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The Many Faces of Joshua Tree National Park

Spring in Joshua Tree NP, Snow on San Gorgonio

I managed to live nearly my entire life in Southern California and didn’t visit Joshua Tree National Park until this Spring.  The timing of my eventual visit was impeccable, however; as the wildflowers were amazing! There is a lot to do and see in the park; camping, hiking, wildflower viewing, stargazing, and rock climbing are probably the most common activities, but for me, photography was a close second to hiking.

Joshua Tree National Park Has Many Faces

Joshua Tree NP straddles two different deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado (which is a part of the larger Sonoran desert).  The two deserts have different ecosystems which are mostly defined by elevation.  The Mojave (above 3000 ft) encompasses the western part of the park and is home to the Joshua Tree.  The Colorado (below 3000 ft) encompasses the eastern part of the park and is where you’ll find Ocotillo, Cholla and Yucca.  The park also has six mountain ranges that contribute to the interesting geology and many rock formations.

Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California and straddles the San Bernardino and Riverside County borders.  The two main entrances on the north side of the park are near two cities; Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms.  You can camp in the park or there are lots of hotels, motels and RV Parks right outside the north entrances.  The south entrance to the park is right off Interstate 10, making Joshua Tree National Park a great place to visit on your way into or out of California.


The Rocks

The boulder outcroppings are called inselbergs and were formed when groundwater filtered through the rectangular joints of the ancient exposed rock, forming rounded edges and corners.  Flash floods also washed away the softer ground cover and left behind prominent rock outcroppings. The rock outcroppings are very interesting in shape and size and color.  There are a LOT of rocks and it didn’t take long for me to see things in some of them.

The Mojave Wildflowers

We saw these flowers on the north side of Park Boulevard and along the 49 Palms Oasis Trail. This part of the park is Mojave desert and in general, at higher elevations.  I wouldn’t classify the wildflowers as a super bloom, but perhaps a little later in spring, the wildflowers reached a higher density.  The variety of flowers was still a very pleasant surprise!


The Colorado Wildflowers

We saw these flowers in the Colorado desert.  The lower elevations of the park were flowering quite a bit more.  All of these were seen along Pinto Basin Road and near the Cottonwood Visitor Center.


Fortynine Palms Oasis

The hike to 49 Palms Oasis is a fairly short hike with some elevation gain (3 mi RT, 350 ft elevation gain).  The hardest part of the hike is that there is very little shade until you get to the oasis.  An early morning or late afternoon hike is optimum here.  Fortynine Palms Oasis is one of 5 oases in the park, and the only palm native to California, the California Fan Palm, is found in Joshua Tree. The parking area closes at dusk to allow the bighorn sheep a place to drink water undisturbed.  We did not see any bighorn sheep but we did see a very large Chuckwalla lizard!


Hidden Valley and Barker Dam

Two more short and easy hikes are the loop through Hidden Valley and Barker Dam.  They are pretty close to each other, so they’re very easy hikes to do on the same day.  Hidden Valley is a 1-mile, self-guided walk; there are signs that point out the interesting features along the trail.  Hidden Valley is enclosed by massive boulders and is rumored to have been a cattle rustler’s hideout. It is also a favorite climber’s spot.  Barker Dam is a 1.1 mile loop that takes you past Barker Dam (also known as Big Horn Dam) and is a hang out for wildlife.  The park mentions you should watch for big horn sheep, but alas, we didn’t see any.  Past the dam, the trail winds through a Joshua Tree forest and more good climbing areas and to some rocks with Native American petroglyphs.


Joshua Trees and Cactus

With two different deserts, there is a large variety of cactus in the park as well as the Joshua Trees for which it is named.  There are many varieties and I wasn’t able to identify all of them, but most were blooming and the colors were very pretty, ranging from white to yellow to bright pink.  In the Mojave, the buds were just developing with an occasional bloom but the blooms were quite evident in the Colorado.  The Cholla Cactus Garden is great walk that is also a transition zone between the two deserts.

We really enjoyed our spring visit to Joshua Tree and have already planned a return trip for January 2018.  It will be interesting to see the park in two different seasons and when it is a lot less crowded.

Have you visited the park? What were your favorite activities there?  Your favorite hike?  Do you know the names of the wildflowers and other plants and cacti?  If so, please share!

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