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.

Well-maintained, gently curving paved roads provide the few paths through the park’s 800,000 acres, and the speed limits are low. That’s a good thing, as the views are magnificent. This is not a place to test the limits of your cornering ability; it’s a place to enjoy some of the most spectacular desert scenery on the planet. The park contains just less than 90 miles of paved roads, and about the same amount of dirt roads. Any street bike is perfect for a cruise through this magnificent region, with commanding views of the rolling Mojave Desert, over 700 species of plant life, 240 bird species (including the occasional pelican from the nearby Salton Sea), and more than 80 other animal species. If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the park’s Desert Bighorn sheep.
The park has three entrances: two from the north, and one from the south. The roads from each converge in the center of the park. The southern entrance is easily accessible from Interstate 10, and the two northern entrances are accessible through the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Any of the entrances provide great views. Most people feel that entering from the northern end makes for a more interesting ride, and in most cases, a more direct route home on Interstate 10.

The Skinny
Joshua Tree National Park, Calif. A magnificent national park with awesome scenery, well-maintained roads, an abundance of wildlife and other-worldly rock formations.
How to Get There: From anywhere, take Interstate 10 to the park’s southern entrance. Alternatively, combine the ride with a trip through the magnificent San Bernardino Mountains and the Mojave Desert to arrive at either of two northern entrances.
Best Kept Secrets: Make sure you take the diversion to Keys View, a short ride up to a 5,185-foot-high vantage point in the park’s southwestern corner. Keys View offers stunning views of Mt. San Jacinto, the Coachella Valley, and on a clear day, the Salton Sea.
Avoid: Speeding, as there’s no need; take a relaxed ride, enjoy the scenery, and stop to examine the rock formations and watch the climbers.
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