Is Joshua Tree National Park Your Next Outdoor Adventure?

Joshua Tree with Post-Pollination Seedpods at Sunset

Is Joshua Tree National Park Your Next Outdoor Adventure?

In Joan Didion’s 1979 The White Album, she includes a multi-part essay called “In the Islands,” a piece about Hawaii written over ten years and originally published by Vogue. It is paradoxically present and nostalgic, permanent and fleeting, joyful and somber. It is a literary diorama of place . . . and how place changes. Upon reading it, all I could think about was Joshua Tree.

I’ve been to Joshua Tree National Park seven times over the last ten years, the place now almost a documentation of how life flows and, sometimes, passes us by. When surrounded by the familiar granite boulder formations and the repetition of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) reaching skyward, sometimes I wonder if I’m the only thing that’s changed over time; I’ve been to the park to produce a short film, for a friend’s wedding, for personal exploration, for climbing, and, most recently, as a swansong to a failing relationship. But if I’ve learned anything about national parks during my decade-long journey to visit them all, it’s that change is constant and often imperceptible.

For example, with the climate changing to a troubling degree, blooms in the desert have been occurring earlier and more frequently. Hydrology regimes have also been triggering more super blooms than usual. Smog from distant Californian cities, such as LA, can often drift into the Coachella Valley, obscuring overlooks in the park, like Keys View, where you can see all the way to Mexico on a clear day. This pollution also carries nitrates with it that gets deposited in the soil, altering the ecosystem and allowing for invasive species to grow—species that blanket the ground and allow for more severe wildfires. Couple all of this with increasing visitation rates and the popularization of the park with young hipsters, and the park becomes, all at once, present and nostalgic, permanent and fleeting, joyful and somber. Perhaps, like the nuances of a human heart, this is why we collectively cherish the place so much.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua Tree Remains A Top 5 National Park

Joshua Tree was my nineth national park (having now been to fifty-six) and it still remains on my top-five-favorite-parks list. The first time I went, back in 2010, I had no idea what to expect—of course, I knew about the trees, but everyone kept saying the bizarre boulders were the true treasure. My friends and I arrived by night, guided by the flashing red lights of wind turbines peppering the Palm Springs landscape, and came to camp outside the town of Yucca Valley. With the rise of the sun, we then entered the park and found everything exquisite, especially the rock formations. We played for hours, scrambling around, leaping minor chasms, and losing track of time like kids on a playground. And Joshua Tree is a playground. One of my favorite things about the park is that it’s so compact (though still 790,600 acres), meaning that you don’t have to drive far from one destination to the next. This reduces car time while increasing actual time outside (a problem I’ve had with other parks in the NPS system). My prime adventure locations have come to be Hidden Valley, Skull Rock, the Hall of Horrors, and the Cholla Cactus Garden.

Climbing at the Hidden Valley Campground

Joshua Tree’s Geology Breakdown

In terms of geology, the park is split between ecosystems where two deserts converge: the Mojave and the Colorado. The former is high desert (topping out at 5,819ft), while the Colorado is low desert (bottoming out at 536ft). Most of the famous magic, such as the boulders and Joshua trees, happen on the western Mojave side and, hence, where most of the tourists reside. The Colorado side is more stereotypically barren desert and, like prairies compared to mountains, gets less adulation.

After that first visit, I knew I had to return. Once I did, I’d become a rock climber. This new hobby completely changed the experience and offered a new perspective on a familiar landscape. The area is great for climbing because of the geological instability that’s created the granite boulder formations, resulting in, according to the NPS, more than eight thousand identified climbing routes and two thousand boulder problems. Subsequent visits then saw me dirtbagging with other climbers, many of them fulfilling their thirty-day camping limits while taking advantage of the cool winter days. They were always identified by telltale signs: climbing harnesses at any hour of the day; toothbrushes in mouths when teeth are not being brushed; bouldering crash pads as cumbersome backpacks; the clanking of carabiners and cams wherever they roamed. This became my community.

However, with the advancement of age and an ailing body, shoulder injuries came to ground me, slowing my reckless youth and dangerous escapades. In its place, I came to appreciate a new hobby in the park: wildflower viewing. Joshua Tree is great for this: cacti, poppy, monkeyflower, pearly everlasting, datura, paintbrush, plus so many more. This, coupled with the bird watching and other wildlife sightings, makes the destination well worth it for any naturalist.

Desert Globe Mallow

Joshua Tree’s Local Culture

Rocks, climbing, plants, and animals not your thing? Perhaps you’d relish in the local culture. Favorite spots include Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown for drinks and live music, Castenada’s in Yucca Valley for authentic and affordable Mexican food, Crossroads Café for brunch, Frontier Café for coffee, and Hoof & The Horn for apropos clothing options.

In just writing this and reflecting, I find myself daydreaming over my next visit. Joshua Tree will be a park I return to for the rest of my life, forever exploring familiar and foreign trails and scrambling routes. If you’re looking for guidance on a visit, GuideGap has exceptional guides in the area who can curate an affordable travel agenda for you based on your specifications. Scott Turner’s Hike the Parks: Joshua Tree National Park (published by Mountaineers Books) is also a great resource that fits right in your back pocket. Another favorite book has been Rubén Martínez’s Desert America, in which he documents the rise of the art scene in Joshua Tree and how this propagated the culture which followed. In closing, I’d also encourage you to check out my short film A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends, which was largely filmed in Joshua Tree and offers some nice videography of this landscape that I revere and deeply respect.

Tyler Dunning

About The Author:  Tyler

Tyler Dunning grew up in southwestern Montana, having developed a feral curiosity and reflective personality at a young age. This mindset has led him around the world, to nearly all of the U.S. national parks, and to the darker recesses of his own creativity. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer. Check out Tyler’s website at: Tyler Dunning

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