Where the low Colorado Desert meets the high Mojave northeast of Palm Springs, JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK (w http://www.nps.gov/jotr) protects 1250 square miles of grotesquely gnarled plants, which aren’t trees at all, but a type of yucca, similar to an agave. Named by Mormons in the 1850s, who saw in their craggy branches the arms of Joshua pointing to the promised land, Joshua trees can rise up to forty feet tall, and somehow manage to flourish despite the extreme aridity and rocky soil.
This unearthly landscape is ethereal at sunrise or sunset, when the desert floor is bathed in red light; at noon it can be a furnace, with temperatures topping 125°F in summer. Still, the park attracts campers, day-trippers and rock-climbers for its unspoiled beauty, gold-mine ruins, ancient petroglyphs and striking rock formations. A half-mile guided tour of Keys Ranch (Oct–May Sat & Sun 10am & 1pm; $5; see park website for details) provides a testament to the difficulty of making a life in such a difficult environment, but if you’d rather wander around the national park by yourself, there are many options: one of the easiest hikes (3 miles, foot-travel only) starts one and a half miles from Canyon Road, six miles from the visitor centre at Twentynine Palms, at Fortynine Palms Oasis. West of the oasis, quartz boulders tower around the Indian Cove campground; a trail from the eastern branch of the campground road heads to Rattlesnake Canyon, where, after rainfall, the streams and waterfalls break an otherwise eerie silence among the monoliths.
Moving south into the main body of the park, the Wonderland of Rocks features rounded granite boulders that draw rock-climbers from around the world. One fascinating trail climbs four miles past abandoned mines to the antiquated foundations and equipment of Lost Horse Mine, which once produced around $20,000 in gold a week. You can find a brilliant desert panorama of badlands and mountains at the 5185ft Keys View nearby, from where Geology Tour Road leads down to the east through the best of Joshua Tree’s rock formations and, further on, to the Cholla Cactus Garden.