November 1st, 2012 by

Eighteen years ago, on Halloween, the California Desert Protection Act created two national parks in southern California. Joshua Tree National Park and, the spookily appropriate, Death Valley National Park celebrated their anniversaries yesterday. They are only separated by a little more than 250 miles, but each location has unique and historic features.

Death Valley

Death Valley. Credit: Gunther Hagleitner/Flickr

The National Park Service recognizes Death Valley as a “land of extremes.” With average summer temperatures reaching nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit and monthly rainfall consistently below one inch, the park is home to the hottest and driest areas in the United States. And Death Valley also boasts the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, with Badwater Basin dipping 282 feet below sea level. These distinctions paint a deadly picture, but the park consists of several different ecosystems supporting hundreds of species.

Only 15 miles from Badwater Basin is the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak, reaching 11,049 feet. Between these drastically different features are sand dunes, salt flats and even springs. One of these springs is Devil’s Hole, a unique and important environment. Tucked within caverns, it protects the desert pupfish and is the only naturally occurring location for this species. Besides this interesting fish, Death Valley is also home to bighorn sheep, frogs and toads, various types of reptiles and hundreds of birds.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: total13/Flickr

The counterpart to this “land of extremes” is located at the intersection of three different California ecosystems. The western region of Joshua Tree National Park is home to the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Here, California juniper and pinyon pines distinguish the highest part of Joshua Tree. The southern and eastern territories of the park contain the Sonoran Desert. But in the north, where the Mojave Desert is found, lives the park’s namesake. The Joshua tree is an icon in this region with its heavy branches and spring flowers. This species also provides an important habitat for many birds and other animals surviving in the desert. Most of the mammals in the park are small rodents, but dozens of species of reptiles, as well as more than 250 kinds of birds, thrive in the desert environment.

Anyone reluctant about visiting a place called Death Valley or a park connecting two deserts may be reassured by the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the parks each year. In fact, both areas offer a variety of recreational activities. Death Valley’s 785 miles of road are perfect for a scenic drive or a day of mountain biking. Joshua Tree provides day-trip opportunities, such as nature trails and rock climbing, as well as camping for extended trips.