JOSHUA TREE — The long-eared native jackrabbits and otherworldly Joshua trees keep young Julie Engelinger and her father returning to Joshua Tree National Park.
They’re not alone. The park set a record for annual visitation in 2016 of more than 2.5 million. If the number of visitors for the first quarter of this year is any indication, Joshua Tree will be posting another record year.
“The community is very pleased business-wise with the increase,” said George Land, a public relations official with Joshua Tree National Park.
“It’s been a boon to the local economy. I think people are happy with what is going on at the park.”
Philippe Engelinger and his 12-year-old daughter, Julie, visited Joshua Tree National Park for the third time in recent years this week. The father and daughter team, natives of France, are taking a cross-country road trip from their home in Louisiana.
“We can see a lot of jackrabbits and Joshua trees,” Julie said Thursday at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitors Center. “I love the jackrabbits!”
Philippe, a global traveler, said he is fascinated by the Joshua trees, one of the draws that keep them both coming back with plans to return again soon. The pair said they are passionate about national parks and also visited Yellowstone recently, where young Julie saw her first grizzly bear, but not up close.
Visitation for March 2016 was 327,072, Land said. Visitor numbers for the same month in 2017 increased to 404,545, which sets a new monthly park record.
“March had the biggest numbers in the history of the park,” Land said Thursday.
Great weather and the bounty of colorful wildflowers this year significantly contributed to the spring spike in visitors, officials said. April 2016 posted 242,959 visitors, which increased this year to 361,992, a vast majority rock-climbing enthusiasts, according to Land. Total park visitation since the first of the year is up 27 percent from 2016.
Five years ago, the park had about 1.3 million visitors annually, according to Land.
“It’s almost double from five years ago,” he said.
A three-ring gold binder houses creative comments from guests at the Joshua Tree visitors center.
The book asks guests, “What brought you to Joshua Tree National Park?”
It houses answers for only the current month and May already had more than 200 entries Thursday.
Replies included, “We came to hike,” “U2,” “The Joshua trees,” “Road trip,” and “Searching for the man in Black!” to name a few.
On May 12, Kevin and Nikki Kootz wrote: “Great park! Loved all the history!”
The Joshua Tree National Park made it onto the “bucket list” for visitors Jordan Kinder and Victoria McDowell when they wrote only these two powerful words in the binder this past Thursday afternoon.
A National Park Service report released in late April shows that visitors to Joshua Tree National Park in 2016 spent $123,304,500 in communities near the park. That spending supported 1,701 jobs in the local area and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $164,529,900, officials said.
At the gift shops in Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, tourists can buy everything from maps, climbing books and bottles of water to a mini park ranger doll ($12.95).
The numbers of visitors from Europe, Asia and Australia have also grown in recent years, said Land, who celebrates his seventh year with the Joshua Tree National Park in July.
“We used to be a fall-through-spring park; now we are pretty busy all year round at the park,” Land said.
Some local residents have been frustrated with the traffic and crowding in their communities that come with the increase in park visitors, especially near the west entrance, Land said Thursday afternoon during a phone interview.
“We are working hard to deal with the congestion brought on by increased numbers. The park is reconfiguring entrance stations, assigning rangers at trail heads and parking areas and constructing a new visitor center at Cottonwood Springs,” said Superintendent David Smith in a press release. “We are also launching a new shuttle service in the park which will start in October and we hope will reduce traffic and parking issues.”
While increased visitation has created challenges for park management, national park tourism is a significant economic engine for local communities, returning $10 for every $1 invested, officials said. The park reminds visitors to obey speed limits, only park in designated areas and dogs are not allowed on hiking trails.
“This past year of record visitation has taught us that people really love Joshua Tree,” Smith said in January. “Our job is to give them the opportunity to love their park without killing it.”