We’ve all seen the newsreels that detail the death of a hiker who fell into the Grand Canyon or the death of an onlooker who got too close to a bison in the Grand Tetons. We’ve read stories about rock climbers in Yosemite who plummeted to their deaths and visitors to Yellowstone who fell into the boiling hot springs.
But what about heat-related deaths?
Are they common in National Parks? Let’s take a closer look at Joshua Tree National Park and how many people have died there from sun exposure.
History of Joshua Tree National Park
In 1936, Joshua Tree was designated a National Monument by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It wasn’t until 1996 that the site reached National Park status. The elevated status also added 234,000 acres with new park boundaries that included natural features such as entire mountain ranges. In total, Joshua Tree National Park encompasses 792,623 acres, 591,624 of those acres are designated wilderness areas.
According to the National Park Service, the park “provides habitat for 813 higher plant species, 46 reptile species, 57 mammal species, and over 250 bird species” and “protects over 700 archeological sites, 88 historic structures, 19 cultural landscapes, and houses 230,300 items in its museum collection.” This protected area sits above Interstate 10 in Southern California, northeast of Palm Springs.
Why Is Joshua Tree So Popular?
The Joshua Tree is unlike any other plant. Scientifically called yucca brevifolia, the plant is native to the Southwestern United States. It features a deep and extensive root system, reaching down 36 feet into the soil. The unique trunk doesn’t have annual growth rings like other trees, thus making it difficult to determine its age. Branches extend at the top of the trunk with dark green, bayonet-like leaves. Joshua trees bloom in the spring.
But it’s not just the Joshua trees that make the National Park so popular. The desert landscape is spectacular, especially during sunrises and sunsets. The Joshua tree silhouettes against the dark sky, slowly transforming into brilliant colors of the morning will take your breath away.
And with little light pollution, the night sky at Joshua Tree National Park offers some of the best stargazing in the country.
Is Joshua Tree Too Hot in the Summer?
Sweltering heat encompasses Joshua Tree National Park in the summer. Temperatures can reach over 100 degrees during the day from June to September.
Although Death Valley National Park may hold the world record for the hottest temperature ever recorded, Joshua Tree is about four hours farther south and has unbearable summer heat.
It’s best to avoid both of these National Parks during the summer months.
How Many People Have Died from the Exposure at Joshua Tree?
First, the National Parks are very safe. Very few people die in National Parks, and when they do, it’s often because they didn’t obey posted signs or stood dangerously close to cliff edges. However, other deaths occur because of the weather.
This is primarily the case in the fatalities that have happened at Joshua Tree National Park.
According to the PSBR Law Group, from 2007-2018, there were “just under 8 deaths per 10 million visits to park sites” across the country. Drowning, motor vehicle crashes, falls, and natural causes are the leading causes of death.
Environmental deaths accounted for 163 of the 2,727 total deaths among the National Park sites during that time frame. Joshua Tree ranked #38 out of all sites with 22 deaths. This is out of over 21 million visits during that decade.
How Do You Stay Safe in Joshua Tree?
Although the number of deaths is quite low at Joshua Tree National Park, the number of people treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration is much higher. So visit Southern California with a few safety tips in mind.
Sunscreen and Hat
Always wear sunscreen and a hat. No matter what time of day you head out to the park, these two items should always accompany you. The desert sun is serious. There is very little shade even though the park is full of Joshua trees. If you can limit your daytime hikes as much as possible, this will help prevent heat-related illnesses. But protect your skin from sun exposure by wearing sunscreen and a hat.
Drink Plenty of Water
Like sunscreen, a hat should always accompany you, and so should many liters of water. The National Park Service recommends drinking at least one gallon (four liters) of water per day to replace loss from sweat.
Once you’re in the park, potable water is scarce, so you’ll want to make sure to fill up at the edges of the park at one of these five locations: the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, the West Entrance station, Black Rock Campground, Cottonwood Campground, or Indian Cove Ranger Station.
Let Someone Know Your Location
Anytime you visit a remote area, you always want to let someone know where you are.
Cell service is limited to non-existent in some parts of Joshua Tree National Park. So you’ll need to text someone before heading out on a hike. You also want to give your expected time of arrival back at the campsite or car. This way, if someone hasn’t heard from you or seen you by that time, help can be called.
Getting lost is easier than most assume.
Can You Get Too Much Sun Exposure in Anytime of Year in Joshua Tree?
Although the summer heat is the prime time for visitors to experience heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration at Joshua Tree National Park, that doesn’t mean these heat-related illnesses can’t happen during other times of the year.
If you don’t eat enough, drink enough water, or properly cover your skin even during comfortable temperatures, you can still get too much sun exposure. So don’t leave that wide-brimmed hat at home just because it’s October.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Hike in Joshua Tree?
Winter temperatures aren’t much better than summer temperatures. Severe cold sets in at night during the winter season, many nights dropping well below freezing. Hypothermia can easily occur. So the best times to hike in Joshua Tree National Park are in the spring and fall.
March-May and October-November are great times to see the blooming Joshua trees, enjoy milder temperatures, and stargaze at night. But you still want to protect your skin, drink plenty of water, and let someone know where you are at all times.
Is Joshua Tree National Park Worth Visiting?
Joshua Tree National Park offers a unique experience for guests. Don’t avoid this National Park for fear of the summer heat or winter freeze.
Just plan your visit during other times of the year to ensure that you and your family have the best experience possible. Enjoy a few of the 300 miles of hiking trails, seek out a few of the 8,000 rock climbing routes, or ride through the desert landscape on horseback.
There is so much to see and do in this Southern California National Park. Just do so wisely.
Have you ever visited Joshua Tree National Park?
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