(Editor's Note: This article was published on March 19, 2010. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Joshua Tree National Park is a wonderful place to visit for those who like plants. Here one can see flora of the Mojave Desert and Colorado* Deserts, plus a touch of pinon-juniper woodland and some palm oases. Think of bright sunshine, endless wind, and wondrously empty spaces. Add to that some otherworldly scenery provided by the joshua trees and dramatic rock formations. There is also the romance of history, from Native American petroglyphs to an unofficial monument to Gram Parsons. There is something interesting at every turn.
The joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is the signature plant of the Mojave Desert. This giant yucca is very impressive, but sometimes it is the little wildflowers that steal the show. When the winter rains have come at the correct time and in the correct quantity, the ground is carpeted with floral color. There is a rainbow display from yellow desert dandelions (Malacothrix glabrata), pink sand verbena (Abronia villosa), blue desert bells (Phacelia campanularia), white Mojave Desert stars (Monoptilon bellioides), and many others. Among the many perennials and shrubs vying for your attention, you may see yellow encelia (Encelia farinosa), red chuparosa (Justicia californica), or blue indigo bush (Psorothamnus species). The elevation varies by almost 5,000 feet from the lowest to highest sections of the park and that allows for an extended wildflower season. Blooming starts at the low, southern end of the park and works its way north to the higher regions of the park.
Not every year is a good wildflower year. The annuals in particular are very dependent on the timing and quantity of rainfall. Rainfall is very unpredictable and undependable in the desert, and maybe one year in five has a good wildflower showing. However, the cacti and large succulents are less dependent on rainfall, and unless the year has been especially dry, one is still likely to see blooms of joshua tree, Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera), beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris), claret cup (Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mohavensis), California barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus), and others.
If you cannot come during wildflower season, there are still many other interesting things to see. The sculptural shapes of joshua trees, ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens), and teddy bear chollas** (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) are always present. The park contains several native California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) oases. Notice the different flora between the northern, Mojave Desert section of the park and the southern, Colorado Desert section of the park.
There are numerous historic sites, mainly from the mining and ranching era. Trails lead to old mines like the Desert Queen Mine and Lost Horse Mine. A small amount of mining equipment is still on site, though the mine entrances are gated for safety. Several "tanks"*** remain from ranching days and you will realize how incredibly important these must have been. The most complete historic site is the Desert Queen Ranch, the home of Bill Keys and his family. The ranch contains several buildings and many artifacts of daily life. The site is open for guided tours only. See one of the park visitor centers for times and other information.
If the rock formations seen in some of these pictures look vaguely familiar, there is a good chance that you have seen ones like them before. They have been used many times as the backdrop in movies and television commercials. These quartz monzonite formations are world-famous with rock climbers. They have been eroded into an endless variety of shapes that have led to names like Skull Rock, Cap Rock, and Arch Rock. Throughout the park, numerous roadside displays interpret the geology of the park. If you would like more geology, take the Geology Tour Road, a dirt road that is passable by two-wheel-drive cars in dry weather.
If you go:
- This is a bit of a more primitive experience than at some of the older national parks. There is no food available at the park and no water available inside the park, just at the visitor centers. The nearby towns can supply your needs. I recommend bringing something along to drink and eat while in the park. You will want to stay there all day and you will want to stay hydrated.
- There are flush toilets at the visitor centers and the outhouse type inside the park itself. You can find them at picnic areas and campgrounds.
- Some camp sites can be reserved and some are first-come, first-served. Campgrounds fill at holiday times and on weekends during peak seasons. Lodging is also available in nearby towns.
- Use sunscreen. The sun is strong.
- The park is home to biting and stinging animals like rattlesnakes, scorpions, and spiders. There is no need to go around in fear, but watch where you put your hands and feet.
- Be aware of the weather and climate. It can go below freezing in the winter at the higher elevations and it snows occasionally, though it doesn't last. Summer is very hot, even at the higher elevations. The temperature is the most pleasant in spring and fall, and those are also the highest visitation times.
- Remember that this is a national park and everything is protected, even stones.
- Stop at a visitor center for educational displays, books and maps, postcards, educational souvenirs, and information on ranger or volunteer-led hikes, wildflower areas, closed roads or sites, and campfire programs.
- Thoroughly look over the park website before you go. Plan your trip, but be flexible. After you get to the park, you might learn of something else that you'd like to see.
Joshua Tree National Park provides a interesting and fun desert experience. Whether you go for the wildflowers, rock climbing, birdwatching, camping, hiking, or something else, you will enjoy the variety and unique scenery.
* The Colorado Desert is considered by some to be part of of the Sonoran Desert, though the California Sonoran contains different flora from the Arizona Sonoran. It is named after the Colorado River.
** Cholla is a Spanish word and the double l is pronounced like a y, choy-ah.
*** A tank (or tanque) is a depression in a rock or formation that reliably holds water. They may be amended with dams and walls in order to hold more water.