Since my teenage years, I have been a fan of the world-famous Irish rock band, U2. A poster of the black and white album cover of their most famous album, The Joshua Tree, hung in my dorm room through college and their music always had a special vibe to it for me.
A recent visit to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California prompted me to ask the internet whether the tree on the back cover of the album was located there or not. With a little research, I found that it was rather just outside of Death Valley National Park in the Mojave desert. When the band was doing the photo shoot for the album cover, they were driving through the Mojave Desert and originally planning to name the album, Desert Album. They changed their minds though when they spotted a joshua tree standing quite alone rather than in a dense grove, which is how they usually grow. That, paired with the story that the trees came to be popularly named so by Mormons who thought that the trees’ thick, twisted branches resembled Joshua from the Bible’s arms reaching up to the sky in prayer, led the band to change the album’s name. As icing on the cake, I also found that the front cover that had graced my walls was taken at Zabriskie Point, also in Death Valley.
As we were planning to go to Death Valley anyway, I thought it would be fun to seek out the tree. I thought it would be totally surreal to step into that ethereal album cover that just always seemed like it was taken on another planet to me. Not to mention, it seemed fun to go on a hunt in the middle of the desert.
The only catch was that the tree had sadly blown down in 2000 after a long estimated life of 200 years. The tree was still said to be lying on the desert floor in the same location, however, and the memorial fans had built over the years still stood around it. Not to mention, the landscape would still be recognizable and as if to say it is okay, a new tree was supposedly growing just yards away.
So we set out one day on Route 190 to find the tree. We were coming from the center of the park, so it was about an hour and a half long drive. Just after passing through Panamint Springs, we hit an unexpected, fairly dense dust storm that left us barely able to see thirty feet in front of us driving for a few minutes. It was a little daunting but we were too invested now, and besides, it was quite a sight to see.
We got through the dust storm and continued until Google told us we were close to the coordinates. We were able to park on the road’s shoulder and got out to walk the rest of the way. To add to the excitement of the adventure, we were met with some of the roughest winds we’d ever faced and sand blowing horizontally at times, burning my legs, which were in shorts. But we threw on some jackets with hoods to protect our faces and the camera and persisted.
We were surprised to find a number of joshua trees scattered on the desert floor in this area as we were under the impression that it was really alone. After walking about a quarter mile on the south side of 190 out into the open desert floor though, it was unmistakable. The tree lay covered in dust and surrounded by a metal suitcase filled with fan artifacts (which we didn’t want to open with the high winds), a few guitars, handmade signs (which miraculously seemed unaffected by the winds!), messages written on and with rocks, and most impressive of all, a large plaque commemorating the tree that asked, “have you found what you were looking for?”.
Yes, plaque maker, we had found what we were looking for! Maybe it was because so many people from all over the world had come to this spot looking for the same thing; maybe it was because the plaque literally made this site feel like a grave; maybe it was the fact that we had trudged through the wild desert to find it, or perhaps it had something to do with the story behind the tree’s name, or a combination of everything, but this spot had a very spiritual and awesome feeling to it.
We endured the winds as long as we could to take in the scene before clumsily rushing back to the truck, with the wind blowing me all over the place. We felt accomplished and like it was worth the effort – heck, the fact that it was a little difficult to get to made it all that much more fun. Should you want to seek out the tree on your own, hopefully (depending on your preferences), you might have better conditions. Finding the tree otherwise really was pretty easy armed with the right information. Just put these coordinates in Google Maps, gas up (the local gas is very expensive), bring some water, and any memorabilia you’d like to leave behind and you should be good to go!
GPS Coordinates: 36.33088, -117.74527
Location: Route 190, 14 miles West of Father Crowley Lookout near the West entrance to Death Valley National Park, or, 13 miles southeast of Keeler on Route 190. The tree is found on the South side of 190, about one quarter mile in from the road.
Parking: Road shoulder
Oh, check out this beautiful coyote we saw cross the road on the way back…