Joshua Tree National Park, located in the arid highlands of southeast California known as the Inland Empire, is one of the world’s great rock climbing venues and a place of eerie beauty, particularly in the springtime when over 900 species of desert flowers burst into bloom. The park covers 794,000 acres between Highways 62 and I-10, close to the Arizona border, and is divided into two ecologically distinct desert regions – the Mojave Desert to the east and the Colorado Desert to the west. The area became a national monument in 1936, and is now overseen by the U.S. National Park Service. Today over a million visitors descend upon Joshua Tree National Park every year, many of them are climbers. Park officials strongly recommend that each visitor to the park bring at least a gallon of water per day per person, since dehydration, even in winter time, is always a real threat.
The Joshua trees that give the park its name grow mostly in the Mojave Desert portion of the park. The trees were given their fanciful name because their bare trunks and branches crowned with spiny leaves reminded the Latter Day Saints settlers, who first crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-nineteenth century, of the prophet Joshua raising his hands to the heavens in prayer. In the spring, the long stalks at their branch tips sprout clusters of white, candle-like flowers.
Native Americans lived in the region for thousands of years before the coming of Europeans, and the area is dotted with archeological sites and rock formations sporting pictographs and petroglyphs.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Joshua Tree National Park was the site of the Lost Horse Mine which produced 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver before it stopped producing in 1905 when the miners lost the ore-bearing vein to a fault line. Today the mine is the end point for one of the park’s most popular hikes originating from the lookout point at Keys View, but hikers are warned to view the mine’s remaining structures at a distance as the combination of underground digging and frequent earthquakes have rendered the adjacent ground unstable. Keys View also offers spectacular vistas of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sea and if you study the terrain carefully, you can actually make out the San Andreas Fault responsible for some of California’s most catastrophic earthquakes. On a clear day you can even see as far as the Mexican border.
On the climbing circuit, the park is nicknamed J-Tree. Although few rocks in the park are higher than 230 feet, there are over seven thousand climbing routes to choose among, for climbers at all levels of expertise, with colorful names like Coarse and Buggy, Cranking Skills or Hospital Bills, Rockwork Orange, Fist Full of Crystals, and Dangling Woo Li Master. Because the climbs are short, it’s possible to do several in the same day. Bolting and chipping are strictly prohibited, as is the use of any epoxy-type substance to reinforce handholds or footholds, or climbing within 50 feet of pictographs or petroglyphs. Most rock climbers stay in the Hidden Valley campground which is set up to accommodate tents and small RVs. Reservations are strongly advised.
Joshua Tree National Park is also extremely popular with bird watchers. It lies on the Pacific flyway for migrating birds, and is home to over 250 avian species including rare desert birds like the Greater Roadrunner and the Cactus Wren. The park is also the last natural habitat for the Desert Bighorn Sheep who once roamed the region in tens of thousands. They are among the nation’s most imperiled species, numbering fewer than a thousand specimens today.
For campers, Joshua Tree National Park offers nine campgrounds, most of which are on a first-come, first-served basis at overnight fees ranging from $10 to $15. There is a 14-day limit to camping between the months of October through May, and a 30-day camping limit for the year.