From a vantage point atop a stack of angular boulders hundreds of feet above the serpentine main park road, we look out at a landscape of muted golds and browns, punctuated by spiky dark green leaves that crown the desert's signature high-altitude tree. This scene isn't beautiful in a conventional sense. But Joshua Tree has a charisma all its own. And although these 800,000 acres become one of the hottest spots on the planet in summer months, Bill and I think this place is one of the "coolest" national parks in the country.
The park was created in 1936 during President Franklin Roosevelt's administration. Comprised of two distinct desert zones (low Colorado and high Mojave), Joshua Tree supports three distinct ecosystems that foster 262 species of birds, an abundance of mammals and reptiles and countless giant yuccas that give the park its name.
Disappointed with snow conditions in Summit County, Bill and I have driven a couple of hours to J.T. (as the locals call it) from our winter get-away in Palm Desert. Although we can only devote an eight-hour day to seeing the park, we vow to get in a good hike, then hit a few of the "highlights," as described in our guide-books. A few of them include:
Located just past the park's North Entrance Station near the town of Twentynine Palms, the oasis features a number of small springs that once provided life-giving water to early desert residents. They, in turn, enhanced their settlement by planting a new palm tree each time a boy was born. A nature trail includes sign-posts that identify the natural features of an oasis.
A centerpiece area of the park that offers a pleasant and easy hike that winds amid towering boulders and leads to a serene valley encircled by craggy mountain peaks. Once the valley provided a hiding place for local ranchers to shelter their livestock from roving cattle rustlers. We found the valley most appealing in the late hours of the day when the color of the mountains shifts from dull browns into an incredible range of purple hues.
The only way to get a real look at Keys' Ranch is to take a docent-guided tour of the buildings and land. William and Frances Keys were among the rugged, first white settlers of the Mojave Desert. From October to May, (and for a nominal charge), visitors see the weathered pine buildings that housed the original ranch house, the school house that educated a few local children, a workshop and a general store.
Among the wonders of Joshua Tree are the remarkable rock formations scattered about the landscape. Their names describe them to a tee. Pitted with cracks and crevices caused by weather changes and geological shifts, these rocks are often where you'll find climbers ready to "hook in." Even if you aren't equipped with crampons and ropes, it's mighty tempting to scramble up a few gentle slopes just to get a bird's-eye view from the top.
One of the parks many and diverse trails is here and it's the only one I can attest to experiencing myself. With each step up the mountain's three-mile round-trip trail, I can feel the languid rhythm of the desert take hold. The 360-degree views from the summit include snowcapped Mount San Jacinto in the distance and the seemingly endless and enduring landscape below.
Rest assured, you don't have to lace up your hiking boots to enjoy one of Joshua Tree's most fascinating features - its rock climbers. In the cool winter months, the area is said to be one of the world's premier climbing destinations, with a variety of routes that provide beginners gentle first-time experiences and experts the chance to show off their already-mastered skills. From a chair set in nearly any campsite, the earthbound can watch climbers tempt gravity, test muscles, then rappel back down to the desert floor.
Much of the allure of the park comes from the Joshua trees themselves, although that might be a subjective statement. Explorer John C. Fremont described them as "the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom."
But Bill and I disagree. For all the stillness in the park, we think the Joshuas are quite graceful - their branches seemingly frozen in time, no two trees in the same pose.