Located in the desert of southeastern California, Joshua Tree National Park has a long history. From Native Americans, to cattlemen, to miners, to cactus poachers, many hands have touched the park. Today 792,750 acres are protected in one of the nation's newest national parks, designated in 1994 after 58 years as a national monument.
Over 5,000 years ago Native Americans passed through the region hunting and gathering nuts, fruits, and roots. The evidence of their passing is still visible today with the many petroglyphs that dot the park. With the arrival of the nineteenth century more settlers headed to California seeking a fortune in gold and free land for the taking. The Oasis of Mara, located on the northern boundary of the park, became a popular stop for miners heading west. Further to the south, ranchers built talks and dams from the plentiful boulders in the park to provide water for their cattle.
The start of the twentieth century saw a lot of transition to Joshua Tree. Over 400 head of cattle were grazing during the winter months. More roads were created through the desert bringing homesteaders and development into the region. During the economic boom of the 1920's, cactus poaching was rampant in the area fueled by the demand in nearby Los Angeles. Minerva Hoyt, a California resident, was troubled by the development and damage being done to the area and largely through her efforts Joshua Tree National Monument was formed in 1936. In 1945 cattle grazing was phased out of the park and the region was now protected for all to enjoy. In 1950 the park was shrunk to permit mining, but the activity never returned the region to its former glory when an estimated forty million dollars worth of gold was dug up over 100 years ago.
The park is a biological crossroads where the Mojave Desert of the north meets the Colorado Desert, which is also part of the Sonoran Desert, to the south. The park is cut basically in half with the Mojave in the western part and the Colorado in the east. In most places in the park the transition zone is less than one mile wide. In this narrow strip plants and animals from both zones live side by side and this can be clearly seen at the Cholla Cactus Garden on the Pinto Basin Road. To the west, the higher wetter Mojave is the home to the famous Joshua trees. To the east, the lower dryer Colorado is home to creosote and the beautiful but extremely prickly cholla.
The Joshua trees that grow in the park are a very unique species. They aren't really trees (they are related to lily's) and don't have trunks or produce rings so calculating their age is almost impossible. They aren't very hardy due to their massive tops and thin roots. They are very slow growing, growing as little as an inch a year. If they can survive the desert and not get hit by lightning they can live for 200 years on average, with some trees reaching over 900 years in age. The gnarled Joshua trees are special because of their dense white flowers that bloom from February to April and the key role they plan in providing homes to a number of desert birds, lizards, and insects. The best specimens are in the Queen Valley Forest, including the tallest tree in the park.
Joshua Tree National Park is covered with extremes. Two violent geological events created the unique bolder strewn environment. Located just west of the park, the San Andres Fault is a world famous battle line between the Pacific and North American Plates. The Little San Bernardino Mountains rise up to the east of the fault constantly growing due to the endless crushing pressure and uplift from the fault line. Less than 20 miles away from the 5,000-foot high peaks, the Salton Sea sits at 225 feet below sea level. The massive boulders that litter the landscape were formed approximately 85 million years ago and are best viewed at the Jumbo Rock campsite. The unusual rocks were formed deep underground but countless years of erosion have exposed them for the world to see.
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