Barren and untamed the Joshua Tree National Park has many hidden surprises
Best time to visit
Early spring is one of the best times to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Temperatures are mild during the day and crisp at night. Spring is also famous for stunning wildflowers. If you enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and rock climbing, March, April and early May are some of the best months to visit Joshua Tree.
Exploring Joshua Tree
One of the main reasons we came to stay in the high desert of California was to visit the Joshua Tree National Park. If you ask most people to picture a desert there description would probably include words such as barren, bare and arid. Most of the time these descriptions would be fitting but we were lucky enough to be visiting in Spring and shortly after some much-needed winter rains had fallen and the desert was in bloom. Everyone had told us to come in through the south entrance of the park, and this turned out to be an excellent recommendation. At the very first pull-in, we stopped at the desert was carpeted with a blaze of colour; yellows, blues and an occasional dash of red. Amazing!! Unfortunately, this brash display of colour only lasts a few short weeks before the blazing summer suns dry and shrivel these delicate flowers. We were so lucky to be here at just the right moment.
The area is unusual in that it is a transition point of two desert ecosystems; the Colorado Desert (an extension of the Sonoran Desert) and the Mojave Desert. Our journey started in the Colorado Desert but as we climbed in altitude the terrain slowly changed and the scrub like bushes of the lower altitudes are replaced by the more rugged yuccas and cactus. This is a vast wilderness area; it is around 80 miles from the south entrance to the north entrance. About half way through the park we come across the Cholla Cactus Gardens. The Jumping Cholla Cactus is notorious for very loose joint attachments which attach to hapless by-passers with the slightest brush. It is said to “jump” on you if you get close to it. The thorns swell in your skin and they become very difficult to remove. Not nice!! The thorns are said to resemble the fuzzy arms and legs of a Teddy Bear, thus the name Teddy Bear Cholla, but we wouldn’t recommend cuddling this plant!!
We reached the edge of the Mojave Desert, which offered wonderful smooth rock like formations carved into beautiful formations by weathering through the millennia. We stop for what we believed to be short trail through the rocks to find a sculpted rock named Skeleton Rock – unfortunately we chose to go “off trail” and had to do a bit of scrambling to get back on track. Up here in the Mojave Desert is where we see our first Joshua Tree, after which the National Park is named. These tall yucca- like plants, growing up to 30 feet tall are a member of the lily family, strangely enough. The Joshua Tree is a resilient plant and quite happily survives in the harsh environment of the Mojave Desert, where it provides shelter for a host of birds and insects. Its useful properties were also recognised by the local native Americans Years long ago as they utilised its tough leaves to make baskets and sandals, and flower buds and raw or roasted seeds made a healthy addition to the diet. This time of year the Joshua’s are in full bloom, they have spikes of tightly packed white flowers which remind us of horse chestnut tree flowers.
Where to stay
There is plenty of camping areas inside the park, but if this not your thing then Palm Springs and the surrounding valley offers a large number of options for accommodation.