A Journey Through Joshua Tree National Park

Hi everyone! I hope you are all doing what you can to stay healthy and happy! In these times that’s all we can really hope for, ya know?! For me, getting outdoors and away from my usual grind helps me to recenter and wind down from the grind. And as luck would have it, I was able to really get away by going to Palm Springs with my partner. I’ve been blessed enough to make this my third visit to Palm Springs. I happen to love it there. The city has thus great mid-century modern vibe in both the architecture and the decor. The surrounding desert landscape is absolutely gorgeous. And the restaurants there are world class.

Well the other thing that Palm Springs has an abundance of is outdoor activities. Of course there’s golf – the place is the self-titled “Golf Capital of the World” – but there’s also ample hiking and camping which is much more my pace. As I was researching things to do while my partner was at work I quickly noticed that Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) was located practically next door to Palm Springs. So I told myself that I would go and check it out. And all I can say is – wow!

This might look desolate but the topography and plant life weave a fantastic tapestry.

First off, the park is LARGE. It’s slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island which is fantastically crazy to think about. An entire park devoted to protecting natural beauty that’s larger than a state. Granted, Rhode Island is teeny compared to most of the states but it’s still impressive nonetheless. It also covers several thousand feet in elevation which is cool because it allows you to see the change in the ecosystems that have evolved there.

JTNP can be broadly broken down into three different areas. These areas are based on the different desert ecosystems that converge within the park’s boundaries. The parks south and east sides are lower, hotter and drier and is part of the Colorado Desert. The north and west portions of the park are higher in elevation, slightly cooler and wetter and are part of the Mojave Desert. The third area is the transition zone between the two deserts where a unique ecosystem that blends both deserts is located.

I entered JTNP from the south off of Interstate 10. The drive from Palm Springs took about 45 minutes. Signs to the park were easy and there is only one road that enters the park from the south: Cottonwood Springs Road. Note: There is no formal sign indicating that you’ve entered JTNP from the south. But you’ll know you’ve entered the park from signs along the road. There is a ranger station at Cottonwood Springs about three miles past the park border where you can get water and pay the entry fee. There’s also a great little museum at the ranger station and large billboards showing what’s open and providing you with helpful, but general information about the current status of the park.

If you make it to the southern area of the park then you should definitely the Cottonwood Spring Oasis which is about a 5 minute drive from the Cottonwood Springs ranger station. Like many of the oases in and around the park, this formed from geologic cracking in the Serbs surface. While the topography is not the most stunning, it is cool to see more green against the austere browns and tans of the desert. The oasis area also sports a small nature trail and more challenging hikes into the park’s wilderness areas.

The Cottonwood Springs Oasis provides a nice splash of vibrant green in the desert.

Continuing back through the heart of the park is easy as it’s the only road (the road name changes from Cottonwood Springs to Pinto Basin but since there are no road name signs it doesn’t matter!) to in the southern part of JTNP. The road slowly slopes down into various washes and lowlands of the Colorado Desert. This part of the park is vast and you appreciate just how large the park is. It’s even more humbling when you realize that you’re only in the middle of the park. In the summer and months, monsoonal moisture from the southwest can generate thunderstorms which can cause flash flooding. Seeing the scope of the washes and how the road can flood is humbling.

At the bottom of the basin the road begins to curve towards the west and approaches a steady rise towards the high desert – the Mojave. But, there are three things worth seeing and enjoying before you head up to the high country in the park.

  1. Make sure to take pictures and just admire Mt. Pinto. It’s pretty noticeable by its prominence. You can also hike to the top of the mountain but you need to be an experienced backpacker as the trail is not marked.
  2. Take pictures and get up close to the Ocotillo Tree. It’s a deciduous tree that loses its leaves several times a year and then blooms and regrows leaves when the rains come.
  3. Stop by the Chola Cactus Garden. These cacti are fantastic with great color and form. But unlike the Ocotillo, you do not want to get close to these guys!

Once you’ve had your fill of the lower Colorado Desert you can begin the journey up the rise to the Mojave Desert in the desert high country. You’ll know that you’ve reached the Mojave by the fact that the general area becomes greener and the temperature drops by a few degrees. This part of JTNP is less open and expansive being replaced by narrower valleys and more fantastic rock formations. The road splits at a T-junction a few miles after entering the Mojave Desert section of the park. If you have the time, go right first and you’ll find the road slowly sloping down and eventually leaving one of the park’s northern exits. Trust me, you’ll want to do that because there’s a hidden gem within JTNP that you can only access from outside the main visitor entrances: Indian Cove.

Mojave Desert portion of JTNP. A lot more flora and fauna variety.

Indian Cove is small, sheltered part of JTNP along the park’s north border. While it can be accessed via hiking trail from the Hidden Valley campsite within the park, the easiest way to get to it (especially in the hot summer months) is to drive out of JTNP and go along California State Highway 62 until you reach Indian Cove Rd. Be aware though: the signs for Indian Cove Rd are hard to spot on the highway and the road comes up fast. As you head up the road, you’ll be greeted by some absolutely fantastic rock formations rising up like a natural damn. The road meanders into this wonderland of stone to a variety of campgrounds.

Upon leaving Indian Cove, you can either continue out of the park or return through one of the two north entrances. I chose to retrace my steps so that I could cover ever mile of road within JTNP. Once you reach the T-junction from earlier, continue straight ahead and you’ll soon be surrounded by the park’s namesake, the Joshua Trees. Fun fact: Joshua Trees are not actually trees. They are actually a type of Yucca which is related to the asparagus! The more you know, right? The Joshua Tree provides fantastic and interesting shapes to photograph and like the plants in the low desert, bring a welcome splash of green life to the barren and rocky landscape.

Before long you’ll pass by the famous Skull Rock which does indeed look like a skull. You can luckily see it from the road which is what I did as it was literally crawling with people; I think like 10 or 12. All over the rock face. Being in a snarky mood I unfortunately didn’t even take a picture so you’ll have to use your imagination or just google search “Skull Rock – Joshua Tree”. As you continue west, the Joshua Trees become more dense and while there aren’t enough to call it a forest, it is impressive to see this line of green.

At another fork in the road you’ll have the option to turn right and drive up to Keys View. Definitely. Do. It. The road is somewhat narrower than the rest of the roads in the park but you get even more beautiful views of the Joshua Trees and you are treated to a truly spectacular sight once you reach the top of the road. The views from Keys View are spectacular. Splayed in front of you like your own private domain is Coachella Valley. On a clear day, you can easily see Mt San Jacinto towering over Palm Springs, the desert cities and to the far left the Salton Sea. I was lucky enough to see all of on the day I was there. Due to the vista point’s elevation, the temperature was a good 7 degrees cooler and a stiff breeze coming up from Coachella Valley helped make it feel like a nice respite from the hotter parts of the park.

As I descended back into the park I was greeted with another vista that you don’t see as you are driving up to Keys Point. Most people don’t take the time on the way down to stop and admire the view which is a shame. Perhaps they’re too overwhelmed with the views that they saw? Or perhaps folks are tired from a long day of beautiful landscapes and scenery? Regardless, I enjoyed the view while countless cars whizzed by on the road to my left.

View from the road going down from Keys Point; a great view to be sure!

Joshua Tree is a mesmerizing place and I cannot recommend it enough. I went in the height of the summer season and it was hot for sure. But it’s definitely doable from the comfort of an air conditioned car. I hope to get back out there when the weather cools off so that I can spend more time hiking and exploring.

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