Joshua Tree National Park, California

Posted on
Jan 16, 2014
Posted in: Parks

Joshua Tree National Park is about a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs, which is totally fine is you are over the age of 2, but kind of a bummer if you aren’t. And one of us wasn’t.

Though to be fair, on New Year’s Eve he wore a friggin tux and looked like he was 4 or 5.

The way I figure it, we’re all about 17 times his age, so the trip was 17 times longer for him than it was for us.

So that drive felt like just over a day long for him. He handled it like a champ.

You can drive straight up to the park, but you’ll want to stop at the Visitor Center first (there are several, so which one you visit will depend on how you approach the park; we stopped at the eponymous one right off of Highway 62. It’s right at the base of the long road leading from the town of Yucca Valley up to the park.) Oh, and if you forgot to bring water, or snacks of any kind, you should stop and get those, first. You don’t want a cranky toddler – or worse, a cranky Everywhereist – whining about how hungry/thirsty he or she is.

There is a lot to see at Joshua Tree, and you could easily spend the day there. If you don’t have a day, the Visitor Center will give you a good idea of what you can see in a few hours. The gentleman we spoke to explained that his favorite hike was the Barker Dam Nature Loop – which was conveniently close to where we were.

Rand had also wanted to see an arch rock formation that’s in the park – but it was an hour’s drive into the park (note: Joshua Tree is HUGE) so we decided to save that for another trip.

We headed to the dam, instead.

The landscape in Joshua Tree is lovely, in its own right. It is filled with cacti and the eponymous trees.

The Joshua Tree (Yucca Brevifolia) got its more common name from Mormon settlers. They saw the tree, with its limbs reaching skyward, and were reminded of the Biblical story of Joshua, reaching up his hands to the air in prayer. The name stuck.

And I suppose, if you look at it long enough, you can almost see it. Sort of. It is not a very majestic tree, but rather stubby and weird-looking. I told Rand I thought they were rather Seussian-looking (and I’m not the first to have that impression). But there is something kind of charming in their quirky appearance. At least, I thought so, but then again, I am one to find charm in quirks.

Case in point.

The trail around the damn in ridiculously easy, even if you have short legs.

… and are dressed like a character from a Wes Anderson movie.


We even saw some folks tackling it with a stroller, which I wouldn’t entirely recommend, but it can be done, if you’ve more than one adult wielding the thing.

The dam was man-made sometime in the 1950s or so, and the little pool of water still attracts lots of wildlife (and park visitors).

Sadly, we didn’t see any animals running about, but we did have a few great photo opportunities.

And the occasional outtake.

Some times, love hurts. And threatens to destroy our Ray-Bans.

Somewhere along the trail, if you are lucky enough to spot it, there is an enormous rock that looks like a huge butt. I tried to get Rand to pose in such a way that it would look like it was his own butt, but he refused. At times like those, I really do start to question my marriage.

Towards the end of the loop are some ancient petroglyphs carved into a rock face. They are hard to miss. Petroglyphs are carvings or etchings that have been made in rock (not to be confused with petrographs, which are rock paintings). These carvings were enhanced (ahem) sometime in the middle of the last century with paint.

Where the paint has washed away, you can see what the glyphs might have looked like before their makeover.

The most consistent story for why this happened is this one: apparently Disney was filming a made-for-TV-movie called Chico the Misunderstood Coyote (I could not make this shit up if I tried) and decided the petroglyphs were not visible enough, so THEY PAINTED OVER THEM in some hideous shades of color. Remember the “bold” pack of Crayola markers from the early 90s? The ones that had eye-searing colors like mustard yellow, teal, and a hue which can best be described as “dried blood”? Think those.

There’s no clear story on whether or not Disney was punished or fined for the offense (or even if they committed it), but I’m sure we’ll all find comfort in knowing that while they might have destroyed ancient artwork, they’ve managed to protect their own creations by keeping them out of the public domain.

Wait, what?

Anywho, you can get very close to the petroglyphs, if you are willing to climb a little, but do be careful, and respectful of the works.

After our little hike, someone was tired and hungry and demanding food (full disclosure: it was me). So we only had a little time to stop at one of the many viewpoints along the main road, but it was still well worth it.

We left the park, and got some lunch. On the ride home, I peeked at the rear view mirror into the backseat.

“Aww,” I said to Eric. “The little guy is totally out. I think that walk exhausted him.”

“Huh?” he replied. “Jackson’s wide awake.”

“Not that little guy,” I said.

And slumped over in the backseat was Rand, gently snoozing.

Joshua Tree is lovely, but exhausting: after a visit, you will nap so hard. Unless you are two, at which point you’ll stay awake the whole drive home, singing “Jingle Bells.”


The Essentials on Joshua Tree National Park:

  • Verdict: Yes! Go see the majestic beauty of cacti in their natural habitat.
  • How to Get There: You will need a rental car (there’s no way around that). The route you take will depend on your starting location, but we ended up taking Highway 62 (Twenty Nine Palms Hwy).
  • Ideal For: Hikers, nature lovers, photographers, adventurers, and even little ones.
  • Insider Tips: If you save your receipt, your entrance fee is valid for a week (so plan to go once at the start of your trip, and again at the end, if you want to bookend things nicely).  Note that it gets more crowded as the day goes on, and particularly on weekends, so go early, and during the week.
  • Nearby Food: There are obviously no places to stop and eat in the park, but there are a few areas where you could conceivably have a picnic (which we saw a lot of folks doing). Even if you don’t want to drag an entire meal with you, do bring snacks, or at the very least, water. The park is huge and the climate is very, very dry. Also, if you take the same route we did, Papa’s Smokehouse BBQ is just 10 minutes from the park entrance, and quite good.
  • Good for Kids: Yes, with caveats. Make sure little ones know to stay on the trail and not touch the cacti (our little friend was 2, and he got it). Some hikes will be much easier than others, so ask at the Visitor Center for tips/guidance. Also, there are some scary outcroppings and ledges, so make sure that very wee ones don’t go wandering off an edge (which, for some counter-evolutionary reason, they all seem apt to do).

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