Many years ago I went on a backpacking trip in Joshua Tree National Park. In its own way its a beautiful but mysterious park that is certain worth some exploring.

To quote the Park Service, Joshua Trees look like they’re right off the pages of a Doctor Seuss book, but must be seen to be appreciated. They’re beautiful while at the same time being strange in shape, texture, and structure. Some are large trees with branches reaching to the sky and others equally tall without any branches at all.

According to prevailing rumor, Mormon settlers named the plants because the large yucca cactus with their arms reached to the heavens reminded them of Joshua in prayer. I guess it’s as good an explanation as any other. The trees, while the star of the park, are just one piece of its beauty. Large rock formations, piles of boulders in the desert, snow-capped mountain views, and unexpected cactus fields keep the drive through the park full of surprises. Like many of our National Parks, Joshua Tree is so expansive with widely varied plant and landscapes it’s hard to describe the park in a paragraph or two. It’s made up of Mojave and Colorado ecosystems with large rock formations and Joshua Trees in the Mojave section and Teddy Bear cactus, flat desert basins, and piles of boulders in the Colorado section. Many newcomers among the 1.3 million visitors who pass through each year are surprised by the abrupt transition between the Colorado and Mojave ecosystems.

Joshua Tree’s human history commenced sometime after the last ice age with the arrival of the Pinto people, hunter-gatherers who may have been part of the Southwest’s earliest cultures. They lived in Pinto Basin, which though inhospitably arid today, had a wet climate and was crossed by a sluggish river some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. Nomadic groups of Indians seasonally inhabited the region when harvests of pinyon nuts, mesquite beans, acorns, and cactus fruit offered sustenance.

Bedrock mortars—holes ground into solid rock and used to pulverize seeds during food preparation—are scattered throughout the Wonderland of Rocks area south of the Indian Cove camping site. A flurry of late 19th-century gold-mining ventures left ruins; some are accessible by hiking trails, or unmaintained roads suited only to four-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikes. On August 10, 1936, after Minerva Hoyt and others persuaded the state and federal governments to protect the area, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Joshua Tree National Monument. It protected about 825,000 acres. In 1950, the size of the park was reduced by about 290,000 acres to open the land to more mining. The park was elevated to a National Park on October 31, 1994, by the Desert Protection Act, which also added 234,000 acres to the park.

For those who wish to learn more about the Joshua Tree National Park ecosystem, the park offers a variety of ranger programs. Guided tours, patio talks, and evening programs are a few ways in which you can gain more knowledge about how humans, wildlife, and vegetation have survived in Joshua Tree National Park, as well as how certain geological forces have shaped the landscape.

One of the most popular tours and one of our favorites, offered in Joshua Tree is the Keys Ranch Walking Tour. This tour requires a reservation, so check program availability beforehand. An 18-mile motor tour leads through one of Joshua Tree National Park’s most fascinating landscapes. There are 16 stops along a dirt road and it takes approximately two hours to make the round trip. In good weather, most passenger vehicles may access the first few miles of the Geology Tour Road. Watch for the sign marking the point beyond which a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, and turn around there if your vehicle is not capable of handling deep ruts and soft sand. The road is not suitable for campers, trailers, and motor homes.

—- Location —-

Joshua Tree National Park is a desert and wilderness area in southern California. It is situated just east of Palm Springs and adjacent communities and about 60 miles east of San Bernardino, California on the border between the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Joshua Tree National Park isn’t that far off of I-10 east of Los Angeles, California.

—- Park Camping —-

Joshua Tree has a total of nine National Park Service campgrounds, which are known to fill up on weekends. Find details about park-service campgrounds, as well as overflow camping options on the park’s camping page. All campgrounds have pit toilets. Cottonwood, Black Rock, and Indian Cove are the only campgrounds with running water. For the rest, you need to bring all the water you’ll use.

Since foraging for campfire fuel is prohibited, you’ll also need to bring your own firewood. All of the sites at these campgrounds add up to 494 sites. There are also three areas that have group campsites: Cottonwood, Indian Cove, and Sheep Pass. Black Rock and Ryan Campgrounds also have designated horse camps. Most of the campgrounds can accommodate RV’s. Check the National Park Service webpage for specific information on whether or not your RV will fit.

—- Free Camping —-

Based on!Joshua+Tree+National+Park,+CA,+United+States there are 13 free campsites within 32 miles of Joshua Tree National Park.

—- Area Camping —-

—- Hiking & Biking & Horseback Riding —-

There are a number of hiking trails inside Joshua Tree National Park. They are rated from easy to very strenuous. Many of these trails are not recommended for hiking in the summertime, because it is too hot and dry (you are in a desert, after all). The trails range in length from a quarter mile to 35-mile hikes. Bike riding in the park is restricted to roads open to vehicles. The park’s Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan designates approximately 29 miles of trails for non-motorized bike use, however, the new trails cannot be used until Congress gives its approval. In the meanwhile, the park’s backcountry roads offer opportunities to explore many areas. Horseback riding has long been a popular way to access and experience Joshua Tree National Park. Two hundred fifty-three miles of equestrian trails and trail corridors traverse open lands, canyon bottoms, and dry washes throughout the park.

—- Things to do —-

The story of William F. Keys and his family is particularly representative of the hard work and ingenuity it took to settle and prosper in the Mojave Desert. The ranger-guided tour of the ranch includes the colorful story of the 60 years Bill and Frances spent working together to make a life and raise their five children in this remote location. The ranch house, school house, store, and workshop still stand; the orchard has been replanted; and the grounds are full of the cars, trucks, mining equipment, and spare parts that are a part of the Desert Queen Ranch story. Or, you can catch a double-bill under the stars at Smith’s Ranch drive-in movie theatre in Twentynine Palms. For only $5, bask in the nostalgia of a real drive-in, complete with classic snacks like refill sodas, hot dogs and heavily buttered popcorn. The lot is angled for optimum viewing, and you can tune your radio in for sound. The drive-in is open Thursday to Sunday, with new movies every Friday.

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