On our way across the southwest, we visited with a friend in Blythe, CA who turned us on to the Joshua Tree National Park which happened to lie between Blythe and our destination. We had time to make a drive through the park, so we decided to check it out. We are so glad we did, and if we ever have the opportunity to come back and do further exploration of this place of austere beauty, we certainly will!
The park had been described as “Dr. Suess Land.” Indeed, the strangely shaped desert plants such as yucca, a variety of cacti, shrubbery, and the name-sake Joshua Tree in the dry, vast openness of the park lend that sort of ethereal or fantastical feeling to the environment.
We entered the park from Interstate 10 (about 25 miles west of Indio, CA and just a few miles past the George Patton Memorial Museum – Check out the post about the museum here.) and had to travel a couple of miles toward the north before actually entering the park. Good signage exists on the interstate and at the exit to help you find your way to the southern entry point of the park. This is an easy access point, but there are also two other access points to the park, one at the north from Twentynine Palms, CA and another at the western edge of the park off Hwy 62 near Joshua Tree Village.
National Geographic also has websites devoted to the United States National Park system. Check out their informative page about Joshua Tree and take time to explore the rest of the site as well.
Things to do from rock-climbing to star-gazing. Check out the Joshua Tree National Park activities.
Throughout the park exists signage at various pull-off points along the main road and at scenic outlooks. It is worth taking the time to read these. Get out of your vehicle, stretch your legs, and learn stuff!
The first sign we encountered after entering the park was about the Colorado Desert. In fact, two deserts meet in the middle of this park, the Colorado from the east and the Mojave from the west. The thing which most defines the Colorado desert is its extremely arid climate. The difference between the two desert ecosystems is marked dramatically by the plant life in each. When entering Joshua Tree from the south (as we did), you will not see any of the trees for which the park is named for a long distance until crossing over the higher ridges into the Mojave area. In the area shown in the photo at left, there are also possibilities of sighting big horn sheep, but they must have all been sleeping the day we drove through. With recent heavy rains in the area, the washes across the lower areas of desert floor were quite evident, especially in this approach area to the Cottonwood Visitor Center.
The rocks vary throughout the park, changing with the ecosystems to a great degree. Jagged and rough in the southeast, more rounded and alien-looking in the northwest. Be on the lookout for stacked stones, some by nature, others by human hands.
The desert is so much more than JUST cactus! Explore and enjoy the great variety of plants throughout the park. Reading the information signs along the way is educational, and some of the pull-off areas with trails have pamphlets with further information about that particular area’s plants, animals, eco-structure, and terrain.
A whole vehicle full of people can enter the park for only $20, and the pass is good for re-entry at any time within 7 days from the date of purchase. Individuals on foot, bike or motorcycle get the same deal for only $10 each.
National Parks Free Entry Days:
Joshua Tree and all other National Parks offer free entry on certain days. Check the National Park Service website for new dates each year. In 2015, those dates are:
- January 19 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
- February 14-16 (Presidents Day weekend)
- April 18-19 (opening weekend of National Park Week)
- August 25 (National Park Service’s 99th birthday)
- September 26 (National Public Lands Day)
- November 11 (Veterans Day)
Money-Saving National Park Passes:
Annual Passes to individual national parks are available and provide excellent savings and vary in cost (as do the regular entry fees) from park to park.
Inter-agency Annual Passes (America the Beautiful passes) are $80 and allow the pass owner and passengers in any non-commercial vehicle year-long entry and standard amenities to all National Parks and other federal fee areas such as preserves, historical sites, etc.
Senior Passes for anyone 62 or older are available for $10 at most parks and allow lifetime entry to that park.
Free Entry Passes for Certain Groups:
Active Military & Dependents, Disabled Individuals, Federal Lands Volunteers (not all parks), AND all 4th graders (10 yr. olds) get in free ANYWHERE (including homeschoolers & free educators)
Most passes are available by mail for an additional fee of $10, or the passes can be purchased at parks’ service centers.
For more information, visit the National Park Service website and click on an individual park for specific fees and passes information.
There are no restaurants or grocery stores inside the park, but you are welcome to picnic at any of the eight designated picnic areas. See a map/list of picnic sites here. A list of campgrounds is also listed on the same page. Campgrounds are the only accommodations option in Joshua Tree.
Credit Cards are not taken at the southern entry point at the Cottonwood Visitor Center.
They have no internet access at this location as of October 2015, so an entry pass cannot be purchased via debit/credit card at this location. Don’t worry if you do not have cash with you! Simply use your credit/debit card to pay your fee when you EXIT the park. The ranger at the Twentynine Palms northern exit was extremely friendly and made our final moments in the park pleasant even though we were paying as we left.
Obey posted speed limits!
I know, I always say this, but it is important for your safety and the safety of the many hikers and bikers on park lands. Besides, if you are speeding through, you are totally missing the point of a park!
Take out whatever you bring in!
Pick up all trash and take it with you. Keep our parks beautiful by making the effort to be tidy.
Do NOT feed the animals! Keep our wildlife truly wild.
Wild animals who get fed by humans not only become reliant on hand-outs, but they cease to lose their wild nature and their natural fear of mankind. Although those animals are super cute and/or interesting, feeding them is dangerous to you but more dangerous for them. Just do not do it!
If you did not bring it, do NOT TAKE it!
Leave the plants and rocks, etc. where you see them. You might think, “It is just one little rock.” But, what IF every one of the millions of people who visit our national parks each year took just one or two little rocks or pulled up a plant? Enjoy the sights, take a lot of photos and leave everything as you found it for the next person to enjoy and photograph as well.
Visiting the Cottonwood visitor center is a great idea if you enter from the south. They have a lot of good information about the park available in pamphlets and from service personnel, souvenirs, clean restrooms, and a short garden path with labeled desert plants for your enjoyment. Also, take time to enjoy the vistas available from the garden.
The mountain and desert views throughout the drive in the park are panoramic and fail to be captured for their true vastness in a camera lens, but we gave it a try. Here’s a few of our favorites.
The amazing flora of the desert was fascinating, and I believe I inherited a penchant for cacti from my grandmother. I was fascinated by the many varieties we saw in Joshua Tree. One of the non-cacti plants is ocotillo, a woody, deciduous plant which might lose and regrow its leaves up to five times annually because its leaf production is not dependent upon seasons, but upon moisture. In dryer times, it drops its leaves. I wetter times, it grows it leaves and blooms. I am particularly fond of the architectural quality of this plant.
By far, my favorite experience in the park was the Cholla Cactus Gardens. Fortunately, LouisianaMan was on the ball and grabbed one of the pamphlets for the self-guided walking tour. He kept BayouMama on track by stopping at all the points of interest and reading the text. It’s a good thing because I was totally distracted by all my oo-ing and ah-ing and photo snapping to pay good attention.
I enjoyed our walk through the cactus garden, finding such delight in remembering how very interesting my grandmother found cacti to be. I wished she could have been there to share my own excitement and share the wee journey with me. What delighted and fascinated me more than anything was a thrilling and unexpected discovery about something from my childhood. My grandparents (yes, the above-mentioned grandmother) took a road trip from northern Idaho to Texas one year via the desert southwest when I was about 8 years old. Of course, they brought back a myriad of photos which my grandfather proudly set up to show us on his carousel slide projector in his living room. They also returned with a few souvenirs, but the one I remember most was this odd, branched skeleton-looking thing from some kind of plant. I remember touching it in wonder, looking through its hollow core as if it were some sort of alien telescope, and being completely clueless as to its origin. Not far down the path in the Cholla Cactus Gardens, I discovered that it was in fact a skeletal piece of a dead portion of cholla cactus. What a delight!