A Tale of Two Deserts: Joshua Tree National Park

The focus of our Trekking the Planet NPS journey is to venture to new and lesser known U.S. national parks. However, for our first park we chose a familiar place: Joshua Tree National Park, which is only a one hour drive from our home in Palm Desert, CA. The park is unique in that it features plants and wildlife from two deserts: the Mojave and Colorado. The Mojave, characterized by higher elevations, features rock formations and the namesake Joshua trees, while the Colorado is known for lower elevations and plants such as cholla and ocotillo.

Being only a short distance away from Joshua Tree allowed us to time our arrival in the late morning, increasing our chances of finding a place to camp, since most sites can not be reserved. Joshua Tree was the 11th most visited park in 2016, and it became evident to us as we arrived. There were many cars lined up at the entrance gate, and we had to wait about 20 minutes to buy our annual pass, covering admission at this park and the 26 others we plan to visit.

There are nine campgrounds in the park and we chose to try to camp at Hidden Valley, which provided good access to the hikes we wanted to do in the area. Arriving in late morning paid off, as we were able to obtain a site that someone was just leaving. We had a picnic table with a great view of the valley and Joshua trees around us, as well as a trash dumpster and pit toilet just a few steps away. It felt luxurious after 4 ½ months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last year. 

Early morning view from our Hidden Valley campsite

Hidden Valley is a popular campsite for the many rock climbers who visit Joshua Tree, with thousands of formations to climb in the park. Campers on both sides of us were rock climbing, and we enjoyed hearing their stories. However, we were here to hike. As soon as we set up our camp, we headed out to our first trailhead.

We have visited Joshua Tree many times. Some of those occasions were prior to it gaining national park status in 1994. The park is comprised of 790,636 acres and is the size of the state of Rhode Island, so there are many trails we have not yet completed. Our first hike in the Mojave took us through valleys full of Joshua trees on our way to an area of oaks and pines. 

Joshua trees along the trail
Pine and oak trees on our hike

Many Joshua trees (actually a variety of the yucca plant) were in bloom. The temperature was in the 80s F and there was no shade, so we carried plenty of water. Even though we were in the desert, we could see and hear birds as we hiked. There are actually over 200 bird species in the park. We even surprised several quail who flew out of a bush in front of us. Towards the end of our 9 mile hike, Darren spied a hare and was able to photograph him as he hopped away.

Hare running away

The next day, a second Mojave hike connected several trails in the northwest portion of the park to form a 6 mile loop. The trail had some steep elevation gain and loss and it was another hot day. We took a break in some shade and then proceeded into a beautiful section that wound through several rock formations. The heavy winter rains made the ground greener than usual and was a nice contrast to the rock formations surrounding us. It was another satisfying hike. 

Darren hiking through the rock formations
Green grasses and bushes along the hike

On our third day at Joshua Tree we left the Mojave and drove to the southern part of the park, entering the Colorado Desert. After securing a campsite at the Cottonwood Campground, we set out on our final hike to Lost Palms Oasis. The California fan palm is the only palm native to the state and can be found in five different oases in Joshua Tree. The largest concentration of palms is located in Lost Palms Canyon, a 3.5 mile hike each way. While walking, we could appreciate the difference between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. The Joshua trees in the Mojave were replaced with yucca, cholla and ocotillo along the trail here. There were more blooming plants too, including a sea of purple flowers in a wash that we passed.

Sandy hiking through the yucca and ocotillo
Blooming flowers
Purple flowers in the wash

Another hot day of hiking was rewarded when we reached the canyon and could see the palms below us. It was a steep climb down, but we enjoyed the shade from the trees while eating a lunch of salami, cheese, dried fruit and sun tea.

Lost Palms Oasis

The 22 miles of hiking in Joshua Tree National Park gave us the opportunity to experience two different deserts and the unique flora and fauna of each. Our travels will now take us to the Sonoran Desert and a unique type of caucus in Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

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