Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
Alan Majchrowicz / Getty Images

The sight of a lone Joshua tree standing in a stark desert landscape is sure to make you stop and take a photo faster than you can say "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.

You can see them — and a lot more — at Joshua Tree National Park near Palm Springs, California. The park is one of California's most beautiful (and less-visited) natural treasures, full of fascinating plants and animals, desert oases, and a striking rock-strewn landscape. It's an excellent place to hike, climb rocks, take photographs, or discover how many stars there are in the sky.

When to Go to Joshua Tree

The national park is open year-round, but summers can be scorching with highs above 100°F (38°C). Spring and fall have the best weather when highs run about 85°F (29°C) and lows around 50°F (10°C). Winter days reach 60°F (15°C) with freezing nights. It occasionally snows at higher elevations.

If you want to try to see wildflowers at Joshua Tree, the spring bloom depends on rainfall and temperature. In general, you'll find things blooming between February and April, but flowers can linger in the higher elevations through June.

Spring is also the time to see migrating birds who join the ones who live here year-round, such as perky cactus wrens, roadrunners, and adorable Gambel's quail. The visitor center has a checklist of species you might see during your visit. Also in the spring, 200 or more turkey vultures sometimes roost at the Oasis of Mara.

If you go in the fall, the Night Sky Festival happens in September.

How to See Joshua Tree in Less Than a Day

Teddy bear cholla cactus in Joshua tree national park at sunset, California USA
Sierralara / Getty Images

You can see a lot at Joshua Tree on a one-day driving tour of the park.

It's 50 miles between the Cottonwood Visitor Center and the town of Joshua Tree. If you take the minimum time to drive that (about 1.5 hours), your memories will be nothing but a blur. Instead, take time to explore the stops listed below, which will take at least half a day. And that's going one way. If you need to get back to your starting point, your exploration could take up most of a full day.

Be sure your vehicle has plenty of fuel and take food and water: You won't find those things in the park.

You can drive in either direction, but if you're on a day trip from Palm Springs, start at the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Cell phone service in the park is spotty at best, especially in remote areas. Instead of relying on GPS for navigation, go old school and pick up a map at the entrance. These are the major stops, from south to north:

Entering Joshua Tree from the south, you will be in the low Colorado Desert, which has spots as much as 275 feet below sea level. This flat, hot landscape is known for its cactus gardens. It's also the area where the desert flowers bloom in spring but don't count on that happening every year.

Cottonwood Spring is near the Visitor Center. A short walk from the parking lot leads to a desert oasis and a bubbling spring. You can find water in places like this because of earthquake faults beneath the desert surface. They force water upward to create cool, damp areas where the California fan palms grow.

A 2.4-mile loop trail leads from Cottonwood to the old Mastodon gold mine. If you've got time and energy for a 7.6-mile, moderately strenuous hike, you can also visit one of the park's largest oases, Lost Palms. Check with park rangers before setting out on this trek.

Ocotillo Patch: The ocotillo plant (pronounced oh-cat-tee-yo) looks quite forbidding and dead in December. In spring it sprouts small, oval-shaped leaves and eye-popping red flowers emerge from the end of every branch. In the surrounding landscape, you may also see scraggly-looking creosote bushes and paloverde, a bush-like plant with green bark.

Cholla Cactus Garden: One of the most striking stands of vegetation in all of Joshua Tree, the Cholla Garden is so spectacular that you'll want to stop the minute you first see it. But don't. Instead, continue to the parking area, and you can take a walk among the spiny plants, some of them more than 5 feet tall.

The furry-looking chollas go by the nickname "teddy bear" because of their fuzzy appearance. They may look soft, but don't let it fool you. Their spines almost seem to jump out and grab you, and they won't let go. That's why its other nickname is jumping cholla. If you manage to get those spines stuck in your skin, you may end up calling it by a few names that aren't fit to print.

You will also see pencil cholla. Long spines emerging from diamond-shaped plates cover them. As bad as those long, sword-like stickers look, the worst part of the pencil cholla is at the base. The tiny spines there are so small that you can barely see them, making them even harder to remove from your skin than the big, barbed ones.

To get the most out of the cholla garden, pick up the self-guided brochure (leaving a donation in appreciation). Use it to learn how the cactus grow, why their stems are black, and about the animals who manage to make their homes in this seemingly inhospitable place.

After you leave the Cholla Garden, the road rises through Wilson Canyon. You leave the Colorado Desert and enter the higher Mojave, where you'll see spectacular rock formations and Joshua Trees. At the fork in the road, take the left turn toward Jumbo Rocks and the West Entrance Station.

Joshua Trees: The Joshua "trees" you will see along the rest of your drive aren't trees at all. Instead, they're members of the lily family. Their official name is Yucca brevifolia. The tallest ones grow to 40 feet high (at the rate of about 1/2 inch per year). The Joshua part of their name came early Mormon settlers who said the outstretched limbs guided them, just like Biblical Joshua guided the Israelites.

In a wet year, Joshua tree branches sprout clusters of white-green flowers, making them an even more extraordinary sight.

Jumbo Rocks: These two-tone monoliths started to form deep inside the earth 85 million years ago. The molten magma that created the lighter-colored granite rocks forced its way into the darker gneiss and crystallized.

Skull Rock: It's easy to see how this unusual formation got its name, with the two hollow eyes. It's only one of the many unique rock formations you'll find in Joshua Tree. Those fantastic, rounded shapes make a great place for rock climbers to enjoy their sport. You won't have time for that on a day trip, but you can find more about how to do it below.

Keys View: If the air is clear, take the short side trip on Keys View Road. At 5,185 feet elevation, Keys View offers a panoramic view of the Colorado Desert, Coachella Valley, and San Gorgonio Pass.

More Things to Do at Joshua Tree

Rock Climbing at Joshua Tree
Carl A/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

No matter what you want to do, start at one of the park's three visitor centers. Talk to a ranger there. They can help you figure out the best things to do for your interest and abilities and fill you in on current conditions and closures.

Rock Climbing: Joshua Tree's granite rock formations make it popular with climbers and bouldering enthusiasts from around the world. In all, the park has more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes suitable for all levels of ability. If you want to try climbing in Joshua Tree, be sure you know all the rules and regulations. If you're new to the activity, don't try it on your own. Instead, engage a permitted local guide.

Tour Keys Ranch: Park rangers give guided tours of a former working ranch, telling the colorful story of the 60 years that a couple raised their family in this remote location. Tickets are required. Buy them in person on the day of the tour at the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms.

Drive Geology Tour Road: This self-driving, two-hour-long, 18-mile motor tour leads through one of Joshua Tree National Park's most fascinating landscapes. In good weather, most passenger vehicles may access the first few miles. Unless you are driving a vehicle that's up to it, don't go past the sign that says four-wheel-drive only. Otherwise, you could end up stuck in a rut or up to your axles in soft sand.

Hiking: If you love to hike, try one of these nature walks and hiking trails for every level of ability. The Desert Institute also leads guided hikes in Joshua Tree.

Dark Skies: Away from the city's light pollution, you can see more stars than you may have known existed. To learn about them, attend a "star party" at Sky's the Limit Observatory and Nature Center near the Twentynine Palms entrance. Events are held on Saturday nights close to the new moon and begin shortly after dark.

Things to Do Nearby

On California Highway 62 between Palm Springs and Yucca Valley, you'll find Pioneertown, a 1940s-era western film set. You can walk down the old main street and stop in at Pappy and Harriet's Pioneer Palace where you can get a meal or enjoy a concert.

A few miles north of Pioneertown, stop for a sound bath at the Integratron, "a uniquely resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex in the magical Mojave Desert." Or so its website says.

If you're into offbeat roadside attractions, you might enjoy the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley. Also, check out the World Famous Crochet Museum and the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum in the town of Joshua Tree.

Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree

Be wary of tours from Palm Springs that say they go to Joshua Tree. Some of them may take you into just a tiny portion of the park. Ask lots of questions before you commit to something that might disappoint you.

You need to know more than one number when thinking about temperatures at Joshua Tree. Elevation variation within the park can create temperature differences of 10°F or more. And it could be 15 to 20°F hotter when you leave Palm Springs than when you reach Keys View.

When you enter the park, ask a ranger about haze conditions to know whether it will be worth your time to take a side trip to Keys View.

Watch your step. You might end up with a cactus thorn in your flip-flops, but it's also for the sake the desert plants. They may look sturdy, but they grow in vulnerable soil. It contains micro-organisms that hold the sand in place and nourish the plants. Even one step can kill the organisms and ultimately, the growing things. Give the fragile environment a break and keep your big feet on the trails.

Millions of years ago this parched desert landscape resembled a lush African savannah inhabited by camels, mammoths and giant land sloths. But today you need to take your own water and lots of it. And food. There are no concessions inside the park. You can find grocery stores and restaurants in the Palm Springs area, as well as in the towns of Desert Hot Springs, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms.

For a campfire, bring your own wood—and burn it only in designated spots.

Activities with pets are limited in Joshua Tree, but you can find some tips for taking your four-legged friend at Barkpost.

A car is almost a necessity for touring Joshua Tree, but there is also a shuttle bus. It runs only in cooler months and only on some days of the week. A big plus to using it is that riders get into the park for free.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikes can get to more places than a family sedan, but they still have to stay on the road. ATVs and off-road vehicles are prohibited.

Where to Stay

Camping in Joshua Tree
Nelson Mouëllic / Getty Images

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

If you get there and find the park campgrounds full, try some of these camping areas nearby.

If you'd rather stay in a hotel, you can find plenty of places to stay in Palm Springs. If you're on the north side of the park, try Twentynine Palms, the town of Joshua Tree, or Yucca Valley. Closer to Joshua Tree, you'll find the Pioneertown Motel.

You might also like Hicksville Trailer Palace, a collection of travel trailers surrounding a swimming pool or Kate's Lazy Desert Airstream Hotel, a place where the trailer have names like Tiki, Hairstream, and Hot Lava.

What You Need to Know About Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is open 365 days a year. Admission is charged, except on a few free admission days that vary by year.

Joshua Tree National Park is in Twentynine Palms, California. It's east of I-10 near 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 or on I-10, exit on CA Hwy 62 east and turn south onto Park Boulevard at Joshua Tree Village
  • North Entrance: Three miles south of the town of Twentynine Palms and CA Hwy 6
  • South Entrance: Exit 168 from I-10 east of Indio

Within the park, the roads are all connected.

More Spectacular California Desert Scenery

Not too far from Joshua Tree south of Palm Springs is the Salton Sea, a body of water that shouldn't have existed—except for an accident. Further south, you'll find the Anza-Borrego Desert and north of Joshua Tree is ​Death Valley.

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