Joshua Tree National Park marks the spot where the Mojave and Colorado deserts merge “” and it’s an easy drive from Pomona, California, the site of FMCA’s 79th International Convention.
By Donna Ikenberry
Joshua Tree National Park is a place where folks can get away from it all. It’s also a land of awesome rocks for climbing, trails for hiking and exploring, dirt roads for mountain biking, and colorful and abundant wildflowers come spring. It’s a land where the Joshua tree thrives, and a place where two deserts meet.
The Mojave and Colorado deserts converge at this 794,000-acre preserve approximately two hours east of Pomona, California, the site of FMCA’s 79th International Convention, February 25 through 28, 2008. The elevation in the park ranges from a low of 536 feet to a high of 5,814 feet atop Quail Mountain. The preserve includes more than 585,000 acres of designated wilderness. There are hundreds of plant species here, along with 240 species of birds, 40 species of reptiles, and 41 mammal species.
The eastern half of the park is drier and at a lower elevation than its western counterpart, the Mojave, which contains ample stands of the park’s namesake, the dagger-leaved Joshua Tree. Three main entrances to the park are available, the closest one to Pomona being the west entrance at Joshua Tree. That one, and the one east of there at Twentynine Palms, are the most popular entrance stations. They’re reached via Interstate 10 and State Route 62 (Twentynine Palms Highway). But this story begins at the south entrance, located off Interstate 10, where visitors will become acquainted with the plants and animals of the Colorado Desert.
As you travel north through the park, you’ll come to the Cottonwood Visitor Center and campground. The campground is open year-round and sites are available first-come, first-served. The facility has no hookups, but it does have water and a dump station.
Beyond the campground is Cottonwood Spring, a bird-watcher’s paradise. Although the spring is natural, its surroundings were introduced by man “” an oasis where miners or homesteaders planted palms and cottonwoods in the early 1900s.
Hikers and walkers will want to explore the trails near the campground “” and beyond. The park lays claim to 191 miles of hiking trails. Like expansive vistas? Be sure to hike to Mastodon Peak. From the summit, you’ll gaze down upon the gigantic Salton Sea, and in the distance you’ll see the jagged peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains.
From Mastodon Peak, you can descend to the Lost Palms Oasis Trail, a path that leads past giant rock monoliths to a stand of native fan palms. Although the view from the palms lookout is stunning, with pockets of palms watching over the steep, narrow canyons, to experience the proper feeling and view, you must descend into the canyon. Here, you can walk among the swaying fronds of the lofty palms.
Five native California fan palm oases dot the park, providing shelter, food, and water for the local wildlife. In days of old, the oases were essential to travelers. Miners and cattlemen inhabited the area years ago, and pictographs prove earlier inhabitation by American Indians. Evidence suggests the Pinto culture existed here sometime between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago.
Take a driving tour through Joshua Tree, starting north from the campground. You’ll travel through Pinto Basin, a vast depression bordered by the Eagle, Coxcomb, Pinto, Hexie, and Cottonwood mountains. Although creosote bush is the most common plant around, ocotillo, cholla, and a number of other species also decorate the scene.
As you proceed northwest, don’t miss the “garden” of Bigelow (or teddy bear) cholla (pronounced choy-ya), located approximately 22 miles from the Cottonwood area. Although Bigelow is the predominant species at the Cholla Cactus Garden, other types of cholla and plants also make the self-guided nature trail a treat. A word of warning: do not brush up against the spine-covered cholla joints. The joints will attach themselves to anyone or anything that touches them. And if cholla does nab you, use a comb to remove the joint. Do not use your fingers!
At the White Tank Campground, about 8 miles northwest of the cholla gardens, you’ll pass the transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Now you’ll get your first glimpse of the unusual boulders of this region, and the Joshua tree.
Joshua trees are slow-growing yucca plants. Their flowers “” and hope for reproduction “” are pollinated only by a certain type of moth, which, in turn, relies on the Joshua tree for food for the survival of its young. Full-grown Joshua trees provide nesting places for a number of birds, including screech owls and ladder-backed woodpeckers.
According to legend, the Joshua tree received its name from Mormon pioneers. With branches stretching heavenward, the trees prompted the pioneers to liken them to the arms of Joshua pointing the way to the promised land.
Spend time at White Tank and you’re bound to see rock climbers scaling the various upward routes. Countless boulders, arches, rock piles, and a jumble of pink rock sculptures line the land. White Tank is a rock climber’s mecca, but it’s also paradise for those who choose simply to watch spider-like beings moving almost effortlessly up the sheer walls.
More than 80 million years ago, these rock piles lay hidden underground. Molten liquid oozed upward from the inner earth and cooled before reaching the surface, forming an igneous rock called quartz monzonite, which is similar to granite. A much wetter climate existed then, and groundwater penetrated the joints, with hard mineral grains eventually dividing the rock into blocks. To make a long story short, the soil around the granite-like rock washed away, and violent flash floods exposed the spherical boulders seen today.
From White Tank Campground, travel northwest four miles to a junction where you’ll turn left (west), traveling another 17 miles to the 5,195-foot viewpoint at Keys View. Although you can exit the park at this junction by turning right, that’s the last thing you’d want to do, for plenty remains to see and do. From this point, near the summit of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, you can gaze out across the vast Coachella Valley to the nearly 11,000-foot high San Jacinto Range. To the south, the shimmering waters of the Salton Sea, 241 feet below sea level, are visible. And to the northwest, the San Jacinto Mountains touch the San Bernardino Mountains at San Gorgonio Pass.
Upon tearing yourself away from the wonderful panorama at Keys View, be sure to head north about nine miles to the Hidden Valley/Barker Dam area. Hidden Valley is a treasure trove of nature bound by a rock fortress with an easy loop trail that makes the valley a cinch to explore.
Barker Dam, which was constructed by early-day cattlemen, rests in a serene setting and is best photographed in the early morning. You can reach the dam by hiking a 1.2-mile round-trip trail that provides entry into a world of petroglyphs, junipers, pinions, and turbinella oaks. The place is also considered an excellent bird-watching spot.
From here, exit the park by driving 11 miles northwest to the West Entrance at the town of Joshua Tree. It’s a simple drive back to Pomona from there.
Joshua Tree National Park is a wildlife-watcher’s dream, and a joy, too, for hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, and those who enjoy camping in the great outdoors. No doubt, those who visit Joshua Tree will discover it is more than the barren desert and land of cacti it might seem to be.
Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Drive
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277-3597
A seven-day permit costs $15, and an annual pass costs $30. The Interagency Annual Pass, formerly called the National Park Pass and Golden Eagle Passport, costs $80 per year and allows entry into all federal areas, including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and more. Adults 62 and older may obtain an Interagency Senior Pass (formerly called the Golden Age Passport) for $10, which allows lifetime free access to all national parks and monuments and a 50 percent reduction in campground fees at some locations. Handicapped individuals receive the same benefits with an Interagency Access Pass, which is free of charge.
Temperatures at the lower elevations range from 62 degrees in the winter to 80 degrees in the spring and fall. Winters are cool, with average highs around 60 degrees and nights down to freezing. Summers are very hot, with highs above 100 degrees. Wildflowers usually bloom from February through May.
Campsites with hookups are not available in the park, but water and dump stations are available at Black Rock and Cottonwood campgrounds. (Water also is available at the Oasis Visitor Center, Indian Cove Ranger Station, and West Entrance.) Some of the park’s nine campgrounds have 25-foot vehicle length limits. Private campgrounds with hookups and hot showers, restaurants, gasoline, and other provisions are available in the towns of Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, and Indio. Check your campground directory or FMC’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues, and online at FMCA.com, for details.