Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most beautiful natural wonders of Southern California. From unique rock formations to the iconic Joshua trees, nature’s surrealism is on full display in this park. It is the perfect getaway for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
Located just a few hours’ drive from several major cities (Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas), Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect winter road trip destination.
There are three main entrances – the West Entrance, the North Entrance, and the South Entrance. The West entrance is the most popular and is located off Highway 62. We stayed in the south and it took us about an hour to drive through the park to the north entrance.
Start at a Visitor Center
Every time we visit a national park, we always start at the visitor center. The rangers are always so helpful and can provide you with any timely issues such as weather alerts or construction around the park. Most visitor centers also have an informational video and a gift shop. We like to collect hiking medallions as a souvenir.
Luckily, Joshua Tree National Park has three visitor centers to choose from located in proximity to the various entrances. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is located outside the park in downtown Twentynine Palms. The Cottonwood Visitor Center is located near the park’s southern entrance on Pinto Basin Road. The Black Rock Nature Center is a smaller visitor center located in the Black Rock campground in Yucca Valley.
Things to Do
Joshua Tree National Park has a lot to offer. There are several hiking trails for all levels, including the Hidden Valley Trail, which is perfect for beginners. Rock climbing is also a popular activity, and the park offers lessons and guided tours. Stargazing is another must-do activity with clear skies and minimal light pollution. The park offers several ranger-led programs that cater to all ages. You can also take a scenic drive through the park or bike along the roads.
Joshua Tree National Park spans over 790,000 acres, offering visitors a unique mix of desert landscapes, towering rock formations, and stunning vistas. One of the best ways to explore it is by taking one (or more) of the scenic routes through the park.
Park Boulevard – This 18-mile scenic loop road takes you through some of the park’s most iconic areas, including Cap Rock, Hidden Valley, Ryan Mountain, and Skull Rock. The route also offers breathtaking views of the park’s famous Joshua trees. Along the way, there are several pullouts where you can stop and take in the stunning scenery. And of course, you can always stop at the numerous trailheads to enjoy a hike or nature walk to stretch your legs and enjoy the views up close and personal.
You can begin this drive from the north entrance (near Twentynine Palms) or west entrance (near the town of Joshua Tree), and then exit from the other so that the trip both starts and ends from Highway 62 on the north side of the park. If you’d like to begin or end at the southern entrance merely add Pinto Basin Road (see below).
Pinto Basin Road – This road takes you through the heart of the park and offers some of the most dramatic landscapes. The drive takes you through the park’s southern section and more of the lower elevation Colorado Desert, which is known for its rugged mountain scenery, colorful rock formations, and wide-open spaces. Major points of interest include the Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood Spring.
Hiking and Nature Walks
There are numerous hiking and nature walk trails throughout the park for visitors of all abilities. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed on any of the trails.
Arch Rock – This incredible stone arch is a must-visit spot for all tourists who visit the park. You can choose to hike the peaceful 1/2-mile nature trail to reach Arch Rock, but keep in mind that it will be crowded during peak season and has no shade. The arch is an excellent photo opportunity, and you’ll want to capture the memory of you standing in front of it. The Arch Rock Trailhead is in the Twin Tanks Parking Lot.
Barker Dam – This is an easy 1.3-mile loop trail with relatively no elevation gain. Along the way, you’ll come across the historical Barker Dam, which was originally used for cattle and mining operations in the early 1900s. With plenty of wildlife like bighorn sheep and birds in the area, it’s an ideal spot for some up-close wildlife sightings. The dam is surrounded by the granite rock scenery, which creates a perfect backdrop for your photos.
Cholla Cactus Garden – Located along the Pinto Basin Road near the transition zone between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts, this is an easy nature walk at just under 1/4 mile. The Cholla Cactus Garden is a unique and beautiful experience that Joshua Tree National Park has to offer. It may not offer the panoramic views of the other spots on our list, but it is still a fantastic experience that you do not want to miss. Located in the northern part of the park, the Cholla Cactus Garden offers visitors a chance to explore this unique part of the desert. Here, you’ll find an endless sea of cacti that looks incredibly surreal.
Lost Horse Mine Trail – The Lost Horse Mine Trail is a 4-mile roundtrip hike that concludes with a tour of a historic mining site. This moderate hike involves some uphill and downhill treks, but the panoramic views are worth it.
Ryan Mountain – Ryan Mountain is an extremely popular choice when it comes to hiking trails in Joshua Tree. With its 3-mile loop trail, you’ll be presented with a challenging ascent that takes you to the highest point in the park, at an elevation of 5,456 feet. The steep climb may be tough, but once you reach the summit, you will be rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding desert. Keep an eye out for the nearby peaks like San Jacinto and Santa Rosa, as they are simply breathtaking. The trailhead for Ryan Mountain is located along Park Boulevard between Ryan Campground and Sheep Pass Campground.
Skull Rock – If you’re short on time or don’t want to embark on a strenuous hike, the Skull Rock Nature Trail is ideal. This simple 1.7-mile loop trail is perfect for photographers as it leads to distinctive rock formations.
Boasting some of the darkest nights in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park, an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), offers many visitors the chance to admire the Milky Way for the first time in their lives. There are four designated stargazing areas: Quail Springs, Hidden Valley, Cap Rock, and Ryan Mountain parking lots. You can also park at any of the park’s roadside pullouts. Just follow the park’s rule of staying within 20 feet (6 meters) of your vehicle. The Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood has the least traffic and darkest skies.
Where to Stay
There are several options for lodging around the park, including hotels, motels, and vacation rentals. We are partial to the Hilton Family of hotels (Hilton, Hampton Inn, Double Tree, etc.) and there are several on the southern end of Joshua Tree off Interstate 10.
Camping in the Park
There are over 500 campsites in the park, but most are available by reservation only:
- Blackrock Campground: Located in the northwest corner of the park close to Yucca City, this campground has 99 sites (34 sites can accommodate RVs and 20 sites are in the horse camp). The campsites vary in length, with a maximum RV length of 35′. Water, flush toilets, and a dump station are also found onsite. One of the best features of the Blackrock campground is the nature center.
- Cottonwood Campground: Located in the southeast part of the park, this campground has 62 sites (53 can accommodate RVs). The closest town of Indio is about 30 miles away. Water, flush toilets, and a dump station are also found onsite.
- Indian Cove Campground: Located off of Highway 62 between Joshua Tree Village and Twentynine Palms, this campground has 101 sites (27 can accommodate RVs). There are only pit/vault toilets and no water at the campground.
- Jumbo Rocks Campground: This popular campground sits at the base of some impressive rock formations. It has 124 sites (42 can accommodate RVs). There are only pit/vault toilets and no water at the campground.
- Ryan Campground: This campground is centrally located in the park next to the California Riding and Hiking Trail. It has 31 sites including 3 bicycle sites, 4 equestrian sites, and 9 sites that can accommodate RVs. There are only pit/vault toilets and no water at the campground.
Three campgrounds are first-come, first-served:
- Hidden Valley Campground: 44 sites. There are only pit/vault toilets and no water at the campground.
- White Tank Campground: 15 sites. There are only pit/vault toilets and no water at the campground.
- Belle Campground: 18 sites. There are only pit/vault toilets and no water at the campground.
Camping Outside the Park
If you’re looking for a rustic experience, dry camping or boondocking is the way to go. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers dispersed camping areas outside both the north and south entrances to the park. Please note: There are no developed facilities in dispersed camping areas (i.e., restrooms, water, trash collection). We dry camped in Chiraco Summit right behind the Patton Memorial Museum. It’s a campground, with no hookups or other amenities, but does have a camp host. It’s also located at the same exit as a fuel station and convenience store with a restaurant, although we didn’t hear any of the traffic. We discuss the campground and our experiences with boondocking in the video below.
Another option if you’d like full hookups is the Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA.
Best Time to Visit
The park is open year-round, but the peak season is November-April. The summer months (June-August) can be scorching with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you can swing a visit in the shoulder season (October or late April), you’ll still have nice weather, but won’t have to contend with as many crowds. We visited in February and didn’t find the park to be too crowded until the early afternoon.
Important Note on Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
A visit to Joshua Tree National Park is a unique and unforgettable experience, however, it is important to note that there is no food, water, or gasoline available in the park. Be sure you arrive with everything you’ll need whether you’re visiting for the day or camping. And don’t forget to check weather conditions before your visit and be prepared for unexpected changes. Finally, be aware that parking at the popular sites such as Barker Dam, Hidden Valley, and Lost Horse Mine fill up quickly so plan to arrive before 9 am.
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