Two separate desert ecosystems meet in Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park, creating one of the most fascinating places on the planet.
If you haven’t yet made it to Joshua Tree, surely you’ve heard of it. This breathtaking desert park feels like a trip to another planet, but is very much of this Earth. A remarkable mix of plants and animals call these lands home, and they have their fair share of obstacles, to be sure.
From scorching desert temperatures to the occasional torrential rain and even snow, the elements have carved out one hell of a landscape; one that makes for a top-tier U.S. National Park experience. And get ready to explore Joshua Tree for yourself, because we’re breaking down the top things to know about this breathtaking park ahead of your excursion below.
10. Joshua Tree’s Trees Aren’t Really Trees
Say that three times fast. Despite being named as such, the famous “trees” of Joshua Tree National Park aren’t actually trees at all. Instead, these remarkable plants are a species of yucca. Related to flowering grasses and orchids, the slow-growing desert beauties can live up to 150 years and only put on a few inches every year.
But they do a whole lot more than just look cool. Joshua trees store moisture in their roots even during the driest of desert times, providing water for small prey animals like squirrels, who then become a meal for predators like coyotes, foxes, and birds of prey.
This has earned Joshua trees the moniker of “great canteen of the desert,” and their status as the first plant to gain protection under California’s Endangered Species Act – which is historically reserved for animals.
9. A Flower-Filled Desert?
Joshua trees are far from alone out in this desert, too. We typically don’t think of flourishing greenery when deserts are brought up, but Joshua Tree National Park is home to over 750 plant species. In fact, over 10% of California’s plant species can be found in the park.
Many of these plants are also blooming wildflowers, which paint the desert with color during certain times of the year. Spring is especially beautiful in Joshua Tree (above).
As always, be sure to Leave No Trace when exploring Joshua Tree National Park. Never step on, pick, or disturb local flora, as each is vital to this fragile desert ecosystem (and many species are threatened with extinction due to human activity).
8. Joshua Tree National Park Boasts over 8,000 Routes for Climbers
Are you a climber, curious about climbing & scrambling, or looking to get into the game? Joshua Tree should absolutely be on your radar, if so.
The California park is a hotspot for climbers and scramblers, and attracts enthusiasts and pros from all around the globe. Climbers are embraced in Joshua Tree, too, as the park boasts around 8,000 climbing routes. So whether your sport is climbing, highlining, bouldering, or scrambling, place a pin on Joshua Tree.
But again, practicing Leave No Trace is imperative when recreating in Joshua Tree. If your method of climbing will leave any sort of lasting mark on any part of the park, it’s best to find a different method.
7. From Blistering Heat to Desert Snow
Yes, it snows in Joshua Tree National Park! But who expects a land dominated by the meeting of two harsh desert ecosystems to conjure snow? Amazingly, the park gets at least a dusting yearly.
And a truly impressive example of desert snowfall came in February 2021 (above), when the heaviest winter precipitation of over a decade slammed the park, shocking visitors. Everything from the geological peaks to the dry valley floors were coated in snow, providing ample, much-needed moisture for the landscape as it melted.
And melt it did, and fast. Joshua Tree is typically known for being hot as hell, with summer temperatures averaging at 100° F. Deserts are tricky, though, which is why snow is a reality in Joshua Tree. The dryness of deserts allow for some frigid nighttime temperatures, and Joshua Tree often drops below zero in the winter after dark.
6. Joshua Tree Hiking Rocks, And Spans Two Distinct Deserts
Joshua Tree is also a phenomenal place to hike. With hundreds of miles of maintained trails, and dozens of marked excursions, you’ll find some of the best desert trekking on the planet here.
But there is rarely (if ever) shade, and a hike in Joshua Tree requires thoughtful preparation. Here is “the land where two deserts meet,” and boy, does the sun and weather live up to that moniker.
Joshua Tree National Park houses the joining point of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert. Both differ wildly in most aspects (from plants and geology to elevation and appearance). But here, they join to create one of the most striking landscapes on Earth.
When visiting, take note of the sloping, gentle nature of the eastern side of Joshua Tree. This is the Colorado Desert. The higher, stark and sandy geology of the western park is the Mojave Desert.
5. A Silver-Tier International Dark Sky Park
Want to see our very own galaxy with the naked eye? Joshua Tree’s remote location, elevation, and unusual isolation all factor into the night sky’s brilliance here. Light pollution is drastically reduced within the national park, allowing the night to shine as it once did for our ancestors; long before the onset of electricity or industry.
In fact, Joshua Tree National Park is a Silver-Tier Dark Sky park, and offers some of the absolute best viewings of the night sky in all of California. Per the park , “Joshua Tree National Park is proud to have recently been designated as an International Dark Sky Park at the Silver Tier level by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The park strives to be a refuge for those who want to experience a naturally dark night sky.”
To experience Dark Sky watching at its best in Joshua Tree, aim for clear nights without the brightness of a full, or near-full moon. And sticking around late late allows for our light-sensitive eyes to adjust to a night sky unlike any other.
4. Joshua Tree’s Indigenous Legacy
As with the majority of American landscapes, Joshua Tree boasts a fascinating and enduring Indigenous legacy. Humans have inhabited this area for at least 8,000 years. We may never know what they called themselves, but we do know who followed in their footsteps.
The Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla Indigenous peoples all call Joshua Tree National Park home. And it was the Cahuilla people who gave the Joshua Tree its original names: hunuvat chiy’a or humwichawa.
Both names are still used by elders fluent in their native language to this day. Much of the park’s parallel Indigenous history can be seen in the form of rock-carved petroglyphs and painted pictographs today, as well. Keep an eye out for them as you explore the park, and be sure to respect this native land as the Indigenous Peoples who still call it home are very much a part of the present.
3. How Joshua Trees Got Their Name – And the National Park by Result
Joshua Tree National Park has quite the biblical-sounding name. And fittingly, it comes from a very bible-oriented folk.
Local history and legend holds that 19th century Mormon immigrants to America made their way across the Colorado River only to find a harsh landscape of unbelievably odd trees. They named these “bizarre” trees after the biblical figure, Joshua, because their outstretched, supplicating limbs seemed to guide them on westward – much like Joshua of the Christian Bible.
In turn, Joshua Tree National Park takes its name directly from the Joshua tree. These outlandish plants famously dot the landscape of the park and, as you can see above, make for spectacular photo-ops.
2. History Perseveres in Joshua Tree
One of the best places to see more modern history in Joshua Tree National Park is the hike to Keys Ranch (above). This National Historic Register site was once home to the Keys family, Anglo-American settlers who built Desert Queen Mine alongside a stamp mill, schoolhouse, store, and workshop.
The majority of their venerable village stands to this day, making for a fascinating journey back through time. We highly recommend a ranger-led tour if you’re a history enthusiast.
Alongside, Lost Horse Mine is another fascinating pioneer ruin. A 4-mile hike leads to the historic mine; a once-prominent gold operation that produced millions of dollars worth of the precious metal.
1. The Creation of Joshua Tree National Park
After all this incredible history, we all owe the creation of Joshua Tree National Park to a single person, Minerva Hoyt.
Hoyt was a passionate gardener, one who would become one of the most prominent conservationists of her time. Firstly, she would for them International Deserts Conservation League in 1930 alongside the president of Mexico. Together, they would establish a cactus reserve in Tehuacan. After joining the California state commission, she would begin campaigning for state parks and federally-protected lands.
Hoyt would soon work with both President Hoover and (later) President Roosevelt; the fruit of her labor materializing into Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. Today, we know it as Joshua Tree National Park.
For more on the park ahead of your excursion, be sure to see our Joshua Tree National Park: Gorgeous Photos and Captivating Background next.