BY GAIL GOLD
Americans know the National Parks are our treasure. All 63 of them are congressionally designated protected areas operated by the National Park Service. Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms, California, a 50-minute car ride from Palm Springs.
Joshua Tree hits all the points one thinks of when entering a National Park: diverse ecosystems, natural beauty, specific geological features, room for recreational activities, and solitude.
Joshua Tree sits in the land bounded by the Hexie, Little San Bernardino, the Cottonwood Mountains, and the San Andreas fault, plus where both the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge. Covering 792,510 acres of desert, it is a National Park with summer temperatures in the 100s, never-ending sun, deep blue skies, and very little water. Yet there are hundreds of species of plants and animals that live in the park, from spiny plants to slithery creatures.
In the 1930s Minerva Hoyt, a desert lover and community activist, saw not only the region’s beauty but the impending threats from humans. Of a persuasive personality, in 1936 she was able to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make Joshua Tree a National Monument and later, in 1994, Congress renamed the area Joshua Tree National Park.
As you drive through the park, you see a jumble of immense stacked granite boulders, which look precarious. Eons ago these rocks piled up resulting from volcanic activity. Rising from deep within the earth, magma called monzogranite intruded on the rock formations. When the granite cooled and crystalized underground, cracks or joints formed both vertically and horizontally. As the granite continued uplifting, it came in contact with groundwater, which widened the cracks and rounded the edges. When the surface soil eroded, it left heaps of monzogranite scattered across the land, and that’s what we see today looking like piles of toy rocks.
The desert comprises many different environments and what a difference a little water can make. Depending on the elevation and temperature, each environment supports a different form of plant life. Small bushes will bloom more beautifully after a brief rainfall. Pine, oak, and juniper trees grow in washes, or places where the soil retains more moisture.
As both deserts converge, they show us very different species. The Colorado Desert is the eastern half of the park, 3,000 feet above sea level and is part of the Sonoran Desert. We see creosote, spiny ocotillo, green barked palo verde, jumping cholla, brittle bush, smoke tree. Wildflowers abound in spring giving color to the desert.
The Mojave Desert is the western half of the park at elevations above 3,000 feet. Amid the boulders are pinyon pines, scrub oaks yuccas, prickly pear cami, and junipers. You know you are really in the Mojave Desert when you see the Joshua tree, which isn’t really a tree but a species of yucca. Joshua trees, which look so cute, can grow over 40 feet tall. Little surface area is exposed making the tree conserve moisture. Dead or alive Joshua trees are home to many animals, birds, and reptiles.
It is a beautiful sight with hikers, rock climbers, and photographers all busy doing their thing through the park. A sanctuary to many, a place of quiet, a place of peace, a place of wonder: that is Joshua Tree National Park.