JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon get the publicity, and the visitors. But there are plenty of lesser-known national parks that offer gorgeous vistas and pristine back country, far from the madding crowds.
Joshua Tree, Big Bend, Capitol Reef, Isle Royale, Kenai Fjords, and Theodore Roosevelt are national parks that may never be the stars of a Ken Burns documentary. But each offers its own charm, and you won't find a traffic jam at any of them. In fact, Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Isle Royale in Lake Superior have no traffic at all; you explore them by boat or by sea plane.
When I visited Theodore Roosevelt in remote western North Dakota and asked the ranger whether he was busy with visitors that day, he replied, "You're No. 2."
Franklin Roosevelt made Joshua Tree a national monument in 1936, and Bill Clinton elevated it to a national park in 1994. The park is well known in Southern California, but, like some Americans living elsewhere, I first heard of this eerie expanse of cactus-studded desert and mountains in 1973, after the strange death of Gram Parsons, a singer-songwriter who was a member of the Byrds and a pioneer of country-rock music.
Parsons, who may be best known for his later duets with Emmylou Harris, died of an overdose in the Joshua Tree Inn, where his admirers still maintain a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers, and a tiny guitar in the sandy courtyard outside the blue door of Room 8.
In the days after his death, two of his drunken buddies absconded with Parsons' casket and tried to fulfill his wish of being cremated in the Joshua Tree desert.
The purported spot where the body was partially burned is in the vicinity of Cap Rock, one of the park's geologic landmarks. A nearby rock face is scrawled with messages, some put there as recently as this year by fans still mourning 36 years later.
Ranger Pat Pilcher, who gave me a tour during my three-day visit to Joshua Tree, said the National Park Service did not encourage visits to the site or the resulting graffiti.
"We don't officially sanction it," Pilcher said. "But it's in the circuit. It's not like it's a secret, obviously."
Like many national parks, Joshua Tree had a prime mover. Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, a Mississippi belle who moved to Southern California, founded the International Deserts Conservation League in 1930. She worked to preserve the landscapes that were being devastated by cactus collectors and vandals, and lobbied Roosevelt to protect the area.
The national monument was named Joshua Tree for the forests of dagger-leaf plants that dominate the high-desert valleys. Early Mormons, who named the trees, thought they looked like the prophet Joshua summoning his followers.
The park's other noted image is its rock piles, which come in fantastic shapes and sizes. Some are spheres, others are stacked like a giant's blocks. All were formed by 90 million years of erosion.
"That's the question we get the most," Pilcher said. "Who piled those rocks up like that?"
Although Joshua Tree is within a few hours' drive of the 18 million inhabitants of Los Angeles and San Diego, it is easy to be alone in the nearly 800,000 acres of the national park, 80 percent of which is designated wilderness. On my arrival, I made the short but steep climb to the top of Ryan Mountain for a 360-degree look at the park at sunset. The summit was crowded with two other hikers.
The next day, an eight-mile, round-trip hike took me through the low desert to Lost Palms Oasis, a hidden valley filled with the park's largest grove of stately fan palms. The only sounds were the rustling of the palm fronds and the song of a cactus wren.
I spent the evenings at the 29 Palms Inn, which was built in the 1920s, maintains a funky ambiance, and has the best restaurant in the town of Twentynine Palms. The area also is home to the world's largest U.S. Marine Corps base, which contains simulated Iraqi villages for practicing desert warfare.
The Joshua Tree lore includes stories of the McHaney Gang of rustlers and prospectors who filed about 300 claims in their search for gold. Some hit pay dirt; most found dry holes.
The ranger opened the locked gates for a visit to the homestead of the William Keys family. Keys was a caretaker for the Desert Queen Mine, one of the few successes, and he took over the property in 1917 after the mine owner's death. The nearest town was a six-day ride by horseback, so Keys and his family scavenged the mining operations for any bit of equipment that might help them eke out a living in the harsh terrain. A cyanide tank became a chicken coop; an old tractor was rigged to cut wood.
"They were packrats - this is their Home Depot hardware department," Pilcher said in a yard full of tables stacked with rusted nuts, bolts, and tools. "They had to haul all this stuff in by horse and wagon, and everything was cobbled together. I'm amazed at their ingenuity."
The Park Service maintains the homestead exactly as it was when Keys died in 1969.
Perhaps the most amazing story of Joshua Tree is the plants and wildlife that are able to survive in a climate in which the summer temperature reaches 115 degrees and the average annual rainfall is 4 inches. This year has been especially dry; the park had recorded a meager 0.56 inch of rain by mid-October.
The desert tortoise, which is federally listed as threatened, but holding its own in the park, lives most of its life protected from the heat in underground burrows.
The spindly branches of the ocotillo plant appear to be dead until they burst forth with green leaves and flame-red flowers at their tips with the slightest bit of rain. Indeed, about half of the park's 1.3 million annual visitors come February through May, when the temperature is mild, and rain turns the desert floor into a carpet of wildflowers.
"Some 250 species of birds occur here, and there are 800 species of plants in the park - they're finding new ones all the time," chief interpreter Joe Zarki said. "There are two desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado deserts, and six mountain ranges. We are one of the most famous rock-climbing sites in the world and have some 270 miles of hiking trails."
The park does have its problems, especially because of its location within the suburban sprawl and smog of Southern California.
"If you get out to Keys View on a clear day, you can see 90 miles into Mexico," Zarki said. "But that's limited to a few days out of the year now."
Exotic grasses also have moved in and provide tinder for fire from lighting strikes that normally would burn out on the bare ground. The park's larger plants, such as pinon, juniper, and its signature Joshua trees, are not adapted to fire and take many years to recover, altering a landscape that attracted people like Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, Gram Parsons, and today's TV and film producers.
"Since we're so close to Los Angeles, we get a wide variety of television commercials filmed out here," Zarki said. "The rocks, the boulder formations, which are of endless variations, all ringed by Joshua trees - it's one of the iconic landscapes of the West."
Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Dr.
Twentynine Palms, Calif.
The park, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, has visitor centers
at Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms in
the north, and at Cottonwood Spring in
the south. It offers camping: $10 for a first-come, first-served site and $15 for a reserved site, with a limit of six people and two vehicles.
The ranger-guided tour of Keys Ranch is $5 for adults, $2.50 for children 6-12. Off-road driving is prohibited. Outfitters offer horseback rides in the park.
29 Palms Inn. 73950 Inn Ave. The inn is near
the visitor center at Twentynine Palms. It has casitas and cabins on 30 acres of natural preserve called the Oasis of Mara. 1-760-367-3505; 29palmsinn.com.EndText
Lesser-Known National Parks
Here are five lesser-known parks that are worth a visit. For more on national parks, visit www.nps.gov.
Tucked into the notch of southwestern Texas along the Rio Grande, Big Bend has more than 800,000 acres of desert and mountains. You can start a hike among the flowering cacti of the desert and by afternoon be in the pine and pinon forests of the Chisos Mountains - without seeing another person. When the river is running, outfitters offer rafting through stunning canyons. It's home to rattlesnakes, mountain lions, black bears, and about 450 species of birds.
Info: www.nps.gov/bibe; 432-477-2251.
Denali gets the most visitors of Alaska's national parks, but Kenai Fjords features more than 600,000 acres of calving glaciers, ice-capped peaks, and rocky coasts. Most visitors see it by boat or by plane tours out of Seward. Kayak adventures also are available. Expect to see seals, sea otters, black bears, and humpback whales. Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge opened last summer and is the only lodging within the park. Info: www.nps.gov/kefj; 907-224-7500.
Zion, Bryce, and Arches are the best known of Utah's parks, but Capitol Reef also offers red-rock wonders, such as the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth's crust. There are twisting canyons, massive domes, and sandstone spires. Get there on Route 12, which has been billed as America's most scenic highway. The town of Torrey, the park's western gateway, has an excellent restaurant in Cafe Diablo, which serves "rattlesnake cake" appetizers. Info: www.nps.gov/care; 435-425-3791.
Accessible only by boat or seaplane, Isle Royale is a remote, roadless island in northwestern Lake Superior. Visitors paddle its inland waterways, explore its rugged coast, and dive into the depths to see shipwrecks. Most people arrive aboard Ranger III, the park service's largest ship, based out of Houghton, Mich. A trail leads through the north woods across the island's spine from Rock Harbor Lodge. You can hear loons and wolves, and see moose, beavers, and foxes. Info: www.nps.gov/ISRO; 906-482-0984.
This is a lonely but lovely outpost in the Badlands on the western edge of North Dakota, the nation's least-visited state. The park has a north and south unit, separated by Little Missouri National Grassland. Theodore Roosevelt visited on a hunting trip in 1883 and became enchanted with the landscape and its wildlife, investing in two cattle ranches. The park has prairie dogs, pronghorns, elk, mule deer, wild feral horses, and herds of bison. Info: www.nps.gov/thro; 701-842-2333.
- Tom Uhlenbrock