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Following the first World War, mustard-gassed veterans sought refuge around the Joshua Tree area to recuperate in the clean air. Sadly, they might not be able to do so if it were today because according to rangers, "Our park has some of the worst air quality in the National Park System," being downwind from the Los Angeles (140 miles west) and San Bernardino metropolitan areas. They say the pollution has adversely affected the ozone levels, visibility and nitrogen levels in the park. That's the bad news.

The good news is that night visibility is not affected, and on moonless nights especially, you can see the Milky Way Galaxy and other objects in the sky better than almost anywhere else. The Andromeda Society, for example, sponsors a Star Night once a month at the Hidden Valley picnic area. Other good news is that the park bans ATVs (all terrain vehicles) and off-road driving (including biking).

Joshua Tree National Park consists of two deserts coming together, the eastern one (the Colorado Desert) featuring natural gardens of ocotillo (candlewood tree) and cholla cactus. The western desert (the Mojave) is higher and is the home of the Joshua Tree, forests of which include interesting geological features (and the fascinating rock piles), and five fan palm oases, where water occurs naturally and where you can find wildlife. The park is big, with 794,000 acres or more, of which 585,040 have been designated wilderness. It was a National Monument from 1936, a Biosphere Reserve since 1984 and a National Park from 1994. The Joshua Tree itself is a form of yucca, the biggest today being about 40 feet high and 300 years old, as grotesque in age as it is when young and bristly.

There are no concessions in the park, but you can find almost everything you might need in the neighboring communities of Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree Village or Indio.

It can get hot in summer, with temperatures over 100 degrees in daytime and not much below 75 at night. You have to bring plenty of water with you, even if you are only driving, recommended at one gallon per person per day, double that if you are hiking or biking. You can lose up to a quart of liquid an hour exercising in this environment.

Highlights

On entering the park, head directly for one of the Visitor Centers to pickup maps, information and permits, if needed. Two are open from 8am-5pm daily: the Oasis Visitors Center located in Twentynine Palms and the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in the village of the same name. The Cottonwood Visitor Center serves the southern entrance of the park and is open from 9am-3pm. The Black Rock Nature Center, in the camp of the same name, is open October through May.

This is mostly a park for activities, but if you just want to check out the flora and faun, there's plenty to see. Of the 158 desert fan palm oases in North America, five are located within the park. This kind of palm is native to the deserts of Southern California and can live for 90 years, reaching 75 feet in height, among the tallest and heaviest of North American palms. Wildlife in the park includes bighorn sheep, Gambel's quail and coyotes, to name only three species.

Activities

Rangers lead programs on weekends from mid-October through mid-December and again from mid-February through May, with schedules posted at visitor centers, entrance stations, and on campground bulletin boards. Programs include Keys Ranch tours, evening campground talks, discovery walks, star parties and more.

Hiking is the most popular activity, even in summer. Trails lead to remnants of the gold mining era, for instance, but CCC//" target="_blank">Black Rock Canyon is perhaps the best hiking and camping area, with picnic tables, fire rings, restrooms and water. And the town of Yucca Valley is only five miles distant in case you need to buy firewood or other items. Some 35 miles of the California Riding & Hiking Trail pass through the park, and there are six other trails of note: The Boy Scout (16 miles), 49 Palms Oasis (3 miles), Lost Horse Mine and Mountain (4 miles), Lost Palms Oasis (7.2 miles), Mastodon Peak (3 miles) and Ryan Mountain (3 Miles). The time needed ranges from 2 hours to 2 days.

In addition to these, there are 12 Natural Trails, ranging in length from a quarter of a mile to 1.3 miles, four of which are accessible to wheelchairs, incidentally.

If you backpack overnight, you should register at a backcountry board, of which there are 12. If you leave your car overnight without registering, you could be cited and the car towed away. Cell phones are often not useable in the park, so a GPS unit, topographic map and compass are a good idea.

Camping is permitted, as are campfires in certain areas, but you have to bring in your own firewood. Rock climbing is also popular, with ten mountains over 5,000 feet in elevation. If you like horseback riding, be glad that there are 253 miles of equestrian trails here. Phone tel. 760/367-5500 for more horse-wise information before coming.

Birdwatching fans will like Cottonwood Springs, an oasis in the southern part of the park, one of the best birding spots here, say park officials. Local birds include the hooded oriole and woodpecker.

It can be fun to drive the backcountry roads of the park, if you are using a mountain bike or a 4-wheel drive (not an ATV, which is forbidden); just remember to stay on established roads. Among the ones people like most are the these roads: Pinkham Canyon (20 miles), Black Eagle Mine (6.5 miles), Old Dale (23 miles), Queen Valley network (13.4 miles), Geology Tour (18 miles) and Covington Flats 10.3 miles)

New in 2007

The Keys View Road will be closed to visitors on weekdays until the end of September, 2007, for construction.

Entrance Fees

You pay $15 a car to get into the park, and that's good for seven consecutive days. You can buy an annual Joshua Tree pass for $30, an annual interagency pass (good everywhere) for $80. US citizens can buy a Senior Pass for $10, good for life.

Number of Visitors

There were 1,256,421 visitors in 2006, down more than 100,000 from 2005.

Websites

The official site of Joshua Tree National Park is www.nps.gov/jotr. The phone number for information is tel. 760/367-5500.

The Joshua Tree National Park Association has its website at www.joshuatree.org.

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