Running for 54 miles along US Route 93 northwest of Phoenix between the historic mining town of Wickenburg and the tiny town of Wikieup, the Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway crosses the blurred boundary between the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in western Arizona. Hardy creosote carpets the desert, while ocotillos thrust their straight barbed arms to the sky like a spring of thorns, frozen in midair. Saguaro cacti, the signature plant of the Sonoran Desert, thrive at the beginning and end of the drive, and great cliffs and canyons loom to the east and west.
At the heart of the parkway stands one of only three Joshua tree forests in the state. Joshua trees are to the Mojave Desert what saguaros are to the Sonoran – huge, perfectly adapted endemic plants that live nowhere else in the world. On this route visitors can see saguaros standing next to Joshua trees, the breathtaking union of two harsh, lovely deserts. When driving through the Joshua forests, remember that these plants aren’t trees but yuccas, and members of the lily family. Enduring temperatures between 30 and 125 degrees, thriving with oppressively little rainfall and living for as long as 300 years, these giant lilies seem to have little in common with other members of their family, abandoning the grace and fragility of lilies for resiliency.
The scenic parkway is a part of the winding and hilly route between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Most Vegas-bound travelers hurry down this road dreaming of jackpots and not noticing the beauty and historic charm of the drive. Many of the early settlers sought riches as well -- one Henry Wickenburg in particular.
A Prussian immigrant, Wickenburg discovered gold on a quartz ledge west of the Hassayampa River, in an area inhabited by the Yavapai Indians. He and two other men soon filed a claim and established the now-famous Vulture Mine. Why the name Vulture? Some say Henry found the gold as he stooped over to pick up a vulture he’d shot, while others claim he saw vultures perched on the ledge when he spotted the gold. Wickenburg himself related several different versions of the story, forever blurring the truth. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the mine, where the abandoned structures and tunnels stand as a relic of Arizona’s mining past.
As the lucrative mine began to develop, so too did the town of Wickenburg. Built along the banks of the Hassayampa (a river that flows mostly underground), Wickenburg retains the charm and history of its origins. Visitors should stop by the chamber of commerce at 216 N. Frontier St. to pick up area information The Desert Caballeros Western Museum also merits a visit. The museum houses a collection of Western art by many celebrated artists, including Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and George Catlin. The museum owns a comprehensive display of more than 500 cowboy artifacts, a collection of Indian art and a wide variety of Southwestern gems and minerals.
Just south of Wickenburg lies the Hassayampa River Preserve, where the river briefly emerges from underground and breathes life into a rare cottonwood-willow riparian area. Owned by The Nature Conservancy, the preserve welcomes visitors to experience a streamside oasis. The Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway begins a few miles north of Wickenburg. The road follows part of the route taken by Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, an Army officer who led an expedition from Arkansas to Los Angeles in the 1850s to chart a course for a transcontinental railroad. Within several miles, drivers of the parkway will catch a glimpse of the Joshua trees.
Instead of thick concentrations, the first giant yuccas stand alone, popping out of the saguaro-dotted desert. Standing like grizzled sentries, Joshuas prefer the slightly higher and wetter parts of the desert, and so mark the edge of the Mojave. Thick, treelike trunks support the many chaotic forks of the Joshuas. The frenzied branches erupt randomly and in ungainly exuberance. Sharp green leaves bristle at the top and shaggy, dried-out spikes from years past cling to the branches and trunk. Early settlers looked at the yuccas and saw a plant brimming with hostile weaponry, calling them "dagger trees." Mormon pioneers, however, looked at the forked branches and saw the Biblical Joshua’s outspread arms. From March to May, the Joshua trees put out clusters of creamy-white blossoms and their lily heritage emerges, inviting pollination from yucca moths.
Most pollinators go from flower to flower to feed on pollen or nectar, thus inadvertently fertilizing them. The female yucca moth doesn’t eat pollen or nectar — she has different motivations. The moth intentionally collects pollen from one Joshua tree flower and deposits it in another, then lays her eggs inside the pollinated flower. By fertilizing that same flower, the moth guarantees that when her larvae hatch there will be developed seeds to eat, assuring the survival of the moths and the Joshua trees.
Just north of the densest stands of Joshua trees lies Nothing, Arizona, population 4. Aside from two gas pumps, a garage and a small store there is, well, nothing else in Nothing, save a plethora of bad puns. Past Nothing, the piles of granite boulders on either side of the roadway soon give way to dramatic expanses of dark, jagged volcanic rock.
The roadway passes over picturesque Burro Creek Canyon, where a turnoff leads a mile and a half to a large campground run by the Bureau of Land Management. The campground edges against Burro Creek and a sweeping cliff. Where the Joshua trees drop off, the saguaros grow more plentiful, while the ever-present creosote continues to cover the landscape. The parkway enters the Big Sandy Valley, bounded by the Aquarius Mountains to the east and the Hualapai Mountains to the west. Painted on a billboard off the side of the road, Snoopy sits atop a large rocket aimed for outer space, with the words “Wikieup, Arizona” written on the side, announcing arrival in the small desert town and the technical end of the Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway.
Just north of Wikieup lies the perfect conclusion to the parkway, a little jewel of Mohave county called Luchia’s Restaurant. From the outside, Luchia’s looks like a piece of roadside kitsch from US Route 66 and vendor of cheap Indian knickknacks. But inside is an astounding collection of pricey museum-quality Indian art, sculpture, authentic kachina dolls, jewelry and rugs. Owned by the Storing family since the 1970s and named after the late Peruvian matron of the family, Luchia’s attracts collectors with its superb art and Laughlin-bound Phoenicians with the lure of delicious pie. Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio musical group was so taken with the restaurant and its pleasant proprietors when he passed through on his way to a performance in Las Vegas that he gave them one of his old guitars (which remains on sale, a steal at $5,000).
Visitors may take their pie on Luchia’s veranda, where two dozen peacocks stroll the grassy grounds surrounding a large fountain. They can get a handful of carp food for 25 cents and feed the plump, bright koi in the fountain basin, then contemplate the relation between the water lilies bobbing on the surface and the behemoths rooted in the desert soil 20 miles to the south.