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Exploring Joshua Tree National Park


Editor's note: The height of summer is not the time to visit Joshua Tree National Park, unless you're really into hot, dry weather. But it's not a bad time to consider a visit to the park during the cooler winter months. Lee Dalton spent time in Joshua Tree back in March, and came away with the following thoughts that might help with your planning.

Can’t a person just visit a national park or monument without having to be warned of dangers at every step?

In Yellowstone, it’s grizzly bears. In Zion it’s falling off Angels Landing (or just about everywhere, for that matter), at Pipe Spring it’s barnyard chicken poop, and at Joshua Tree, according to every bulletin board, it’s aggressive Africanized bees.

Maybe we should all just stay at home where only the usual panoply of dangers abide.

Then again, that’s not much fun. Maybe we can still enjoy these places by simply keeping eyes and ears open and using some good sense.

It appears to me that Joshua Tree National Park is one of those places that seems to lack public attention and appreciation. Maybe that’s one reason why it seems a lot more peaceful than many of those places that can’t avoid it. And maybe it’s the reason why it seems a bit short on visitor services and programs.

I pulled in to Joshua Tree rather late on a perfect Spring day back in March with temperatures hovering right around 80 degrees. Entering from the south, I first arrived at Cottonwood Springs visitor center. Located in a very small building with a decidedly temporary feel, it is located next to the only campground in the park’s interior that has water.

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Sunsets are reason enough to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Lee Dalton photo.


I had stayed at Cottonwood campground a couple of years ago and had my heart set on camping at Jumbo Rocks this time. Jumbo Rocks is more centrally located in the park and gasoline was eating a lot of my travel budget. A telephone call a day or two earlier indicated I’d need to get there early to find a vacancy, but I’d been delayed along the way and didn’t make it until after noon.

Happily, though, rangers at Cottonwood told me a site report about 20 minutes earlier indicated there were about 20 sites available at Jumbo. So I decided to push ahead and hope.

Luck was with me. Even though it was the weekend of spring break, a few campsites were indeed still empty.

Jumbo Rocks is one of those geological playgrounds where Mother Nature seemed to let her happy imagination run loose. Huge blocks of tan colored monzogranite (even the name of the stuff sounds playful) lie in jumbled confusion to create a vast playground for children of all ages.

I have to admit, though, that I was a bit disappointed in the campground because I’d looked at it on Google Earth and it appeared to be full of large, widely spaced campsites. As it is, it’s a campground containing a predominance of tent sites. Many of the parking spots must be shared by four or five sites.

I had a hard time cramping my 16-foot Casita into a hole. Had I been traveling in something larger, I’d have been out of luck. Yet as I type this, I’m thinking what a hypocrite I’ve just become. Not long ago, I’d have been growling if a campground didn’t do a great job of accommodating tents. I guess there’s no way the Park Service can keep us all happy, is there?

Desert sunsets always seem to be amazing and this evening’s was no exception. Throughout the camp, people were clambering to high places with cameras ready. Childish voices sang out their fun while adults stood quietly staring westward.

Joshua trees of many sizes and grotesque shapes silhouetted themselves against colorful sky. Cameras clicked everywhere. And as the sun dropped into the horizon, temperature dropped, too; more than 15 degrees since I’d left my portable motel to watch the sunset.

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It's easy to see how the "Jumbo Rocks" area of Joshua Tree got its name. Kurt Repanshek photo.

I needed more than just the flannel shirt I had put on as an afterthought before going in search of the perfect photo. That trailer furnace will feel really good in the morning.

Morning came with a temperature of 34 degrees at daybreak, but within about 45 minutes, it was into the upper 40s. That furnace did feel good, though.

For readers who may be planning a trip to Joshua Tree, you might be interested in some of these tidbits.

Keys Ranch

Bill and Francis Keys were some of the first successful homesteaders in the area. Bill Keys branched off into some mining and built a stamp mill to process gold ore for other miners. It was last used in 1996 if I correctly recall one of the trailside panels.

Ranger-led tours of Keys Ranch are extremely popular and space must be reserved well in advance. When I was there, reservations were about a week out.

Wall Street Stamp Mill

Bill’s stamp mill, located not far east of his ranch, is an easy two-mile round trip hike. Along the way, hikers pass a few old remnants of homes, a water pumping wind mill and some other relics.

Most fascinating, however, is a stone monument carved by Bill Keys to mark the spot where he won a gunfight in May 1943. (That’s right – 1943.) Chief interpreter Joe Zarki told me the story. Seems Keys and a gentleman named Worth Bagley had a disagreement. Bagley pulled a gun and fired at Bill, but missed. Bill was a better shot and Worth died on the spot.

But local politics being what they were at the time, Mr. Keys was not very popular in town and even though it was pretty clearly self-defense, he was convicted and spent five years in San Quentin until famous mystery writer Earl Stanley Gardner learned of the story.

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And here lies Worth. Lee Dalton photo.

Gardner took up Keys’ defense and won a full pardon for him. The only interpretation provided along the trail is a single panel near the mill site.

As I hiked, I wished that I and others could have had a trail booklet. I’m sure there are any number of other fascinating stories to be told along that short trail.

The mill is surrounded by two strands of loosely strung barbed wire. On one side, however, the wire is down and judging by the number of footprints, it’s been down for some time. I stepped over the wire and followed the tracks inside the mill’s structure for a closer look.

Little details that would have been invisible from outside came to life. Some answered some of my wonderings, while others triggered new ones.

It seemed a shame that the mill isn’t a bit more accessible with some sort of interior barriers like those that keep visitors out of some parts of the bunkhouses at Pipe Spring. And again, the lack of a trail guide left many of my puzzles unanswered.

25 Cents For Water

It’s the first time I’ve ever paid for water in a national park. Water isn’t available in any interior campgrounds other than Cottonwood, and it truly is scarce in this part of the country. But it was more than a bit of a shock to find a water dispensing machine at the restroom located right beside the west entrance station.

A quarter for up to six gallons — or 50 seconds of flow time — whichever comes first. However, in a land where well water is usually full of minerals, local residents generally fill large bottles at similar stations with water that has been softened with reverse osmosis.

Much better tasting and it won’t leave a layer of crud on your cooking utensils. Camping Is permitted only in designated campsites or with a permit in the backcountry.

But it’s dry, dry, dry here. That requires a completely different kind of planning. I visited all of the interior campgrounds. As I mentioned above, I was a bit disappointed with the layout of Jumbo and think that when I return, I’ll try to find a spot in Belle. It has much more space between sites and is smaller.

Cottonwood is the only interior campground with water. It’s a great campground, but is located at the far south end of the park rather far from most of the other interesting places. There are a couple of camps just off the highway that runs north of the park, and reservations are taken for those at But they are located in dead ends with no road access to the rest of the place. (By the way, I tried for the first time to reserve sites in Zion and Grand Canyon. It was great.)

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Joshua Tree's landscape is over-sized in spots. Lee Dalton photo.

Joshua Tree’s Soundscape

Joshua Tree is never completely silent like some other parks. It’s located directly beneath two or three major high-altitude airways. A couple of them seem to converge here. The sky is often filled with contrails lacing its blue with white. So Joshua Tree’s wildness is almost always accompanied by noise from jet engines high overhead. Not loud, really, but almost ever present.

The Night Sky

One word. Stunning!

So Much Park – So Little Time

There are 800,000 acres to explore in Joshua Tree and much of it is wilderness. It’s the place where the Sonoran Desert meets the Mojave Desert. A place where slight differences in elevation make huge differences in moisture and plant life.

It’s not a place that can be explored thoroughly from the paved roads only. A number of unpaved roads lace the place and lead to sweeping vistas and breathtaking discoveries. But some require four-wheel drive if you want to be sure of making it back to civilization again.

For geologists, there’s a wide variety of fascinations. Monzogranite predominates throughout the park, but it’s intermixed with volcanics and metamorphics of all sorts. The area is laced with faults and the San Andreas Fault, which lies just west of the park, reminds us of the role of plate tectonics in shaping our world.

For botanists, there are over 800 species of vascular plants. Most notable of course is the park’s namesake, the Joshua Tree. But other varieties of cacti, grasses, and herbaceous plants provide an endless variety vegetation.

Joshua Tree is a place of quiet wonder. It needs time to enjoy.

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Lee --Thanks for a great article--- got to add it to the list of places to go!!!

About two years ago we went to Joshua Trees NP on a day trip. We have been there several times before. At noon we stopped at a picnic table in the middle of the park. We put our food out, and in a few minutes bees landed on our food. We started to shoo them away, and they started to attack us. We jumped in the car, and waited a bit hoping to clean up. We had to give up, and go on.

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