Joshua Tree National Park is popular — really popular. Maybe too popular. In 2016, more than 2.5 million people visited the park, which is more than 500,000 than visited the park in 2015, resulting in packed campgrounds, long entrance lines and full parking lots.
The surge in visitors has been so intense, that park officials are sounding the alarm that the natural splendor of Joshua Tree is being threatened. They say off-road motor vehicle travel and illegal parking is damaging the park’s ecosystem and that heavy traffic is making roads congested and dangerous. It’s gotton so bad, in fact, that they are encouraging people to skip Joshua Tree and visit other, less visited parks instead, such as Mojave National Preserve or areas of SoCal managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
“While we are delighted so many people are enjoying the park and the unique landscape it has to offer, we are challenged by ‘being loved to death,’ said Superintendent David Smith. “The desert is a fragile eco-system and many visitors don’t realize how easy it is to destroy vegetation as well as seriously impact the terrain itself.”
While the crush may be a challenge for the park, it’s a boon to the local economy. Tourism in a major economic driver for local SoCal communities returning $10 for every $1 invested. Businesses on either side of the park have seen an uptick in business with the surge in visitation, according to the park service.
To adapt to the rising demand, the park is planning future infrastructure projects, including additional entrance facilities and a new visitor center. Last week, park officials announced they are starting to plan an expansion of facilities at the Cottonwood Visitor Center on the southern border of the park. The current visitor center is a 20-year-old, double wide trailer that isn’t up to the task of welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The park is also planning a new shuttle service that would reduce the amount of cars in the park, and are considering shifting more of the park’s campgrounds to a reservation system. Currently, many campsites are first-come-first-serve, which leads to groups of campers arriving in the park to find all the sites taken and no where to parking.
In addition to encouraging potential visitors to go to other parks, Joshua tree officials recommend visitors come early in the day and consider visiting mid-week to avoid crowds. Campers are encouraged to consider reserving a private site out of the park or even camp on surrounding BLM lands.
“This past year of record visitation has taught us that people really love Joshua Tree”, said Smith. “Our job is to give them the opportunity to love their park without killing it.”