By Tyler Boydstun
Joshua Tree National Park is known for its breathtaking rock piles, rugged landscape, and its unique inhabitant the Joshua tree. However, the park has experienced a surge of visitation increasing by a half million visitors every year for the past three years creating crowding and overpopulation inside the boundaries of the national park. For some, the increase in visitors are a welcome sight providing an economic boost and funding to the park. For others, the overpopulation inside the park threatens the majestic beauty and solitude this desert landscape has to offer.
According to the National Park Service’s website, the annual visitation in Joshua Tree has increased from one and a half million in 2014 to more than two million in 2015. Making 2015 the first time Joshua Tree National Park had ever received more than two million visitors in a single year. Before 1990, Joshua Tree National Park had never received more than one million visitors in a single year.
“For the last 5 years the park has made a concerted effort to market the park both through the press and online through social media. Those efforts started coming to maturity about 3 years ago,” said George Land, a Public Information Officer and Community Outreach Ranger. “Also, 2016 was the Centennial of the National Park Service and there is no doubt the increased awareness of the park service in general contributed to the number of people visiting.”
Joshua Tree National Park has received added attention over the past few years, raising the amount of visitors in the park each day. Certain times of the year are more popular due to weather. According to their Facebook page, Joshua Tree National Park is busiest during mid-week, with Saturday having the least traffic flow in the park. Summer months are usually greeted with high temperatures and low crowds, while the wintertime brings cold weather, including freezing temperatures and slightly fewer crowds. Fall and spring in the park are beautiful times to visit, as wildflowers may be in bloom and the temperature mild and enjoyable. However, these are the main reasons visitation increases during these times.
“Visitation is going to be high the next six weeks,” said Susan Luster, a ranger at the west entrance to the park. “It’s likely due to the time of year and weather.”
Tanner Huibregtse, a 22-year-old college student, visited Joshua Tree National Park during his school’s spring break with some friends.
“We knew we were heading there during the busiest time of year (spring) so my friends and I decided the best time to go was on a Monday morning when everyone would be leaving from the weekend,” said Huibregtse. “We arrived at the park around 11a.m. and there were more people than I had ever seen in Joshua Tree before. Getting a campsite was difficult. It took us circling all the campsites to find some people leaving at the right time that we pulled up.”
Huibregtse hiked Ryan Mountain trail during his visit to Joshua Tree National Park.
“Pulling our car into Ryan Mountain trailhead, there was only one spot available to park,” said Huibregtse. “When my friends and I started hiking up the trail, we passed almost 20 people.”
“Capacity issues including heavy traffic, full campgrounds, and illegal parking have all been problems associated with an increase in annual visitation,” said Land.
With so many visitors entering the park each day, hiking trails and trailheads are becoming congested. According to Land, Joshua Tree National Park has a number of projects planned to take action and against the increasing visitation inside the park.
“We hope the projects will offset some of our capacity issues,” said Land. “The number of visitors to Joshua Tree National Park for 2016 was just over 2.5 million. We consider it a good thing that people are coming out and discovering Joshua Tree National Park. We just need to get the staff and resources to handle the upsurge in visitation.”
An official at the 29 Palms Visitor Center said the increase in visitation could also be a result from Los Angeles finding a national park in their backyard. With the drive between Los Angeles and Joshua Tree National Park being less than three hours, it creates a national park accessible to one of the busiest cities in the country
Newton B. Drury, a National Park Service Director from 1940-1951, described the parks system as an opportunity for growth.
“It means that America presents to its citizens an opportunity to grow mentally and spiritually, as well as physically,” Drury said. “The National Park System and the work of the National Park Service constitute one of the Federal Government’s important contributions to that opportunity. Together they make it possible for all Americans to enjoy unspoiled the great scenic places of the Nation…. The National Park System also provides, through areas that are significant in history and prehistory, a physical as well as spiritual linking of present-day Americans with the past of their country.”
It was Drury’s vision that the National Park System would provide an opportunity for people to discover the beauty of the outdoors. Drury believed by experiencing these parks, people could grow from both a mental and physical state. But Drury also believed in the parks acting as a connection for people to spiritually and physically link themselves to their countries history.
With an increasing amount of visitors entertaining the park each year, it means more and more money towards economics associated with the park. An economic analysis of Joshua Tree National Park posted in 2013 to the nps.org website said, “of an estimated $63 million dollars spent by visitors to Joshua Tree National Park, most was for lodging 30 percent followed by food and beverages 27 percent, gas and oil 12 percent, admissions and fees 10 percent and souvenirs and other expenses 10 percent.”
This means benefits to the surrounding areas and more funding for the park itself. However, with the amount of benefits associated with increased visitation there are equal if not more downsides to the mass of people visiting the park.
“Because there is not enough space for parking people are pulling off to the sides in non-designated spaces resulting in resource damage,” said an official at the 29 Palms Visitor Center. “Overcrowding in the park can cause a negative visitor experience.”
When asked what people visiting Joshua Tree National Park can do to help improve the overcrowding issue, Land mentioned a number of strategies that will help improve the experience of everyone inside the park.
“By and large, people can help by not parking illegally, staying on prescribed trails and refraining from any type of graffiti, vandalism or other malicious damage to the park,” said Land.
A supporter of the parks system, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said on the nps.org website, “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people… for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
Tips for visiting a crowded Joshua Tree National Park:
Avoid Hidden Valley and Ryan Campgrounds, these are the first two campsites when entering the park from the west entrance and are often the most popular among hikers and climbers, as there is a lot of climbing is in this area of the park. Try camping at Jumbo Rocks, Belle, Cottonwood, White Tank or even Indian Cove for more site availabilities. Visit the campsites in the morning when campers are most likely to be leaving from the night before.
When trying to avoid people while inside the park, get out of your car. Most people traveling in the park are doing so by their vehicle. Park your car at a trailhead or designated parking area and walk. Walking is a great way to experience any park and get off the busy road with all the other tourists. Joshua Tree National Park has an immense system of trails meant to get you exploring the park. Barker Dam is a great one-mile loop that takes you through some of the history of the park, including a water tank built by early cattle ranchers.
Avoid visiting the park during peak seasons and hours. Spring is the busiest time of year with the wildflower bloom. Summer is least crowded due to extreme heat. Winter brings snow to the high desert and low crowds but when temperatures rise in the fall, crowds turn moderate.