In Southern California, just outside of Palm Springs, the Mojave and Colorado deserts combine in Joshua Tree National Park. A variety of animals and plants – including the iconic Joshua Tree for which the park is named – make their homes in the desert ecosystem, and it’s also a terrific playground for humans.
Designated a national monument in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it wasn’t until 1994 that Joshua Tree took on national park status. In 1941, the first year visitation records were kept, 31,285 people visited the park; last year the park’s visitation surpassed 2 million visitors for the first time. The 1,238-square mile park is always open, 24 hours a day, seven days a week year-round, which is especially nice during these hot summer days; perhaps opt for an early morning or early evening visit to skip the heat of the day.
Speaking of visits, to make the most of yours, we checked in with Visit Greater Palm Springs for these 10 tips on things not to miss in the park.
1. Get the lay of the land – Joshua Tree National park has three visitors centers (open year-round) and a nature center (open seasonally) to help you get the lay of the land within the park. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is found within the Village of Joshua Tree (northwest); the Cottonwood Visitor Center is in Cottonwood Spring (south); the Oasis Visitor Center is in Twentynine Palms (north); and the Black Rock Nature Center is found at the Black Rock Campground (northwest) and open October through May.
2. Don’t get stuck – The Cholla Cactus Garden, a field filled with Cholla Cactus, is easily accessible via a quarter-mile loop trail. To get to the trailhead, simply drive 20 miles north of the Cottonwood Visitor Center, lace up and go.
3. Back on te ranch – Before it became a national park, cattle ranchers, miners and homesteaders made a go of it in Joshua Tree. Park ranger-guided walking tours (the only access) to Keys Ranch tell the story of Bill and Frances Keys who made a life for themselves and their five children. You’ll see the remains of their ranch, including the ranch house, school house and store, and the grounds are filled with cars, trucks and mining equipment that were used long ago.
4. What a view – Panoramic views of the Salton Sea (230 feet below sea level), Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault (which runs 700 miles from the Gulf of California to north of San Francisco) can be seen from Keys View, a perch atop the Little San Bernardino Mountains; the best views are from the 0.2-mile loop trail. These views aren’t hard to get to, either – just a 20-minute drive into the park.
5. Hit the trails – With 191 miles of hiking trails and 32 trailheads, there are plenty of places to explore during your time in Joshua Tree National Park. Whether you’ve scheduled time for a quick nature trail walk, a long, strenuous hike, or want to be out all day, you’ll find those types of trails and more within the park. One day hike favorite is Ryan Mountain, a three-mile roundtrip hike (strenuous) that provides terrific views of Lost Horse, Queen and Pleasant valleys.
6. Discover Hidden Valley – Accessible via a one-mile loop trail, this rock-enclosed valley is thought to have once been used by cattle rustlers. Today, take your time to check out the rock formations that surround you.
7. Climb a rock – Everyone from experienced to novice rock climbers and boulderers will find challenging climbs on Joshua Tree National Park’s more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes. That’s a lot of rock to conquer. Before heading out for your climb, check the park’s website for climbing route closures and guidelines, and be sure to practice Leave No Trace.
8. A picture’s worth … – Anyone could argue that all of Joshua Tree National Park is Insta-worthy, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Two top photo opps not to miss are Heart Rock at White Tank, a heart-shaped rock, and Skull Rock that looks, well, like a skull.
9. Keep on rockin’ in Joshua Tree – The story goes that when rocker Gram Parsons died in 1973 near the park, friends took matters into their own hands and created his body near Cap Rock; he was a frequent visitor to Joshua Tree. More than 40 years later, Parsons’ fans still visit Cap Rock (accessible by a 0.4-mile loop trail) to pay their respects. If you go, just remember to Leave No Trace.
10. Seeing stars – When the sun sets in Joshua Tree National Park, Mother Nature puts on quite a show – oranges, reds, purples and yellows fill the sky. Once the sun disappears below the horizon, the show continues with the incredible show overhead filled with stars. In October 2016, the park is hosting its Night Sky Festival, so mark your calendar.
For more on Joshua Tree National Park visit www.nps.gov
Susan B. Barnes, Special for USA TODAY