Deserts aren't always top hot spots for travelers, but Joshua Tree National Park in southern California is on many wanderers' wish lists. Despite the varied weather (typically super hot in summer and torrential downpours in the wet season), people flock to the Park to hike, check out nature, celebrate life events (desert wedding, anyone?), and even film music videos. They also stop in for a bit of spiritual awakening, as it turns out.
Though the park has long been popular as a destination as well as a stopping point for settlers traveling westward, it earned more fame when Hollywood personalities like Selena Quintanilla and Bruce Springsteen filmed music videos there, notes Vogue. And there's plenty to love about the prickly Joshua trees and the unique landscape they inhabit. The views are breathtaking, the wildlife is diverse, and the endangered nature of the Joshua trees means this destination is a must-visit for a variety of travelers.
But what is so special and spiritual about this famous National Park? Its Biblical origins, as well as its unique ecosystems, are just the beginning of the story.
What Is So Special About Joshua Tree National Park?
Joshua Trees are resilient, shaggy, and somewhat imposing (definitely don't try to scale one, it hurts — a Spanish name for the trees translates to "desert dagger"), but their tenacity toward survival is an admirable trait. People have long admired the trees for their resiliency and beauty, however offbeat (and hard to classify) they are.
Joshua Tree's unique look is one of its most attractive features, but the trees themselves (which the National Park Service says look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book) aren't the only point of appeal. The park itself lies at the intersection of two separate deserts; the Mojave and Colorado.
In addition to the Joshua Tree National Park, outdoor enthusiasts can also visit Mojave National Preserve, which is also home to Joshua trees. Though a desert with odd-looking trees may not sound like much on paper, in addition to the beautiful vistas visitors can spot there, the park boasts an intricate ecosystem (well, two ecosystems combined) that supports a range of wildlife.
The trees serve as homes for many bird species, lizards and insects, and even Yucca moths (which later snack on the trees' seeds).
The fact that the trees hark from the ancient past is another reason they're so intriguing. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation notes that giant ground sloths (which were around until the end of the Ice Age) may have spread Joshua Tree seeds throughout southern California.
In later times, however, the trees earned a reputation as a spiritual and religious symbol.
Joshua Trees Have Significant Symbolism
Though the landscape (and the various critters) are a selling point at Joshua Tree, the trees themselves are also a huge draw. The trees are technically Agave, according to the National Park Service, and were once used by native people to create baskets and shoes. Yucca brevifolia's flower buds and seeds were also a food source for native people.
Today, many people find inspiration in the park's beauty and resilience, but there's another reason tourists flock there: the spiritual symbolism.
Joshua trees were originally named as such for a biblical figure; Morman settlers credited the trees' "outstretched" branches with guiding them west, according to the National Wildlife Federation. The common name for the trees came from Joshua, whose story in the Bible apparently proclaims that he stretches his hands out to guide the Israelites. There are conflicting accounts, however, because in some iterations of the story, it's Moses and not Joshua with the outstretched hands.
Either way, the symbolism of Joshua Trees reaching out to welcome and guide travelers remain, and the symbolism extends beyond a single religious view, as travelers find the trees' rough beauty inspiring on its own.
Visitors Should Tread Lightly (And Respect The Park's History)
As Vogue elaborated in its expose of Joshua Tree's struggles against climate change, the trees aren't entirely safe despite their long residence in the southern California desert. While visitors are always welcome, nearby development plus air pollution are also threatening the park. Millions of trees have also been lost to wildfires, including some human-ignited ones.
Therefore, visitors should take care to tread lightly while visiting Joshua Tree, whether they seek to hike through on one of the park's many trails, stop in for some quick Instagram pics, or attend a special night sky viewing at the observatory.