We made the trip from the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Ajo, Arizona to the Joshua Tree National Park near Twentynine Palms, California in one day, a distance of about 350 miles. Our route took us past Yuma where they were harvesting lettuce (think about that for a second), past the Yuma Proving Grounds and up to Quartzite, Arizona where we saw the remnants of the thousands of RV’s boondocking (camping without hookups) in the desert that come to the area for the gem and mineral shows in January and February. We continued north to Parker, Arizona and turned west, crossing the Colorado River into California. From there to Twentynine Palms, there isn’t much except a lot of desert with less vegetation than we saw in Arizona and New Mexico. This is part of the drive where one needs to be sure the gas tank is full!
Joshua Tree is about 140 miles due east of Los Angeles and San Bernardino is about 80 miles away. These nearby population centers help to make Joshua Tree National Park the 12th most visited park in the National Park Service with over 2.8 million visitors per year. We were in this Park two days over the President’s Day holiday weekend and I can say with certainty is that this Park is getting a lot of love!
Joshua Tree National Park has three entrances and visitors centers: Cottonwood on the south side just of I-10 east of Coachella; Joshua Tree on the northwest side near the city of Joshua Tree; and the Oasis at Twentynine Palms. We stopped at the Joshua Tree and Oasis Visitor Centers and both were very busy especially on the weekend. We checked out the exhibits the best we could and watched the excellent film about this Park. We learned this Park is huge, almost 800,000 acres or 1235 square miles, larger than the state of Rhode Island! Prior to becoming a National Monument in 1936 to protect the desert environment and a National Park in 1994, the land was used for cattle grazing and there were about 300 gold, silver and lead mines in what is now park land. There are five mountain ranges (Little Bernardino, Cottonwood, Hexie, Eagle and Pinto) either partially or fully contained within the Park. There are also two deserts that intersect in the park, the Mojave and Colorado. I should mention that the entrance fee to the Park is $25/car for a seven day pass, again our Senior Pass allowed us to enter with no fee, best deal in America!
The namesake of the Park, the Joshua Tree isn’t really a tree at all, it’s in the Agave family and genus Yucca, with a tree like growth habit. It can grow up to 40 feet tall and some specimens sport many branches. The Joshua Tree was given it’s name from a group of Mormon settlers that crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid 1800s. The shape of this plant reminded them of the Old Testament story where Joshua reaches to the heavens in prayer. While the Joshua Tree is primarily located within the confines of the Mojave Desert in California, it also shows up in other parts of California and a few places in western Arizona.
In addition to the Joshua Tree, this National Park is home to some interesting and unique geological formations.
On the first day we entered the Park, we explore mostly the northwest portion of the Park stopping at Quail Springs, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Sheep Pass and ending at Keys View that overlooks the Coachella Valley. If you look hard enough, you can see Palm Springs off to the south and west.
In a major coincidence, we ran into some acquaintances from Madison that we know from the YMCA, Pat O’Brien and his wife Dawn. We were both gawking at the view and I recognized Pat’s voice, what a small world it can be at times!
To get away from the crowds, we took some of the roads less traveled like the Queen Valley Road. Sure it was gravel but it was a pleasant drive and there were plenty of opportunities to get out to photograph and take some short walks among the Joshua Trees. And hardly any other vehicles!
On a couple of those walks, we observed some birds hanging out in the Ocotillo cactus some sporting red spring blossoms.
Later we saw another bird near a Cholla cactus. Birding is one of the main activities promoted by the Park, in fact we saw a lot of birds during our visit.
Speaking of the Cholla, on the second day of our visit, we stopped by the Cholla Cactus Garden on the Pinot Basin Road. I have to say, the warning sign pictured below says it all, I almost came in contact with one of those cacti when I was trying to shoot some low angle shots almost fell backward into one. Not sure who would pulled those needles out of my backside! My traveling partner says “self inflicted wound, self administered cure!
As I mentioned earlier, there were lot of people in the park both days of our visit. As we traveled around the park, we observed a lot of people and even some classes being conducted on rock climbing. Apparently, this park draws a lot of visitors interested in this sport. Unfortunately, the rock climbers seem to be everywhere and can ruin the scenery for photographers! But when given lemons, make lemonade!
Another group we observed were filming with the tumbled boulders in the background. Not sure what they were doing but I did wonder if they had a filming or photography permit, required for commercial organizations to film or conduct photo workshops. Here’s the photo, you decide what they are up to.
All in all, we were glad we made the visit to see the unique Joshua Trees in this Park. However, it wasn’t at the top of our hit parade maybe because of the crowds and traffic so a return visit won’t be on our bucket list anytime soon. I do admit the photography was excellent so maybe there will be another visit if we are in the area! One area that we didn’t visit was the Keys Ranch, only accessible by a ranger lead tour with reservations required. The Park does also offer a few night photography events during the year that would be of interest to me. Finally, here’s three of my favorite photos taken in the park and one’s a selfie!
Next week join me for a visit to the one of our favorite stops on this Southwest adventure, Death Valley National Park.
Until next week, travel safe.