Named for the prolific yucca plant that’s found within its borders, Joshua Tree National Park (www.nps.gov/jotr/) doesn’t initially appear to be wheelchair-accessible. After all, the harsh desert environment can be very unforgiving. That said, upon closer examination visitors soon discover that this 800,000-acre desert ecosystem boasts a number of accessible trails and attractions. Add in a nice collection of scenic drives that offer some some jaw-dropping windshield views, and you have the perfect Southern California nature getaway for wheelchair-users and slow walkers. And although you can certainly spend several days enjoying the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park, it’s also possible to do a one-day loop through the park to hit some of the accessible highlights.
Desert and Valley Views
The best place to begin the drive is at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, located south of Highway 62 near the west entrance to the park. There’s accessible parking in front, with level access to the building. Inside there’s good wheelchair access to the interpretive exhibits, ranger information desk, bookstore and accessible restrooms.
From the visitor center, follow Park Boulevard about 15 miles south to Cap Rock. Along the way you’ll be treated to windshield views of a vast forest of Joshua Trees — named by Mormon settlers because they thought the branches resembled Joshua raising his arms in prayer.
There’s accessible parking at Cap Rock, with curb-cut access out to the hard-packed dirt trail that winds around massive boulders scattered throughout the desert. The .3-mile loop is mostly level, although there is a washout near the end, and at one point the trail narrows to 30 inches. Still, you can always double back if it’s impassable, and the views of the desert and the Joshua Trees are excellent from any vantage point. There are also some accessible picnic tables in a level dirt area near Cap Rock, and an accessible vault toilet near the parking lot.
For an impressive view of the Coachella Valley, continue along Keys View Road from Cap Rock for another five miles, until it dead ends at Keys View. There’s accessible parking in the main parking lot, however the trail up to the overlook is too steep for wheelchairs. Alternatively there’s an accessible parking spot with level access out to another viewpoint on the left, just as you enter the parking lot. The view is just as spectacular, and it’s only a short walk out to the overlook. There’s also an accessible parking spot next to the accessible vault toilet in the main parking lot.
From Keys View, double back to Park Boulevard and take a right. This route takes you past Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock, and has numerous pullouts along the way. After you pass Split Rock make a right on Pinto Basin Road, and head south until you hit the Cholla Cactus Garden on the right.
There’s accessible parking near the cactus garden, with level access to a quarter-mile hard-packed dirt trail around chollas of all sizes. There are a few ruts here and there, but for the most part they are pretty easy to dodge. There’s also a one-inch lip up to the boardwalk sections of the trail, but with a little assistance most folks can manage it. Even if you can’t do the whole trail, you’ll still be surrounded by chollas just by walking 10 feet into the forest. Don’t get too close though, as they are also known as the jumping cactus, because their joints break easily and the slightest brush against a plant can result in a painful injury.
Just up the road there’s also a massive ocotillo forest. There’s no trail, but an accessible parking space is located near the interpretive sign. There are also numerous pullouts along this stretch of road, and lots of sweeping desert views.
Continue south along Pinto Basin Road, and look for the Bajada Nature Trail on the left, just before the south entrance to the park. There’s accessible parking near this quarter-mile trail which passes through the bajada — a broad slope of alluvia material at the base of a mountain — and offers a wonderful view of the surrounding desert. There are interpretive plaques along the way, and although there are a few sandy patches here and there, all-in-all this 1998 “all access trail” has held up fairly well.
An Accessible Oasis
For the final leg of your desert adventure, retrace your steps and double back north on Pinto Basin Road, then make a right on Park Boulevard. After you pass the North Entrance Station, look for the Oasis Visitor Center on your left. It’s easy to spot, as a cluster of palms in back marks the Oasis of Mara.
There’s accessible parking near the level entrance to the building, and barrier-free access inside to the ranger information desk, interpretive exhibits and bookstore. Accessible restrooms are located near the parking area, and there’s level access to the Oasis of Mara Nature Trail in back of the visitor center.
This paved half-mile loop is an excellent choice for wheelchair-users and slow walkers, as there’s almost no change in elevation, and the trail is in fairly good shape. Honey mesquite trees dot the desert landscape, which is bordered by mountains in the distance, while a ring of California Fan Palms mark the presence of water — the oasis.
It’s not unusual to spot a cottontail or two in the desert, and the mourning doves routinely serenade visitors with their melodious hoop-a-roo calls. Be sure to take a close look in the underbrush near the palms for Gambel’s Quail, as it’s one of their favorite haunts. Interpretive plaques and benches are located along the trail, and this refreshing oasis in the desert makes a fitting finale to any accessible Joshua Tree National Park excursion.