Joshua Tree National Park Part I
With the long day the day before we didn't rush in the morning to get to Joshua Tree National Park. There are two main entrances on the northern side of the park - the west entrance near Joshua Tree, CA, about a half an hour from where we were staying in Yucca Valley and the north entrance about an hour away near Twenty-nine Palms, CA. A winding road known as Park Boulevard runs through the northern end of the park and connects the two entrances.
We decided to drive to the farther entrance near Twenty-nine Palms and stop at the visitor center to reconnoiter, then drive back toward the west on Park Boulevard. We planned to see some of the sights closer to the north entrance that were easily accessible from the road and save the hiking for the next day after we had more time to rest up.
Joshua Tree National Park gets its name from the plant known as the Joshua tree. The Joshua tree, which was named by Mormon settlers crossing the Mohave Desert in the mid-1800s, is not really a tree, but a large, branching variety of yucca. Joshua trees have root systems that spread out over a large area to gather moisture from the desert soil. The wood of the Joshua tree doesn't have growth rings, so determining the age is difficult; but Joshua trees can live hundreds of years and grow to be 40 feet tall.
Joshua trees bloom in April, and by the time we got there many had started to produce clusters of 4 inch seed pods.
Conditions have to be just right for the Joshua trees to propagate. It is thought a crisp winter freeze is required to stimulate the tree to send out flower stalks in spring. Once the flowers bloom, they are pollinated by the yucca moth. The female moth spreads pollen while laying her eggs in the flower's ovary. When the larvae hatch, they will feed on the developing seeds. When the seeds that haven't been eaten ripen and fall, they depend on well-timed rains to sprout. The young sprouts will grow several inches a year for the first few years, then they slow down to about half an inch a year.
We stopped at the visitor center at the north entrance and picked up a map and visitor guide. Outside the visitor center we walked the half-mile loop trail around the Oasis of Mara. The Serrano Indians settled at the oasis and gave it the name Mara meaning "place of little water and much grass." They used water from the oasis to cultivate corn, beans and squash. Later, ranchers used the water for their cattle.
The oasis also supports a colony of desert fan palms. The palms, which can grow up to 75 feet tall, are named for their 6 foot, fan-shaped leaves. The dead leaves frequently hang on to the tree and cover the trunk. For this reason the fan palm is sometimes called the petticoat palm. The dead branches provide a habitat for birds, insects and small mammals.
When prospectors and cattlemen came to the area in the late 1800s, there were 29 palms growing at the oasis so the town that grew up adjacent to the oasis was named Twenty-nine Palms. In the early 1900s, rainfall decreased, the oasis began to dry up, and most of the Serrano Indians drifted away. Today, water is piped into the oasis.
The southeastern half of Joshua Tree National Park lies below 3,000 feet in elevation and is in the Colorado Desert which is part of the larger Sonoran Desert. In this area, vegetation consists of mostly creosote bush, ocotillo and cholla. We were more interested in seeing the Joshua trees that lie in the northwestern half of the park, which is part of the Mohave desert. For that reason, we decided not to take the road that branched off toward the southern entrance to the park, and we continued on Park Boulevard.
The rocks in Joshua Tree National Park are monzogranite, which is a form of soft granite. Granite is a volcanic rock that is formed from solidified magma. The rock formations in Joshua Tree, which are more like huge rock piles, were created when magma forced its way up into the overlying gneiss (pronounced nice) layers. The magma formed both horizontal and vertical cracks as it cooled. Chemical weathering caused by groundwater in contact with the rock rounded the edges and corners of the granite blocks. When the area was later uplifted and the surface soil and rock were eventually worn away, large piles of monzogranite were exposed.
There aren't any places to get food in Joshua Tree National Park, so we packed a lunch. It was mid-afternoon when we stopped at one of many picnic areas to eat. After lunch we explored some of the surrounding rocks. The stripe in the upper left of the photo below is called a dike. It was formed when new magma was forced into a crack in existing magma.
The next photo taken along Park Boulevard shows even larger piles of monzogranite off in the distance.
Joshua Tree National Park has numerous primitive campgrounds, most of which are located at the base of large rock piles. We drove into several of the camping areas to see what the sites were like and to see some of the rock formations. Most of the camp sites were small and only suitable for tents, but the way they were nestled in among the rocks was cool. The rocks had formed the small arch in the photo below at one of the camping areas. The arch was only about 6 feet long and 3 or 4 feet high.
Skull Rock is located along Park Boulevard a little to the west of the last camping area. There is a pull-off parking area, so we stopped for a photo.
We enjoyed the scenery as we continued on our way west on Park Boulevard. It was getting late, so we headed back to the motor home without making any further stops. Our next post will tell you about our second day in Joshua Tree National Park and about the hikes we took.