Joshua Tree National Park, southern California
by Sarah Shuckburgh
A best-selling album was named after the weird
yuccas of Joshua Tree National Park, but there’s more to this wilderness than
its strange flora, says Sarah Shuckburgh.
All I knew about Joshua trees before my visit was the U2
album - but while staying with my son and his girlfriend in
Los Angeles, they suggested a weekend in Joshua Tree
National Park. An easy 140-mile drive brought us from the
smog and traffic of LA to another world – past the giant
wind farms of Palm Springs, and on through rugged canyons to
the high, boulder-strewn Mojave desert and the laidback,
dusty village of Joshua Tree with its spiky, twisted yuccas,
and, beyond, half a million acres of desert wilderness.
We had booked rooms at Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway,
just outside the village. We let ourselves in, and found a
delightful, low-key paradise. Outside, russet adobe walls
surrounded a courtyard with a tinkling fountain, flowering
cacti and funky objets d’art. We relaxed on rusty loungers
in the dappled shade, with cups of tea brewed in our retro
kitchenettes. Hummingbirds hovered at our elbows before
darting towards scarlet blossoms. Beyond, the pale raked
sand was dotted with desert plants and witty artistic
installations featuring bedsprings and car parts. We wished
we were staying for a week, rather than two nights.
That evening we picked up a Mexican ‘to go’ from Santana’s
in 29 Palms, and took our spicy tacos and burritos to
Smith’s Ranch drive-in cinema. Locals have been watching
films in this field since 1954, and by the time we arrived,
dozens had already bagged the best slots. The coolest
customers parked their pickup trucks facing away from the
screen, and set up folding chairs on the back. One pickup
family were snuggling down on a mattress with blankets and
pillows. Above, the sky darkened and revealed an
unbelievable canopy of stars.
The pace of life in Joshua Tree village is slow. The next
morning we spent a long time trying to buy a boxed lunch
from a small cafe which also sold vintage aprons at $100
each. After an hour the laidback chef still hadn’t begun our
order, so we crossed the road to the Country Kitchen, a
charmingly over-decorated shack, where the proprietor
whisked up a delicious picnic in about 3 minutes.
In the Joshua Tree National Park two vast deserts meet – the
high, rocky Mojave and the lower, sandy Colorado. Driving
from the north, we found ourselves first in the Mojave –
habitat of the Joshua tree, a distinctive, spiny yucca
straight out of Dr Seuss. The story goes that this tree-like agave was named by Mormons who thought they saw Joshua
beckoning them westwards with outstretched arms. Late
19th-century cattle-ranchers and gold prospectors used the
wood to make corrals and for fuel, but for centuries before,
American Indians used the tough leaves to make baskets and
sandals, and ate the flower buds and seeds. Today, the
trees, which can live for 100 years, are a vital part of the
desert ecosystem, giving shelter to birds, mammals, insects,
snakes and lizards.
Our first stop was at the Hidden Valley, once a hideout for
outlaws and cattle rustlers. This surprising patch of green
is surrounded by a cordon of pink granite boulders, many of
them six storeys high. We entered through a gap blasted by
Bill Keys, a hardy settler who eked out a living in the
hi-desert from 1910 until his death in 1969. Today, an easy
one-mile trail winds through the quivering grasses and
pinyon pines, between giant rocks which were worn into
rounded shapes underground, over millions of years.
We drove on through a surreal landscape of grotesquely
twisted trees, and stopped again to watch intrepid climbers
inching up vertical rockfaces and then standing triumphantly
on the top, silhouetted against the dazzling desert sky. We
looked in vain for rattlesnakes basking in the sun, and for
desert tortoises, which can live for 100 years but spend
most of their lives underground. And we drank in the utter
silence of the wilderness.
Although it looks barren, the desert is not deserted.
American Indians survived here for centuries, hunting
bighorn sheep, deer, long-eared rabbits, birds, amphibians
and reptiles, and for them the parched terrain was a
well-stocked larder with acorns, mesquite pods, pinyon nuts,
seeds, berries, and cactus fruits.
Driving south east, we descended into the arid Colorado
desert. Below 3000 feet, this is part of the vast Sonoran
desert which stretches into Arizona and Mexico. Here granite
boulders and Joshua trees are replaced by drifts of pale
stones, and clumps of cacti. By good fortune, we visited the
park in spring, just after a rare shower of rain. Plants
which look dead for the rest of the year had burst into
flower, bringing flashes of yellow and scarlet to the
parched land. Huge red petals opened from the green paddles
of the beavertail cactus. The ocotillo cacti sprouted fiery
blossom on the tip of each wispy frond. We drove as far as
the Cottonwood Spring, a verdant oasis sprinkled with tiny
On our way back, we stopped at Key’s View on the crest of
the San Bernadino Mountains, to gaze out at an extraordinary
panorama of mountain and desert. In the Coachella Valley far
below, we could trace the path of the San Andreas Fault,
along which, incredibly, two great mountain ranges are
shifting at a rate of about 2.5 inches a year in sudden,
irregular bursts. Our side of the valley, the North American
tectonic plate, is moving southeast, and the other side, the
Pacific plate, is sliding past it, heading northwest. The
town of Desert Hot Springs stands directly above the fault.
Back in Joshua Tree village, we wondered how U2’s iconic
album came to be named. I questioned every ageing hippy and
long-haired biker that I saw (and there were many), but they
all had different theories. I like to believe that Bono
visited the area and, like us, fell for this awe-inspiring
desert and its strange twisted yucca.
GETTING THERE 140 miles from LA: 2 ˝ hour drive via
Interstate 10 and Route 62.
WHAT TO AVOID IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
1. The desert is full of thrilling dangers: rattlesnakes,
scorpions, coyotes, flash floods and over 300 abandoned gold
mines with hidden pits and shafts.
2. The cactus to avoid is the fluffy, benign-looking Cholla
with spines which are almost impossible to extract, although
locals advocate sellotape and tweezers.
3. Avoid dehydration. The air is hot and dry – less than 25%
humidity – and the recommendation is a gallon of water per
person per day, two gallons if cycling or taking strenuous
exercise. (US gallons are about 6 pints). At Cottonwood
Springs is the grave of an early settler who died of thirst
just 200 yards from the spring.
4. Avoid staying indoors on clear nights. The sky is
unbelievably full of stars.
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit Joshua Tree,
with temperatures of about 85’ (29’C), falling to 50' (10'C)
at night. Winter days can be chilly (60’, 15’C) and nights
freezing, and summer temperatures regularly top 100’F (38’C)
and rarely fall below 75’ even at night.
The three Visitor Centres at Joshua Tree village, 29 Palms,
and Cottonwood, are open daily. Rangers offer advice on
hiking trails, climbing and camping as well as maps and
There are 9 campsites in the park. Picnic areas and
campsites have toilets but not drinking water. For a real
desert experience, bring a tent and camp in the wilderness.
For backcountry camping you must register at a permit
station, and camp at least a mile from the road and 500 feet
from any trail.
Off-road driving is prohibited, but 4-wheel drive cars and
mountain bikes can use unpaved tracks as well as the paved
THE INSIDE TRACK
1. Make sure your hire car has a GPS. 29 Palms Highway is
100 miles long.
2. If you are here on a Saturday morning, don’t miss the
Joshua Tree farmers’ market, 8am-1pm.
3. Book early to make sure of a ranger-guided walk to Bill
Keys’ ranch (760 367 5555).
4. Book in advance, too, for a rejuvenating ‘sound bath’ in
the acoustically perfect energy dome at the Integratron,
sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex.
5. The drive-in cinema at Smith’s Ranch shows a double bill
at 8pm from Thurs-Sun.
6. Try Mesquite BBQ – cooked on aromatic wood from the
WHAT TO BRING HOME:
1. Bunches of sage: burn them and bring good karma to your
body and your home.
2. Bric-a-brac in Yucca Valley, 10 mins from Joshua Tree. As
well as trailer parks, churches, liquor stores and pawn
shops, but Yucca Valley boasts several rambling junk shops.
First published by the Telegraph