After the deaths of an infant son and then her husband, South Pasadena socialite Minerva Hoyt (1866-1945) found peace and consolation in the beauty of the desert. But the avid gardener turned activist in the 1920s as the rage for exotic landscaping, accelerated by affordable autos and paved roads, took a toll on the land. Named to a state commission, “The Apostle of the Cacti” prepared a report, recommending parks be created in Death Valley, the Anza-Borrego Desert, and the Joshua tree forests.
It’s easy to get spiritual at Joshua Tree. The earth folds, vaults, and lifts itself into hauntingly eroded peaks, cliffs and boulders strewn like God’s playthings. Craggy cactuses and deep, dark night skies move mind and body to a space unencumbered by the ordinary irritations of city life. The park also has become a winter rock-climbing haven, and its specialness as a stark, challenging retreat is etched in stone among extreme athletes.
The first efforts to protect the desert came in 1936, when 825,000 acres was set aside as a national monument.
1.4 million in 2013; March, when the wildflowers bloom, is usually the most crowded month, July the least.
1,239 square miles, or 1 1/3 times the size of Orange County; 80 percent is designated wilderness.
$15 for a seven-day vehicle permit.
To the Mormons who passed through in the 1850s, the shaggy yucca resembled the prophet Joshua pointing them to the Promised Land.
What to Pack
In addition to hiking’s classic list of 10 essentials, even day-trippers should pack extra food, water, weather protection, and hand sanitizer—there’s not much running water in the park.
The park is near several desert cities with restaurants and grocery stores, but the 29 Palms Inn is near a park entrance and its restaurant offers hearty picnic lunches with thick sandwiches.
Custom-decor, lush landscaping, and five elegant cottages cover the parklike 25-acre grounds of Roughley Manor, a grand mansion turned bed-and-breakfast two miles from the park’s north entrance station.
The historical 29 Palms Inn has adobe cottages with foot-thick walls that keep temps even and winds at bay. A funky vibe and warm hospitality pervade the atmosphere and the popular restaurant and bar.
$10 to $15 per night per site.
Some of the 495 sites at nine campgrounds are reserveable; plus 22 group sites reserveable at recreation.gov.
Jumbo Rocks Campground sits alongside massive granite boulders that are a built-in playground for the kids. The 24 first-come, first-served sites have picnic tables and toilets.
The 45-site Hidden Valley Campground, a former cattle-rustler hideout, hugs the perimeter of a rugged climbing area at 4,200-feet elevation.
The 49 Palms Oasis trailhead begins at a parking lot at the end of Canyon Road and is easily reached from Twentynine Palms Highway. The well-marked, three-mile round trip trail winds through rocky terrain and spiny mauve and pink barrel cactuses before a five-minute descent through a steep canyon rewards hikers with a view of a fan palm oasis. Though most guides rate the trail as moderately strenuous, the challenge is mostly with a 360-foot gain of elevation in a short span.
The flat, 7.2-mile round-trip Willow Hole hike is one of the park’s most rewarding because it leads to the Wonderland of Rocks and an oasis where bighorn sheep gather. Though the hike isn’t listed in park publications or most guidebooks, rangers are happy to give pointers. The trail branches north-northeast from the southern end of the Boy Scout Trail and is best reached from the park’s West Entrance Station in the city of Joshua Tree.
Cap Rock Nature Trail, Desert Queen Ranch, 49 Palms Oasis, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Keys View.
The desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, is California’s state reptile, and it’s also on the federal and state endangered species lists.
The desert is full of scorpions, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas.
The Joshua tree is found almost exclusively in the Mojave Desert’s higher elevations. And five of North America’s 158 desert fan palm oases are in the park.
536 feet, to 5,814-foot Quail Mountain.
30 to 65 degrees in December and January, to 57 to 110 degrees in May through October.
93 miles paved and 106 unpaved; the speed limit is 35 mph, so add extra time when making plans.
Historical Oddity No.1
Country rocker Gram Parsons overdosed at 26 at the Joshua Tree Inn. Friends snatched his coffin and staged a cremation at Cap Rock inside the park.
Historical Oddity No. 2
Rancher, miner, and homesteader Bill Keys—along with his wife and three of their children—is buried on his former ranch inside the park, beneath the tombstone he engraved from native stone.
Just like in the cartoons, turkey vultures make regular appearances in the desert—and they like craggy old trees.
Roughley Manor, 74744 Joe Davis Drive, Twentynine Palms, 760-367-3238, roughleymanor.com
29 Palms Inn, 73950 Inn Ave., Twentynine Palms, 760-367-3505, 29palmsinn.com
Photographs by Kelly Fajack
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.