By Tom Uhlenbrock
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Sunday, Nov. 01 2009
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CALIF. — Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon get
the publicity, and the visitors. But there are plenty of lesser-known national
parks that offer gorgeous vistas and pristine back country, far from the
Joshua Tree, Big Bend, Capitol Reef, Isle Royale, Kenai Fjords and Theodore
Roosevelt are national parks that may never be the stars of a Ken Burns
documentary. But each offers its own charm, and you won't find a traffic jam at
any of them. In fact, Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Isle Royale in Lake Superior
have no traffic at all; you explore them by boat or by sea plane.
When I visited Theodore Roosevelt in remote western North Dakota and asked the
ranger whether he was busy with visitors that day, he replied, "You're No. 2."
Franklin Roosevelt made Joshua Tree a national monument in 1936, and Bill
Clinton elevated it to a national park in 1994. The park is well known in
Southern California but, like some Americans living elsewhere, I first heard of
this eerie expanse of cactus-studded desert and mountains in 1973 after the
strange death of Gram Parsons, a singer-songwriter who was a member of the
Byrds and a pioneer of country-rock music.
Parsons, who may be best known for his later duets with Emmylou Harris, died of
an overdose in the Joshua Tree Inn, where his admirers still maintain a
makeshift memorial of candles, flowers and a tiny guitar in the sandy courtyard
outside the blue door of room No. 8.
In the days after his death, two of his drunken buddies absconded with Parsons'
casket and tried to fulfill his wish of being cremated in the Joshua Tree
The purported spot where the body was partially burned is in the vicinity of
Cap Rock, one of the park's geologic landmarks. A nearby rock face is scrawled
with messages, some put there as recently as this year by fans still mourning
35 years later.
Ranger Pat Pilcher, who gave me a tour during my three-day visit to Joshua
Tree, said the National Park Service does not encourage visits to the site or
the resulting graffiti.
"We don't officially sanction it," Pilcher said. "But it's in the circuit. It's
not like it's a secret, obviously."
Like many national parks, Joshua Tree had a prime mover. Minerva Hamilton Hoyt,
a Mississippi belle who moved to Southern California, founded the International
Deserts Conservation League in 1930. She worked to preserve the landscapes that
were being devastated by cactus collectors and vandals, and lobbied Roosevelt
to protect the area.
The national monument was named Joshua Tree for the forests of dagger-leaf
plants that dominate the high-desert valleys. Early Mormons, who named the
trees, thought they looked like the prophet Joshua summoning his followers.
The park's other noted image is its rock piles, which come in fantastic shapes
and sizes. Some are spheres, some are stacked like a giant's blocks. All were
formed by 90 million years of erosion.
"That's the question we get the most," Pilcher said. "Who piled those rocks up
A FAMILY OF PACKRATS
Although Joshua Tree is within a few hours' drive of the 18 million inhabitants
of Los Angeles and San Diego, it is easy to be alone in the nearly 800,000
acres of the national park, 80 percent of which is designated wilderness. On my
arrival, I made the short but steep climb to the top of Ryan Mountain for a
360-degree look at the park at sunset. The summit was crowded with two other
The next day, an eight-mile, round-trip hike took me through the low desert to
Lost Palms Oasis, a hidden valley filled with the park's largest grove of
stately fan palms. The only sounds were the rustling of the palm fronds and the
song of a cactus wren.
Nights were spent at the 29 Palms Inn, which was built in the 1920s, maintains
a funky ambiance and has the best restaurant in the town of Twentynine Palms.
The area also is home to the world's largest Marine base, which contains
simulated Iraqi villages for practicing desert warfare.
The Joshua Tree lore includes stories of the McHaney Gang of rustlers and
prospectors who filed about 300 claims in their search for gold. Some hit pay
dirt; most found dry holes.
Pilcher, the ranger, opened the locked gates for a visit to the homestead of
the William Keys family. Keys was a caretaker for the Desert Queen Mine, one of
the few successes, and he took over the property in 1917 after the mine owner's
death. The nearest town was a six-day ride by horseback, so Keys and his family
scavenged the mining operations for any bit of equipment that might help them
eke out a living in the harsh terrain. A cyanide tank became a chicken coop, an
old tractor was jury-rigged to cut wood.
"They were packrats, this is their Home Depot hardware department," Pilcher
said in a yard full of tables stacked with rusted nuts, bolts and tools. "They
had to haul all this stuff in by horse and wagon, and everything was cobbled
together. I'm amazed at their ingenuity."
The park service maintains the homestead exactly as it was when Keys died in
AN ICONIC LANDSCAPE OF THE WEST
Perhaps the most amazing story of Joshua Tree is the plants and wildlife that
are able to survive in a climate in which the summer temperature reaches 115
degrees and the average annual rainfall is 4 inches. This year has been
especially dry; the park had recorded a meager 0.56 inch of rain by mid-October.
The desert tortoise, which is federally listed as threatened but holding its
own in the park, lives most of its life protected from the heat in underground
The spindly branches of the ocotillo plant appear to be dead until they burst
forth with green leaves and flame-red flowers at their tips with the slightest
bit of rain. Indeed, about half of the park's 1.3 million annual visitors come
February through May, when the temperature is mild and rain turns the desert
floor into a carpet of wildflowers.
"Some 250 species of birds occur here, and there are 800 species of plants in
the park — they're finding new ones all the time," chief interpreter Joe Zarki
said. "There are two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and
six mountain ranges. We are one of the most famous rock-climbing sites in the
world and have some 270 miles of hiking trails."
The park does have its problems, especially because of its location within the
suburban sprawl and smog of Southern California.
"If you get out to Keys View on a clear day, you can see 90 miles into Mexico,"
Zarki said. "But that's limited to a few days out of the year now."
Exotic grasses also have moved in and provide tinder for fire from lighting
strikes that normally would burn out on the bare ground. The park's larger
plants, such as piñon, juniper and its signature Joshua trees, are not adapted
to fire and take many years to recover, altering a landscape that attracted
people like Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, Gram Parsons, and today's TV and film
"Since we're so close to Los Angeles, we get a wide variety of television
commercials filmed out here," Zarki said. "The rocks, the boulder formations,
which are of endless variations, all ringed by Joshua trees, it's one of the
iconic landscapes of the West."