Where the Desert Meets the Sky: How Two Ecosystems Created Joshua Tree

You’re likely aware of it as the hipster weekend getaway du jour, and there’s no denying that Joshua Tree appeals to a certain sect of pseudo-spiritualist millennials — those who, perhaps, are not quite willing to make the exodus from the Angeleno sprawl into the desert, but who appreciate the occasional opportunity to get away from everything.

For centuries the arid, spacious landscape we now know as Joshua Tree National Park has captivated wanderers across the American southwest. Californians take a special sort of pride in Joshua Tree; just east of Los Angeles and within driving distance of the Palm Springs International Airport, the area was designated as a national park twenty-five years ago and has since become heavily mythologized in art, music, and media.

Though much has been written about the curiously stout and scruffy trees native to the Mojave Desert, the Yucca brevifolia has many pseudonyms. In Spanish, the plant is known as izote de desierto — literally “desert dagger.” A group of travelling Mormons, allegedly, were the first to apply this metaphor creatively, naming the trees “Joshua trees” because their shape reminded the travellers of a passage in the Bible. According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelite prophet left his hands outstretched to guide his followers on their way to Canaan.

Many years on, we now know that Joshua Tree National Park is special for more than just its unique flora. Visitors are technically experiencing two places at once as Joshua Tree is made up of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and the Colorado.

It is disconcerting to cross the “invisible line” and enter into what is essentially a different climate. On the western side of the park, the Mojave zone, tourists can expect a drop in temperature by approximately eleven degrees. The higher elevation even allows for snow in the winter months, and it leaves one breathless to view the white-capped rocks amidst the sandy desert.

Even less commonly known is the origin of Joshua Tree, before it received national park classification in 1994. Beloved by many now, there was a time when it was a rare diamond still in need of refinery.

It was a South Pasadena woman, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, who first became enamoured with the yucca trees native to the southwestern United States. Hoyt’s contributions to American history have been overlooked, perhaps due to her gender. Yet she is still considered the premier desert conservationist, and wrote of her fascination with this “world of strange and inexpressible beauty, of mystery and singular aloofness, which is yet so filled with peace.”

Hoyt’s portrait hangs in the visitor’s centre and she is known as the “Apostle of the Cacti,” but for many years she was simply a western-bound traveller with a dream, watching from the window of a train with her husband as they passed through a strange new world. Hoyt knew that Joshua Tree was worth preserving. We should be glad that she did.

The desert spoke to Hoyt’s soul in the way it does to many young mystics. It is understandable that many of today’s artists, nomads, and outlaws have decided to trade in their suits and briefcases for guitars and fringe jackets and follow the countercultural compass south to this bohemian oasis. Joshua Tree and its nearby town of Yucca Valley are growing slowly yet steadily in the e-commerce and freelance era.

Perhaps the intersecting ecosystems are responsible for some of the magic. Joshua Tree is, in a sense, a liminal space, still boasting a very low year-round population. Mainly, it attracts New York and Los Angeles refugees. The transformative atmosphere has inspired countless trips, drug-induced and otherwise, by artists and their muses seeking a change of pace.

Adventurers tend to stay in one of a few ultra-hip boutique hotels: the retro-inspired roadside motel Mojave Sands, the hacienda-style Joshua Tree Inn (where, in room eight, folk singer Gram Parsons died in 1973 due to a massive drug overdose), and the kitschy cabin Spin and Margies Desert Hideaway.

It is a compelling place — almost 800,000 acres of flowering ocotillo, cacti, creosote bushes, rocky outcrops, a view of the Coxcomb Mountains, and a view of the stars at night that would make any city dweller take pause to reflect with humility on their size in the universe.

Carly Bush
Carly Bush is a nomadic writer and editor whose adventurous mentality and passion for travel began at an early age. Her explorations of North America over the past several years contributed to her desire to write about travel in a new and accessible way. She strives to write engaging, uplifting, and challenging content.