Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 17, 2017

A Pile of Rocks: Joshua Tree National Park

One feature landscape gardeners use to add interest to their designs is the concept of well-placed rocks, as in the Zen garden of Portland, Oregon’s Japanese Garden:

Portland Zen garden Brad Nixon 0129 (581x640)

That’s working on a relatively large scale, and your home landscaping  may not provide the space for a treatment that extensive.

To see rocky landscapes of an even grander sort, many of us travel to hike among natural rock formations like Colorado’s Garden of the Gods or Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon.

I’ll devote this post and a subsequent one to 2 impressive piles of rocks in the American southwest, beginning with Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) in southern California. There, although the Joshua Trees get top billing, best supporting role belongs to the granite mountains, cliffs and monoliths that define the landscape in the upper elevations of the park.

Joshua Tree landscape Brad Nixon 6220 (640x474)

Every continent has notable piles of rocks, although wetter climates mask them with forests or grasslands. Here in the American southwest, the drier environment leaves them exposed, as they are in Joshua Tree, especially in the area of the park called Jumbo Rocks.

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6226 (640x471)

As I’ve written in previous articles, JTNP is so vast that you’ll never see more than a portion of it in a single day, even if you limit yourself to what you can see from your car and parking areas near the road. That’s not an approach I recommend, as regular readers know. Jumbo Rocks offers an easy, 1.7-mile trail named Skull Rock Trail requiring only moderate effort. Click through the images below for a walk through a few highlights from the trail.

Skull Rock? Whether you take the hike or not, you’ll certainly pull over long enough to photograph that iconic feature on the south side of the park road, also reachable along Skull Rock Trail.

Joshua Tree Skull Rock Brad Nixon 6258 (640x480)

Be in the park early in the morning or late in the afternoon for the most advantageous light to photograph the hills and boulders, but even at midday, you’ll find endlessly fascinating formations, like this one near the start of Ryan Mountain Trail.

Joshua Tree landscape Brad Nixon 6212 (640x480)

I know you have a favorite pile of rocks to visit, whether in the desert or tucked away in some mountain enclave. Where? Leave a comment.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017. One photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.


  1. Nature is beautiful, whether planned in a garden or naturally formed – isn’t it?!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kimi loves rocks, and thanks to her, so do I. Allow me to explain.

      A few years ago, my wife asked Kimi, a Japanese gardener that she knew, to redesign our entire yard, front and back, getting rid of our lawn in favor of drought tolerant plants and trees. Kimi was no mere gardener. Kimi is a petite dynamo of energy: architect, engineer, artist, designer, teacher.

      Among the many wonderful things Kimi created for us was a meandering dry creek bed running across the front yard. Kimi lined the sides of the bed with large and medium size rocks and filled the middle of the sunken bed with small stones, which gives the impression of a running stream even tho’ there is no water in the bed. Then she designed a curving rose colored flagstone walkway that leads from our front entry to the street and bisects the creek bed along the way. At the point of intersection, the walkway rises about a foot in order to create a little bridge going over the stream of “running rocks.” Kimi personally directed the placement of EACH flagstone in the walkway before it was cemented permanently in place (and even ordered the stonemason to cut some of them) in order to create a pleasing and harmonious flow of the stones along the walkway.

      There are a few people who are in total harmony with nature. Thanks, Kimi.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for telling me your story about your gardener. I wish more people felt this way.


  2. I really like your photos!! Joshua Tree National Park truly is an awesome place to hike!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really glad I stumbled upon your post. “A pile of rocks” is such a unique and somewhat humorous way of describing these geological landmarks that makes for a relatable reading experience! 🙂 Really great pictures as well! Joshua Tree is definitely one of my favorite piles of rocks to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Thomas. Joshua Tree is a remarkable place, and is on many travelers’ list of faves. I’m happy to hear from you.

      Liked by 1 person

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