Joshua Tree: where people climb and the cactuses jump

Part of the attraction of Joshua Tree National Park is the contrast in landscape and environment. The park’s landscape exhibits considerable changes as the higher elevations are a mountainous ecosystem and, from the east to the west, the Mojave descends into the hotter and drier Colorado Desert.

The western part of the park is filled with Joshua Trees that stimulate a visitor’s imagination with shapes resembling stick figures. The trees (actually yuccas) are pollinated only by yucca moths that lay eggs in the flowers. The larva feed on seeds as the fruit matures. The average lifespan of the plants is about 150 years, although there is concern a warming climate is resulting in much shorter lives at lower elevations.

The park was established in 1936 as a national monument and upgraded in 1994 to national park status at the same time 234,000 acres of land were added. The 1994 expansion resulted in new boundaries with elevations that range from 900 feet to more than 5,000 feet and cover three major ecosystems. About 75 percent of the park’s nearly 800,000 acres are designated as wilderness.

Despite annually welcoming nearly 1.6 million visitors to a park one third the size of Yellowstone, Joshua Tree National Park never seems to be crowded. The lack of congestion is in part due to visitation being more evenly spread throughout the year. The park enjoys an extended season that runs from early fall through late spring. Only hot summers deter visitation to the southern California desert.

The park’s main roads are laid out in a wiggly Y-shape with entrances in the northwest, north and south with visitor centers near each entrance. Most visitors spend the majority of time in the northern and western sections of the park. These are scenic areas that serve as home for the Joshua Trees that prefer the cooler climate of the Mojave Desert.

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