Joshua Tree National Park


The desert seems to stretch on almost forever, the mountains bare, the riverbeds dried up. As you follow the road winding up, up, up, you enter almost a new world. Huge rocks rise out of the ground like giant fists. Shrubs cover the dry ground. The sky seems to be ten times bigger. Lizards scuttle through the cracks in the rocks. And Joshua Trees reach up into the sky like open arms.

Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park.

The Land of Rocks.

The Land of Rocks.

Joshua Tree is a wonderland of creatures, plants, and rocks. It is a place where nature shows that it can survive in even the harshest of climates. Reaching an average high air temperature of 100°F, ground temperatures reaching a scalding 180°F in the summer, and less than an inch of rain, Joshua Tree National Park can be a tough place.

But it doesn’t deter anyone, though. The average annual visitation for Joshua Tree National Park is 2.8 million people.

Always exploring, on and off trail!

Always exploring, on and off trail!

Straddling both the Mojave and the Colorado Deserts, the park hosts a variety of plants and animals, some of which cannot be found anywhere else. 

The Colorado, the western reach of the vast Sonoran Desert, thrives below 3,000 feet on the park’s gently sloped eastern flank, where temperatures are usually higher. Considered a “low desert”, the Colorado section of the park seems sparse and desolate. It begins at the midsection of the park, sweeping east across empty basins filled with creosote bushes and occasionally with “gardens of flowering ocotillo and cholla cactus, and continues running east across Pinto Basin into a parched and barren wilderness of broken rock in the Eagle and Coxcomb mountains.

The Mojave starts at elevations above 3,000 feet and it covers the much higher, and generally wetter, western half of the park, where Joshua Trees thrive in between tall granite monoliths and rock piles. The Mojave side of the park is also cooler than the east side, on average about 11 degrees cooler than the Colorado Desert. In winter, snow may fall on the Mojave’s highest elevations. 

The dry desert landscape of Joshua Tree is full of surprises.

The dry desert landscape of Joshua Tree is full of surprises.

The face of the park’s modern landscape started around 100 million years ago molten liquid, heated by the continuous movement of the Earth’s crust, oozed upward and cooled while still below the surface. The rocks are called monzogranite. The monzogranite developed a system of rectangular joints. One set, oriented roughly horizontally, resulted from the removal—by erosion—of the miles of overlying rock, called gneiss (pronounced “nice”). Another set of joints is oriented vertically, roughly paralleling the contact of the monzogranite with its surrounding rocks. The third set is also vertical but cuts the second set at high angles. The resulting system of joints tended to develop rectangular blocks. Good examples of the joint system may be seen at Jumbo Rocks, Wonderland of Rocks, and Split Rock. 

As ground water percolated down through the monzogranite’s joint fractures, it began to transform some hard mineral grains along its path into soft clay, while it loosened and freed grains resistant to solution. Rectangular stones slowly weathered to spheres of hard rock surrounded by soft clay containing loose mineral grains. 

    Imagine holding an ice cube under the faucet. The cube rounds away at the corners first, because that is the part most exposed to the force of the water. A similar thing happened here but over millions of years, on a grand scale, and during a much wetter climate. 

    After the arrival of the arid climate of recent times, flash floods began washing away the protective ground surface. As they were exposed, the huge eroded boulders settled one on top of another, creating those impressive rock piles we see today.

Skull Rock, on of many unique rock formations in Joshua Tree

Skull Rock, on of many unique rock formations in Joshua Tree

The earliest known residents to Joshua Tree were the people of the Pinto Culture, who lived and hunted in the area between 8000 and 4000 BCE. They hunted game and gathered seasonal plants in the Pinto Basin, but little else is known about them.

    Later residents included the Serrano, the Cahuilla, and the Chemehuevi peoples. All three lived at times in villages near water particularly near the Oasis of Mara (what non-indigenous people later called Twentynine Palms). They were hunter-gatherers who thrived largely on plant foods supplemented by some small game, amphibians and reptiles. They used plants for making medicines, bows and arrows, baskets, and other items. A fourth group, the Mojave people, used the local resources while traveling between the Colorado River and the Pacific Coast.

    In 1772, a group of Spaniards led by Pedro Fages, saw the Joshua Trees for the first time after chasing native converts to christianity who had run away from a mission in San Diego. 

    By 1823, the year Mexico achieved independence from Spain, a Mexican expedition from Los Angeles, in what was then Alta California, is thought to have explored as far east as the Eagle Mountains in what later became the park. 

    Three years later, in 1826, Jedediah Smith let a group of American fur trappers and explorers along the Mojave Trail, and others soon followed.

    Sometime in the mid 19th century, a group of Mormon settlers were crossing the Mojave Desert. They named the big yuccas they found Joshua Trees, because the unique shape of the branches reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. The name stuck, and everyone now calls them Joshua Trees.

    In the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the United States defeated Mexico to take over about half of Mexico’s territory, including California and the future park land. 

    In the 1870s, non-natives began raising cattle on the tall grasses that grew in the park, and in 1888, a gang of cattle rustlers moved into the region near the Oasis of Mara. Led by brothers James B. and William S. McHaney, they stole the cattle and hid them in a box canyon at Cattle Camp. Cattle grazing and ranching continued through 1945.

    To get water was a hard thing in the desert, so ranchers decided to catch the little rain that fell in the desert. They dug wells and built rainwater catchment systems, such as White Tank and Barker Dam. In 1900, C. O. Barker, a miner and cattleman, built the original Barker Dam, later improved by William “Bill” Keys, a rancher, and Barker Dam was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1975.

    Between the 1860s and 1940s, miners worked in about 300 pit mines, most of them small, in what later became the park. The most successful mine, the Lost Horse Mine, produced enough gold and silver to be worth about $5 million in today’s currency. Johnny Lang and others, the original owners of Lost Horse Mine, installed a two-stamp mill to process ore at the site, and the next owner, J.D. Ryan replaced it with a ten-stamp steam powered mill. Ryan pumped water from his ranch to the mill, and cut timber from the nearby hills to heat the water to make steam. Later, most of the structures associated with the mine fell apart, and for safety reasons, the National Park plugged the mine, which had collapsed. The Desert Queen Mine on Keys’ Desert Queen Ranch was another productive gold mine as well. In the early 1930s, Keys bought a gasoline-powered two-stamp mill, the Wall Street Mill, and moved it to his ranch to process ore. the ranch and mill were added to the NRHP in 1975, and the mine was also added in 1976. Some of the mines also yielded copper, zync, and iron.

    On August 10, 1936, after Minerva Hoyt and others persuaded the state and federal governments to preserve the area. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Joshua Tree National Monument. It protected about 825,000 acres. in 1950, the size of the park was reduced by 290,000 acres to open the land to more mining. The park was made into a National Park on October 31, 1994, by the Desert Protection Act, which also added 234,000 acres to the park.

The trail system in Joshua Tree is both accessible and extensive.

The trail system in Joshua Tree is both accessible and extensive.

 The sun sinks down below a rocky horizon, lighting up the few clouds that are high up in the sky. As the sky gets darker, planets and stars start to appear in the east. The Joshua Trees look like people, raising hands all across the landscape. The stars spread across the sky from east to west, covering the sky like a bright blanket. The sky is barely brightened by the lights of Palm Springs, just 25 miles away. The Milky Way starts to appear, making the sky even brighter. The vast size of the galaxy makes you feel small.

Because humans are just a speck, really. Our planet is only one in our solar system, and then every single star has its own solar system, and millions and millions of them make up our galaxy. and our galaxy is one of many others. And even then, all of those galaxies might just be specks in something much, much bigger. and it keeps going on and on. You come back out of your mind and look at the stars with awe.

The unparalleled beauty is incredible. So night has fallen on the park. And it’s still beautiful. 

     Joshua Tree National Park is an incredible park, both during the day, and during the night. Joshua Tree may have been around for a while, but there is always new surprises just waiting around the next corner. And they are just waiting to be found by you.

Jack Malson