking, twisted-up belly-rollers. But hey, it’s California! What do you expect?



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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