Joshua Tree was designated a national monument in 1936 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and accorded national park status in 1994.
It is named for the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) native to the park.
Joshua Tree National Park covers an area of 3,200 square kilometers (1,235 square miles) or 320,000 hectares (790,636 acres).
The park lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert.
Two distinct desert ecosystems are profoundly contrasting in appearance. The key to their differences is elevation.
The low Colorado Desert thrives below 915 meters (3,000 feet) on the park’s gently declining eastern flank. It encompasses the eastern part of the park and features habitats of Creosote bush scrub, Ocotillo, desert Saltbush and mixed scrub including Yucca and Cholla cactus.
The high Mojave Desert claims the park’s western half, where the Joshua trees thrive on sandy plains studded by massive granite monoliths and rock piles.
Within the park there are six distinct mountain ranges: the Little San Bernardino Mountains in the southwestern part; the Cottonwood, Hexie, and Pinto Mountains in the center; and the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains in the eastern part. Both the southern and northern margins of the park are marked by steep escarpments that rise abruptly from the lower desert areas.
Quail Mountain, at 1,773 meters (5,816 feet), is the highest mountain in Joshua Tree National Park and the highest point in the Little San Bernardino Mountains. [Photo: A rock cairn (no longer exists) marking the summit of Quail Mountain]
The park’s oldest rocks, Pinto gneiss among them, are 1.7 billion years old. They are exposed in places on the park’s surface in the Cottonwood, Pinto, and Eagle mountains.
Much later, from 250 to 75 million years ago, tectonic plate movements forced volcanic material toward the surface at this location and formed granites, including monzogranite common to the Wonderland of Rocks [photo below], parts of the Pinto, Eagle, and Coxcomb mountains, and elsewhere.
There are 307 kilometers (191 miles) of hiking trails within the park, many of which can be accessed from a campground.
Hidden Valley is a self-guiding, 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) loop trail that winds among massive boulders through what was believed to be a legendary cattle rustlers’ hideout. It is one of the most popular and scenic hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park. The area is also a popular rock-climbing area. Many visitors enjoy just watching the climbers in action.
The Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park offers a short, 0.4 kilometer (quarter-mile) loop tour of a rich, and plentiful, diversity of cholla and other desert-loving plants.
Keys view is popular destination, perched on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, provides panoramic views of the Coachella Valley.
Located along the main east-west park road, Skull Rock is a favorite stop for park visitors. It began long ago when rain drops accumulated in tiny depressions and started to erode the granite. As more rock eroded, more water accumulated, leading to more erosion until, as time passed, two hollowed-out eye sockets formed and the rock began to resemble a skull.
The park is popular with rock climbers. There are thousands of named climbing routes, at all levels of difficulty. The routes are typically short, because the rocks are rarely more than 70 meters (230 feet) in height.
Many animals make their homes in Joshua Tree. Birds, lizards, and ground squirrels are most likely to be seen because they are diurnal — active in daytime. But it is at night that the desert is most alive with wildlife, especially in summer when daytime temperatures soar over 38°C (100°F). Some animals that are active at night include snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, lynx, and black-tailed jackrabbits.
Joshua Tree National Park is a popular location for astronomy and stargazing. It is well known for its dark skies, which are largely free from southern California’s extreme light pollution.
Humans have occupied the area we now know as Joshua Tree National Park for at least 5,000 years.
The first group known to inhabit the area was the Pinto Culture, followed by American Indians including the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla.
In 1772, a group of Spaniards led by Pedro Fages, made the first European sightings of Joshua trees while pursuing native converts to Christianity who had run away from a mission in San Diego.
In the 1800s, cattlemen drove their cows into the area for the ample grass available at the time and built water impoundments for them. Miners dug tunnels through the earth looking for gold and made tracks across the desert with their trucks. Homesteaders began filing claims in the 1900s.
The name “Joshua tree” was given by a group of Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in praye.
In 1972, the album cover photos for Eagles were shot in Joshua Tree National Park.
When rocker Gram Parsons died in 1973 near the park, friends took matters into their own hands and created his body near Cap Rock; he was a frequent visitor to Joshua Tree. More than 40 years later, Parsons’ fans still visit Cap Rock (accessible by a 0.4-mile loop trail) to pay their respects.
In 1987, Irish rock band U2 released their fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, named after a tree with which the band were photographed near Darwin, California. It is a common misconception that the site of this tree is within Joshua Tree National Park, when in fact it is over 320 kilometers (200 miles) away.
Over 2.5 million people visited Joshua Tree National Park in 2016.