Destinations: Joshua Tree National Park, California

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An almost alien-looking landscape and well-maintained, gently curving roads make Joshua Tree a delighful sight to see.

Christened for its iconic namesake, Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles. Located approximately halfway across the southern portion of California, Joshua Tree National Park is renowned for its views, desert life, history and, naturally, its Joshua trees. The park is a great day trip from virtually anywhere in southern California or western Arizona, and if you’re passing through southern California, a trip through Joshua Tree National Park makes for a fascinating diversion through terrain that looks as if it belongs on another planet. 

Mormon settlers gave Joshua trees their name more than 100 years ago. The biblical reference is based on the trees’ upward-stretching branches, which appear to be seeking divine guidance. Members of the lily family, these unusual plants can grow to heights of 40 feet and live as long as 300 years. Joshua trees are only found in a few places, including the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona, the nearby San Bernardino Mountains and in Baja, Mexico. Joshua Tree National Park has one of the world’s highest concentrations of these trees.

Joshua Tree National Park also boasts awe-inspiring rock formations. Throughout the park (and on either side of the road that winds through it), unusual, Dr. Seuss-like boulder arrangements abound. Rock climbing is popular in several areas, and it’s not unusual to see rock climbers as you ride through the park.

The region is visually arresting, but its history is even more intriguing. Humans inhabited the area as early as 8,000 years ago, with three American Indian tribes succeeding each other (the Pinto, Serrano and Chemehuevi Indians). The small town of Twentynine Palms (near the park’s northern entrance) earned its name from an American Indian medicine man telling his tribe shortly after settling in the area that they should plant a palm tree each time a male child was born. In the first year, 29 boys were born.

Gold miners and ranchers followed the American Indians in the late 1800s, and World War I veterans suffering from gas inhalation arrived next, seeking relief in the area’s dry climate. With the influx of people came more roads, and then a new problem emerged — cactus poaching. The U.S. government established Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936 to preserve the area, and the government designated the area as a national park in 1994.

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