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Trailblazing: I hit up Joshua Tree for my 24th birthday

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I always thought Joshua trees looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book: short bodies bent at strange angles with spiky leaves poking out. The Lorax could pop out from behind one of them at any given moment to say that he “speaks for the trees.”

I saw the goofy little trees in southwest Utah while driving back from Zion National Park to Phoenix—where I was living at the time—and I immediately put Joshua Tree National Park on my bucket list.

Nearly two years later, when my mother asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I thought about Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. As a December baby who grew up in Minnesota, I’m used to celebrating in cold, dreary weather, but I wanted a warmer experience this year.

Friends had raved about Joshua Tree’s beauty, telling me that I needed to see it while living in California. My mom praised Palm Springs for its quaint yet lively atmosphere, stunning vistas, and good food. She wasn’t wrong.

Palm Springs’ winter views include a sunny valley and dancing palm trees with mountains towering in the distance, dusted with snow. The air was crisp—not the warm desert air I was expecting.

We approached Joshua Tree completely unprepared, which was a little stressful. Google Maps led us to the park’s west entrance, but that was it. My mom and I had no knowledge about the trails, why the trees were important, or why the park even exists, but sometimes a spur-of-the-moment adventure is exactly what your soul needs.

PHOTO BY TAYLOR O'CONNOR
  • PHOTO BY TAYLOR O'CONNOR

Turns out, Joshua trees have called the land outside Palm Springs home for more than 5,000 years. In the late 1920s, an influx of land developers and cactus poachers arrived, according to the National Park Service (NPS) website. Minerva Hoyt, a Pasadena resident who was extremely fond of desert plants and was concerned about cacti removal, initiated efforts to protect the 825,000 acres that became Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.

By 1994, the monument received National Park status thanks to the Desert Protection Bill, and acquired an additional 234,000 acres. The park itself protects more than 700 archeological sites, 88 historic structures, 19 cultural landscapes, and houses 230,000-plus items in its museum collections.

Our rough draft of a plan was to drive through the park and pull over when we saw something interesting or wanted to walk any trails. The park is small enough to drive through in one day with plenty of trailheads along the way.

We stopped at Quail Springs for photos and to get oriented with a trail map, Keys View for a view of the entire valley, Skull Rock and Split Rock to walk a few easy trails, and drove until we reached the park’s east entrance.

With sweatshirts on, we clambered out of the car at each of our stops to take in the desert with those odd little trees peppering its vast expanse. The land crunched beneath our feet and a cool breeze hit our faces. We took in the scenery and snapped a few photos before piling back into our car for warmth. I enjoyed letting the day unfold, not knowing what to expect and figuring it out as we went. It was all part of the adventure.

PHOTO BY TAYLOR O'CONNOR
  • PHOTO BY TAYLOR O'CONNOR

Cellphone service was spotty in the park, so planning ahead and downloading trail maps or other directions would save some stress in the future. I would recommend starting with the west entrance because that’s where the Joshua Trees grow. The farther east you travel, the sparser the trees become, eventually disappearing altogether.

Rising temperatures due to climate change are already impacting the park, its famous trees, and their habitat. It’s important to get out and appreciate the beauty nature has to offer before it changes forever and do what we can to help ensure its survival for the future.

My day at the park brought me peace and joy. I felt present in my surroundings with no connection to the outside world. It’s a special feeling you can’t get from any other activity.

As I take more steps into outdoor activities, I realize that being outside doesn’t have to be about intense backpacking or extreme hikes. It can be intimidating to recreate outside, but what’s most important is that you enjoy your time, no matter what your level of expertise.

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