Ask anyone—there’s really no other place in the world like Joshua Tree National Park. I’m a huge fan of this national park as well as its quirky neighboring towns. My friends and I can go on for days about all the great landmarks and attractions this area has to offer. If you’re thinking about visiting Joshua Tree National Park and want to learn more about what this place has to offer, you’ve come to the right place!
Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its unique terrain, covered with whimsical Joshua Trees as well as its massive boulder formations. Where do these trees get their names, you might ask? Well, the name came to be when Mormon settlers first laid their eyes on these trees back in the day. They were reminded of the biblical story of Joshua reaching his hands to the sky, and so the name of the tree was born.
Joshua Tree National Park is actually made up of two deserts, the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. This “hybrid” desert feature paves the way to the park’s diversity in flora and terrain. We’ll dive into that a bit more later. You may have also heard that Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise, and with good reason. Once you lay your eyes on the jumbo rocks dotted across the park, you’ll easily understand why. Aside from climbing, there are many other features of the park to enjoy, including beautiful desert vistas, epic camping and stargazing, wildflowers in the springtime, educational walks, and family-friendly hiking. In this post, you will learn everything you need to know about Joshua Tree NP.
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THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Parking is $30 per vehicle. Save money with the America The Beautiful National Parks Pass ($80). This annual pass will get you entry into all national parks for one whole year from the month of purchase, as opposed to paying $30 for the 7-day use pass. I buy this pass every year; it’s the best bang for your buck if you plan on visiting at least 3 national parks within a 12-month timespan!
- There is no cell service in the park. With that said, there are a few ways you can prepare so that you’re still able to find your way around the park: (1) Grab a map at the entrance of the park or from the visitor’s center. It’s easy to navigate around by just identifying landmarks you drive by on your map. (2) Download Google Maps offline so you can use your phone to navigate even without connection.
- The best months to visit is between October to May. Even though summer months at Joshua Tree are the hottest, it can still be quite hot from October to May. If you plan to do a lot of hiking, start early to beat the desert heat!
- March to May has the most ideal weather, perfect for lengthier hiking, wildflower viewing, and rock climbing. However, ideal conditions tend to draw greater crowds. Park visitation is the highest during these months and if you plan to visit the park on the weekends, expect crowds.
- In the summer, temperatures can surpass 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The best time to visit the park in the summer is in the mornings and evenings (for the sunsets). When the weather gets above the 100’s, it is recommended that you hike no more than 1 mile.
- Make sure you have water on hand at all times. Since access to drinking water is limited in the park, you should plan on carrying extra water in your pack and in your car.
- Aside from the light snacks for purchase at the visitor centers, there is no food or water available in the park. Restaurants are available in the nearby towns of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, or Twentynine Palms. If you would rather stay in the park for lunch/dinner, pack a meal or a picnic into the park.
- There are no gas stations inside Joshua Tree National Park. It is recommended that you have at least half a tank of gas before entering the park.
- There are no lodging accommodations within the park. If you don’t want to camp, you’ll have to stay in the surrounding communities.
A quick note on the “best” time to visit Joshua Tree National Park. I’ve been to Joshua Tree every season and personally, I love visiting in the spring because everything is colorful and in full bloom. Visiting in the fall is a close second because it’s usually not too hot and the environmental conditions are pretty pleasant for camping.
During the summers, it can be pretty unbearable to walk for long distances–I’m talking scorching 100+ degree weather. Contrastingly, it can be extremely brisk and chilly in the winter, similar to other desert areas.
GETTING TO JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
The park is centrally located in the California desert and is the closest national park from both Los Angeles and San Diego. If you don’t live in the area, flying into LAX (Los Angeles) or PSP (Palm Springs) will be your best bet. You can rent a car once you arrive at the airport.
Estimated driving time to Joshua Tree National Park from neighboring major cities:
- Los Angeles, California – 2.5 hours
- San Diego, California – 3 hours
- Phoenix, Arizona – 3 hours
- Las Vegas, Nevada – 3.25 hours
There are 3 entrances to the park. The main entrance is the West Entrance and is located in the town of Joshua Tree.
- West Entrance: For visitors coming from Los Angeles / San Diego / Palm Springs.
- Note: Make sure the stop at the Park Visitor Center (on Park Blvd @ Hwy 62) and pay for your park pass BEFORE driving further into the rest of the park.
- North Entrance: Located off Hwy 62, in 29 Palms; For visitors coming from Las Vegas
- Local Tip: If you find that the line to get into the park via the main entrance is astronomically long, head to the North Entrance a few miles away. The lines here are much shorter, especially on weekends and holidays!
- South Entrance: Off Hwy 10; For visitors coming from Indio / Phoenix / New Mexico
- Local Tip: Though this is the lesser-used entrance, the South Entrance will actually allow you to drive through and see the entire span of the park. And though the southern part of Joshua Tree is a bit more barren than the northern, it’s still fascinating to see the shift in terrain as you go from the Colorado Desert (yuccas and Cholla cactus) to the Mojave Desert (Joshua Trees and huge boulders).
WHAT TO PACK WITH YOU
America the Beautiful National Parks Pass | Joshua Tree National Park costs $35 for a 7-day pass. However, the national parks annual pass is a great way to save on entrance fees. If you intend to visit three or more NPS parks or sites in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself. This pass can be purchased at the park entrances or online here. [Example: 3 National Parks x $30 parking each = $90. Savings with the annual pass = $10. Any more parks you go to thereafter = FREE!]
Water Bottle | No matter what you decide to do in Joshua Tree, every trip into the park warrants that you bring water. If you plan on being in the park for an entire day, you should plan on bringing a gallon of water per person. For shorter hikes, packing a lightweight 1L water bottle such as the Nalgene water bottle will suffice. On hotter days, consider bringing an insulated Hydro Flask packed with ice and water so that your water stays cold all day. For longer hikes, I recommend a 3-liter hydration reservoir.
Daypack | Bring a daypack to carry your camera, snacks, water bottles, and other gear while exploring Joshua Tree National Park. I like bringing my Camelbak Rogue 2.5L on hot days since the shape of the backpack minimizes sweaty back issues and doubles as a water reservoir. For a more traditional style of a daypack, the Osprey Daylite is sturdy, comfortable, and has never let me down on any day trips.
Snacks | There are no food services in the park. Make sure you pick up snacks/meals the night before or in the morning before you enter the park.
- If you plan on bringing fruits/vegetables and leaving them in the car, pick harder options such as apples, pears, cucumbers, and carrots since these do better in the heat compared to more delicate produce. If you do plan on bringing softer fruits, make sure to take them with you so they don’t decay in your hot car!
- Go for energy bars that don’t contain chocolate to avoid the melted chocolate messes. Stinger Waffles are loved by outdoor enthusiasts and are delicious and easy to eat. Other snacks to consider include dried fruit, nuts, and trail mix.
- Sandwiches: Stop by Natural Sisters in Joshua Tree for awesome sandwich and wrap selections (they also have fresh juices & organic coffee to start your morning off).
- Lunchables: super easy to pack and always a great option regardless of how old you are.
Cooler | If you don’t enjoy warm beverages/snacks, you’ll want to bring a heavy-duty portable cooler with you. Cracking open a cold drink is such a luxury after a walk or hike out in the blazing sun!
Sunscreen | When you’re in Joshua Tree, you’re in a desert. The sun and heat are no joke, and though Joshua Trees are tall, they don’t provide very much shade at all. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen. Make sure you have a face sunscreen or a hat as well.
Hat | A wide-brimmed sun hat can double as sun protection to your face and neck. Remember, there is little to no shade in the park. Here are a few stylish yet effective options for men and women. For added protection, I’d recommend a sun hat with a neck cape.
Sunglasses | Similar to sunscreen, you should bring a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun. Usually, I fare pretty well without sunglasses, but for some reason, the sun is just so bright and blinding in Joshua Tree!
Hiking Boots | Closed-toed shoes are a must in Joshua Tree. Instead of simply wearing sneakers, consider hiking boots. They not only provide better protection against spines on the ground, but you’ll find yourself slipping a lot less on dirt and loose gravel. Trust me, it’s easier to hop around and walk on rocks with the extra traction provided by hiking boots as opposed to running shoes. Lowa Renegades are my go-to pair for life, I highly recommend.
Sandals | Birkenstocks make for the best sandals for the car ride home. It’ll be great to have these in the car after a long day of exploring on foot.
Baby Wipes | You will get dusty; you’re in the desert, after all. Wiping your face/body off will be especially refreshing after a hot and dusty hike. Keep baby wipes and hand sanitizer with you to dust yourself off before eating or touching your face.
First Aid Kit | A compact first aid kit is essential on any Joshua Tree trip. You can pack it with you in your daypack and it won’t take up too much space. In my mind, it’s easier to sustain scrapes and injuries in Joshua Tree than in other parks? Why? Because you might find yourself rock scrambling haphazardly or walking nearby spiky cacti. It’s better to be prepared in case you have any mishaps on your adventures. This one is as compact as it gets and is super easy to carry. Also, bring a pair of tweezers in case you get poked by cacti!
Portable Battery Charger | You’ll be in and out of the car all day, but mostly out of the car. If you’re using your phone to take photos or navigate around the park, be sure to bring a compact portable charger with you. This foldable portable solar charger is another option. It’s such a powerhouse of a tool to have with you.
Flashlight | Pack a flashlight in case you decide to embark on a sunrise or sunset hike. It’s also good to have on hand if you plan to stay in the park after dark to stargaze. You don’t want to accidentally run/step into a cactus plant on the ground. Check out my favorite tried and trusted all-weather flashlight.
FUN FACTS ABOUT JOSHUA TREE
- The park is a meeting point between the Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert. You’re basically going to experience one desert ecosystem transition into another (which can be seen through the shift in terrain and plant life). In the high Mojave Desert, you’ll find Joshua trees and those massive rock piles. In the Colorado Desert, you’ll find Creosote bush scrub, Ocotillo, desert saltbush, yucca and the Cholla cactus.
- U2’s 1987 album was named The Joshua Tree, but the album cover was not actually photographed in Joshua Tree, California. Instead, it was shot near Darwin, California (over 200 miles away).
Joshua Tree was officially named by Mormon settlers in the mid-1800s. When they decided to settle there, they named the area after the unique trees, which biblically resembled Joshua’s fingers reaching toward the sky.
- Long before the Mormons, Joshua Tree was inhabited by Native Americans starting with the Pinto Culture and followed by the Serrano, the Chemehuevi, and the Cahuilla.
- The park is a rock climber’s heaven. There are thousands of established climbing routes made for all levels of difficulty. Don’t feel like rock climbing? Go rock scrambling instead!
- In the daytime, you might see tortoises, birds, lizards, and ground squirrels. At night, you might bear witness to snakes, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, and even coyotes. (You can definitely hear the coyotes howling during the night!)
- Joshua Tree National Park is also popular for astronomy and stargazing. Why? Well its dark skies, free from Southern California’s light pollution, allow visitors to see the night sky clearly.
THINGS TO DO IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
See the Joshua Trees
If you’re heading to Joshua Tree National Park, there’s a pretty good chance you’re wondering where to see Joshua trees. These trees are so different from any other type of plant or tree, it will surely be a delight for you to witness. Well, you’re in luck when you come to Joshua Tree, they’re literally everywhere in the Northern portion of the park! They’ll span for miles and miles, so be sure to take some time to stop at one of the many pull-offs on the side of the road to appreciate their beauty and snap some photos.
Since Joshua Tree National Park actually is a meeting point for two deserts—the Mojave and the Colorado Desert— they really only exist on the higher elevation Mojave side. The lower elevation of the Colorado Desert means that Joshua Trees don’t grow in this part of the park.
This iconic rock looks like a giant skull when looking at it from an angle. Great photo op! Skull rock is easily accessible just off the side of the road. It is also conveniently situated close to the Jumbo Rocks area, where you can hiking go for a longer hike.
Jumbo Rocks Campground Area
A great campground option that houses the jumbo-est of rocks! Because of the towering rock formations, you can actually find some shade if you need a break from the beaming sun. If you’re coming from Skull Rock, you can hop out of the car here and take a longer stroll around the Jumbo Rocks area. Make sure to admire these geological wonders and explore the cracks and crevices between the boulders!
Hidden Valley is another must-see stop when you visit Joshua Tree National Park. Legend has it that the Hidden Valley area was used as a hideout for cattle rustlers (cow stealers) back in the day. You’ll easily see why when you begin exploring the area—tons of corners and hideout spots! If you’re looking to do one or two short hikes in the park, Hidden Valley should be on that list. Its 1-mile loop trail is short but jam-packed with sights to see, including a wide variety of plant and animal species. The trail is flat and can be completed in 30 minutes, making it accessible to visitors of all ages.
Hidden Valley is also a must-do if you love bouldering, climbing, or rock scrambling. There are tons of rock piles to climb on, perfect for all levels. The best part– you can easily forge your own path without getting stuck anywhere.
Cholla Cactus Garden
This spot is a bit further from the rest of the popular landmarks in the park, but it’s totally worth the drive. It took me until my third trip to Joshua Tree NP to visit the garden, and boy was I missing out! The extraordinary Cholla Cactus Garden is a 0.3-mile garden trail that features 10 acres of Cholla cacti. Be careful to stay on the path and avoid brushing up against these cuties though– they’re not nicknamed “jumping cactus” for nothing! The needles may easily break off and attach to your skin or clothes, so watch yourselves and your children!
Hike to Arch Rock
Arch Rock is another must-see landmark. Just a short 0.5-mile hike from White Tank Campground, this natural rock formation is reminiscent of what you’ll find at Arches National Park in Utah. Along the hike, you’ll find educational signs about how these rocks formed. Once you’ve reached the rock, you can go right up to it for the perfect photo op. Be sure to wear appropriate footwear with decent traction.
Baker Dam Historic Reservoir
This is a short 1.5-mile loop hike that leads to the Baker Dam Historic Reservoir. This dam was constructed by early cattlemen in the 1900s and continues to provide valuable resources for wild birds and bighorn sheep. Along the loop, Native American petroglyphs can be seen on several spur trails. The trail will take you through tall boulders until you emerge at a small pond teeming with wildlife.
Hall of Horrors
The Hall of Horrors is a surprisingly pleasant place despite its name. This is a 0.6 mile heavily trafficked loop trail that features beautiful wildflowers and is good for all skill levels. The area gets its name from the “halls” formed by the giant boulders next to each other. You can circumvent around the boulders for a longer walk, or take the paths formed between boulders. It’s very fun to climb up the walls and attempt to get out the other end!
Ryan Mountain is a good option for visitors who like more strenuous hikes. It is a tough 3-mile out-and-back hike. The first 1.5 miles is an uphill climb until you reach the top of Ryan Mountain, the second-highest peak in Joshua Tree. Ryan Mountain makes for a great sunset hike.
Keys View is the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park. This is an epic place to soak in the panoramic views of the Joshua Tree area. It’s absolutely breathtaking up there. On a clear day, you can see Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, and even Signal Mountain in Mexico! For even more views, take the 1.2-mile Inspiration Peak Trail from the Keys View Lookout Point.
This is also a great place to view the sunset. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before the actual sunset time. Desert sunsets are a must-see, so I recommend winding down your day and relaxing here with great views and a dinner picnic.
Stargaze in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is famous for its dark skies that lend to great stargazing and viewing the Milky Way. Stargazing is a lot easier when you’re camping at one of the park’s campgrounds, but is doable even for day-trippers. Stick around past sunset to see the stars come out, or come back to the park after you grab dinner. Bring some blankets with you in order to stay warm while you sit atop your car for stargazing.
Local tip: Joshua Tree is the ideal place to watch the annual Perseid meteor showers in August.
Take a Longer Hike
Joshua Tree can easily be experienced in the car, but if you love long hikes as I do and you’d like to get a longer hike in, there are some great options in the Joshua Tree National Park area.
- Ryan Mountain – 3 miles round trip. Centrally located in the park, great for panoramic views.
- Warren Peak – 5.5 miles round trip. Located on the west side of the park. Excellent views of the San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains.
- Fortynine Palms Oasis – 3 miles round trip. This unique hike will take you into a palm tree oasis where you can enjoy lunch (and maybe a nap) among towering palm trees.
WHERE TO STAY NEAR JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
There are no lodging accommodations within the park so if you don’t want to camp, you’ll have to stay in the surrounding communities.
- Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, 29 Palms: offers budget accommodation options, closer to the park.
- Palm Springs, Palm Desert: offers a wider range of accommodations including boutique and luxury options, slightly farther away from the park entrances.
Joshua Tree National Park has eight campgrounds located inside the park– Black Rock Campground, Cottonwood Campground, Indian Cove Campground, Jumbo Rocks Campground, Sheep Pass Campground, Belle Campground, Hidden Valley Campground, and White Tank Campground. Many of the campgrounds are first-come-first-served, but reservations are required for others during September-May.
If you’re planning to visit during the spring or fall, be sure to make reservations early enough through Recreation.gov. Read more about camping here.
WHERE TO EAT NEAR JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Natural Sisters Cafe: This cafe is situated near the West Entrance of the park, so it’s a great place to pick up breakfast and picnic items. They offer outstanding breakfast wraps, muffins, and scrambles. They also have great coffee and flavorful lattes. The veggie wrap is top-notch, even for non-vegetarians!
Crossroads Cafe: Crossroads Cafe is a diner-style restaurant that serves up delicious food with a Latin twist for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s normally a wait, but it’s so worth it! Get there early to avoid the lines. Make sure to try their cookies – they’re to die for.
Joshua Tree Coffee Company: This is a great spot for a delightful cup of locally brewed organic coffee. The cold brew is mellow and nutty and not acidic or bitter at all. They also sell coffee bags so you can enjoy at home or gift to your family/friends.
2 Guys Pies Brick Oven Pizza: Excellent hand-tossed, brick oven pizza. If you’ve been hiking or climbing all day, you’ll be in heaven. It’s a pretty small joint, so get there early or prepare to wait a few minutes for a table.
Pappy and Harriet’s: Pappy & Harriet’s has such a fun, rustic atmosphere and serves up a delicious menu of BBQ eats. If you’re in town for a few days, make sure to stop by here for their unique, one-of-a-kind music experiences. There is usually live music, occasional dancing, and always super friendly service.