Joshua Tree National Park

Covering large areas of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts and the Little San Bernardino Mountains, this desert landscape is populated by vast stands of Joshua trees. Large changes in elevation reveal various contrasting environments including bleached sand dunes, dry lakes, rugged mountains, and maze-like clusters of monzogranite monoliths.


WTF is monzogranite?

The geologic landscape of Joshua Tree has long fascinated visitors to this desert. How did the rocks take on such fantastic shapes? What forces sculpted them?

Geologists believe the face of our modern landscape was born more than 100 million years ago. Molten liquid, heated by the continuous movement of Earth’s crust, oozed upward and cooled while still below the surface. These plutonic intrusions are a granitic rock called monzogranite.

 The monzogranite developed a system of rectangular joints. One set, oriented roughly horizontally, resulted from the removal—by erosion—of the miles of overlying rock, called gneiss (pronounced “nice”). Another set of joints is oriented vertically, roughly paralleling the contact of the monzogranite with its surrounding rocks. The third set is also vertical but cuts the second set at high angles. The resulting system of joints tended to develop rectangular blocks. (figure 1) Good examples of the joint system may be seen at Jumbo Rocks, Wonderland of Rocks, and Split Rock.

As ground water percolated down through the monzogranite’s joint fractures, it began to transform some hard mineral grains along its path into soft clay, while it loosened and freed grains resistant to solution. Rectangular stones slowly weathered to spheres of hard rock surrounded by soft clay containing loose mineral grains. Imagine holding an ice cube under the faucet. The cube rounds away at the corners first, because that is the part most exposed to the force of the water. A similar thing happened here but over millions of years, on a grand scale, and during a much wetter climate. (figure 2)

After the arrival of the arid climate of recent times, flash floods began washing away the protective ground surface. As they were exposed, the huge eroded boulders settled one on top of another, creating those impressive rock piles we see today. (figure 3)

Visitors also wonder about the “broken terrace walls” laced throughout the boulders. These are naturally occurring formations called dikes. Younger than the surrounding monzogranite, dikes were formed when molten rock was pushed into existing joint fractures. Light-colored aplite, pegmatite, and andesite dikes formed as a mixture of quartz and potassium minerals cooled in these tight spaces. Suggesting the work of a stonemason, they broke into uniform blocks when they were exposed to the surface.

Of the dynamic processes that erode rock material, water, even in arid environments, is the most important. Wind action is also important, but the long-range effects of wind are small compared to the action of water.

The erosion and weathering processes operating in the arid conditions of the present are only partially responsible for the spectacular sculpturing of the rocks. The present landscape is essentially a collection of relict features inherited from earlier times of higher rainfall and lower temperatures. 

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Native American History

Home of the Chemehuevi peoples

A Land of Plenty? …
“Oooohhhh! Look at all of that food!” Katherine Saubel, a native-speaking Cahuilla describes how she felt the first time she flew over the desert as a guest of the Bureau of Land Management. Mrs. Saubel knows very well that her description points out the difference between the native point of view and the way most people see our desert here in Joshua Tree National Park.


… Or a Barren Desert?

It probably is as difficult for most park visitors to picture the desert as a land of plenty as it was for the early surveyors of this area. A scout for the U.S. Railroad Survey in 1853 reported that “A mountain range extends from San Bernardino Mountain in a southeasterly direction nearly, if not quite, to the Colorado. Between these mountains and the mountains of the Mohave nothing is known of the country. I have never heard of a white man who had penetrated it. I am inclined to the belief that it is barren, mountainous desert composed of a system of basins and mountain ranges. It would be an exceedingly difficult country to explore on account of the absence of water and there is no rainy season of any consequence.”

Early Clues
This dire description slowed “progress” for only a few years. In 1855 the first survey of the area was made by Colonel Henry Washington who changed the name of the oasis that the natives called Mara, to “Twentynine Palms.” The following year a deputy surveyor reported that “Near the springs the land has the appearance of having been cultivated by the Indians. There are Indian huts in Section Thirty-three. The Indians use the leaf of the palm tree for making baskets, hats, etc. Around the springs there is a growth of cane of which the Indians make arrows for their bows.”

By 1913, all of the natives were gone from the Oasis of Mara. The Smithsonian Institution reported in 1925 that the Oasis originally belonged to the Serrano people. The author of the article considered the relative merits of the argument that the area was the territory of the Chemehuevi but concluded that “Intrinsically, it is of little import who exercised sovereignty in this tract: to all purposes it was empty.” The vanished people of the Oasis of Mara and its surroundings were the Serrano, the Chemehuevi (sometimes called the Southern Paiutes), and the Cahuilla.

How They Lived
The Chemehuevi migrated into Southern California approximately four hundred years ago and their territories included Pinto Basin and the Coxcomb Mountains in the eastern portion of Joshua Tree National Park. In the late eighteenth century they moved to the Colorado River but when warfare with the Mojave broke out in 1867, the Chemehuevi were forced to leave the river. They returned to the Oasis of Mara which had been abandoned temporarily by Serrano survivors of a smallpox epidemic. Relationships changed and they slowly returned to the Colorado River re-establishing their former territory although a small group of Chemehuevi remained at Twentynine Palms.

The Cahuilla territory extended from the Colorado River to the San Jacinto plain outside of Riverside. The Cahuilla, like the Serrano, lived in small villages near reliable water sources and exploited the resources of their territory which is thought to have included both the western and the southern portions of Joshua Tree National Park. The Chemehuevi, during spring and summer, went on seasonal hunting and gathering forays and lived in temporary base camps. When it became colder, the Chemehuevi gathered in large villages and stayed for longer periods of time in snug winter structures whose floors were shallow pits in the ground.

A Veritable Supermarket
Roughly defined boundaries once divided the territories inside and outside the park. If the territorial boundaries themselves were not of great importance to the people living in the area (none appear to be marked), the resources within these territories certainly were. The native people who lived near what is now Joshua Tree National Park knew the big secret: it was a very large “supermarket”. Among other plant resources, acorns, mesquite pods, pinyon nuts, seeds, berries, and cactus fruits were available for the taking. The natives used plants for making bows and arrows, cordage, baskets, mats, seed-beaters, and other articles as well as for medicines. They hunted bighorn sheep, deer, rabbits, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

The spirits of the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla are still with us in the rock formations, the pictographs and petroglyphs, and in the archaeological sites which dot the landscape. 121 plant species are now identified as having been used as food, medicine, or as raw materials for making objects. We too, are learning to see Joshua Tree National Park as a land of plenty!

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Park History

How Joshua Tree became a National Park

 While the Joshua Tree area has been inhabited by humans for at least 5,000 years, by the late 1920s the development of new roads into the desert had brought an influx of land developers and cactus poachers. Minerva Hoyt, a Pasadena resident who was extremely fond of desert plants, became concerned about the removal of cacti and other plants to the gardens of Los Angeles. Her tireless efforts to protect this area culminated in 825,000 acres being set aside as Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.

The monument was administered by the superintendent of Yosemite National Park until James Cole was appointed as the first superintendent in 1940. The eastern portion of the historic Oasis of Mara was deeded to the National Park Service by the Twentynine Palms Corporation in 1950. That same year the monument’s size was reduced by 265,000 acres to exclude some mining property.

A National Park

As part of the Desert Protection Bill, Joshua Tree National Monument was elevated to park status on October 31, 1994. The bill also added 234,000 acres. The new park boundary follows natural features and includes complete ecological units such as entire mountain ranges. Previous boundaries divided these ranges along survey lines. The additions provide better resource protection with easier boundary identification and monitoring and important habitat for desert bighorn sheep. Elevations in the park range from a low of 536 feet to a high of 5,814 feet at Quail Mountain.


In 1976 Congress designated 420,000 acres within the monument as wilderness. Of the park’s current 792,623 acres, 591,624 is designated wilderness.


Joshua Tree provides habitat for 813 higher plant species, 46 reptile species, 57 mammal species, and over 250 bird species. The federal register lists one park reptile, the desert tortoise, as threatened and one park plant species, the triple-ribbed milk vetch, as endangered, and one plant species, Parish′s daisy as threatened. In addition there are 49 plant species of special concern being protected within the park.

Joshua Tree has one paleontological area and potentially eight more. The park protects over 700 archeological sites, 88 historic structures, 19 cultural landscapes, and houses 230,300 items in its museum collection.


Park staff maintain 93 miles of paved roads and 106 miles of unpaved roads, nine campgrounds with 523 campsites and two horsecamps, and 10 picnic areas with 38 picnic sites. There are 32 trailheads and 191 miles of hiking trails throughout the park.

Park staff greet visitors at three entrance stations, three visitor centers, and one nature center.

Behind the scenes the park maintains two water treatment facilities, 13 solar power stations, four maintenance facilities, eight employee housing units, and 95 vehicles.

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The best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

#1 Explore Cottonwood Spring Oasis.
#2 Marvel at the Ocotillos.
#3 Walk among the Cholla Cactus.
#4 Admire awesome rock shapes.
#5 Get a close look at the Joshua tree!
#6 Hike the Scenic Hidden Valley Trail.
#7 Explore Barker Dam.
#8 Watch rock climbers in action.


Not only Joshua Trees live here. There are tons of chollas, ocotillos, and even palm trees. 

Joshua Tree is renowned for its plant diversity—there are nearly 750 species of vascular plants found here. Nearly half of these are annual plants, like many of the wildflowers that bloom in spring.

The park also has a spectacular number of trees and shrubs. Shrub assemblages here are among the most diverse vegetation types in North America. Joshua Tree is also known for its numerous species of cacti and rare plants.

The park is home to many species of ferns, mosses, and liverworts—also known as bryophytes. Many species of lichens can easily be found growing on the famous rock formations of the park.

The diversity of the plant life found in Joshua Tree National Park provides ample opportunities for study and enjoyment. The park’s herbarium documents nearly all of the plants found here. The herbarium’s records are available to search online.

With a spectacular diversity of plants and plant communities, it’s no wonder the name proposed for this area in 1930 was Desert Plants National Park!

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Animal Life

Joshua Tree’s wild animals have adaptations that help them thrive in the desert environment

Joshua Tree’s wild animals have adaptations that help them thrive in the desert environment. These adaptations help wildlife cope with scarce water resources and temperature extremes.

On your park visit, you’re most likely to see birds, lizards, and ground squirrels 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 100°F (38°C).

Some animals that are active at night include snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and black-tailed jackrabbits. Dawn and dusk are good times for viewing many kinds of animals, because you can see both those just going to bed and those just getting up.

Being active at night is a great way to beat the heat. So is seeking shelter. You won’t have to walk far in the desert before you notice many holes in the ground. These underground burrows are places where reptiles and small mammals take refuge from the blazing summer sun or huddle for warmth in the winter.

Water sources are few and far between in the desert, so most Joshua Tree animals don’t need to drink as much or as often as people do. Desert mammals use water more efficiently than humans. Reptiles have physiological adaptations that allow them to drink very little water, and birds can fly to water sources when they need a drink.

Most of Joshua Tree’s reptiles, as well as many small rodents and insects, go into an inactive state of torpor or hibernation during the winter. Winter is a great time to watch birds in the park, because many species migrate here to take advantage of the desert’s mild temperatures and available food.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park

Please remember, pets are not permitted on any trails in the park, except for the paved Oasis of Mara Trail. For more information, visit Pets.

Leave information about your planned route and expected return time with a friend or family member before hiking. Check in with this person when you return. In an emergency, call 909-383-5651 or 911.

On any desert hike, remember the ten essentials:
layers of clothing
sun protection
first aid kit
sturdy shoes
navigation (map & compass)
pocket knife or multitool
flashlight or headlamp
emergency shelter

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