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When Mormon settlers trudged through this arid corner of southern California in the 1850s, the strange tuft-tipped trees that grew in the blistering scrabble are said to have reminded them of the prophet Joshua, arms raised heavenward and pointing to the promised land.

The Mormons moved on to Utah, but the name remained and was used by the miners, ranchers, rustlers and outlaws who came after them during the next century. Even now, the name seems appropriate.

Proclaimed a National Monument in 1936, a Biosphere Reserve in 1984, and finally a national park in 1994, the 3,213 square kilometres of Joshua Tree is an otherworldly landscape punctuated by giant mounds of rounded boulders and rich with the flora and fauna of both high- and low-desert ecosystems. About an hour's drive northeast of the manicured golf courses, pricey boutiques and luxurious condominums of Palm Springs and its resort suburbs, it is one of the most unusual wilderness areas in California.

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The best way to enjoy the park on a day trip is to drive through its northern portion along a 50-kilometre-long, two-lane blacktop that loops between the northern entrance at Twentynine Palms and the west entrance at Joshua Tree, both small communities along Highway 62. Just south of Twentynine Palms -- a surprisingly attractive town supported by one of the largest Marine Corps combat-training centres in the country -- maps and literature about Joshua Tree can be found at the park's visitor centre. While most who come here are daytrippers driving through, rangers and park staff are also available for expert advice about hiking, camping and rock-climbing in the park. In the spring and fall, park-organized campfire talks and interpretive hikes add to visitors' understanding of a remarkably complex region.

Joshua Tree is a unique transition zone where the high Mojave meets the lower Colorado Desert. The merging ecosystems are defined and separated primarily by elevation. Below 900 metres, the Colorado Desert encompasses the eastern portion of the park and features an austere landscape dominated by creosote-bush gardens, spidery ocotillo and jumping cholla cactus. The higher, moister and slightly cooler Mojave Desert to the west is the special habitat of the Joshua tree and oases marked by clusters of five-fan palms.

The park is a feast for geology buffs. Arroyos, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, pediments, aplite, desert varnish and gneiss can all be found here forming a beautiful and fragile desert mosaic.

The road from the visitor centre rises in elevation and loops south and west through a rapidly changing landscape. Soon you are moving through a fantastic, and appropriately named, Wonderland of Rocks, great mounds of amber-coloured boulders, rounded and polished by thousands of years of wind, flash floods, and the frost and snow of winter.

Pushed out of the desert floor by the convulsions of the Pinto Mountain fault that runs under the park, their 30-metre-high flanks make up one of the most popular rock-climbing areas in the world. Of the approximately million visitors to the park each year, a sizable number come to challenge some of the 5,000 established climbs that offer a wide range of difficulty.

Near Jumbo Rocks, Sheep Pass and other campgrounds here, athletic young people can be seen "bouldering" up sheer rock faces, often under the tutelage of experts operating climbing schools and clinics.

Side roads -- some that should only be tried with four-wheel-drive vehicles -- lead to abandoned mines and ranches. One road worth taking leads to Keys View, named after Bill Keys, a tough, trigger-happy miner who lived in the desert here and was locked away in the 1943 for killing a neighbour in a dispute over property lines. Keys spent five years in San Quentin prison before obtaining a full pardon and returning to his Joshua home where he died in 1969. An interesting historical note to the life of Keys is that the group of lawyers who engineered his pardon included Erle Stanley Gardner, the author and creator of Perry Mason.

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Keys View, at 1,580 metres one of the highest points in the park, offers a fabulous panorama of desert peaks and badlands. To the south on a clear day, especially in winter, you can glimpse the Salton Sea and look into Mexico. Sadly, nowadays you can also see a western horizon smudged by smog drifting east from Los Angeles, more than 200 kilometres away.

Among the many excellent hiking trails in the park is the well-signposted path to Hidden Valley in the Wilderness of Rocks area. The two-kilometre-long path leads to a place that was once popular with cattle rustlers, who herded stolen stock into the natural corrals here for rebranding before moving them to the coast for sale.

Another short trail, to a rain-fed pond at Barker Dam, the park's most important water supply for resident animals, passes by petroglyphs scratched into rocks by natives who inhabited the region centuries ago. In more verdant times, small family groups of Pinto Man, one of the Southwest's earliest inhabitants, lived here. They hunted and gathered along a slow-moving river that ran through the now-dry Pinto Basin. Later, other tribes of nomadic Indians travelled through the region, hunting big horn sheep and harvesting pinyon-pine nuts, mesquite beans and cactus fruit. They all left behind their rock art and pottery shards.

Easier walks just off the main road through the park lead to curious rock formations, like Skull Rock, carved by the elements into fantastic shapes.

But if it is the Joshua trees you came to see, you'll find their largest concentration in the west end of the park. Here, across the floor of the high-desert plateau, they stand by the thousands in well-spaced ranks stretching to the rubble slopes of sun-blasted hills. Occasionally reaching 12 metres in height, they lift twisted limbs to the sky, like so many biblical prophets frozen in the act of worship.


Getting there. The northern and eastern entrances to Joshua Tree National Park, at the communities of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, are off Highway 62, about an hour's drive from Palm Springs. If you're coming from Arizona, there is a southern entrance to the park 11 kilometres north of Interstate 10 at the Cottonwood Spring Road exit. There is no public transport to, or through, the park. Cost. Entrance fee to the park is $10 (U.S.) for each car and is good for seven days. Best time to visit. The park's peak visitation season is April, when desert flowers are in bloom and the heat is bearable. Summer can see daytime temperatures of more than 40 C. There is often snow at the highest elevations of the park in the winter. Practicalities. If you plan to do more than drive through the park, check in with the rangers at the visitor centres and never go off signed trails without a map (either the Topographic Trail Map or the Recreation Map.) Many of the side roads are unmarked and should only be attempted with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. There are no concessions in the park and visitors should bring their own food and plenty of drinking water.

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Joshua Tree has nine campgrounds, all except one, by the southern entrance, are concentrated in the northwest corner of the park. All have wooden tables, fire pits (bring your own fuel) and pit toilets; only two (Black Rock Canyon and Cottonwood in the south) have flush toilets and water. Aside from Cottonwood and Black Rock, that cost a daily rate of about $10 and can be reserved ahead of time, the rest are free on a first-come-first-served basis. Backcountry camping is permitted after registration at a visitor centre. Information. Phone (760) 367-5500; fax (760) 367-6392. Web sites: ; ; ; Reading. The Rough Guide to California, by Deborah Bosley, Jamie Jensen and Mick Sinclair; Road Guide to Joshua Tree National Park, by Barbara and Robert Decker (available from park visitor centres); Joshua Tree: The Story Behind the Scenery, by Delcie H. Vuncannon (available from area bookshops and park visitor centres).

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