Life in the Desert

Joshua Tree National Park
Some three million people are expected to visit Joshua Tree National Park this year. Yet, on a chilly May day when I’m here, for nearly four hours, I don’t see a single human — or vehicle.  I do catch a number of jackrabbits, and birds and bees. But basically, this 800,000-acre desert sanctuary is my personal playground. Of course, my experience is probably different from most.

I take the tip of one of the park’s visitor center staff.  I leave my Yucca Valley Airbnb before 5 a.m. My aim is to get to the Cholla Cactus Garden at dawn, around 5:45 this day. It’s an easy drive, but long, which is why I give myself an hour to get there.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua Tree National Park has an excellent system of paved roads, with markers. The Cholla Cactus Garden is right off the main road. There are 170,000 cacti growing here. The Cholla Cactus Garden is not a kaleidoscope of colors. However, the shapes and shimmering cacti are beautiful. My favorite are the Teddy Bear Cacti. They look cuddly, with big balls hanging and sprouting up everywhere. But those orbs are surrounded by barbs that get stuck inside your skin. What’s more, they frequently drop off the body of the cactus, so you have to be careful where you step. Once fallen, they cling to the ground and new cacti form from them. Only the cactus wren seem able to be resilient to the painful spines.

The Cholla Cactus Garden sits within the Pinto Basin. There are three very distinct regions at the national park. The northwest is recognizable by its rocky mountains. The southeast is a bit lower, in the Colorado Mountain range, so has more water run-off and hence, a bit more vegetation and flowering bushes. The Pinto region is between the two.

Joshua Tree National Park is a prime example of different eco-systems within the desert. While deserts receive less than ten inches of rainfall a year, on average, Joshua Tree measures only four. So we’re talking sand. Brush. Starkness. Mostly browns and beiges.

There is so much to learn from nature. Especially the area that seems so inhospitable for living things. Not all living creatures rely on water, like humans. The nocturnal kangaroo rats which roam here don’t ever need water. And, tortoises spend 90 percent of their life up to 10 feet underground. They can survive a full six months without water.


While this is a stark desert, with the browns predominating, beyond the cacti, there are other forms of vegetation, especially in the Colorado Desert region.

There are creosotes sprouting up everywhere. These sprawling bushes propagate easily and were used medicinally by the Native Americans that lived here in the earlier years. The natives also used arrow weed for their arrows, hence the name.

The original inhabitants burned the bases of the palm trees as a natural pest control. Today, huge holes formed by palm boar beetles are seen in the dying palms.

We’ve heard about mesquite for burning wood and adding a smoky flavor. But, Native Americans ate honey mesquite pods. The Cahuilas made their own deep mortars in the granite rocks (some visible today) to grind mesquite and other seeds into flour. One of the trail markers explains the relationship between nature and the Native Americans.

“Cahuilas believed that everything in their world contained a spirit and that all spirits deserved respect.  When picking an edible plant, Indians would quietly pray to its spirit. The prayers would include an explanation of why the plant was being picked and an apology for using it. Whenever possible, only part of the plant was taken. Their respectful attitude toward other forms of life enabled them to live here with little negative impact on the environment.”

The pinyon pine was another important food source for the Cahuilas. They heated the cones to loosen the seeds from inside. The nutritional content of one pinyon leaf nut was greater than those commonly eaten today.

The Joshua Trees that are the hallmark of this area have shallow roots. While the night times can get extremely cold, especially with the wind chill factor, those cool nights are what help these trees to flower.


Aside from the cactus gardens, there are five oases. One at 49 Palms, one at 29 Palms, and three near the Cottonwood Visitor Center. The oases are a result of fault zones with aquifers where the water percolates upward. Unfortunately, the oasis at 29 Palms, which is the easiest to get to, with free admission since it’s outside the actual park, looks more like a desert than an oasis. There are a few nice tall palms. Those are healthy because they get extra watering. Rangers irrigate select areas with 4,500 gallons of water, weekly, that they purchase from the city of 29 Palms. Ironically, the water comes in trucks from the municipality that is drying out the oasis. The largest marine base is about six miles away, and the base consumes far more water than what the environment, apparently, can withstand.

For more on Joshua Tree National Park, read my prior article.

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