America's national parks are busier than ever, with most reporting the highest number of visitors over the last 2-3 years. But the beautiful thing is that once you're out hiking a trail, there's always plenty of room.
Case in point: Joshua Tree National Park in California's Mojave and Colorado deserts (it straddles the two ecosystems) has had a lot of attention in recent years. In 2015, more than 27 percent more people visited than the year before — more than 1.5 million tourists. Similar increases can be expected in 2016, but it felt like we had the place to ourselves when my friend and I visited earlier this week during a gorgeous, sunny, late-spring day.
The slow-growing Joshua tree, which graces much of the park's desert ecosystem, is probably the most famous resident of the park. Named by Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-1800s, the tree's unusual shape reminded them of the Bible story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.
The trees bloom in spring between February and April, and they are pollinated by the yucca moth, which spreads pollen from tree to tree while laying her eggs in the flowers. It's hard to tell how old a Joshua tree is because they don't have growth rings. In fact, they may not grow at all in very dry years, but many in the park are hundreds of years old, while others may be even older.
Because of its limited range, the trees are expected to be hard hit by climate change, and may disappear from the park, depending on how much the planet heats up over the next 100 years.
Native Americans of the Cahuilla tribe, who have lived in the southwest United States for thousands of years, call the trees "hunuvat chiy’a" or "humwichawa." They used the leaves from the trees to make woven baskets, sandals, and other useful items, and ate the seeds and flower buds.
What to do at Joshua Tree National Park
Besides checking out the Joshua trees and generally being awed by the desert landscape, what else is there to do in the park?
We had fun climbing around on the distinctive giant, sculptural rocks in the park (which reminded me of the landscape around the Southern Oracle in "The Neverending Story" more than anything.) You don't need any special equipment, it's lots of fun, and there are many areas that are easy to climb onto due to the rough texture of the rock and the fact that most faces are pitted, so there are handholds and footholds galore.
Of course, Joshua Tree is also a popular destination for serious mountain climbing, and a number of spots are already set up for climbers who are familiar with equipment and techniques.
There are also several places you can take a hike within the park. We checked out the popular Ryan Mountain trail, which was an up-and-back hike that takes you to the top of one of the highest points in the park, and has spectacular views of the Mojave Desert. You can get an idea of the views and landscape from the short video above.
If you're lucky enough to camp in Joshua Tree National Park, you'll have access to some incredibly clear and starry night skies, like the topmost image in this article. I only visited for the day, but I'd like to go back and stay overnight and see how different it all looks under a full moon and stars.