established in 1994
located in California
open all year
elevation 900-6000 ft.
When I finally made it to Joshua Tree National Park recently, I was like so, this is what all the fuss is about. Not only is Joshua Tree (JOTR) one of the prettiest and most peaceful parks I’ve been to, it’s easy to get to, kid friendly and would be great for the solo traveler. I fell in love with the desert and the surrounding area. Here’s some, hopefully useful, tips about visiting, in my Joshua Tree National Park guide.
What’s So Special About Joshua Tree?
Joshua Tree National Park gets its name from the Joshua trees that dot the landscape. Surprise! They aren’t really trees though. Joshua trees are part of the the yucca family. They only grow at elevations between 2000-6000 ft. and it takes 50-60 years for a Joshua tree to be fully grown! Because of this, it’s so important that we treat them with respect. Good news is they can live up to 500 years or more. The desert and the desert animals depend on them for food and shelter.
In 2017, Joshua Tree was designated as a Dark Sky Park, which is a huge deal. Dark Sky parks are some of the darkest places in the country. Even the communities around a Dark Sky park cooperate by installing special lights that minimize glare and reduce sky glow. Sky glow is the light you see at night around and over a city. It’s that light pollution that keeps us from seeing the stars.
At Joshua Tree National Park, you can easily see the Milky Way with the naked eye if the moon isn’t full. No wonder it’s a great place for astrophotography. The park service even holds an annual Dark Sky Festival at a nearby observatory and other events in the park.
Joshua Tree National Park is also unique in that it’s not just one desert ecosystem, it’s two. The Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, meet in the park. The Mojave Desert section is more mountainous and sits at a higher elevation, while the Colorado is lower and more arid.
Joshua Tree is home to the threatened desert tortoise and much more wildlife including seven kinds of rattlesnake, which I’m glad I didn’t see any of when I was there. I did see plenty of bunnies and jack rabbits. Interesting too is Joshua trees don’t have any nectar to attract bees or other pollinators. They rely entirely on the yucca moth to carry pollen from tree to tree.
When is the Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree?
While some times might be better than others to visit Joshua Tree, there really isn’t a bad time to go. Annual precipitation is less than six inches a year and they rarely get snow.
Ideally, March to May, when the wildflowers are blooming, and October and November are the best times but also the busiest. Winter and the middle of summer aren’t as comfortable as those months but I visited in June, and other than it being hot during the middle of day, it was cool at night. The higher elevation on the north side of the park is perfect for camping.
The most extreme temperatures would be in the late summer. If you do visit at that time, make sure you hike in the morning when it’s cooler and carry plenty of water with you. For your protection, the National Park Service closes some of the more strenuous hiking trails in the summer months.
How to Get to Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park is super easy to get to. Located between interstates 40 and 10 in Southern California, if you were making a cross country road trip using those routes, it’s just a hop and a skip to visit.
The closest big cities with airports, if you were flying in would be:
- San Diego- 160 miles
- Los Angeles- 130 miles
- Las Vegas- 187 miles
- Phoenix- 222 miles
How Much Does Joshua Tree Cost?
The entrance fee $30 for a 7 day vehicle permit, $55 for a Joshua Tree park pass that’s good for a year. Your best bet is to purchase an America the Beautiful park pass that’s accepted at over 2k interagency public land sites. In a year’s time you can save a lot of money. More money saved means more travel.
What Entrance is Best?
Another nice thing about Joshua Tree is that it has four entrances and visitor centers. So no matter which way you are coming from, it’s easy to get into the park. You’ll never have to miss a visitor center because there’s one at every entrance.
Most people coming from LA and the west enter the park at the town of Joshua Tree. However, that entrance can get pretty busy in peak season.
If you are coming from the west, and want to avoid crowds, you could enter at the Black Rock entrance station, which is before you get to Joshua Tree town. This entrance station is located near the town of Yucca Valley. The drawback is, it’s difficult to access the rest of the park from that entrance.
To avoid a bottle neck at the busiest times, drive a little further east, past the Joshua Tree township and enter at the Twenty Nine Palms entrance. You’re still close enough to civilization, if you weren’t planning on staying in the park. The town of Twenty Nine Palms is adorable. I loved the art and murals they have around town. This entrance is also the best if you are coming from Las Vegas.
Southerner Says: if you do enter at Twenty Nine Palms, drive Park Boulevard back north in reverse for stunning views of the valley and the Pinto Mountains that line the east side of the park as you leave.
Joshua Tree Visitor Centers
Like most national park visitor centers, all the Joshua Tree vc’s have exhibits about the park. And at least two have movies. They also all have have bookstores, junior ranger activities and toilets. The Joshua Tree visitor center even has a cafe.
There is no water in the park so make sure and refill your bottles when you are at the visitor centers too. It is the desert after all.
All the vc’s are open daily with the exception of the Black Rock location. It’s seasonal and is only open October-May. Check nps.gov for specific hours and Covid-19 hours as well.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park
Whether you are camping in the park or staying in one of the surrounding towns, the entire area has a lot of options.
In the Park
Joshua Tree National Park has nine developed campgrounds and about 500 campsites total. If you aren’t a camper but maybe want to be one, this is the perfect place to give it a try. Most of the campgrounds are easy to get to inside the park and they are easy to set up camp on since most of them have nice flat places for your tent.
Jumbo Rocks Campground
Jumbo Rocks campground, has 124 sites and accepts reservations late August through early June. I was there in early June and it was first come first served. If you’re not familiar with how this works you can find out more info in my Beginner’s Guide to Camping in National Parks.
Arriving after dark on a Sunday night I had plenty of campsites to choose from. The weather was perfect and I even left the fly off of our tent. However the moon was full so I couldn’t get a good look at the stars like I had hoped.
Jumbo Rocks has plenty of pretty sites. It’s a good mix of sites with a lot of privacy and sites that are situated together. These sites would be great for families or friends traveling together. Most of the sites are situated in and among the boulders.
There are also a sufficient number of pit toilets scattered around the campground. Remember to take hand sanitizer and maybe some extra toilet paper on a busy weekend.
outside the park
According to the park website, the campgrounds do fill up during peak season and on weekends in the off season. So if you can’t get a reservation and the first come first served policy makes you nervous, there are plenty of small smaller hotels and a few familiar brands in both Twenty Nine Palms and Joshua Tree.
Airbnb is also very popular in this area. I haven’t stayed in one here but I have several saved in my Airbnb favorites lists.
What To Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island, so there’s plenty to do. If you only have a day, you can still accomplish a lot. Here’s some things you shouldn’t miss.
On Park Boulevard
The park doesn’t have a scenic loop road like many parks do but whether you enter at Joshua Tree or the Oasis entrance, you can drive the Park Boulevard to get overview of the park. This road features various turn outs with interpretative signs. If you come in the Joshua Tree entrance. simply exit at the Oasis entrance at Twenty Nine Palms or vice versa.
Hidden Valley Natural Trail
Hidden Valley is a one mile loop hike. It’s listed as an easy hike but there are several steps that take you up and then lead you back down into the “valley”. This area was once used as a cattle rustler’s hideout. Once you see it, you’ll understand why. Surrounded by boulders and massive rocks, it feels like a secret hideaway.
Southerner Says: when I visit a park, I always look for the best picnic spots. Hidden Valley Trail has an entire picnic area complete with shady tables and barbecue grills, perfect for lunch.
Keys View was one of my favorite vistas in the park because you could see so much. From an altitude of over 5k ft, you get a look at the entire Coachella Valley, the Salton Sea and even Mexico. Of course, all this depends on how clear it is. We were able to see the Salton Sea with our eyes but weren’t able to get a photo of it. It’s a nice paved walkway with interpretative info suitable for wheelchairs. There are some viewpoint decks and benches for resting and it would make a great place for a picnic.
As you make the turn off Park Boulevard on the road to Keys View, make sure to stop see Cap Rock. There’s a little rock that’s balanced on a bigger boulder. Walking the short well maintained trail is a perfect way to start your visit to Joshua Tree.
Probably one of the most recognizable, and popular attractions at Joshua Tree is Skull Rock. Etched by time and water, the huge boulder looks like a skull and appears to have two eyes. While the the actual Skull Rock itself is fascinating, the area around is excellent for exploring. Especially with kids. The trails are well marked and there is plenty to climb around on.
Southerner Says: if Skull Rock is crowded during the day, save it for the late evening. The trail can around it can also be accessed from Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Split Rock Trail
Split Rock Trail is a two mile nature trail that passes through a variety of desert scenes. Washes, boulders, yuccas and Joshua trees are just a few of the things you will find. Once you reach the breezy, highest part of the trail, there’s a flat rocky area perfect for a midway rest. With stunning views of the area, you might be lucky enough to spot Big Horn Sheep.
Pinto Basin Road
Pinto Basin Road runs from Park Boulevard southwest to the Cottonwood entrance. As you leave the mountainous higher altitude Mojave desert into the lower altitude Colorado desert, the Joshua trees disappear and give way to more cacti and other desert plants.
Cholla Cactus Garden
The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the prettiest places in the park. Even thought the landscape is different and there are no Joshua trees, there are hundreds of cacti, as far as the eye can see. A maintained path meanders among the cacti for an up close look. Just don’t get too close. If you do nothing else on Pinto Basin Road, at least go to see the cactus garden.
Further southwest on Pinto Basin Road is the Ocotillo Patch. Ocotillos are a spiny desert shrub that bloom beautiful reddish orange blooms after rain in the spring, summer and fall. Unless you know how much precipitation the park has received, there’s a chance the Ocotillos will look brown. Still, it must be beautiful when they are all blooming.
What Else is There To Do?
Hiking isn’t the only thing to do in the park. Joshua Tree has an abundance of unpaved roads. If you have a four wheel drive, you can explore much more of the park. Geology Road is an 18 miles unpaved road with 16 stops that make up a self guided tour of the different geological features.
Joshua Tree is also a well known destination for climbers, equestrians and bird watchers. Check out the park website for more on these activities.
Joshua Tree Packing List
Joshua Tree National Park is not as isolated as some other national parks. If you forget something, you should be able to pick it up in Yucca Valley or Joshua Tree. Twenty Nine Palms is smaller than those two but does have a Dollar General. Here’s some things you should pack for Joshua Tree. Especially if you are camping in the park.
- water, water and more water -did I mention there’s no water in the park?
- food and snacks
- hand sanitizer
- appropriate shoes for hiking in dusty conditions
- a sweatshirt or jacket for cool evenings
- a hat or head covering
Joshua Tree Add On’s
Southern California is beautiful and one of the best places in the country to road trip. If you are driving from Vegas, stop by Amboy Crater, Mojave Preserve or drive some of old Route 66. From San Diego, add the Salton Sea or Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to your stops. Coming from LA? Drive into the San Bernandino National Forest for some cooler temps and greenery.
No matter how you get there or how long you stay, Joshua Tree National Park is sure to steal your heart just like it did mine.
Pin my Joshua Tree Park Guide for later.