Complete Guide To Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most popular parks in California. Whether you are going there for the 10th time, or your 1st- there is always something new to explore and discover. Here are some of my top tips for hiking, backpacking and exploring this National Park!

 


Location: Southeastern California

Getting There: Joshua Tree National Park is located about 2.5 hours from Los Angeles and 3.5 from Las Vegas. Driving from L.A., you will pass through Palm springs and Twentynine Palms, the closest town to the park. There is a north, west, and southern entrance to the park, with the western entrance being the most popular. Its 50 miles from the southern Cottonwood Visitor Center to the town of Joshua Tree which will take about 1.5 hours.

 

Keys View | Joshua Tree National Park Guide | Somewhere Sierra
(Keys View)

Popular Features

Ryan Mountain- A 3 mile out and back hike and one of the most popular trails. Offers great views of the western side of the park.

Keys View- A 20 minute drive up to this viewpoint will give incredible views of Coachella Valley.

Cholla Cactus Garden- A must-see for park visitors and I highly suggest visiting this part of the park at sunset. It is quite a drive from the western side of the park and is located fairly close to Cottonwood. There is a dirt trail going through the garden and the cactuses glow during golden hour.

Hidden Valley Day Use Area- This is a great guided hike that will take you around a popular rock climbing area on a nature trail. It is located on the western part of the park right next to Hidden Valley Campground and has a picnic area and pit toilets.

Skull Rock- This feature is right off the road near Jumbo Rocks campground and is a fun place to stop and see. I have seen some outstanding images taken at night that feature this rock.

Photography

Joshua Tree National Park has been designated as an international dark sky park silver tier by the IDA (International Dark-Sky Park Association) and is thus a world-class area for astrophotography. There are many phone apps that can help track the milky way or identify stars and constellations like PhotoPills or NightSky. Joshua Tree is the first park I tried astrophotography at (image below, 2018) and have since been able to capture the milky way with kit lenses, and capture star trails. Check what times the moon will be new for the best chances to see stars. I went in September and was still able to see the milky way before the moonrise around 9pm at night.

Dawn and dusk are also key times in the park to really capture that desert landscape in unique ways. The sun washes out the landscape of Joshua Tree during the day and can make photos look dull. The golden glow on the Joshua Trees or rock piles is absolutely stunning and if you time your trip with the moon you can see some incredible moonrises.

Moonrise in Joshua Tree | Park Guide | Somewhere Sierra
(Moonrise, September 2020)

Fun Facts

➢ The SerranoCahuillaChemehuevi, and Mojave tribes are intimately connected to the land in and around Joshua Tree National Park.

 

➢ The band U2 released their famous album ‘Joshua Tree’ in 1987 – named after the group visited the area and saw an abundance of Joshua Trees.

 

➢ Minerva Hoyt, a resident of Pasadena, was concerned about the removal of cacti and other plants to the gardens of Los Angeles. Her efforts to protect this area lead to 825,000 acres being set aside as Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936

 

➢ Mormon pioneers were impressed by the trees. They thought the limbs of the Joshua trees resembled the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land, and the tree’s name is thought to have come from them.

 

➢ Joshua Tree was made a national park on October 31, 1994 and in 2019 had a record breaking number of visitors at 3 million people.

 

➢ Animals that inhabit Joshua Tree include snakes, bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, coyotes, lynxes, and black-tailed jackrabbits. The desert tortoise is a threatened reptile species that inhabits creosote bush lowlands in the Mojave Desert.

Don’t Forget To Pack…

Water Cube- Probably the most important packing tip I have is plenty of water- at least a gallon more than you think you’ll use. When inside the National Park, there are no water sources.
Insulated Water bottle- I really love having this at any time of the year. It kept hot drinks warm in the chilly mornings or through the night and will do the same for cold drinks once the landscape starts warming up with the sun. I prefer YETI bottles over anything else because most of them have easy to clean wide mouths and don’t loose their insulating capabilities over time. I have gone through nearly 5 Hydroflasks in the recent years and it feels like a waste. 
Adequate Sleeping Bag- During the summer months, I have gone to J-tree and slept on top of my sleeping bag for nearly the whole night. However, the winter months can be very chilly and Joshua Tree can also see snow at certain times in the year! I really like Marmot bags because they are fitted and have extra insulation near the feet and midsection. 
Sun Protection- Some areas of the park can be very exposed to the sun, especially on hikes. Along with extra water, make sure to pack enough sunscreen, bring a sun hat, and limit your sun exposure during the hottest times of the day. 
Hiking Sandals- I really loved having my Chacos the entire time as I am an open-toed shoe advocate during all months of the year. Changing into sandals after a climb is a necessity for me. Keens has great options for people who want their toes more protected. 

Camping In The Park

September to May: Most of the few hundred campsites in Joshua Tree can be reserved during the busy season on recreation.gov. The busiest season is from February to May. 

May to September: During the quieter summer months, all campsites are first-come, first-served and reservations are not available. Some campgrounds may close in summer. The summer is the parks off-season due to high desert temperatures. Temperatures during the middle of the summer frequently reach 100 degrees F or higher. 

(Campgrounds are listed from west to east)

Black Rock:

Reservations- From May to September sites are first-come, first-served. Sites 40-60 and 66-99 are closed from July 24–September 4, 2020. From September to May reservations can be made online.

Location- Located almost outside the park on the western side. Will need to drive through town to access the road through the western entrance.

Info-99 campsites. Flush toilets, fire grates, tables, and a dumb station. Water is available. $25 per night

Hidden Valley:

Reservations- Always FCFS

Location- Western

Info-  44 campsites. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water. $15 per night.

This is the most popular campground area and the likelihood of finding a first-come first-served (fcfs) site here is slim but worth the effort if you can snag one. Campers arrive here early and often stake out areas. This area is one of the most picturesque campgrounds, is located near popular areas in the park, and had climbing routes within walking distance.

Ryan:

Reservations- FCFS from May to September. Reservations can be made online September to May.

Location- Western

Info- 32 campsites. Pit toilets, fire grates and tables. No water. $20 per night.

I have stayed here a few times and have loved it. It has a nice climbing route nearby and is quieter than some of the other larger grounds. Some sites are very close together.

Sheep Pass Group Campground:

Reservations-Group Campsites are limited to 25 people. Sites are available by reservation only.

Location- Western

Info- For tents only. Sites can accommodate 10-60 people.

Jumbo Rocks :

Reservations- FCFS from May to September. Reservations can be made online September to May.

Location- Central

Info- 124 campsites. Pit toilets, fire grates and tables. No water. $20 per night.

Out of any campground I have stayed at Jumbo Rocks the most. Sites can be bit hard to locate but the tables have campsite numbers on them. Most sites should have two designated parking spaces.

White Tank:

Reservations- Always FCFS

Location- Central

Info- 15 campsites. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water. $15 per night.

Belle:

Reservations- Always FCFS

Location- Central

Info- 18 sites. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water. $15 per night.

Cottonwood Campground:

Reservations- From May to September loop B is closed and loop A is open. Group campsites are limited to 25 people. Family sites are first-come, first-served and group campsites are reservation only. From September to May reservations can be made online.

Location -Southern

Info- 62 campsites. Flush toilets, fire grates, tables, and a dumb station. Water is available. $25 per night

Indian Cove Campground:

Reservations- From May to September sites 1-39 are open. Sites 40-101 are closed July 24–September 4, 2020. Group campsites are limited to 25 people. Family sites are first-come, first-served and group campsites are reservation only. From September to May reservations can be made online.

Location-Northern, outside the main park

Info- 101 campsites. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water. $25 per night.

Outside the Park:

BLM Land- If finding a site was too hard there is BLM land within a few minutes of the park. Its very spacious, and depending on the night, can be quite empty. There are no fire rings or bathrooms. Be cautious not to drive too far into the land. There is a Remote Control Airfield near the edge of the land and  on a busy morning, you might here some loud whizzing overhead.
AirBnB/ Hipcamp – There are a lot of options online for campsites on peoples property, vacations rentals or a popular option- renting a glamping RV. I know someone who stayed in one recently and it had hammocks, A/C, and a hot tub.

Backpacking In Joshua Tree

This is something that I will be doing on my next visit to Joshua Tree and is a great way to experience the park without the crowds.

To experience the backcountry in Joshua Tree you must:

➢ Register at one of thirteen backcountry boards (unregistered vehicles are subject to citation and towing and can also cause alarm for park staff).

➢ Camp 1 mile from roads, 500 feet from trails and water sources and not in a “day-use only” area.

There are no designated campsites in the backcountry and you  are encouraged to select areas like flat rocks, in sandy washes (except in the case of flash flood threat), or under trees.

➢ Learn to recognize durable surfaces.

Biological crusts have extreme significance to Joshua Tree and areas like it. These surfaces help the ground absorb rainfall and can take many years to heal if broken.

➢ Practice Leave No Trace Principles

You can read more about where to register at a backcountry board on the NPS website

 

 

Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park | Travel Guide | Somewhere Sierra

Suggested Weekend Itinerary

Morning

Joshua Tree in the morning is a wonderful thing. The sunrises are stunning, the earth is still cool, and the atmosphere is serene. Personally, this is my favorite time of day to climb and be a bit more active while the sun is still low. If your interested in outdoor climbing, make sure you bring a Joshua Tree Climbing Guide before you get to the park if you don’t have one already.

[Note: You should only climb at Joshua Tree if you are an experienced climber or are accompanied by one. Joshua Tree is often referred to as “sandbagged” because the climbing ratings in guidebooks are often rated much lower than what climbers expect. For a first time outdoor climber, Joshua Tree will pose a challenge with its rough granite climbs, but if your willing to grit your teeth and lose some skin in the process, it is one heck of a place to climb! ] 

One of the climbs I have done in the morning was right next to our site at Ryan Campground, called Headstone Rock (photo below). The rock sits on a boulder pile and has a massive drop off to the left – it was just minutes away from where we stayed overnight. We discovered later that the boulder was actually featured on the front of the guidebook we were using!

There are also a ton of fun climbs on the western side by Hidden Valley Campground and the day use areas. 


Afternoon

Hiking and exploring- two things you must find time for while you are in the park. If your looking for a shorter hike, the Cholla Cactus Garden, and the Hidden Valley Nature Trail are a must for your itinerary.  For the more adventurous, Ryan Mountain or the Lost Horse Mine are worth checking out. The afternoon is also a great time to leave the main section of the park to check out areas like Indian Cove, closer to Twentynine Palms. On your way back through the park, head towards the western entrance and stop at Natural Sisters Cafe for bomb smoothies. I go there every time I come to Joshua Tree.


Evening

What a spectacular time in Joshua Tree. Take the 20 minute drive to Keys view for sunset and them opt for a nice evening near the campfire. There is nothing that can compete with the sunset views on top of Keys View, stargazing the immense sky with the occasional shooting star, and listening to the coyotes howl at night. The park becomes otherworldly.


If you get the chance to experience Joshua Tree, do it, you wont regret it. Do you have a recommendation for Joshua Tree I didn’t mention? Tell me in the comments section so I know what to visit next time!


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 A trip is not actually a trip without a few bumps along the road. Here’s to the 8 person tent being tied to a climbing bolt after falling apart, our lost journey to the mine, and spending hours looking for each other in a National Park without cell service. Go team. (2018)

Joshua Tree is a special park to me. It has special memories with special people. That’s what makes my trips to these National Parks unique its why I keep coming back.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Great tips for a great park. Thanks! Backpacking in JTree is a special treat. I recommend the backpacking along the Boy Scout Trail and a day excursion toward Willow Hole and checking out the Wonderland of Rocks, if you haven’t been over there yet. Enjoy your next outing there!
    -Michael

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