Joshua Tree National Park: The Complete Guide

Joshua Tree National park

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Joshua Tree National Park

Address
California, USA
Phone +1 760-367-5500

The sight of a lone Joshua tree standing in a stark desert landscape is sure to make you stop, get out of your car, and snap a photo for Instagram. Hundreds of these plants, with their twisted branches and prickly, pompom-shaped leaves, bring to mind a Dr. Seuss drawing or a Tim Burton film. Joshua Tree National Park, near Palm Springs, California, is full of these famed sights. The park is one of California's most beautiful (and less-visited) natural treasures, complete with not only fascinating plants and animals, but vast desert oases, and a striking rock-strewn landscape. It's an excellent place to hike, climb rocks, take photographs, or pitch a tent and sleep underneath a starry sky free of light pollution.

Things to Do

Perhaps the primary draw to Joshua Tree National Park is tree-hunting. However, the Joshua "trees" you see here during your visit actually are not trees at all. Instead, they're members of the lily family, with the scientific name yucca brevifolia. The tallest trees grow 40 feet high (at the rate of about half an inch per year), and during a wet spring, sprout clusters of whitish-green flowers, making them an extraordinary sight.

In addition to tree hunting and the park's world-class rock climbing (which many climbers flock here to experience), you can also find several other activities and attractions to keep you busy at this magnificent park. Visit Cottonwood Spring Oasis, a real desert oasis located only a short walk from the Visitor Center parking lot. You can also walk the loop at Cholla Cactus Garden, one of the most striking stands of vegetation in all of Joshua Tree. Or, take in a panoramic view of the Colorado Desert, Coachella Valley, and San Gorgonio Pass at Keys View (elevation, 5,185 feet).

Lastly, you can embark on a ranger-led tour of Keys Ranch, a former working ranch, or drive the two-hour-long, 18-mile Geology Tour Road. This self-guided motor tour leads you through one of Joshua Tree's most fascinating landscapes.

Best Hikes & Trails

Joshua Tree National Park is a haven for hikers, with nature walks and hiking trails for every level of ability. The Desert Institute also leads guided hikes in Joshua Tree. As with most national parks, pets are not permitted on hiking trails other than the paved Oasis of Mara Trail.

  • Arch Rock Trail: This lollipop loop that starts at a trailhead off of Pinto Basin Road is great for beginner hikers and nature lovers. The 1.4-mile loop takes you to a natural rock arch formation, similar to those found in Arches National Park. This hike is suitable for families, but, if you have little ones in tow, opt for the shorter 0.3-mile loop that starts at White Tank Campground.
  • Barker Dam Trail: This wandering 1.5-mile loop for beginners takes you on a tour of all things unique to Joshua Tree National Park. Along this route, you'll find the iconic Joshua trees and other plant life like Mojave yucca and pinon pines, as well as big granite boulders and ancient rock art. The trail starts at the Barker Dam parking lot and takes you past this historical site.
  • Mastodon Peak: This intermediate trail, complete with a rock scramble, takes you 375-feet in elevation gain to the top of a rocky crag. The trail starts at Cottonwood Spring parking area and heads toward an abandoned mine, a palm tree oasis, and the remnants of the area's brief gold rush. From the peak, enjoy views of the Salton Sea, Cottonwood Mountain, and the Eagle Mountain Range.
  • Lost Palms Oasis: If you've got the time and energy for a 7.6-mile, moderately strenuous hike, visit Lost Palms Oasis, one of the park's largest oases. Check with park rangers to get trail conditions before setting out on this trek that takes you through sandy washes and rolling terrain, and then down into a remote canyon. The 500-foot climb back out is a grunt. This hike starts at Cottonwood Spring parking area.
Rock Climbing at Joshua Tree

Carl A / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Rock Climbing

Joshua Tree's granite rock formations make it a world-class spot for climbers and bouldering enthusiasts. In all, the park has more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes suitable for all levels of ability. Before climbing in Joshua Tree, check out the rules and regulations and novice climbers should venture out only with a permitted local guide.

Because it's such a popular spot, the park asks climbers to tread lightly and practice Leave No Trace principles. Also, permanent bolts and anchors are not maintained by the park. Strict rules exist for the placement of fixed anchors and the park service retains the right to remove them in prohibited zones. Check climbing closures before you head out.

Where to Camp

Joshua Tree has nine campgrounds that provide almost 500 campsites. You'll find RV-compatible spaces and dump stations, but no hookups exist in this park. Some campsites operate on a first-come, first-served basis, but you can reserve others from September through the end of May. Make reservations online up to six months in advance.

  • Jumbo Rocks Campground: This popular outpost for climbers contains rock monoliths formed from molten magma that forced its way through the earth's crust. Nestle down beside them in one of the 124 individual sites. Reservations are required.
  • Indian Cove Campground: This secluded area nestled among the Wonderland of Rocks is located off of California Highway 62, 13 miles east of Joshua Tree Village and 10 miles west of Twentynine Palms. Reservations are required to access one of Indian Cove's 101 campsites, including 14 group sites. Water is not available at this location, so plan accordingly.
  • White Tank Campground: A favorite sleeping spot for night-sky enthusiasts, White Tank Campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Get there early to claim your spot from May through September. RVs and campers are welcome, but cannot exceed 25-feet long.
  • Hidden Valley Campground: Containing 44 sites, this first-come, first-served campground can be accessed off of Park Boulevard. It's centrally located and high in elevation, making it cooler during the heat of summer. Still, shade relief can only be found in the shadows of boulders, should you choose a site near one.
  • Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground: Located just outside of the park in Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree Lake Campground accommodates both tent and RV campers, and offers power and water hookups. This campground also has a picnic area, hot showers, a dump station, and a playground. Make reservations ahead of time for RV camping; tent camping is first-come, first-served.
  • TwentyNine Palms RV Resort: You can also pull your RV into TwentyNine Palms Resort, complete with a pool, fitness center, golf course, and a clubhouse. Additionally, one and two-bedroom cottages are available to rent here. Each cottage contains a kitchen, free Wi-Fi, satellite television, and outdoor grills.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you head to Joshua Tree hoping to pop into a first-come, first-served campground and instead find them full, book a stay in a hotel or VRBO-like accommodation. Many options exist outside of the park in Palm Springs, Twentynine Palms, the town of Joshua Tree, or Yucca Valley.

  • Pioneertown Motel: The Pioneertown Motel in Pioneertown is as authentic as it gets. With a property that boasts native plants, locally-designed furniture, and thoughtfully created communal spaces, staying here will give you the feel of the Wild West. The motel has 29 guest rooms and an Airbnb-operated two-bedroom cabin. 
  • Joshua Tree Inn: Built in 1949, this Spanish Colonial Inn is located only 5 miles outside of the park in the town of Joshua Tree. You can book a rustic suite, a single queen-size or king-size room, a double full-size room, or a private home. Refrigerators, microwaves, and an outdoor pool are among the amenities here.
  • Mojave Sands Motel: This eco-conscious luxury motel in the town of Joshua Tree will make you feel right at home in the desert. Tuck yourself into one of five boutique rooms, two suites, or two standard rooms. Each room has a record player and a nice selection of records, and the outdoor communal spaces evoke a Zen-like vibe.
  • The Saguaro Palm Springs: You can choose your view at The Saguaro Palm Springs by booking a pool, mountain, garden, courtyard, or city lights room. Dogs are welcome at this hotel and they offer food and drink either poolside or in their on-site Mexican restaurant, El Jefe.

Instead, you might like Hicksville Trailer Palace, a collection of travel trailers surrounding a swimming pool, or Kate's Lazy Desert Airstream Hotel, a lodging option where each trailer has a name, like Tiki, Hairstream, and Hot Lava.

How to Get There

Joshua Tree National Park is in Twentynine Palms, California. It's 40 miles east of Palm Springs, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, 175 miles northeast of San Diego, and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas.

You can enter through any of three entrance stations:

  • West Entrance: Coming from Palm Springs on I-10, exit on CA-62 east, and turn south onto Park Boulevard at Joshua Tree Village.
  • North Entrance: This entrance is located 3 miles south of the town of Twentynine Palms off of CA-62.
  • South Entrance: Take Exit 168 off of I-10 east of Indio.

From Los Angeles, which is the closest metropolitan area, take I-10 East to Palm Springs, then continue on CA-62 East to one of the north entrances to the park in Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms.

You can also fly into the nearest airport in Palm Springs and drive the 40 miles to the park on CA-62 East toward Whitewater and Yucca Trail.

Cell phone service in the park and surrounding areas is spotty at best, and vehicle navigation systems are unreliable, possibly putting you on impassible roads. Instead of relying on GPS for navigation, go old-school and pick up a map.

Accessibility

U.S. citizens who are permanently disabled can apply for the free Interagency Access Pass. This lifetime pass gets you into all the national parks, as well as Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service sites for free. You can obtain this pass at any park entrance.

All three of the visitor centers in Joshua Tree National Park—Oasis, Joshua Tree, and Cottonwood—are wheelchair accessible. The Oasis of Mara Trail near the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms is paved and suitable for all wheelchairs, as is the Lower Keys View Overlook. Both Jumbo Rock Campground and Black Rock Campground contain campsites specifically designated as "accessible" and have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms nearby.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Summertime is scorching hot in Joshua Tree National Park with highs above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). It's best to visit in the spring and fall when highs run about 85 degrees F (29 degrees C) and lows are around 50 degrees F (10 degrees C).
  • Be wary of tours from Palm Springs that say they go to Joshua Tree. Some may only give you a peek at the edge of the park. Ask questions before you commit, so you're not disappointed.
  • Elevation variation within the park can create temperature differences of 10 degrees F (minus 12 degrees C) or more.
  • The spring wildflower bloom in the park is dependent on both rainfall and temperature. In general, you'll find flowers blooming between February and April, sometimes lingering into June in the higher elevations.
  • Spring is also the time to see the migrating birds that join the ones who live here year-round, like perky cactus wrens, roadrunners, and Gambel's quail. Pick up a species checklist at one of the visitor's centers.
  • Ask a ranger about haze conditions before taking a side trip to Keys View to assure you'll be able to see the landscape.
  • Watch your step around dessert plants. They may look sturdy, but they grow in very vulnerable soil that contains micro-organisms to nourish the plants. Even one step can kill the organisms, and ultimately, the growing flora. Stay on trails and leave no trace.
  • There are no concessions inside the park, so pack along your own food and water. You can find grocery stores and restaurants in Palm Springs, as well as in the towns of Desert Hot Springs, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms.
  • If you'd like to enjoy a campfire, bring your own wood and burn it only in designated spots.
  • Four-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikes can access more places in the park than the family sedan, but you still have to stay on the road. ATVs and off-road vehicles are prohibited.
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