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Joshua Tree National Park  


Park History

Joshua Trees

Rock Piles

Colorado Desert

Plants of Colorado


Mojave Desert

Plants of Mojave


Keys View

Lost Horse Valley

Quail Springs

West Entrance




Joshua Tree, long a national monument, is one of America's newest national parks. The park, which is located in southern California about 150 miles east of Los Angeles and north of Palm Springs, preserves sections of two of North America's great deserts and several mountain ranges in its 793,000 acres.

Despite its desert location, the park features a wide variety of plants and animals, not the least of which is the famous plant for which the park is named. There are also a rich collection of mines, desert ranches, and other historical artifacts as well as 70 miles of desert and mountain trails.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

Park History

Despite the combination of heat and dry conditions the Joshua Tree area has been inhabited for many thousands of years. Some 10,000 years ago portions of the Pinto Basin contained a lake whose shores were inhabited by the people of the Pinto culture. Later, perhaps 2,000 years ago, the area was inhabited by Serrano and Cahuillo Indians.

In 1855 the Twentynine Palms area in the north section of the park area was surveyed by Colonel Henry Washington, one of the early non-Indian visitors. By the 1870's cattleman were bringing herds to the desert. Reports of gold strikes also attracted miners and prospectors to the area.

Eventually visitors began to have serious effects on the desert vegetation as they dug up trees and plants and took them to their homes. Minerva Hamilton Holt and others became concerned and initiated efforts in the 1920's to preserve the desert resources and educate people about the value of the desert. She proposed a desert federal park. These efforts culminated in the establishment of 825,000 acres in the area as a national monument by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Pressure by miners and other who wished to extract resources inside the monument resulted in the removal of 250,000 acres from the monument in 1950. However, over 40 years later, on October 31, 1994, as a result of the California Desert Protection Act, Joshua Tree (along with Death Valley National Monument) was upgraded from national monument to national park status.

Joshua Trees

The most well known feature of the park, and the feature for which the park is named, is the Joshua tree. Not actually a tree, the Joshua tree is a giant yucca plant--Yucca Brevifolia--the short leaved yucca. These yuccas may grow as high as 40 feet and the trunks may reach 4 feet in diameter. It is difficult to determine the age of these plants since they don't have "growth rings" like real trees, but they are believed to surpass 700 years in age.

The Joshua tree can be found only in the high desert, growing primarily at elevations above 3000 feet. The only place on earth in which they live is the Mojave Desert. They can be found everywhere in the northern section of the park, creating sparse "forests" such as the one shown below.

The trees can in a wide variety of fantastic shapes, admired by some and considered ugly by others. Renowned western explorer John C. Fremont called them "repulsive!" The plant was supposedly named by the Mormons who thought it resembled the biblical Joshua welcoming them with upturned arms.

The tree is so unusual in appearance that it grabs the attention of the visitor right away. These plants, along with the rocky hills and rises among which they often grow, create an other-worldly appearance unlike anything else that can be found in the national park system.

The tree begins growing as a single stalk, and only begins to branch in the many unpredictable directions later as a result of damage to the stalk. In bloom the Joshua tree features clusters of creamy white flowers.


Close inspection of the plant reveals that the stalk is "furry", covered with the spines which grow from the trunk.

Besides its scenic beauty the Joshua tree has provided practical value to inhabitants of the desert. Indians used almost all of the parts of the plant, and it currently provides food for rats, squirrels, and other animals, and a place of rest and residence for desert birds.

The picture blows shows a number of Joshua tree plants near a monolithic rock which lies near the intersection of Park Boulevard and the road to Keys View near Lost Horse Valley. The formation here is known as Cap Rock.

The plants do not grow together in thickets but disperse themselves in the valleys and the floor of the Mojave Desert where they are found.

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  • All photographs ©Patrick Holleran, Shannon Digital Imaging, 1994-2013

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