By Michael Lanza
In the Southern California desert, where the Mojave and Colorado-Sonoran deserts overlap amid a sea of hundreds of granite monoliths, lies one of America’s most unusual outdoor playgrounds: Joshua Tree National Park. Long known as a mecca for rock climbers, with some 8,000 established climbing routes, the park also has miles of trails for hiking, running, and horseback riding, beautiful camping among rock formations where kids can scramble around, and a vast backcountry to explore within its nearly 800,000 acres, more than half of which is protected as wilderness.
I’ve made several trips to Joshua Tree over the years, mostly to rock climb, but also with my family. The photos below are from my most-recent visits, climbing and hiking in the Wonderland of Rocks, Real Hidden Valley, and elsewhere, running the trail up 5,461-foot Ryan Mountain, and walking the path through the fascinating Cholla Cactus Garden in late afternoon on a mild, mid-winter day, when the low-angle sunlight backlighting the cholla cacti seemed to make them glow with an inner light.
With elevations ranging from around 1,500 feet to the 5,816-foot summit of Quail Mountain, the park hosts a diversity of flora and fauna. Ocotillo, jumping cholla and prickly pear cacti, blackbrush, and Mojave yucca salt the dry ground. Black-tailed jackrabbits dash between islands of vegetation, and rattlesnakes lurk in the rocks. With luck, you might see bighorn sheep on the cliffs.
But the park’s signature species is the spiky Joshua tree. With thick, twisting limbs terminating in dense clusters of needle-like leaves that evoke a medieval mace, the Joshua looks like some unfinished cross between a small tree and a tall cactus. Actually a yucca, Joshua trees grow profusely above 3,000 feet in the Mojave Desert. Viewed against a towering wall of golden granite or clouds ignited by a setting sun, a sea of Joshua trees stretching to the horizon constitutes one of the most unique and stirring landscapes in the national park system.
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Sadly, the Joshua tree’s future looks dire in its namesake national park, due to climate change. I write about that and other impacts of the warming climate in my award-winning book about my young family’s adventures in 11 national parks, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
At this southern latitude, this desert proves nearly inhospitable to people in summer, but quite pleasant in fall, winter, and spring—giving it a long peak season during a time of year when many northern, mountain parks and public lands are much less accessible.
Click on the photo gallery below to view the images in slide show mode. Then see my stories “Facing the Biggest Challenge Inside: Friendship and Climbing Rocks in Joshua Tree National Park,” about climbing and hiking there with an old friend, and “In the Land of Dr. Seuss: Exploring Joshua Tree,” about climbing and hiking in the park with my family.
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