Where to enjoy Joshua trees, while you can

Road Journals Blog—A few years ago, people who love Joshua trees—myself included—got some bad news.

Scientists projected that within 100 years, this gnarl-limbed desert dweller that looks to have stepped right off the pages of Dr. Seuss will disappear entirely from Arizona, Utah, and many parts of California and Nevada. Disturbing portents are evident already in places like Joshua Tree National Park, where there are plenty of dead trees, and little new growth to take their places.


Joshua trees come in many shapes and sizes - even without branches. | Anne Burke

The chief culprit, according to Kenneth Cole, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is global warming, which is pushing the Joshua tree northward into cooler and more geographically restricted climes.

(In the old days—Pleistocene old—seed dispersal was also more robust, thanks to the Johnny Appleseed-like services rendered by the Shasta giant ground sloth. The sloth would dine on the seed-laden fruit of the Joshua tree, then wander a good 10 miles before excreting his waste, thus ensuring the tree’s widespread propagation. Sadly, the giant ground sloth died off some 13,000 years ago.)


The world's thickest forest of Joshua trees is in the Mojave National Preserve. | Anne Burke

The demise of the Joshua tree would affect more than just the people who love it. Many critters, including orioles, wood rats, and lizards depend upon it for food and shelter.

What would Joshua Tree National Park be without its famous namesake?

The area is famously associated with the rock band U2 and the late, great singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, who died of a drug overdoes at age 27 in a motel room on the preserve's northern edge.

With all this notoriety, it may come as a surprise to learn that the world’s largest concentration of Joshua trees is not actually in the park to which they lend its name, but a couple hours north in the Mojave National Preserve.


Fallen trees are becoming more and more common. | Anne Burke

On the Teutonia Peak Trail in the northern part of the preserve, you can hike through a wonderland of Joshua and juniper trees amid massive granite boulders rounded smooth by a process called spheroidal weathering. If you hike this trail during the spring, should conditions be right you may be lucky enough to see the Joshua tree in bloom. Green pods open to reveal dense clusters of whitish-green blossoms that look like popcorn balls.

Joshua trees come in many shapes and sizes. Some are straight stalks, while others grow a profusion of weirdly contorted limbs that bring to mind the serpents on a Medusa’s head.

An entirely different image came to mind for the Mormon pioneers who passed through the area in the nineteenth century. They looked at these bent limbs and saw the outstretched arms of the Israelite leader Joshua beckoning them to the Promised Land.

That’s how the trees got their name.

Anne Burke wrote about the Beanery at Kelso Depot in the March/April 2011 issue of VIA.

This blog post was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.