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.
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.
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.
➢ The Serrano, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, 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…
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.
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:
[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.
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.
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!
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.