Everything you need to know abut Joshua Tree National Park in US
Imagine a land area that is three times the size of Hong Kong and five times the size of Singapore, dedicated as a national park- a park full of natural wonders, spectacular scenery, amazing wildlife and endless hiking trails and campsites available year around for visitors to enjoy. And it attracts over 13 lakhs of visitors annually from all over the globe!
This gigantic park consists of two different but connected areas that spread over 3,200 sq. km. Using more familiar measures, this national park is larger than Ernakulam District and a third larger than Kozhikode District.
Roughly half of this massive area is at a high elevation between 1,000 to 3,000 meters dotted with picturesque, spike-leafed evergreen growth seen nowhere else in the world. Both are forbidding deserts, but the lower half is drier and harsher. The union of these two distinct ecosystems is the Joshua Tree National Park situated in Southern California. What is also remarkable is that this gigantic park is within a short drive from the highly developed and densely populated urban megalopolis of Los Angeles.
When one thinks of a desert, the imagery of sand dunes dotted with symmetrical carvings of camel tracks of the Gulf countries or the Sahara Desert comes to mind. They project endless wide-open nothingness and barren landscapes inhospitable to life.
However, there are many other types of deserts- hot and dry deserts, semi-arid deserts, coastal deserts, and cold deserts. Some of these large and diverse deserts exist in the southwestern U.S. They are primarily semi-arid areas with varied fauna and flora.
Among the main deserts of North America are the Sonoran Desert and the Mojave Desert. Mojave lies entirely in the state of California and it is the higher and cooler of the two. Sonoran Desert is a low-lying desert occupying southern California, Arizona and the northern regions of Mexico. The western part of the Sonoran Desert is named Colorado Desert and that extends to Southern California.
The human history of the region can be traced to the days after the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. Evidence of their primitive life is now seen scattered throughout the area, especially near certain campgrounds in the park. Since the area proved to be inhospitable for establishing large permanent settlements and since more suitable areas were in close proximity, there is little evidence of long-term human presence beyond occasional nomadic incursions.
Believers of the Mormon religion were among the early explorers of the desert wilderness. Mormonism is a religious sect started by Joseph Smith in New York the 19th century. Their controversial claim of a biblical connection to the North American continent and practices of clannishness, polygamy and secrecy attracted the ire of American citizenry of the eastern states of that time who practiced the more conventional traditions of Christianity. Forced to seek a homeland elsewhere, many Mormons moved west and were among the first white people to reach the lower ranges of the Mojave Desert. They finally settled down in the northern regions around the Rocky and Wasatch mountains presently known as the state of Utah.
The Joshua Tree – the biblical connection
The park is located some 100 miles east of Los Angeles and directly north of the city of Palm Springs in California. As the name indicates, the park is home for the rare and unique Joshua trees. Joshua trees are spiny, tree-like plants that are native to the Mojave Desert. Although similar in appearance to palm trees, they are not trees at all but are related to Yucca family, a close relative of Agave, the plant used to make tequila liquor. The familiar ‘kaitha’ (കൈത) plant of the Pandanaceae family is a distant relative of the yucca plants.
The name “Joshua Tree” was given by the early Mormon settlers. The tree is rumored to have guided the settlers while crossing the Mojave Desert during a time when roads or familiar landmarks did not exist in the largely unexplored American West. The unique shape of the tree reminded them of the biblical story in which God apparently commanded the biblical character Joshua to keep his outstretched hands up for extended periods of time to guide Israelites in their conquest of the city of Canaan. Joshua is believed to have held out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city until the city fell. The shaggy leaves of the desert yuccas projected the imagery of a javelin wielding Joshua to the early Mormon explorers. And the name ‘Joshua Tree’ prevailed.
Joshua trees only grow in the Mojave Desert half of the park situated in the northern and western highlands. In Mojave, these trees dominate the open spaces. As mentioned before, these are not really trees; they are succulents, a type of plants that store water. In their dry ecosystems, however, the locals consider them as trees of the desert. In reality, they are the world's largest yucca plants. The tree also bears the Spanish name izote de desierto, which means "desert dagger" describing their extremely sharp and deceptively serrated leaves.
Today we enjoy these rare Joshua trees with their grotesque appearance and twisted branches adorned with unforgivingly spiky leaves as one of nature’s distinct and peculiar creations. These trees tell a story of survival when faced with harshness of weather and loss of habitat with human encroachment for commercialization. Rigid leaves covered by a waxy surface help these trees survive in the desert by being able to resist wilting and water loss. Water is stored in its trunk and leaves. Their sprawling roots are about 3 feet deep to help maintain a stable upright posture even when the fierce desert wind blows.
Joshua trees grow very slowly, adding just a few inches each year but will ultimately reach heights of about 40 feet. The trees live about 500 years. These trees bloom under ideal weather cycles of well-timed rains and crisp winter freeze. They help sustain another desert life also. The desert moth lays eggs on the blossoms where the larvae feed on the seeds and the developed moth helps spread the pollen around- a happy symbiosis.
Tarnished golden dreams
Modern forays of Americans to this area started with the famous ‘gold rush’ of 1849 when hordes of people from the more populous eastern states of the U.S. rushed to California in search of gold. Hardy prospectors started digging everywhere in the state. They dug some 300 mines in the present-day park area also. All but one attempt miserably failed to unearth any appreciable amount of gold. The exception was the Lost Horse Mine where the prospectors extracted 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver between 1894 and 1931.
Mining is a highly invasive activity to the environment. Not only did the digging destabilize and uproot multitudes of endangered Joshua trees, but the purification of gold-laden earth involved the use of toxic mercury. Water was added to mined rock to make a slurry and made to wash over copper plates laden with mercury. Gold particles clung to mercury and the rest of the slurry with mercury washed into the ground to remain there forever. The lure of gold also brought lawlessness to the area. Gun battles, organized gangs and daring fights were very common.
The desecration of the desert infuriated nature lovers of the time. However, it was economics that ended all mining activities since no more gold was found or mined in this area. The remnants of these gold mines remain, and they now attract a different kind of explorers- tourists.
Faced with extinction by commercial encroachment, Joshua trees received a major boost by a naturalist and dedicated conservationist, Minerva Hoyt. Her efforts led to the declaration of the park land as a national monument in 1936 and the formation of an expanded area as a national park in 1994. The trees are now flourishing in this vast protected land.
Camping, hiking and rock climbing
The most interesting geological displays of the park are its rock formations located in the Mojave Desert areas. The massive rock formations not only project an ominous landscape but some of them have received interesting shapes through weathering. The perfect example of this is the Skull Rock, a rock that projects the image of a skull when seen from its side.
Hills of bare rock occurring as monoliths and groups of majestic mountains of Joshua Tree offer unique opportunities to rock climbing. Climbers and boulderers throng to the park from around the world. This high desert monzogranite climbing hub is famous for its traditional-style crack, slab, and steep face climbing. The park offers challenges for all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from. Joshua Tree National Park is truly a world-class climbing destination.
Novice climbers can expand their climbing prowess through instruction from private expert climbers. The park, however, insist that the instructors are certified, and they carry insurance.
There are dozens of hiking trails in the park. Some of the trails can be completed in less than an hour. However, there are trails that take several days to complete. These are aimed at more experienced hikers. For example, the California Riding and Hiking Trail is a three- to four-day journey through the Mojave Desert landscapes.
The park offers an enchanting environment for camping. To spend a full day or more in the wilderness allows the city dwellers to capture the spirit of a special place. Camping provides the full experience of hiking, seeing the natural beauty, sunrises and sunsets, to listen to the yips of coyotes, feel the dark, starry skies and above all experience the beauty of silence.
Joshua Tree National Park grows on you. During each visit one discovers a new natural wonder. Such is the magic of this park. I want to go back there again and spend a longer time in tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angles!
(Dr. R. Unnikrishnan lives near Los Angeles, California)