TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to Joshua Tree

Jeff Ohlfs began his love affair with Joshua Tree National Park a quarter of a century ago. The chief ranger of the park, Ohlfs has seen more of Joshua Tree than any other person posted there. 

“I remember believing I could never work in a desert park,” says the national park service veteran. “Now, two decades later, I cannot pull myself away from it. For me, it is home.”

Here’s Jeff’s insider’s guide to one of the premier jewels of the Southern California desert.

Joshua Tree Is My National Park

Spring is the best time to visit my park because the weather is beautiful, the wildlife is active after a winter sleep, and, depending on the rainfall, the desert wildflowers may be showing their beautiful colors and diversity. Of course, this time of year also brings the crowds.

Joshua Tree is the 16th largest unit in America’s national park system. If you are up for an adventure and a real physical challenge, one of the park’s biggest attractions is its world-class rock climbing and bouldering (Joshua Tree is the most popular rock climbing area in the world!). Keep in mind that your experience level should dictate just how far to take this adventure and that the one law that is strictly enforced in the park is the law of gravity. Be safe!

A visit isn’t complete without walking among the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), rumored to be the inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. And when we “speak for the trees” we are interestingly speaking for vegetation that is actually not a tree at all, but a type of yucca. And not to be type-cast, this park speaks for more than just Joshua trees. The diversity of plant species here is so wide that the park’s name was originally proposed to be Desert Plants National Park.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to do your homework. After reading up on the park and what it has to offer, plan your trip around the resources that interest you. Are you a hiker? A climber? A bird watcher? Do you count butterfly species? Read reviews so you know how long it takes for a tour or the distance between locations, and adjust your stay accordingly. Check out the park’s website as well; it’s full of ideas for helping you plan a visit that best meets your needs.

Watch out for cactus, snakes, and your own feet while you’re in the park. To survive in the desert, species have to have special adaptations. Many desert critters, plant and animal alike, will bite, prick, stick, or sting you. But don’t be deterred. I have hiked almost 1,000 miles in the park and have only seen three rattlesnakes. And remember: Even a desert gets cold. Winter nights can drop to freezing, and it even snows a couple of times a year. The greatest day/night temperature difference occurs in the desert in the winter. Be sure to bring a hiking map, sunscreen, food, plenty of water, and seasonally appropriate clothing and gear. Another important note: Don’t count on cell service when you’re in the park.

Barker Dam is my favorite trail in the park. If you want to see wildlife, this and also the hike to 49 Palms Oasis may reward you with a glimpse of bighorn sheep. It is important to remember to view these majestic creatures, one of the most iconic megafauna in the park, at a distance.

For arguably the best view, head to Keys View where you can look down onto the Coachella Valley and see Palm Springs, the San Andreas Fault line, Salton Sea, and, on a good day, Mount Signal near California’s border with Mexico.

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to drive the park’s loop road, which is a beautiful, scenic drive. It will take you through unique rock formations, Joshua tree forests, Keys View, and Barker Dam. Along the way, if you have kids, you don’t want to miss the wind- and erosion-caused Skull Rock.

If you want to experience the park’s cultural side and are interested in a guided ranger program, I recommend Keys Ranch. Tours operate on a reservation system and entry to the ranch is permitted only if visitors are in the company of a ranger. Keys Ranch, or the Desert Queen Ranch, is the historic homestead of desert legend Bill Keys. The area has been left in the same condition as when Mr. Keys passed away. It provides an excellent look into homesteading and the hardships of living in the desert when town was a two-day wagon ride away.

My favorite park “secret” is that, unlike a lot of national parks, you can hike almost anywhere in Joshua Tree. You are not required to stay on trails and there are only a few places with restrictions, such as day-use areas and Keys Ranch. Pick a canyon, park in a legal spot, and go exploring. There’s always something new around every corner. After all these years, I am still surprised at the beautiful things I encounter.

Our Joshua Tree Search and Rescue volunteers (JOSAR) are our park’s “unsung heroes.” These men and women train in search-and-rescue techniques and are often called upon to search for lost and stranded climbers and hikers. They leave their jobs and families to give of their time and experience so that our visitors get home to their families safely every evening.

Night skies at Joshua Tree National Park inspire millions of people each year to consider the universe as they gaze upon the brilliant lights in a seemingly pristine dark night. I have heard children from Los Angeles exclaim that they have never seen stars like this before.

Just outside the park boundary are the Indian Canyons of Palm Springs. Part of a tribal park run by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, these canyons feature huge fan palm oases. This area is so untouched and significant in both its cultural and natural story that Congress almost made it a national monument in 1922. Today it is protected by the people who tell their history in the shade of these magnificent trees. When you visit, make sure to say “hi” to the tribal rangers!

If Joshua Tree had a mascot, it would be the endangered desert tortoise. These amazing animals are very rare, and also susceptible to a very contagious and deadly disease that can be transmitted from animal to animal by a human’s hands. So, please, help us to protect these unique creatures by observing them at a distance and never touching them.

Have you ever heard the phrase “being loved to death”? This is considered by some to be the biggest threat to the future of the park and some other public lands. As a national park, there is very little development in Joshua Tree, and so it can be preserved in a state very similar to what would have been seen when wagon trains crossed the desert. I encourage everyone who loves Joshua Tree and all of America’s national parks and public lands to follow the directions given, and only park and camp in designated areas. We can all do our part to protect these fragile resources.

The world should heart my park because it is a uniquely beautiful wilderness that has something for everyone, from outdoor adventures and wildlife-watching to cultural experiences. Its proximity to L.A. and other cities allows forays into nature for those who otherwise experience only concrete.

> Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources:

* The views expressed above do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior or the United States government.

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