Joshua Tree National Park

National Park Number: 38 of 59

Joshua Tree Playlist

Joshua Tree is a playground: for rock climbers, for hikers, for L.A. hipsters looking for scenic Instagram shots. For us it was one of the most fun and kid-friendly parks we’ve been to yet; Graham was in heaven scrambling around on boulders and we spent most of our visit giving him time to do just that.

But this place also made us think a lot about the nature of conservation, partly because joshua trees so closely resemble the truffulas of Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax”, a book that seems more trenchant by the day; and partly because getting to Joshua Tree from Death Valley took us through some stark contrasts in land use: through rural towns with high poverty rates and little development, where the recreational land was focused almost exclusively on ORV use; to Palm Springs, a wealthy enclave where everything seems much more lush and green than a desert should be; past enormous solar and wind farms; and to Joshua Tree National Park itself, where visitation has doubled in the past four years, where striking scenery and proximity to L.A. has made it, increasingly often, a backdrop or a set piece.

I recently finished reading an incredible book on conservation called “Mountains Without Handrails” by Joseph Sax. The book focuses on how we use national parks, and how the NPS can achieve its dual missions: to protect our natural resources while also providing a way for people to experience and recreate on public lands. 

Sax talks a lot about elitism and class differences in land usage, and it is utterly fascinating. The question at its heart is whether the NPS can prioritize certain types of nature experiences as being better, not just for the land but for the people who use it. In every decision it makes about how to develop public lands for recreation, the NPS must decide what kinds of recreation public land was meant for, and in doing so it risks seeming elitist in favoring some recreationists’ preferences over others’. 

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that spending time in the wilderness in quiet, low-impact ways—hiking, backpacking, even just sitting—can make us healthier, calmer, more reflective, and better stewards of natural resources. But these benefits require us to be conscious, to allow our surroundings to elevate our thinking and, essentially, mold us into better people.

It hasn’t often been easy for us to find a sense of presence on this trip. I’d like to say this is mostly because of the kids—indeed, hiking with a 2- and 4-year-old is often more about coming up with elaborate games and reward strategies than it is about contemplation. But even if we didn’t have Graham and Margie, I know it would still be difficult for David and I to be meditative in all our recreation. It’s a state of mind that requires practice and diligence; it’s something we’re getting gradually better at, but it’s a process. 

It’s also, I think, the major thing that can suffer when a park is very crowded. Joshua Tree was crowded, and by a demographic we haven’t seen much of in the parks: large groups of young people, dressed very fashionably (and often poorly for hiking) and focused primarily on their hikes on taking pictures of each other. 

I hope this doesn’t sound judgmental: Joshua Tree is extraordinarily photogenic and I can imagine that the impulse to pose in it (for people who like being photographed) would be strong. But it did make for an interesting hiking experience, with much more people-watching than is typical for our outdoor activities.

We definitely spent our time in the more popular spots; for those who stick to the less-trafficked areas of the park, I’m sure there’s still plenty of solitude to find. But in a way, being among the masses allowed us to reflect on a different aspect of the parks: how much are our public lands being relegated to pretty backdrops for photoshoots? We’ve talked to park rangers before who mentioned the “Instagram effect” of certain photogenic spots in the parks: the places that have seen the highest rise in visitor traffic  in recent years are those that have the most location tags on Instagram. And public lands have seen a huge upswing in use as locations for music videos and fashion shoots, which logically inspires more of the same. 

It’s wonderful that so many people are experiencing the parks, and it’s certainly possible that all these new visitors are having reflective, ponderous nature experiences as they sit gazing out upon scenic views and being photographed by a friend. But it also seems possible that culturally, we’ve come to think of our public lands not as sacred, pristine locations, but as pretty places to pose. And if all we’re doing is using the parks as backdrops, is it possible we’ll collectively care less about resource management, pushing instead for greater access to untrammeled wilderness, the better to pose in? Is it possible we’ll forget to see ourselves as protectors and crucial players in these delicate ecosystems, as we spend more time seeing ourselves looking cool onscreen? 

I don’t know, and maybe if I were a more glamorous sort, I’d be super into the posing and our blog/Instagram would be more magazine-y, less nerdy. But I do think it’s worth considering how we can use public lands to make us better people, rather than just better-looking people.

Exploring the Barker Dam Trail:

A windy sunset over Keys View:

Climbing around Hidden Valley:

Exploring Skull Rock and the Discovery Trail:

 Getting down was hard.
Getting down was hard.

Cholla Cactus Trail:

 Smartly, first aid supplies were provided at the trailhead.
Smartly, first aid supplies were provided at the trailhead.

  1. Sometimes when I find myself thinking, "ahhh, I wish I had my camera!" I take a second to have a second thought- "why?" Why do I want my camera? Do I want to capture that moment for Instagram likes and praise from my friends, or do I want to capture it just for me? Sometimes the answer is the latter, but usually it’s the former, and when it is, I just repeat one of my favorite lines (paraphrased) from Walter Mitty: "sometimes, when I really like a moment, I like to keep it just for myself." Joshua Tree was one of those parks where I felt that very acutely, especially with those incredible sunsets. I frequently thought, "I should pull over and take a picture of this." But then I realized that I’d rather just enjoy it, and it’s usually better that way anyway.

  2. Hey.. found your blog from IG. Love it.
    And all the photos WOW.

    1. Where did you guys stay
    2. How many days do you suggest
    3. What type of camera do you shoot with

    Again love your IG and blog 🙂

  3. The second to last pic in the "climbing around hidden valley" section of the cracked boulder is amazeballs.

    All these pics are like WHA? I want to frame them and ing them all on my walls and wallpaper the insides of my eyelids with them. Definitely not just Insta worthy, but real life worthy memories.

  4. I loved this post and had a lot of the same thoughts during my trip to Arches National Park last summer (July 2017). I knew I had chosen to visit the park during the busiest time of the year, but was still shocked by the size of the crowds, the car traffic, and the lack of preparation people appeared to have made to visit/hike. I saw so many people in magazine worthy outfits with no visible water sources (water bottles, camelbaks, etc.) strolling past NPS signs that said "Heat Kills". I think the thing that surprised me the most though were the lines of people waiting at different iconic spots, such as the Delicate Arch, to walk out and take pictures with selfie sticks/have other people take their pictures. I watched people stand in line for upwards of 15 minutes to be able to walk out under the Delicate Arch and take their picture with their selfie stick, and all I could think about was the Walter Mitty quote a previous commenter has already mentioned. I didn’t visit Arches to get Instagram worthy photos, I visited to experience a part of the world I had no concept of having grown up on the East Coast, and it made me a little sad/angry to see the park being so obviously commercialized.

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