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Friday, March 25, 2016

A Mirror of Us: CHS Celebrates the National Park Service Centennial

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Monument pamphlet (detail), date unknownCalifornia Historical Society
This summer, on August 25, the National Park Service turns 100 years old. Over the course of this centennial year, the California Historical Society will celebrate the state’s significant contribution to “America’s best idea” by digging into our collections and sharing what we find with you.

From Redwood National Park in the north to Joshua Tree in the south, California’s parks are as varied and diverse as the population of the Golden State itself. The oldest, Yosemite, was established in 1890; the youngest, Pinnacles, graduated from monument to park just three years ago, on January 10, 2013.

Each California park has its own kind of beauty and all are a reflection of the society into which they were born.
At Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, 1911
California Historical Society
In other words, both literally—as in the photograph above—and figuratively, they are a mirror of us. We hope you enjoy the reflection. 

Springtime in Joshua Tree

Yucca Blossom in Joshua Tree, date unknown
California Historical Society/USC Special Collections
Mild and beautiful weather this time of year makes California’s desert parks a favorite destination for a spring getaway. Joshua Tree National Park, located in both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, is a favorite destination. By summertime, visitors eschew the southern deserts for places like Redwood National Park, Yosemite, or Mt. Lassen.

Joshua Tree National Monument California, c. 1966
California Historical Society
This time of year, however, wildflowers abound. Between February and late March, Joshua Trees produce creamy white orchid-like blossoms, sometimes referred to as “candles.” In rainier years—as this one may prove to be—the vistas of flowering trees can be, along with a variety of other wildflowers, in the words of one author, “extraordinary.” Spring is also a great time to hike, rock climb, and learn more about the human history of this challenging place.

Yucca in Blossom (Candlestick of the Lord, or Spanish Bayonet), c. 1920
California Historical Society/USC Special Collections
The Joshua Tree of the eponymous park is actually a member of the yucca family, Yucca brevifolia. Its dramatic and stark appearance has been cause for both religious inspiration and harsh botanical critique. Named, supposedly, by optimistic Mormon settlers, the trees brought to mind the upstretched arms of the biblical Joshua, leading the seekers to their promised land. The frontiersman, military leader, and U.S. Senator John Charles Frémont, on the other hand, described them as, “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.”

Fortunately, few seemed to have listened to Frémont, and people instead came to appreciate the great diversity of plant and animal life to be found in the park’s 800,000 acres. Joshua Tree became a National Monument in 1936 and a National Park in 1994.

Joshua Tree National Monument, 1966
California Historical Society
Beside the Joshua Trees, the park’s other dominant features are huge rocks and boulders, favorites of rock climbers. These hunks of Monzogranite also illustrate one of the most surprising facts about Joshua Tree: that the most critical force of nature influencing the park’s geology is water. Although rainfall amounts to less than 10 inches per year, this was not always the case.

The rock, which was formed underground from molten liquid, developed its current appearance over time as water infused with clay seeped over the rectangular shaped structures “melting” their sharp edges, not unlike water over an ice cube. As ancient flash floods eroded the surface soil, the rocks—sometimes piled atop one another—became exposed to view. The complex geologic process called the “joint system,” visible in some formations, can be seen at the park’s Split Rock site, among others.

Picnic Party at Split Rock, Joshua Tree National Monument, c. 1941
California Historical Society
Relics of the human impact on Joshua Tree can be found in both the landscape and the park’s museum. Some of the most visible evidence exists in the numerous mines scattered throughout the park, as well as the Desert Queen Ranch (later known as Keys Ranch, the working family ranch of Bill and Frances Keys and their seven children.

Bill Keys (born George Barth) was first employed on the Desert Queen Ranch in 1910, and took the ranch over in 1912. The ranch had been a way station for cattle drives on the trail from Arizona and New Mexico to the California coast since 1879. The hardy and very handy Keys family built numerous dwellings and out buildings—even a dam; had an extensive truck garden; and mined and crushed rock for ore. They were among many who also kept cattle in the park, as evidenced by the two Keys family brands: one in the “shape” of a key and the other a “DQ” for Desert Queen. (Three National Park Service videos explore the lives of these sturdy souls, and can be found in the link below.)

Brands, Joshua Tree National Monument, 1975
California Historical Society
Joshua Tree likely owes the preservation of its lands and status as a National Park to Minerva Hamilton Hoyt. A transplant to southern California from Mississippi, Hoyt fell in love with the desert environment and established the International Deserts Conservation League in 1930 when she felt the deserts were coming under increasing threat, especially from the automobile. She was later tapped by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to serve on a California state commission where she recommended park status not only for Joshua Tree, but for Death Valley and the Anza-Borrego Desert as well. It was Hoyt who lobbied Franklin Delano Roosevelt to establish Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936.

So this spring, when the air is balmy and clear, and “candles” light up the Joshua Trees, decide for yourself if John Frémont had it wrong and if, instead, the sturdy and sublimely beautiful Joshua Trees beckon you to a promised land.

Alison Moore
Strategic Projects Liaison


  • Lucille Weight, Cattle Brands of the Joshua tree National Monument Region and San Gorgonio Pass (Joshua Tree Natural History Association and National Park Service, 1975),

Learn more about the NPS Centennial Initiative

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