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An excellent first stop is the main Oasis Visitor Center, located alongside the Oasis of Mara, also known as the Twentynine Palms Oasis. For many generations, the native Serrano and Chemehuevi tribes lived at this "place of little springs and much grass." Get maps, books, and the latest in road, trail, and weather conditions before beginning your tour, and stroll the short, paved nature trail through the oasis behind the center -- it provides an introduction to the park's flora, wildlife, and geology.

From the Oasis Center, drive south to Jumbo Rocks, which captures the essence of the park: you'll find a vast array of rock formations, a Joshua tree forest, and the yucca-dotted desert, open and wide. Check out the many boulders that appear to resemble humans, dinosaurs, monsters, cathedrals, and castles; if you're visiting with kids, it's a great way to put their imaginations to work. Stroll among the giant rock piles and observe the rock climbers who travel from around the world to practice their craft here -- they're one of the park's most distinctive features.

At Cap Rock Junction, the main park road swings north toward the Wonderland of Rocks, 12 square miles of massive jumbled granite. This maze of stone hides groves of Joshua trees, trackless washes, and several small pools. To the south is the road that dead-ends at mile-high Keys View. You get a view of the park from this wind-whipped overlook; several plaques explain the topography you're seeing and provide some insight into the delicate desert ecosystems found in the park.

Don't miss the contrasting Colorado Desert terrain along Pinto Basin Road -- to conserve time, simply plan to exit the park on this route, which ends up at I-10. You'll pass both the Cholla Cactus Garden and spindly Ocotillo Patch on your way to vast Pinto Basin, a barren lowland surrounded by austere mountains and a small ridge of sand dunes. Then continue to Cottonwood Springs, which has a cool, palm-shaded oasis and groves of mature cottonwood trees.

Try to participate in a ranger-led tour or hike . You'll learn to appreciate the park in a short time, for the rangers are as exuberant about their patch of wilderness as they are well informed.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.