10 Extraordinary Joshua Tree National Park Facts

Joshua Tree National Park at sunset

Mimi Ditchie Photography / Getty Images

Famous for the tall, distinctly twisted plants that dot its ethereal landscape, Joshua Tree National Park combines two desert ecosystems in Southern California. A variety of life, including numerous species of cacti and wildlife that have adapted to withstand the rugged, water-scarce environment, call Joshua Tree home.

Whether it's unique rock formations, extraordinary diversity, or primitive wilderness, the environmental riches of Joshua Tree are truly something to behold. Explore 10 extraordinary and little-known facts about Joshua Tree National Park.

85% of Joshua Tree National Park Is Managed as Wilderness

In 1976, a public law act created 429,690 acres of wilderness inside Joshua Tree National Monument. Nearly two decades later, the California Desert Protection Act, the same act that changed Joshua Tree from a national monument to a national park, added almost 164,000 acres, while another 2009 act granted an additional 36,700 acres. All together, about 85% of the park’s current 792,623 acres are managed as designated wilderness or areas nominated as potential wilderness. 

There Are 57 Mammals Species Living Inside the Park

White-tailed antelope squirrel in Joshua Tree National Park
NNehring / Getty Images

Joshua Tree’s many animal species—including 57 mammals, 46 reptiles, 250 birds, and 75 butterflies—have plenty of obstacles when it comes to survival. Lack of essentials such as food and water paired with extreme temperatures have forced many species to adapt. As a result, many of Joshua Tree’s mammals are small enough to burrow into the ground or find rocky crevices to avoid the high heat.

Some, like the round-tailed ground squirrel, even enter a state of dormancy when the days become too hot or dry, only to enter hibernation again once winter rolls around. Kangaroo rats, as another example, have developed exceptionally efficient kidneys so they don’t need to consume as much water. On the flip side, larger mammals make an effort to stay close enough to natural water springs to stay hydrated throughout the day.

Joshua Trees Aren’t Really Trees

Joshua trees
Mimi Ditchie Photography / Getty Images

The famous plants that helped give Joshua Tree National Park its name aren’t actually trees at all, but rather a species of yucca in the same subgroup as flowering grasses and orchids. These plants grow very slowly, as little as just one to three inches per year, helping give them a longer lifespan of about 150 years.

In October 2020, Joshua trees became the first plant to be protected under California’s Endangered Species Act due to threats posed by climate change

Visitors Can Hike Two Distinct Deserts in One Day

Joshua Tree National Park is positioned where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado Desert, two ecosystems that differ greatly in both appearance and elevation. The low Colorado Desert encompasses the gently sloping eastern side of the park while the high Mojave Desert lies in the park’s sandy western half where the Joshua trees thrive.

It’s an International Dark Sky Park

Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
Juan Sebastian Lopez / EyeEm / Getty Images 

The night sky in Joshua Tree National Park is one of the darkest in Southern California, offering unforgettable opportunities to view the Milky Way. Although the park is located far away from the dense artificial lights of the city, recent reports of medium to high levels of light pollution within Joshua Tree have increased, most likely from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Coachella Valley. To help protect the park from increased light pollution, Joshua Tree was designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association to help manage the nighttime environment.

The Park Is a Rock Climber’s Paradise

Rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park
Elliot Kadota / EyeEm / Getty Images 

Joshua Tree boasts at least 8,000 routes for climbers, boulderers, and highliners to test their skills. However, higher interest in the park as a world-class rock climbing destination has led to negative impacts to the fragile desert environment as well as the plants and animals who live there, so visitors are encouraged to follow Leave No Trace principles and tread lightly.

Humans Have Occupied Joshua Tree National Park for Thousands of Years

The first known group of Indigenous people to occupy what is now Joshua Tree National Park lived there between four and eight thousand years ago. They were followed by the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla Indigenous peoples, and later groups of cattlemen and miners in the 1800s. By the 1900s, homesteaders had begun occupying the land, building cabins, digging wells, and planting crops.

There Are 750 Species of Plants in the Park

Wildflowers in Joshua Tree National Park
Patricia Elaine Thomas / Getty Images

Over 750 plant species have been documented in Joshua Tree National Park, which represents 12% of native California flora and 33% of the taxa within the state’s desert region. Additionally, the park provides a habitat for 44 rare plant species, many of which are threatened by factors like mining, off-road vehicle use, and urbanization. One such species, the Parish's daisy (Erigeron parishii) is a perennial herb that’s native to California and listed as federally threatened.

Joshua Tree’s Oldest Rocks Are 1.7 Billion Years Old

According to the United States Geological Survey, Joshua Tree’s oldest rocks are between 1.4 and 1.7 billion years old. These metamorphic rocks are divided into four different subunits, the oldest of which are known as the Joshua Tree Augen Gneiss. Previously made up of granite, the Joshua Tree Augen Gneiss rocks were subjected to high pressures and temperatures causing the minerals to migrate into bands. Higher layers of rocks are composed of quartz and dolomite.  

The Park Exists Because of a Former Socialite Named Minerva Hoyt

After moving to Southern California with her husband in the 1890s, Mississippi-born Minerva Hoyt became interested in gardening and subsequently passionate about the region’s native desert plants. She formed the International Deserts Conservation League in 1930, working with the president of Mexico to establish a cactus reserve near Tehuacan. She eventually became a member of the California state commission that recommended proposals for new state parks. After years of campaigning to create a federally protected area to preserve California’s desert plants with President Hoover and later President Roosevelt, Joshua Tree National Monument was finally established in 1936.

View Article Sources
  1. "Animals." National Park Service.

  2. "Plant Species List." National Park Service.

  3. "Joshua Tree National Park Geology." United States Geological Survey.