If you're wondering how to celebrate the birthday of our nation's first President, why not visit the rare oases of trees named in his honor? An easy drive east of Los Angeles are stands of Washingtonia filifera, native California fan palms that have survived since Indian times.
You'll find them in Joshua Tree National Monument, a vast nature preserve that also protects another regional plant species. The grotesque Joshua tree was named by Mormon pioneers who thought its angular branches resembled the upraised arms of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land.
Visitors to the scenic 870-square-mile park become familiar with the natural and human history of both the high and low deserts. Besides being home to a surprising variety of plants and animals, the diverse terrain has been host to Indians, ranchers and miners.
You can make self-guided driving and walking tours, or join park rangers and volunteer guides on informative excursions. Picnicking and camping are other popular pastimes at Joshua Tree, where the main visitor season begins this holiday weekend.
The national monument has three entrances, but head to the one with the main visitor center for the best orientation to the park.
Get there from Los Angeles by driving east on Interstate 10 to join California 62. It climbs the Little San Bernardino Mountains via the Morongo Valley and continues east to the town of Twentynine Palms. Turn right on Utah Trail into the park and the visitor center.
Beginning this month there's an entry fee to the monument, $5 per carload. Park and pay at the visitor center that's open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(During the same hours rangers staff toll booths at other entrances: Park Boulevard off California 62 in the town of Joshua Tree, and Cottonwood Springs Road off Interstate 10 beyond Indio.)
Pick up the free guide map that describes a dozen main points of interest in the park. Also survey the wide selection of 10- to 25-cent pamphlets on topics such as birds, cacti, geology and mining in the national monument.
One brochure describes the park's four oases that are home to the tall palm tree that's George Washington's scientific namesake. Follow the half-mile loop trail to the Twentynine Palms Oasis where Serrano Indians ate California fan palm fruit and made baskets and sandals from palm leaves more than two centuries ago.
If you're at the visitor center at 10 a.m. or 3 p.m., watch the half-hour film that shows how homesteaders adapted to the desert environment. Also check the bulletin board for times, subjects and locations of ranger-led hikes and campfire programs.
A popular tour is to the derelict Desert Queen Ranch that belonged to miner and cattleman Bill Keys, a wild West character who homesteaded the land in 1909. On the hourlong outing you'll learn why Keys served time in San Quentin and was pardoned by the governor.
Tours operate weekends at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. with guides from Joshua Tree Natural History Assn. The cost is $2, seniors and children 6-11 years $1.
Each tour is limited to 20 persons on a first-come basis. Get to the meeting spot at the ranch gate by going to Hidden Valley Campground and taking the dirt road to the right for one mile.
Hidden Valley is along a half-circle drive west from the visitor center that will take you through the most scenic area of the park. On the way are enormous rock formations that are favorites for daring climbers who scale the big boulders with ropes.
A paved side road to Keys View presents a panorama from the high Mojave Desert down to the low Colorado Desert. Or rough it on a dirt side road for an 18-mile self-guided geology tour (buy a guide map at the visitor center).
The western section of the half-circle route winds among acres of Joshua trees and Mojave yuccas, both members of the agave family. In springtime creamy bell-shaped blossoms decorate some of the Joshuas' awkward arms, while wildflowers brighten the desert floor.
Take time to stroll the short nature trails leading from picnic and campsites along the road to the west entrance/exit.
If you have time, double back to follow another road down to the low desert and the south entrance/exit at Cottonwood. That's where you'll find another visitor center, a picnic area and campsites.
Camping costs $5 at Cottonwood Springs, one of two park campgrounds with running water; the other also has a $5 fee and is at Black Rock Canyon off California 62 near the town of Yucca Valley. Seven other campgrounds are free; take your own water. Camping in the park is first come, first served; no RV hookups.
Joshua Tree National Monument has neither gas nor food facilities, so fill up your tank and buy drinks and picnic supplies before you arrive. More park information: (619) 367-7511.
Just off National Monument Drive west of the main visitor center, 29 Palms Inn has been providing food and lodging since 1928. You can bed down in one of a dozen vintage adobe bungalows for $37 Friday, Saturday or holidays, $32 on other days (single or double); "deluxe" accommodations cost $5 more.
The rustic inn's dining room serves lunch and dinner daily, with a $6.95 champagne brunch on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Phone (619) 367-3505 for reservations.
Newest and fanciest accommodations are at the western edge of Twentynine Palms in the Gardens Motel, off California 62 at Panorama Drive. Double rates begin at $44, suites at $76. Call (619) 367-9141. The motel's Ketch 29 restaurant specializes in seafood and steaks; also open for breakfast.
Return to Los Angeles by rejoining Interstate 10 west.
Round trip from Los Angeles to explore Joshua Tree National Monument is 290 miles.