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(photo courtesy of National Park Service)
(photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Joshua Tree National Park: A rock climbers paradise

This high desert park, covering more than 790,000 acres, is located in the southern California Mojave Desert, north of I-10, east of Indio and south of California Hwy. 62 and Twenty Nine Palms.

If entering via the west entrance at Joshua Tree City, take a brief visit to the small visitor’s center. When driving into the park, the first impression is of a large valley with scattered Joshua trees and low mountains in the distance.

Joshua trees, both large and small, are abundant throughout the park, although there are sections where they have been decimated by fire and it will take many years to reforest the areas. Entering from the south, the visitor center is 7 miles north of I-10. The first Joshua trees are seen further into the park.

Joshua Tree 3
(photo courtesy of National Park Service)


Keys Ranch, located in the middle of the park, has a rich and perhaps mysterious history, which is only partially revealed by documents on display at the visitor’s center. One part of the story is that Mr. Keys shot and killed a neighbor at the conclusion to a long-standing feud. Although he was convicted and served time in prison, he later was awarded a pardon by the governor.

The Keys View Lookout, atop Little San Bernadino Mountain, offers vistas of Indio and the Coachella Valley to the west and the Salton Sea about 30 miles south. While traveling down from Keys View, I took the turn-off to the Lost Horse Gold Mine trail head. This “moderately strenuous” 4.5-mile trail follows the old wagon trail over rocky outcrops, down sandy hillsides, past ruins of a stone house and pauses at the base of a 0.5-mile side hike up to the mine opening, which is now well-fenced.

Note the wooden frame of the stamp mill and the rock walls of two water reservoirs which seem ready to operate, if asked. The rusted winch and metal water tanks are damaged beyond repair; the tanks are riddled by bullet holes.

This 4.5-mile hike took about 40 minutes in each direction with a 30-minute lunch break taken while seated on the rock wall on one reservoir. Jurgen, a young German tourist, joined me for the hike up to the stamp mill. After a short chat, we took photos of each other. He refused my offer to share my lunch saying that he felt “lucky” and strode off in search of gold nuggets that might be strewn across the hillside.

Joshua Tree National Park is a rock climbers paradise. Within easy driving distance of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the park is readily available to millions of visitors, many of who enjoy the risks of rock climbing. Skull Rock, Jumbo Rocks, Split Rock and Ryan’s Mountain are among the most popular climbing areas. There are rocks suitable for beginners as well as for more experienced climbers.

Midway through the park,  mounds of rounded, smoothed rocks appear. On a weekend in December, the cars of rock climbers and hikers fill the parking lots. Although the rock formations do not rival Zion National Park for size and difficulty levels, they are challenging to novice and intermediate climbers or those who climb without ropes and elaborate gear.

Joshua Tree 6
(photo courtesy of National Park Service)


Does it rain in the desert?

What are the conditions in the deserts of southern California when the rains descend? Have you seen snow on and around a Joshua Tree? When I visited, the rains descended upon the area surrounding the Indian Waters RV Resort in Indio, Calif., where I was staying. These rains were not just light sprinkles that evaporated before reaching the ground. These were real, honest rains, similar to those that I am used to from living most of my life in the Midwest and southern United States.

According to the weather reports and the observations of longtime residents, a year of rain fell during the four-day period. The rain was nearly continuous, with slight breaks in the intensity that allowed walking about the RV resort without being drenched. However, when the sun attempted to penetrate the rain clouds, it was not successful and the rains again took control. The question remains: What happens to the desert landscape, the soil, the flowering plants, cacti, roads and rocks when 4.5 inches of rain falls within a four- to five-day period?

Joshua Tree 1
(photo courtesy of National Park Service)


In Joshua Tree National Park, the rainfall resulted in intense flooding of low washes with sheets of water, debris, rocks, stones and plant material being deposited on the road surface. Of course, heavy rainfall causes erosion of the hillsides, canyons, flatlands and any low areas.

While driving through Joshua Tree Park during and immediately after the rain it was necessary to watch carefully for debris on the road and shoulders. Further, pulling the car onto the shoulder resulted in sinking into the mud and water flowing along the roadside. The terrain is not prepared to adsorb or absorb that amount of rain. Unfortunately, when heavy rains occur most of the water is immediately channeled to low areas.

Without organic material in the desert soil or on the surface of the desert the only thing that can happen is for runoff to occur.

This was an entirely new experience for me. Rain in the desert, flooding in the desert, water flowing across the road, along the shallow ditches, in thin and thick sheets of water, mud and debris down the gullies and across the road. In one place, my car was nearly stuck in the several inches of mud that comprised the roadbed.

Fortunately my Vue has high clearance and front wheel drive that saved me from being stranded in the flooding of the desert.

What is the expected, near-future result of this rainfall for the desert? One, the desert plants should have sufficient, and even abundant, moisture to grow and flower during the next weeks and months. Two, the rain in the desert fell as snow in the mountains.

When the sun began to shine after the rain the surrounding mountains were painted a dazzling white, an unusual sight. This snow will melt and release water, perhaps in a gentle flow, onto the desert floor, further stimulating the expected mass of flowering plants At this time, the temperatures are too low to stimulate the flowering plants to bloom.

Park rangers indicated the main bloom will not take place until March or April. Although I did not expect to remain in the Indio area until that time, I urged others to RV into the Joshua Tree National Park with high expectations for a very beautiful display of flowering plants within the next few months.

I am told that under the right moisture and temperature conditions, entire hillsides and valleys will be literally covered with brilliant, small, desert flowers. Make sure that your timing is correct and that you arrive in time to see the spectacular natural garden which should blossom following a few days of intense rainfall in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts.

Joshua Tree 5
(photo courtesy of National Park Service)



Nine campgrounds at diverse locations across the park offer chemical or flush toilets, tables, fire grates and from six to 125 camp sites. RV size is restricted to less than 25 feet in a few campgrounds. Both Cottonwood and Black Rock campground provide water and dump stations. Fees range from $10-$15 per day.

Two sites offer horse campgrounds. In addition, back country camping is encouraged, but be certain to obtain permits to camp in the outback.

Hiking trails are abundant and range from easy to extreme. Nature trails range in length from 0.25- to 1.2-mile loops. Ranger talks are given daily. More than 253 miles of horse riding trails are available, so bring your own horse and all of the equipment and preparations required for horse camping.

Many may wish to drive the back roads through the park. Under most conditions the roads are passable, unless heavy rains have fallen recently. Note that summer temperatures may be extremely hot and it is always wise to have an ample water supply.

In recent years I have experienced Joshua Tree National Park during the various seasons of the year and have enjoyed each experience. Joshua Tree National Park is well recommended as an easily accessible park which can be very attractive to individual RVers and families for camping or day trip thrills and excitement.

About Dr. Bob Gorden

Dr. Bob Gorden is an RVer, hiker and writer. He has a PhD in microbial ecology from the University of Georgia in Athens. He is a retired research scientist from the University of Illinois Natural History Survey. He has owned and operated more than 55 RVs of various types, and has visited every state, except Hawaii, in his RV. He also traveled by RV in New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. He currently owns and travels in a 1978 GMC 26-foot Class A and 2013 Thor ACE 30.1 Class A motorhome. He has a compelling desire to be “On the Road Again!”

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