Joshua Tree: A Story of Survival

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.” Life of Pi

 Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks

The iconic gestural structure of a Joshua Tree is both strange and part of its ability to survive the surrounding hostile desert conditions.

What type of tree is a Joshua Tree?

Technically, Joshua is not a tree at all, but rather, a succulent plant botanically named Yucca brevifolia. Joshua trees are the largest of the yuccas reaching 15 to 40 feet in height. Scant rainfall and any available air moisture are directed and captured by the upward-facing, lance-shaped leaves. The fibrous limbs and trunk can store the precious water to survive periods of drought. If a quirky, young yucca plant can survive the harsh desert environment, it will live as a Joshua Tree for hundreds or possibly a thousand years. 

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks


Mojave Desert

Joshua Trees are native to and found only in the Mojave Desert located in southeastern California and southern Nevada with bits in Arizona & Utah. The Mojave covers an approximate area of 50,000 square miles situated inside a rain shadow of several mountain ranges. On average, the Mojave receives 2 inches of precipitation per year and is considered the driest desert in North America.

The statuesque yucca trees serve as an indicator species of environmental changes within the Mojave, including Joshua Tree National Park. Scientists are studying the effects of climate change in the existing severe conditions of the Mojave desert. As the region's temperatures increase and periods of drought lengthen, Biologists have noticed a one-inch per year migration of the mighty yuccas to higher elevations and westward toward the Pacific Ocean.

The question remains, are the trees conscious of the relocation? or Are animals simply dispersing seeds in better environments for germination? 

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks

Spreading a Yucca's Seed

Like many desert plants, Yucca brevifolia needs freezing winter temperatures and spring rains to flower. Once a Joshua Tree blooms, the flowers require pollination by a yucca moth, which spreads pollen while laying eggs. Next, another Mojave native, the antelope ground squirrel, eat the spongy pollinated fruits, thereby releasing the seeds to the ground. The seeds then lie dormant, patiently waiting for a little rain as a chance to sprout. During the last Ice Age, the now-extinct Shasta ground sloth would have eaten the blooms whole and dispersed the seeds across the ancient pluvial plains. It is unclear to biologists how the yucca seeds are relocating because ground squirrels do not travel vast distances. 

This past August, the Mojave Desert temperatures soared to 130 Fahrenheit (54.4 Celsius) in Death Valley. The extreme temperature is one of the hottest temperatures ever recorded. Wow! and Cody & I thought 115 Fahrenheit at Lake Havasu in late August was unbearable. We, too, migrated west toward the Pacific coast, where we waited until cooler autumn weather to visit Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

Although Joshua Trees name this National Park, the reasons to visit are beyond the yuccas' staked claim. Joshua Tree National Park covers an area of nearly 800,000 acres. Inside the park is a vibrant blending of 2 distinct desert ecosystems, the higher elevations of the Mojave with the lower, slightly more tropical southern Colorado Desert. Freezing winter temperatures define the Mojave, while summer monsoons and winter rains feed the grasses, hardy perennials, and springtime wildflowers of the Colorado Desert. One thing the two deserts have in common is extreme daytime temperatures. Make sure to have plenty of water while hiking the various trails throughout the park.

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, Don't Die Today Sticker

Cody and I have visited many deserts, but this was our first "beware of death" while hiking warning.

Joshua Tree National Park contains portions of 6 mountain ranges. The many hiking trails include easy nature walks and fun boulder climbing to several strenuous trails leading up and down steep terrain to reach a true desert palm oasis. No matter the level or length of a trail, hikers will experience the beauty and splendor of the terrain and vegetation of a desert landscape.

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks, Cholla Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden trail is only a quarter-mile in length but an otherworldly experience.

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks, Palm Oasis

This spring fed palm oasis is a longer hike that is best done in the morning before the heat.

Geology of the Climbing Playgrounds 

The oldest rock formations are 1.7 billion years old. Southwest of Joshua Tree National Park lies the San Andreas fault system that is responsible for the formation of the mountainous terrain. However, it is the underground springs that eroded the many giant blocks of stone into the bouldering playgrounds found throughout the park. There are over a thousand named rock climbing routes at various skill levels. Many are easily accessible along the roadside or surround established campgrounds. Cody and I conquered a few boulders while hiking and near our campsite.

 Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, National Parks, Bouldering

A grippy granite rock face makes climbing in approach shoes simple.

Plan a visit to Joshua Tree National Park in October through May. Desert temperatures are extreme in the summer months. Weekends are busy during the cooler weather months. Several campgrounds require reservations but others are on a first-come, first-served basis. We found several open campsites on a weekday in autumn. The northwest entrance near the town of Joshua Tree is busy while the other entrances had no wait. National Parks charge a $25 entrance fee per vehicle. Several well-maintained roads navigate considerable portions of the park, making a day trip or a side trip worthwhile. For now, the Joshua Trees line the roadsides with their eccentric posture. We can only hope to live long enough to see how the current climate conditions influence their slow-motion migration dance to an elevated existence.

The Botanical Journey is now partnered with Stay22 to provide you with easy access to lodging information at the best prices available for Hotels and Airbnb. The following map is interactive for the Joshua Tree area. We receive a small commission for booked reservations. Thank you for your support.

1 comment

Robert Gerdes

Enjoyed meeting you in Balboa Park , and liked reading your info on Joshua trees.

Robert Gerdes

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