On The Trail: The singular Joshua tree

On The Trail: Joshua Tree
On The Trail: Joshua Tree 03:15

Lovers of the great outdoors, circle this coming Thursday on your calendars. It was on August 25, 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the act creating the National Park Service. As you know, we’ve been celebrating its centennial all year. This morning, Conor Knighton is On the Trail to a park named for a tree... that isn’t really a tree:

“Their stiff and ungraceful form makes them to the traveler the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.” That’s how American explorer John C. Fremont described his first encounter with a Joshua tree back in 1844. 

But today, that bizarre, “ungraceful form” is exactly what travelers find beautiful.

“Maybe we tend to gravitate toward so many things that are linear in today’s world, I kind of like the abstract nature of the trees,” said hiker Michael Roy. He’s one of the 1.6 million visitors a year who flock to Joshua Tree National Park, a place where the namesake attraction is a bit of a misnomer.

For one thing, it’s not really a tree.

“It’s a member of the Yucca Family,” said Ranger George Land. “As a matter of fact, the Latin name is Yucca brevifolia.  It was called the Joshua tree back in the 1800s when some of the Mormon settlers came through here and they thought it look like the Biblical character Joshua with its arms outstretched towards the heavens.”

Conor Knighton with Ranger George Land at Joshua Tree National Park.   CBS News

Ranger Land is the Public Information Officer for Joshua Tree National Park.  So, technically, he speaks for the trees.

In 1971, Dr. Seuss published “The Lorax.” And while his Truffula trees were purely fictional, this slice of the Mojave Desert has become a destination for anyone who has ever dreamed of jumping into one of his illustrations.

“It feels kind of like a big playground outside,” said Roy. “Dr. Seuss is exactly what I think of when I look around here.”

But say “Joshua tree” around the world, and the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t a plant.  Thanks to an Irish rock band’s obsession with the American Southwest, it’s also one of the bestselling albums of all time.

Island Records

“U2 probably did more to market the park than anybody in the world,” said Ranger Land. “It was a very successful album. A lot of people -- particularly around the world that have never been to this part of the country -- didn’t know what a Joshua tree was.”

Unfortunately, U2 fans are often disappointed to learn they still haven’t found what they’re looking for. 

The actual Joshua tree from the album was located close to Death Valley -- 200 miles north -- and died 15 years ago. 

But it’s a disappointment that’s short-lived.  Because with so many different trees to choose from -- more than 1.5 million in the park -- you’re bound to find the one that speaks to YOU.

They’re also all very unique-looking, in the way that it feels like they almost have their own personality. 

Knghton asked Land, “Do you see that when you drive by looking at them?”

“Well, they’re like fingerprints,” he replied. “And that’s why you generally won’t see any two mature trees that look the same.”

For more info:

Did you miss Conor Knighton’s live Facebook chat answering viewer questions about his tour of the National Parks? You can watch it here!

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