TWENTYNINE PALMS — The Roadrunner Shuttle helps cut congestion in Joshua Tree National Park and gives visitors the opportunity to sit back and focus on the view.
The shuttle is part of a pilot program to help meet the park’s high demand during peak season. Shuttle riders enter the park for free, avoiding the $30-per-car entrance fee.
“During the spring 2018 season, at seven days a week in February, March, April and May, we had over 5,600 riders,” Ranger Karin Messaros said. “The schedules and routes were changed significantly for the fall 2018 and spring 2019 seasons.”
One major change eliminated the western entrance from the route due to heavy congestion at the Joshua Tree gates.
Free entrance and a break from driving aren’t the only perks; riders also have the advantage of a bus ambassador to answer questions and share information about the park.
“A lot of other parks have shuttles but a lot of them don’t have the bus ambassadors. I can tell them about the back story of the park,” bus ambassador D’Anne Albers said.
Albers talks about the surrounding spring superbloom, names flowers, describes why rocks formed the way they did and points out unique characteristics of Joshua trees.
“Joshua trees only grow an inch a year. They grow a little faster when they’re younger,” Albers explained to passengers on a recent trip.
Tom and Conny Truax were visiting from Orange County. They came to the area for the night skies. The ranger station told them about the shuttle and they decided to take it through the park.
“The price was good, the free-ness of it and I guess the fact that I don’t have to drive makes a lot of sense too. I don’t want to drive,” Tom Truax said.
“You can see more and it’s better for nature, fewer cars on the road,” Conny Truax said.
People come from all over the world to see the national park. Neil and Geraldine Shutchins visited from London as a final outing during their visit to Southern California.
“Geraldine’s sister had been here 20 years ago and she said it was a wonderful place so we had to visit,” Neil Shutchins said.
“Then we looked on the website for the park and it said there was a bus service. We thought that was excellent because it saves us driving around and we can stop where we want to along the route. We’re spending the day at the park and then we’re heading back home tomorrow.”
“There’s so much to see!” Geraldine Shutchins said.
Ridership has been steady and the park is evaluating options for the 2019-20 visitor season. Tourism Business Improvement District Marketing Director Breanne Dusastre sees the shuttle as a win-win for the park, the environment and riders.
“The park is looking at this to really try to reduce the number of cars, and that obviously helps the park but I think that also helps the visitor experience,” Dusastre said.
“Can you imagine, you’ve just driven three to fours hours to get here, you’ve been planning this trip for months, you’re so excited that you are finally here and guess what? You can’t find parking at Barker Dam, this trail that you’ve dreamed about hiking for months. That’s really frustrating and disappointing.
“This is so great for our visitors because it is going to give them quick and easy access to all the popular trailheads that are so overcrowded and so hard to find parking.”
The shuttle gets riders from Jumbo Rock to Quail Springs.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” Dusastre said. “You can get around the park so much easier and quicker, you can get in for free, all of your quality vacation time is going to be spent enjoying the park rather than getting stuck in line or trying to find parking.”
Kimberly Bernard has been driving the Roadrunner shuttle since November of last year. She enjoys meeting the people who visit the park from near and far. Her route is four hours in the morning, then four hours in the afternoon after a break.
“Now we’re starting to see some spring flowers, so the park itself is actually gorgeous,” Bernard said.
Riders can get on and off at nine stops within the park, including Cap Rock, Ryan Campground, Jumbo Rocks, Barker Dam and Hidden Valley.
Buses run every hour except for 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and reach the stops inside the park every 30 minutes to an hour. “They know within 30 minutes or an hour another bus is going to come by, so that gives them an hour to hike around. They can the next bus, go to the next stop or go out of the park,” Albers said.