ISSUE 70  |  Spring Fling

Joshua Tree National Park: Not Your Mother’s Arboretum

May 03, 2013 1:00 PM

BY Jeanne Rostaing

We spotted them first from the car as we drove into Joshua Tree National Park, the unique plants for which the park is named. They looked like giants got up in green rumba shirts frozen in some strange picturesque dance move. 

Of course the Mormon pioneers who arrived here in the Mohave Desert in the mid 1800s weren’t thinking about Latin dancers. Legend has it, they were reminded instead of the Biblical leader Joshua.  The contorted tree branches were evocative to them of his uplifted arms guiding them on their journey.  They allegedly gave the Joshua tree its unusual name.

Photographs by Jeanne Rostaing.

 

There are many reasons to go to the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California where you can hike, backpack, climb, and camp in a unique desert environment. The landscape abounds in fascinating rock formations and stunning vistas. But the Joshua trees provide such a bizarre and unusual feature that it is worth going there simply to see them.

These shaggy twisted behemoths (Above) are tree-like members of the Agave family and are related to grasses and orchids.  If you are very very lucky, like we were in March, you can arrive at the park in spring and see the trees in bloom. Conditions have to be perfect with spring rain following a winter freeze.  Scientists believe the cold damages the growing end of the trees’ branches and causes a flower to develop.

 

We spent our time in Joshua Tree hiking some of the many trails: Hidden Valley,  Skull Rock, and Wonderland of Rocks which goes to the ruins of the Wall Street Mill where ore from local gold mines was processed. 

Not only does the park hold a wealth of natural wonders, it also has the sun bleached remains left behind by Indians, homesteaders, cattle ranchers, and miners. 

 

All of these early residents benefited from the Joshua tree. Indians wove baskets and sandals from its leaves and ate the flower buds and seeds.  Ranchers made fences from the branches and trunks, and miners burned the trees to power steam engines used for processing ore.  For generations, the isolated desert land that is now Joshua Tree National Park provided wide open spaces for all sorts of loners and dreamers.

 

In the 1920s newly constructed roads in the area brought land developers and cactus poachers.  A former Southern belle who lived in Pasadena, Minerva Hoyt, became alarmed at the pillaging of the desert plant life.  She was instrumental in the creation of  the Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.  Following the passage of the Desert Protection Bill in 1994, Joshua Tree was elevated to National Park status in October of that year.

 

Today the National Park Service maintains the park and provides extensive information and services to visitors.  It is no small job to care for a preserve of nearly 800,000 acres which encompasses two deserts: the Mojave and the Colorado.  The park is home to an estimated 813 plant species, 40 different reptiles, and 240 species of birds. 

Sadly, although cactus poaching is now illegal, enemies of natural beauty still exist.  Recently rangers have had to close parts of the park because of vandalism; some of the giant boulders have been defaced with graffiti. It seems that the protection of the earth’s treasures is an ongoing task for each new generation.

 

The Joshua Tree National Park website has a wealth of information for planning a visit. The Park is located 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 35 miles east of Palm Springs.

Here is a map of the Hidden Valley trail. Map via National Park Service

 Looking for a good hike to take (or to enjoy vicariously)? See more of our favorite Hikes of the Week.