California Travel Articles
Joshua Tree National Park
For a first-time visitor the desert may appear bleak and drab. Viewed from the road, the desert only hints at its vitality. Closer examination reveals a fascinating variety of plants and animals. A rich cultural history and surreal geologic features add to the attraction of this place. Two deserts, two large ecosystems whose characteristics are determined primarily by elevation, come together at Joshua Tree National Park. Below 3,000 feet, the Colorado Desert encompasses the eastern part of the park and features natural gardens of creosote bush, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. The higher, moister, and slightly cooler Mojave Desert is the special habitat of the Joshua tree. In addition to Joshua tree forests, the western part of the park also includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Five fan palm oases also dot the park, indicating those few areas where water occurs naturally and wildlife abounds.
Joshua Tree National Park is immense, nearly 800,000 acres, and infinitely variable. It can seem unwelcoming, even brutal during the heat of summer when, in fact, it is delicate and extremely fragile. This is a land shaped by strong winds, sudden torrents of rain, and climatic extremes. Rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. Streambeds are usually dry and waterholes are few. Viewed in summer, this land may appear defeated and dead, but within this parched environment are intricate living systems waiting for the opportune moment to reproduce. The individuals, both plant and animal, that inhabit the park are not individualists. They depend on their entire ecosystem for survival.Two deserts, two large ecosystems primarily determined by elevation, come together in the park. Few areas more vividly illustrate the contrast between “high” and “low” desert. Below 3000 feet (910 m), the Colorado Desert, occupying the eastern half of the park, is dominated by the abundant creosote bush. Adding interest to this arid land are small stands of spidery ocotillo and cholla cactus. The higher, slightly cooler, and wetter Mojave Desert is the special habitat of the undisciplined Joshua tree, extensive stands of which occur throughout the western half of the park. According to legend, Mormon pioneers considered the limbs of the Joshua trees to resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land. Others were not as visionary. Early explorer John Fremont described them as "…the most repulsive tree in the vegetable Kingdom." Standing like islands in a desolate sea, oases, a third ecosystem, provide dramatic contrast to their arid surroundings. Six fan palm oases dot the park, indicating those few areas where water occurs naturally at or near the surface, meeting the special life requirements of those stately trees. Oases once serving earlier desert visitors now abound in wildlife. The park encompasses some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths testify to the tremendous earth forces that shaped and formed this land. Arroyos, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, pediments, desert varnish, granites, aplite, and gneiss interact to form a giant mosaic of immense beauty and complexity. As old as the desert may look, it is but a temporary phenomenon in the incomprehensible time-scale of geology. In more verdant times, one of the Southwest’s earliest inhabitants, members of the Pinto Culture, lived in the now dry Pinto Basin. Later, Indians traveled through this area in tune with harvests of pinyon nuts, mesquite beans, acorns, and cactus fruit, leaving behind rock paintings and pottery ollas as reminders of their passing. In the late 1800s cattlemen came to the desert. They built dams to create water tanks. They were followed by miners who tunneled the earth in search of gold. They are gone now, but they left behind the Lost Horse and Desert Queen mines and the Keys Ranch. In the 1930s homesteaders came seeking free land and the chance to start new lives. Today many people come to the park’s 794,000 acres of open space seeking clear skies and clean air, and the peace and tranquility, the quietude and beauty, only deserts offer. The life force is patient here. Desert vegetation, often appearing to have succumbed to this hot sometimes unrelentedly dry environment, lies dormant, awaiting the rainfall and moderate weather that will trigger its growth, painting the park a profusion of colors. At the edges of daylight and under clear night skies lives a number of generally unfamiliar desert animals. Waiting out daytime heat, these creatures run, hop, crawl, and burrow in the slow rhythm of desert life. Under bright sun and blue sky, bighorn sheep and golden eagles add an air of unconcerned majesty to this land.
The broad vistas of desert landscapes can distract the visitor’s eyes from the small and quick near at hand. Despite the impression that the desert is lifeless, many animals make their homes in deserts. Birds, lizards, and ground squirrels are most likely to be seen because they are largely active during the day. However, it is at night that desert animals come out to roam. Mostly nocturnal animals include: snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, and black-tailed jack rabbits. Dusk and dawn are good times for viewing many kinds of animals, both those just going to bed and those just getting up.Animals that thrive in desert environments often have special adaptations for dealing with limited water and high summer temperatures. One does not walk far in the desert without seeing a multitude of burrow openings. The smaller mammals and all reptiles take refuge from the heat underground. Reptiles are physiologically adapted to getting along with much less water than mammals and birds can fly to water. And desert mammals make more efficient use of their bodies’ water supply than does the human body. Nevertheless, the springs and seeps in the park are necessary to the survival of many animals. Most of the reptiles and many small rodents and insects go into an inactive state of hibernation during the winter. However, winter is the time of greatest bird concentrations in the park, because of the presence of many migrant species.
With over 250 kinds of birds recorded from Joshua Tree National Park, it is understandable that the park affords a rewarding place to study them. This is especially true during the winter months when migrants abound.The vast majority of our recorded bird species are migrants and vagrants. Lying astride the inland portion of the Pacific flyway, the park serves as a rest stop for many migrants. The aquatic areas of Barker Dam and the Desert Queen Ranch attract many types of waterfowl on their way to the Salton Sea, birds that would not otherwise be seen in the desert. Rest stops are important for most migratory birds for purposes of water intake and for metabolism of fat reserves, which may not keep pace with energy use while they are actually in flight. Many of our migrants are actually residents of the nearby mountains, from which they fly to escape the heavy winter snows. Although most birds require drinking water almost every day, this is not such a limiting factor as might be supposed. There are many springs and seeps in the park, which are readily accessible to animals that can fly to them. The chief limiting factor for birds in the desert is food. Birds require relatively large amounts of food daily, especially during the breeding season. Thus, it is understandable that there are only 78 species of birds known to nest and raise young in the park. The park is an attractive place to sight and watch birds. The lack of dense vegetation makes birds much easier to see here than in most national parks. Golden eagles hunt in the park regularly. The roadrunner, of cartoon fame, is an easily recognized resident. And the call of Gambel’s quail is a noteworthy sound of the desert.
Joshua Tree’s resident bird species, such as greater roadrunner, phainopepla, mockingbird, verdin, cactus wren, rock wren, mourning dove, Le Conte’s thrasher, and Gambel’s quail can be sighted in the park throughout the year. The park’s winter migrants: white-crowned sparrow, dark-eyed junco, sage sparrow, cedar waxwing, American robin, and hermit thrush will remain in the park into March. Along about the time the winter migratory species are departing, other species will begin to migrate into the area for spring and summer. This group includes summer nesting species such as Bendire’s thrasher, ash-throated flycatcher, western kingbird, Scott’s oriole, northern oriole, and western bluebird.A brightly colored bunch of warblers: Wilson’s, black-throated gray, Nashville, Mac Gillivray’s, yellow, yellow-rumped (a species also here in winter), and orange-crowned are among the species that just pass through the park. Other transients are black-headed grosbeaks, western tanagers, indigo buntings, and lazuli buntings. In addition to these smaller migrants, the park hosts a migration of birds of prey: sharp-shinned hawk, rough-legged hawk, northern harrier, osprey and Swainson’s hawk. There are several resident hawks as well: red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Cooper’s hawk, and prairie falcon. Occasionally groups of 200 or more turkey vultures will spend the night in the trees at the Oasis of Mara during their spring migration. They present quite a sight especially with their wings slightly spread, warming in the early morning sun. An occasional shore bird also finds its way into Joshua Tree during spring. Do not be too surprised if you see a black-necked stilt or an eared grebe standing on a park road. Grebes have their feet placed so far to the back of their bodies they cannot make a running takeoff on land—once grounded, they are stranded. Please report any sightings to park personnel so the stranded bird can be transported safely to a water site. Fan palm oases, and water impoundments are good places to search for birds. Even "lakes" that are dry, such as Barker Dam, offer forage vegetation for birds. The Oasis of Mara, including the 29 Palms Inn at the west end, is a good bird viewing area. Cottonwood Spring has both cottonwood trees and fan palms to provide vegetation and shelter for a number of birds. Lost Palms Oasis, 49 Palms Oasis, and the riparian habitat associated with Smith Water Canyon require more extensive hiking but provide good birding as well. When in the high desert areas of the park take a walk or two in the Queen and Lost Horse valleys and look for ladder-backed woodpecker, red-tailed hawk, oak titmouse, bushtit, black-tailed and blue-gray gnatcatchers, black-throated sparrow, and sage sparrow. Interested visitors can stop at a visitor center and pick up a bird checklist that will indicate the likelihood of a particular species being observed during each season. Also ask about any interesting bird sightings or report any unusual sightings you might make. Enjoy your park and its birds.
Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles. You can approach it from the west via Interstate 10 and Hwy 62 (Twentynine Palms Highway). The north entrances to the park are located at Joshua Tree Village and the city of Twentynine Palms. The south entrance at Cottonwood Spring, which lies 25 miles east of Indio, can be approached from the east or west, also via Interstate 10.National Park Service
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