Fun and Exciting Things to Do for Joshua Tree National Park Vacations
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Joshua Tree National Park, with its desert climate, offers a unique natural beauty that is best seen by getting off the main road and exploring the park. I really think Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most unique and beautiful places on Earth. Located in Southern California, the park gets its name from the Joshua Trees that are native to the area. The trees are actually a type of yucca plant that can grow up to 40 feet tall!
Joshua Tree National Park is not for everyone. During the summer, the temperatures can shoot over 100 degrees. When it rains, flash floods can be dangerous. And the harsh climate produces plant and animal life that doesn’t appeal to everyone, such as tarantulas, scorpions, and 25 types of snakes.
However, for the outdoor enthusiast who loves the desert, Joshua Tree offers hiking, backpacking, camping, rock climbing, horseback riding, wildflower viewing, birdwatching, and star gazing. And all of that comes with a backdrop of deep blue skies, magnificent rock formations, and unique plant and animal life. If you plan well, you could even bring your mountain bikes.
A Brief History
Joshua Tree National Park was first established as a national monument in 1936. In 1994, it was redesignated as a national park. The park gets its name from the unique Joshua trees that are found throughout the area. These trees are actually a type of yucca plant that only grows in the Mojave Desert.
Joshua Tree National Park is made up of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. The Mojave Desert, which covers the central and western parts of the park, is characterized by its higher elevation and cooler temperatures.
This desert is home to the Joshua trees, as well as other plants like yucca plants and cacti. The Colorado Desert, which occupies the eastern part of the park, is lower in elevation and has hotter temperatures.
What Should You Expect on Your Joshua Tree National Park Vacations?
Certainly not rain. Rainfall in the park is spare and very unpredictable. The streambeds are typically dry and the water holes are few and far between. But while the land may look barren and void of life there are actually flourishing animals and plants all over the desert floor. Perhaps the most interesting life form is the Joshua Tree itself.
The Joshua Tree, otherwise known as the Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the lily family. Years ago it was used by Native Americans for weaving and consumption, but nowadays it is simply admired for its unique appearance.
Considered grotesque by some, the yucca can be very tall—up to forty feet—with lanky limbs adorned with rough bush-like vegetation. If there is enough rain the yucca may sprout little white-green flowers, but for the most part, the plant remains brownish-green.
Along With The Yucca Valley Comes A Bevy Of Wildlife
Desert rats, kangaroo rats, lizards, desert orioles, and plenty of snakes gravitate to the hot desert climate there. Insects, such as the stinkbug and termites seek refuge in the stumps and limbs of the Joshua Trees and the other vegetation as well.
Coyotes, bobcats, owls, and tarantulas make up the line-up of predators in the desert. Jackrabbits, roadrunners, and a variety of rodents are the prey that scurries around in the heat rummaging for food and steering, hopefully, clear of the meat-eaters.
If you are too busy looking at the ground for animals you may miss the impressive landscape adorned with giant rocks and boulders. Granite monoliths and round blocks of rock dominate the setting.
Geologists believe that the face of the landscape was created over a million years ago by volcanic activity. The molten liquid heated by the movement of the earth’s crust resulted in the oozing of lava upward and then the subsequent cooling, which resulted in unique rock formations.
While the erosional process does have some part in the interesting sculpturing of the rocks, it is believed this specific creation is the primary factor in rock shape and positioning.
Hiking in Joshua Tree
Start at either the north entrance or the west entrance station for the best scenery. Hidden Valley, Skull Rock, and Barker Dam loop trails are 1 mile, 1.7 miles, and 1.1 miles respectively. These trails provide stunning views of the rock formations that seem to almost grow from the ground in the upper half of the park.
Hidden Valley is popular with climbers, so watch closely to see if you can spot people on the rock faces. This area was used as a movie set for westerns back in the days of black-and-white TV. If you are like me, you can practically see Gene Autry and his guitar just around the corner. Today, it’s a great place to take a short hike and see some of the amazing rock formations that make up the park. Be sure to keep an eye out for lizards and snakes!
One of the best parts about Joshua Tree is that it’s so easy to get away from the crowds. Even on busy weekends, there are plenty of opportunities to find some peace and quiet. The hike to Hidden Valley is a great option for those looking for solitude. Or, for something truly unique, visitors can stay overnight at Keys Ranch – a former homestead that is now a part of the park!
No visit to Joshua Tree would be complete without seeing Skull Rock. This iconic rock formation gets its name from its shape – it looks like a human skull! It’s located on the Jumbo Rocks Loop Trail – some people call it the skull rock nature trail, so you can kill two birds with one stone by hiking to Skull Rock and seeing some of the other amazing rock formations in this part of the park. I think it is one of those must-see spots.
Barker Dam features a desert lake and some petroglyphs, touched up recently by a movie crew. Wonderland Rocks, part of the Barker Dam trail, is also an excellent place to climb. This is a man-made reservoir that was built in 1900. It’s a popular spot for hiking, picnicking, and birdwatching. If you’re lucky, you might even see some desert bighorn sheep!
For longer hikes, or for backpacking, try Boy Scout Trail, 8 miles one way, or California Riding and Hiking Trail, 37 miles one way. Visitors who wish to backpack must register on one of the park’s 13 backcountry registration boards.
Also while in the park, check out one of the oases trails. Lost Palms Oasis Trail, 7.5 miles round trip, and 49 Palms Oasis Trail, 3 miles round trip, both offer great views of the palms and oasis habitats. “You shouldn’t leave the park without hiking to one of the two,” according to Gorp, a website dedicated to hiking, camping, and national park vacations. Oasis Visitor Center also offers a shorter path through an oasis and palm trees.
Ranger-led Tours at Joshua Tree
Several ranger-led tours are planned throughout part of the year at Joshua Tree. One popular tour takes visitors to Keys Ranch. Before the area was designated a national park, cattle ranchers, miners and homesteaders tried their luck in the harsh climate. William F. Keys and his family are particularly representative of the hard work and ingenuity it took to settle and prosper in the Mojave Desert.
According to Frommer’s travel guide, ranger-led tours are planned from mid-October through mid-December and then again from mid-February through May. In addition, there are 12 self-led nature trails that visitors can take advantage of on your Joshua Tree National Park Vacations.
Joshua Tree Wildlife
During the spring, wildflower tours are available. The blooming season usually begins in March, though the season can start as early as February and run as late as Jun. Several websites are dedicated to letting visitors know where the best blooms can be seen each year.
Several factors contribute to when and where flowers will bloom during a given year, including the previous fall’s rainfall and the elevation.
Birth watchers will find 250 kinds of birds in the park. Joshua Tree falls within the inland portion of the Pacific flyway, according to the National Park Service. Many migrating birds use the park as a place to rest. Golden eagles and roadrunners can also be seen regularly in the park
Under the Night Sky at Joshua Tree
It is estimated that only around 10 percent of the population of the United States is able to see the night sky in its natural, unpolluted state. Away from the city lights, Joshua Tree offers visitors unobstructed views of the stars.
Once a month, the Andromeda Astronomical Society hosts a stargazing party. The party is set for a Saturday night close to the new moon at the Hidden Valley picnic area. The parties usually last about 1 ½ hour.
Other Activities in the Park
There are nine campgrounds in the park, for those wanting to stay overnight. I will say that dark night skies are one of the best things when camping – the vastness of the starry sky just touches your soul.
Black Rock Canyon Campground, Cottonwood Campground, Indian Cove Campground, Jumbo Rocks Campground, and Ryan Campground all need reservations. While they are open year-round, some parts are closed over the hot summer months.
Hidden Valley Campground, White Tank Campground, and Belle Campground are first-come, first-served.
If you don’t want to face the heat – visitors can find hotels in Palm Springs, Twentynine Palms, and many other nearby towns.
Horseback riding is popular in the park. There are 253 miles of equestrian trails within Joshua Tree and maps are available at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. Visitors must obtain a permit if they plan to camp with a horse in the backcountry. Be sure to bring enough water for your horse, as stock animals are not permitted within a ¼ mile of any natural or constructed water source.
Before You, Visit Decide How You Want To Experience The Park
The three options are hiking, driving, and horseback riding. If you are walking choose a suitable trail with the aid of a ranger. Driving the park is very feasible so long as you have your map and realize that your car will get dirty and that it will require going over gravel and some ditches.
Looking at the outdoor activities?
If you want to take a horseback riding adventure down a trail make your reservations ahead of time, especially in the spring months.
Biking is only permitted on public roads, so it is best to leave your wheels at home. Since pets must always be kept on a leash it may be a good idea to leave your dog at home to get the full experience.
Beware of Dehydration in the Desert
It is easy to become dehydrated in a desert climate if you’re not careful. The park rangers recommend that hikers carry two gallons of water per person. When the water is half gone, it is time to turn back.
Water is only available at the visitor center in Twentynine Palms, at Black Rock and Cottonwood campgrounds, at the entrance station south of Joshua Tree, and at the Indian Cove ranger station, so plan ahead.
Places To Stay Nearby
Final Thoughts on Joshua Tree National Park Vacations
Joshua Tree National Park is one of those places that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It’s a place where you can find beauty, adventure, and peace all in one place. Whether you’re looking to hike, camp, or just take in the scenery, Joshua Tree has something for everyone. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip today – will you have a Joshua Tree day trip or plan to do a little backcountry camping?