Welcome to the land “where Two Deserts Meet”… There’s nowhere else like Joshua Tree National Park on the planet, and these incredible photos – alongside the history of this incredible park – prove it.
The truly phenomenal U.S. National Parks system houses some of the most spectacular landscapes humankind has ever known. Chief among them, for many Southern Californians, is Joshua Tree National Park. This unbelievable, almost alien place is akin to a true holy land for many West Coasters. And after diving into some of the most phenomenal photos and history of the park – it’s easy to understand why.
Known as the land “where two deserts meet”, Joshua Tree National Park houses the joining point of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and Colorado deserts. As a result, a stunning array of plants and animals call the park’s lands home. Sculpted by erosion from strong winds and occasional deluges, Joshua Tree’s magnificent wilds are amplified by a rich cultural history that thrives to this day.
What’s in a Name: Joshua Tree
To cut right to the chase, Joshua Tree gets its biblical-sounding name from, well, some very bible-oriented folk!
Legend has it that 19th century Mormon immigrants to America made their way across the Colorado River – only to find a harsh landscape of unbelievably odd trees marking their path. These same Mormons are said to have named these bizarre trees after the biblical figure, Joshua, due to their outstretched, supplicating limbs that seemed to guide them on westward.
In turn, Joshua Tree National Park takes its name directly from the Joshua Tree itself. These outlandish plants famously dot the landscape of the park, and – as you can see above – make for absolutely spectacular photo-ops.
Scientifically classified as the Yucca brevifolia, the park’s namesake is a member of the Agave family. Fascinatingly, the Joshua Tree was actually believed to be a giant member of the Lily family. Recent DNA study, however, led to the massive Lily family being split into a whopping 40 distinct plant families. Thus, Joshua Tree is now officially classified as a Yucca of the Agave family.
According to the National Park Service, “The local Cahuilla people have long referred to the tree as “hunuvat chiy’a” or “humwichawa;” both names are used by a few elders fluent in the language.”
The Fascinating Desert Flora of Joshua Tree
Take a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, though, and you’ll soon notice that the Joshua Trees are far from the only unusual plants on display.
Above, an unrivaled park sunset is eclipsed by more of the park’s incredible flora. Here, we see the confusingly-named teddybear cholla highlighted by some spectacular photography. Classified as Cylindropuntia bigelovii, these non-cuddly, very-much-not-teddybears, are numerous within Joshua Tree’s gorgeous Cholla Cactus Garden. While lovely to look at in their large numbers, they are decidedly prickly – and very sharp.
In addition, other fascinating plants call Joshua Tree home. A close relative of the park’s namesake, the Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) can also be found intertwined with the park’s many cacti and trees. The two can be told apart by the Mojave’s longer, wider leaves and the fibrous threads that grow along them. Keep an eye out for the saguaro cactus, as well, as they grow alongside both tree types and are popular photo-ops for visitors.
Moreover, the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of the West Coast harvested all of Joshua Tree’s unique plants for their useful properties. Desert plants are hardy and strong, as they have to be to survive such harsh conditions year-round. As such, their tough leaves were worked into baskets, sandals, and thatched as everything from roofing to plates. The flower buds from cacti and yuccas alike were – and still are – eaten alongside the seeds they produce.
Joshua Tree Is a “Rain Shadow Desert”
What a shot. The photo above displays an incredible lightning storm behind one of the park’s iconic Joshua Trees. This tremendous sight is remarkable for more than its striking display, however.
Due to the nature of deserts, a storm like this can be incredibly rare in a place like Joshua Tree. “Some sources define a desert as an area receiving no more than ten inches of precipitation annually,” the NPS says of the park’s desert status. “However, many areas receiving this amount of precipitation are not deserts. This definition is not complete. Both the timing and type of precipitation determine the environment established.”
As such, the true nature of rain vs desert can be more accurately described as “unevenly distributed” throughout the year, rather than a harsh lack of. “Weather patterns often create short, violent downpours that produce flash floods,” NPS clarifies. Drastic weather, like this description, is what we see in the striking photo above.
All of this considered, the NPS defines a desert – like Joshua Tree – as a landscape featuring “seasonal, high temperatures; low, sporadic rainfall; a high rate of evaporation; wide temperature ranges; and strong winds are part of the definition.”
What Makes a “Rain Shadow Desert?”
Even more fascinating, though, is Joshua Tree National Park’s classification as a rain shadow desert.
“The rain shadow effect is produced by the high mountains on the west, which block the movement of wet winter storms,” NPS continues. “As coastal storms move in from the west they collide with Mount San Jacinto (10,804 ft.) and Mount San Gorgonio (11,502 ft.). The air rises, cools, and precipitation falls on the mountains. By the time the air moves over the mountains to the desert, there is little moisture [remaining].”
This rain shadow effect is, in turn, responsible for the majority of Joshua Tree’s annual precipitation. The park sees most of this rainfall during late August and September, when “occasional tropical storms” move through Southern California.
See Our Milky Way Galaxy from Joshua Tree
There she is: our very own Milky Way Galaxy as seen from Joshua Tree National Park here on Earth! For this far-out shot, the park’s team shares a photo from @dangallophotography on Instagram.
“I have a fascination for the night sky, and it brings me peace to be able to visit a dark sky location like Joshua Tree National Park, stare up at the night sky and see the Milky Way and so many stars with my own eyes,” the photographer says of this shot. “The digital camera, with its more sensitive sensor and ability totake long exposure images, captures the Milky Way in a lot more detail and color, as seen in this photo.”
So how does one get 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 – and Milky Way’s – visibility. In short, light pollution is drastically reduced within the national park, allowing the night sky to shine as it once did for our ancestors – long before the onset of electricity or industry.
Joshua Tree is a Silver Tier Dark Sky Park
In essence, Joshua Tree offers one of the absolute best viewings of the night sky in all of California. According to the park itself, “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 see such a sight with the naked eye, stargazing in Joshua Tree is most fruitful on clear nights without the brightness of a full, or near-full moon. Sticking around late into the apex of night allows for our light-sensitive eyes to adjust to a night sky unlike any other – one where the colors of the cosmos are discernible to our unaided eyes.
BONUS: Another Unrivaled Sunset
Just look at this photo. Remarkable! Hands down, Joshua Tree is one of the most photogenic places in America. This next, unbelievable sunset takes place over Joshua Tree’s many brilliant cacti, and was one of the park’s top five submissions from the Joshua Tree Photo Contest of 2020.
Photographer @ninamayerritchie describes this brilliant capture as follows:
“On this particular day, we had tired ourselves out with lots of hiking and sightseeing, and on a whim, decided to drive over to the Cholla Cactus Garden in the late afternoon to take a leisurely stroll. Boy, were we blown away,” they begin.
“The clouds seemed to be almost swirling in the sky, so we decided to stop where the cholla layers appeared especially dense, to see if the sun was going to peak out. Then suddenly, the rays came bursting through and the prickly chollas looked almost soft while backlit by this starburst. It was such an unexpected and incredible moment… and so peaceful. One that makes everything in the world seem so simple and beautiful.”
“I’ll never forget the way that scene made me feel… and thankfully, getting really lucky with this shot, I can relive that moment whenever I look at this image,” the photographer concludes.
Consider us thankful we can relive it alongside, as well.
And of course, a huge thanks to the brilliant Joshua Tree National Park staff for sharing such incredible photos with us. Their Instagram is worth a follow for any outdoor enthusiast. You’ll come for the photos -but you’ll stay for their witty captions.
Ready to Explore America’s National Parks?
- The unrivaled, rugged beauty of Grand Teton National Park is on full display in our Staggering Photos and History from the Wyoming Destination
- Check out our recent Best Photos and Facts of Oregon’s Breathtaking Crater Lake National Park.
- Similarly, we’ve gathered the most incredible photos & facts for Utah’s Legendary Bryce Canyon National Park.
- For our New England friends, thesegorgeous photos from Acadia National Park will have you visiting Maine.
- Or, if you’re looking for somewhere even more iconic, Yosemite National Park awaits.
- Carlsbad Canyon is calling for those looking for more incredible rock formations, as well.
For everything outdoors and the latest on our U.S. National Parks System, keep with us here at Outsider.com.