Joshua Tree National Park: Then and Now

Photo Joshua Tree National Park with Joshua trees and Mount San Gorgonio, photo by Beth Nault-Warner
Mount San Gorgonio and Joshua trees

The allure of Joshua Tree National Park is undeniable. It attracts artists, writers, psychedelic rockers, spiritual vagabonds, campers, climbers, hippie wannabees, genius scientists, yogis, middle-aged hipsters, psychics, and grumpy old cowboys; all of whom seek the freedom of its wide-open expanses. There’s more to J-Tree than its boulders, rugged mountains, gold mine ruins, and plains dotted with Dr. Seuss spikey trees. Some people flock to Joshua Tree attracted to the desert’s ever present sense of danger. Some make the pilgrimage seeking some type of cosmic connection. Others visit simply because they want to feel differently than they do at home. Action, adventure, rejuvenation, spiritual awakening- the park offers it all.

Baker’s Dam in March, 2019, photo by BNW

Last year, Joshua Tree hosted 3 million visitors. Each morning a line of traffic sits at the parks entrance waiting to pay for their day pass with their cameras, mountain bikes, climbing ropes, and go pros poised and ready. They each have enough water to sustain them. They have snacks and lunch packed as there are no restaurants or gas stations inside park. During the day the rock formations are dotted with climbers. The shorter trails with easy parking and access are busy with the foot traffic of day hikers. At night, the over 500 campsites are usually full with those excited to see the starry night sky that is Joshua Tree’s pride and joy.


Joshua Tree National Park 101

Joshua Tree is made up of two desert systems. Each with distinct ecological characteristics. The difference between the systems is elevation and the division between the two is abrupt, visible to the naked eye. It’s infinitely variable, yet delicately fragile. It is a land shaped by violent torrents of unpredictable rain and climatic extremes. Stream beds are usually dry, and water holes are few.

Mojave and Colorado Deserts. NPS.Gov map

The Colorado, part of the Sorano Desert, sits at the bottom half of the park. The lowest point of the park sits at its southeastern boundary only 536 feet above sea level. It’s oppressively hot in the summer, which the rattlesnakes love. It is sparse; seemingly hostile to the casual observer. In the summer, there are short, hard, monsoon patterned rain storms. Kangaroo rats and the kit fox live among spindly, spike-like ocotillo plants and the ‘jumping’ cholla cactus. It is the hottest desert in North America.

The Mojave is the ‘high desert’. The summit of Mt. Quail sits at 5,814 feet above sea level. It is characterized by wide, sandy plains aggressively dotted with granite cliffs and photogenic rock piles. This is the area where you will find the Joshua trees. The Mojave’s boundaries are made up of three separate mountain ranges. It freezes in the winter and occasionally snows. Even still, it is considered the driest desert in North America.

Spring Blooms, photo BNW

Joshua Tree receives between 2-10 inches of rainfall a year depending on the area. (To put this in perspective, St. Paul receives about 33 inches a year and Nashville receives about 47.)

These deserts are surprisingly far from barren. Spring wild flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Coyotes, yucca night lizards, the burrowing owl, desert tortoises, tarantulas, the roadrunner, and the elusive Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep all call Joshua Tree home. The park is home to 46 reptile, 57 mammal, and over 250 bird species. There are over 813 higher plant species.

Spring Wildflowers, Joshua Tree

Hundreds of fault lines crisscross the park. The San Andreas runs to the south; the Blue Cut Fault cuts through the center; the park has six fault-caused oases that support life. It is an amazing place to see raw rocks and the effects of earth quakes.

Joshua Tree National Park is immense. It covers 792,510 acres spanning 1,238 square miles. That’s about the same size as Rhode Island.

The area was proclaimed a National Monument in 1936, a protected wilderness in 1976, a biosphere reserve in 1984, and a National Park in 1994. Joshua Tree provides a space where indigenous species of plants and animals dwell and thrive. For many of these species that are endangered or threatened, this park may be the last hope of survival.


Joshua Tree’s Watery Past

The California desert is the largest primarily intact wildernesses in North America. Joshua Tree National Park, which encompasses 800,000 acres of this area, encapsulates a record of nature that spans millennia. While currently serving to protect the park’s fragile natural environment which is incredibly important for our future, it chronicles a natural and cultural history that tells the story of our past.

Twenty-five thousand years ago, the Colorado Desert was covered by a huge ancient lake. Fossils prove that it was home to the now extinct mastodons and mammoths, Shasta ground sloths, and saber tooth cats. Fossils also show that the area was home to horses, camels, and llamas.

Camel’s tooth fossil from Joshua Tree. Photo from Director’s Blog of Western Science Center

Many different types of trees grew across the area in this cooler-wetter climate. Forests covered the mountain tops. Smaller lakes dotted the Mojave area connected by rivers and streams. Joshua trees grew in abundance across both areas.

Around 5,000 years ago, in environmentally friendlier times, people lived and thrived here. Anthropologists have named the first people in the area the Pinto. The Pinto people hunted, gathered, and trapped around these rivers and streams. It is thought that they lived in small groups moving to find new resources when necessary. There have been discoveries of many projectiles used to hunt. This period predates ceramics.

Prior to 1925, there were no significant archeological studies of the California deserts. This changed with the arrival of the Campbell’s in the mid-1920’s.

Elizabeth Campbell, Joshua Tree’s finest archeologist

Elizabeth Campbell and her husband, Bill, moved to Twentynine Palms seeking dry desert air to aid Bill’s delicate health due to WWI mustard gas exposure. Neither were trained archeologist or even scientists. But Elizabeth soon found herself enthralled by the past after finding arrowheads in sand dunes while collecting firewood. An old prospector, Bill McHaney, who lived in the area, visited with the Campbell’s often. He told them stories about finding caches of ancient pottery and also past on stories about the native cultures in the area. These stories increased Elizabeth’s curiosity.

Modern archeology at the time focused on technological advancements of prehistoric peoples. But Elizabeth, having lived in the desert now, was particularly interested in the practical relationship between the native tribes and water. This work was considered outside of the mainstream. Many, if not most, scientists dismissed her work as unproven.

“Camps extended around the lake on the old high-water line. Nothing was recovered higher than this above the old lake margin, and nothing from below. Here is a clear case of ancient people camping close to a lake…Nothing other than a water level would cause aboriginal man to camp on an exact altitude about an area of approximately 100 square miles, proving that the human occupancy was coincident with the time of the lake’s overflow.”

Elizabeth Campbell, Field Notes, 1937, from the book, Purple Hummingbird by Warren & Schneider, U of Utah Press

Elizabeth became serious about her findings as her worries about local development grew. She was concerned about the building of roads and homes around and through the desert. She was afraid that construction and development would damage existing archeological sites as well as ruin any that remained covered. She sought the council of several well-known archeologists that had expressed an interest in her work. They advised her on scientific methods to develop her theories and encouraged her to publish. Elizabeth’s field notes soon evolved into substantive papers that contributed to the development of regional prehistory theory. Today, you can find the Campbells field notes, photographs, and notations along with the artifacts that they collected at Joshua Tree National Park and at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.

Petroglyphs, Joshua Tree
Mortar, close to Baker Dam, photo BNW

Later in time, after the Pinto, came the Serrano, Chemehuevi, Mojave, and Cahuilla peoples. Animals were hunted with various types of traps, nets and snares, as well as bow and arrows. Baskets were used for gathering plants, cooking, and storing. A considerable number of clay pots have been found showing that they were also used for carrying, storing, and keeping water cool. Mortars and pestles were used for pounding and grinding food. Flint knives have been found as have horn and bone spoons and stirrers. It is thought that the tribes used the area for both long-term and transitional homes before the Europeans began arriving. Native peoples gravitated to land where food, water, and shelter was available. The desert provided rocky areas for shelter; oases and springs provided water; vegetation provided food.

Tribal peoples lived in balance with nature. They believed and taught that humans were not here first nor did we arrive of our own devices. The elements (water, air, earth, and fire) are sacred. And they were here first. The Earth is meant to be valued and respected. What one learns and feels in Joshua Tree is that native legacy deserves to be acknowledged and honored with a most honest and humble gratitude.

Europeans first came to this area in 1769 but found the climate and landscape inhospitable. However, greed is a powerful motivator and whites began to move into the area in greater numbers in the mid-to-late 1800’s. They sought animals to trap, mail routes, gold mines, and places to graze cattle. Many journeyed long distances arriving half starved and depended on the kindness of native tribe members living in the area to save them. Then the whites killed animals for fur, built dams, cut down a lot of trees, dug mines, built roads, spread disease, and killed some of the very tribe members who had previously helped them. The military even arrived with tanks and artillery in the 1940’s to practice and then left their garbage. This is all a painful part of both Joshua Tree’s and the United States’ history.

Joshua trees, photo BNW

Some Mormon pioneers wanted to be part of the gold rush and headed into Southern California crossing the Mojave Desert using the Old Spanish Trail as a route to avoid the snowy Sierra Nevada. They settled first in San Bernardino building a colony and growing. Then some came back to the desert to look for gold. The iconic trees in the area were named by these early Mormon settlers who thought them symbolic of the prophet Joshua waving them with open arms into the promised land.

Photo of Joshua tree spring blooms, by Beth Nault-Warner
Spring Joshua tree blooms, photo BNW

Not everyone was enamored with the distinctive yuccas. One early white explorer said that they were quite possibly the “most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.” Francis Fultz, a Los Angeles writer wrote in 1912, “A landscape filled with Joshua trees has a nightmare effect even in broad daylight: at the witching hour it can be almost infernal.” Beauty is obviously subjective.

A Joshua Tree local, interested in medicinal herbs, attended a local event. She had the honor to speak with a revered cultural anthropologist and a member of the Morongo band. As they spoke, she used the term ‘Mormon tea’, which is made with the local ephedra plant. The man immediately stopped smiling becoming somber. He explained, “Never call the ephedra plant Mormon tea.” “Why?” asked the local. She had never heard it called anything else. He responded, “The Cahuilla used this plant to treat syphilis, gonorrhea, and other venereal diseases—all of which were introduced by the Mormon or white settlers. That name is disrespectful and does not honor the colonial spirit.” (Origins of this story can be found on HDTK, High Desert Test Kitchen)

There is currently one paleontological site in Joshua Tree with the potential for eight more. There are over 700 hundred archeological sites, 88 historical structures, and 19 cultural landscapes.


Joshua Tree Heroine, Minerva Hoyt

Minerva Hoyt, photo from NPS.gov

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a socialite from Mississippi, is a hero to California deserts, and to Joshua Tree. She married a prominent New York surgeon and the two moved to Pasadena in the 1890’s. Hoyt became interested in gardening. Cactus gardens were in fashion in the LA area and rare, wild desert plants were dug up and transplanted. Hoyt was horrified by this practice. After the deaths of her son and husband, Hoyt dedicated herself to advocating for and protecting the desert wilderness. She founded the International Desert Conservation League in 1930. Working with the Mexican president, the League was able to create a 10,000-acre cactus reserve near Tehuacan. However, advocacy in the United States proved more challenging.

Hoyt turned her sights on Washington, D.C. President Hoover put off Hoyt’s conservation efforts time and time again. Eventually, and with dogged perseverance, she had success with President Roosevelt. He designated Joshua Tree a National Monument in 1936.


Anyone who has climbed Joshua Tree’s peaks, hiked it’s wide expanses, or stared into its magically starry sky has felt the wholeness that comes from being here. Health experts say that the separation between nature and ourselves is contributing to our mental and physical decline. A visit definitely makes one feel, on a primal level, that this is a place for health and healing.

Joshua Tree may eventually provide solutions for our future. As natural threats loom large, the park serves as a laboratory. Research ecologists seek to understand climate change. Others study air pollution, invasive species, conservation, and the restoration of landscapes. Perhaps this is Joshua Tree’s most attractive attribute, it serves as an important source of hope and optimism for the future. It’s a constant reminder that there is something larger on Earth than ourselves; something valuable and worth saving.


Things to Know Before You Visit Joshua Tree:

  • There is no water or food in the park. None! But lots of sun, wind, and heat. Plan ahead and take what you need. Bring your own everything. A general rule for hydration is to take your body weight and divide by two. This is how many ounces you should aim to drink during the day. Increase this number for sweltering hot and/or windy days and if you be exerting yourself by hiking, climbing, or biking. One gallon of water contains 128 ounces. Bring snacks and lunch and/or dinner. Sunscreen is a must. Dress in layers. Temperature fluctuations between sunrise and sunset can vary by as much as 50 degrees. No lie.
  • Know where you are going. The allure of getting lost in the desert is delicious but the realities can be life threatening. There is little to no cell service in the park. Download anything you think you need. Bring a printed map available at the information center outside the park’s entrance or download a map at this cool website.
  • Wear closed-toe shoes. Don’t be tempted to hike in your Tevas. Joshua Tree is full of gravel, sand, small stones, and slippery rocks. The Cholla cactus bulb can detach and jump to your skin. This is incredibly uncomfortable. There is also the possibility of running into scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes on trails. Sturdy, closed toe shoes are a must. It’s a good idea to bring a first aid kit (or at least a few band-aids) and tweezers.
  • Tread lightly. Be gentle. Be Aware. J-Tree is home to a somewhat fragile ecosystem with delicate plants and endangered animals. Each year many threatened Mojave Desert Tortoises are killed by drivers not paying attention. Be respectful of any area marked as a Native American sacred site. These are usually well-marked. The park contains hundreds of fault lines, alluvial fans, fierce winds, tarantulas, five-inch long scorpions, honeypot ants, kangaroo rats, and 25 varieties of snakes including rattlers. Take care when sitting, reaching into anything, taking photos, hiking, or climbing. Look first. Don’t climb on the delicate and threatened Joshua Trees. Be careful not to break the Cryptobiotic Crusts. This is a living soil crust dominated by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), but also include moss, lichens, green algae, and other fungi and bacteria. These crusts play a vital role in desert health. Pack out what you bring in. This is our park. We need to protect it.
  • Enjoy the experience. This park is incredible. Don’t be scared off. Just prepare, be aware, and enjoy.
Photo of Joshua Tree Cactus by Beth Nault-Warner
Cactus in Joshua Tree, Photo by BNW

Best of Joshua Tree:

  • POINTS OF INTEREST: Slab City, Keys View, Cholla Cactus Garden, Lost Palm Oasis, Salvation Mountain, The Integration
  • COFFEE: Joshua Tree Coffee Company
  • EAT: Pappy & Harriet’s, Joshua Tree Saloon, Pie for the People, Cali Greens Café, Crossroads Cafe
  • HOT SPRING: Monarch Hot Spring. Private nursery and wildlife preserve dedicated to repopulating and education about the Monarch butterfly. Also an offbeat Airbnb campsite. Reservations are required, call ahead to arrange a guided exploration. Short trek through open desert from Monarch habitat to the small natural hot spring. monarchhotsprings.com
  • LIVE MUSIC: Pappey & Harriet’s, Joshua Tree Saloon

Joshua Tree National Park Service has a great facebook page. Follow them @JoshuaTreeNPS or at Instagram JoshuaTreeNPS

For more information on Joshua trees, I highly recommend, Joshua Tree Woodlands: A Tale of Sloths, Moths, and the Trees that Need Them It’s an article by California naturalist, Siera Nystrom. It is a lovely exploration of the history, importance, and plight of these amazing trees.

To read more about the ground sloth and ancient propagation of Joshua Trees, read: Missing Sloths, Modern Pollution, and the Fate of the Joshua Tree by National Geographic Photographer: Ben Horton

For more about Minerva Hoyt, here is a great blog: How Minerva Hamilton Hoyt Saved the Desert by Rebecca Long.

To read more about Elizabeth Campbell, the book Purple Hummingbird is available at the University of Utah Press.

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