A Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park

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A Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park
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Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/47096398@N08.)

The rock band U2 found enough beauty and intrigue in the humble Joshua tree to name an album after it. My husband found enough inspiration in Joshua Tree National Park to overcome his fear of steep drops and get down on one knee -- on a rock outcropping -- to propose. Plan your own trip to Joshua Tree and take inspiration from all that thrives in this desert park, from the unusual tree it is named for to the unique rock formations that make it a hiker's and climber's paradise.

Getting There

Joshua Tree spans 800,000 acres, or an area slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island, in California's higher Mojave and lower Colorado deserts. It's located about two hours east of Los Angeles and an hour east of Palm Springs. Joshua Tree got an extra boost in 1994, when Congress upgraded it from a national monument to a national park under the Desert Protection Act. Stop in at one of the park's three visitor centers to find out the best things to do during your visit, depending on the season and your interests. Check the park website for nearby lodging suggestions, or make the trip over from Palm Springs.

What's There?

You will know you've found Joshua Tree when you start to see row after row of twisted, spiky, crazy-looking trees. The Joshua actually isn't a tree, but a tree-like member of the yucca plant family. Legend has it that early settlers named the tree after the prophet Joshua, likening its limbs to Joshua's hands raised in prayer. U2 front man Bono liked that analogy, which led to the tree's prominence on the group's famous album. Once you get into the park, you will see the flat desert transform into an area with more than 400 rock formations, with expanses of granite rock and craggy valleys formed out of the erosion that shaped the area centuries ago. Beyond the trees and rocks, be adventurous and search for the park's other delights: an array of wildflowers, birds, and animals that thrive in desert conditions.

What to Do?

If you only plan to drive through Joshua Tree, start at the south entrance 25 miles east of Indio. An average drive, including stops for pictures and brief walks, will take at least four hours. Allow more time if you want to hike or climb. When it comes to hiking and climbing, Joshua Tree is a great spot for first-timers and pros. More than 8,000 climbing routes dot the landscape, with climbing guides available for purchase at park visitor centers. If you're a beginner, you can take an all-day climbing course at the park. If hiking is more your speed, you'll find trails for all levels of hikers, including 12 nature walks. The park is also a great place for birding, wildflower watching, and "star parties" designed for stargazing on Saturday nights during spring.

A Special Spot

Be sure to visit the Hidden Valley area of Joshua Tree, at the northwest end of the park. A short, easy hike onto some rocks will give you a spectacular view of the park, or in my husband's case, a great place to propose. Just before a winter sunset, this is where he climbed with an engagement ring and a bottle of champagne hidden in his backpack and got down on one knee. And it is where I stopped, took advantage of the serene silence to clear my mind, and made the best decision of my life.

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