It's bigger, it's wilder. It's the new and improved Joshua Tree National Park.
When President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act two months ago, the largest wilderness protection bill ever for the Lower 48 states, Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments were "upgraded" to national park status.
The legislation creating Joshua Tree National Park also added about 234,000 acres, primarily by transfer of lands from the United States Bureau of Land Management.
This additional land--mostly mountainous terrain from the Coxcomb, Cottonwood, Eagle and Little San Bernardino ranges--expands the national park to 792,000 acres. More than 80% of the park is designated as wilderness.
Well known for its incredible granite boulders that attract rock-climbers, and for its forests of Joshua trees, the national park gets 1.3 million visitors a year from around the world.
Besides the unusual Joshua trees, the park also holds several of California's loveliest palm oases. The park is a year-round destination for a variety of outdoor activities including hiking and camping.
Interpreted nature trails, ranging from a quarter-mile to 1 3/4 miles, explore some of the highlights of the park. They travel over gentle terrain and offer an ideal introduction to the wonders of the desert.
My eight great nature trail picks are:
* Oasis of Mara (one-half-mile loop)
Begin: Oasis Visitor Center.
A paved nature trail leads under rustling palms to the famed "Twentynine Palms Oasis," perhaps California's most famous (and certainly the most accessible) palm oasis. To the native Serrano, Mara meant "the place of small springs and much grass."
Gold seekers, health seekers and generations of desert lovers have found beauty and tranquillity here. A pamphlet interprets the natural history of the area.
* Skull Rock (1 3/4-mile loop).
Begin: Jumbo Rocks Campground, beyond Loop E entrance.
This path is sort of a desert sampler--a tour through a Joshua tree forest, then over a sand-scape dotted with Mojave yucca, paper-bag bushes and many more unusual desert plants.
Skull Rock, and the other weathered quartz monzonite rocks in these parts, have been sculpted by erosion into some fantastic shapes.
* Barker Dam (1 1/4-mile loop).
Begin: Barker Dam parking area.
One of the many wonders of the park is the Wonderland of Rocks, 12 square miles of massive jumbled granite. This curious maze of stone hides groves of Joshua trees, trackless washes and several small pools of water.
The easiest and safest way to explore the wonderland is via the Barker Dam Loop Trail.
The path's first part interprets the botanical highlights of the area; the second part visits some Native American petroglyphs.
* Hidden Valley (one-mile loop).
Begin: Hidden Valley picnic area.
A moonscape of buttes and towers, this strange valley is entered by a narrow gap in the rock walls. Legend has it that cattle rustlers and horse thieves used the remote, rock-rimmed valley as a hide-out. Signs along the nature trail tell the story of the vegetation that manages to survive in this rugged and rocky habitat.
* Cap Rock (one-half-mile loop).
Begin: Cap Rock parking area.
Perched atop a monolithic dome is a visor-shaped boulder resembling the bill on a baseball cap. Signs along the nature trail interpret Mojave Desert geology and plant life. The level, paved path is wheelchair accessible.
* Keys View (one-fourth-mile loop).
Begin: Keys View.
Not much of a trail, but oh what a view! A paved pathway leads to a commanding viewpoint where hollow sighting tubes direct visitors' eyes to several points of interest: Mt. San Gorgonio, Mt. San Jacinto above Palm Springs, the Salton Sea and the San Andreas Fault.
* Cholla Cactus Garden (one-fourth-mile loop).
Begin: PR No. 11 near mile 10.
An easy path, accompanied by an interpretive pamphlet, introduces visitors to desert flora.
Highlight is a dense concentration of Bigelow Cholla, often called "teddy bear" cactus because of the (deceptively) soft, even fluffy appearance of its sharp spines. (Don't touch or you'll be sorry!)
* Cottonwood (one mile).
Begin: Cottonwood Campground sites 13A and 13B.
An interpreted nature trail travels through rolling hills on its way to Cottonwood Spring Oasis, haven for birds and desert wildlife.
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Joshua Tree National Park Where: Joshua Tree National Park Terrain: Jumbles of rocks, Joshua tree forests, hidden valleys. Highlights: Easily accwessible wonders of new national park. Distance: 1/4 mile to 1 3/4 mile round trip. Degree of Difficulty: Easy. For More Information: Joshua Tree National Park, 74485 National Monument Drive, Twentynine Palms, Calif. 92777; tel. (619) 367-7511.