The Complete Visitor’s Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
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Joshua tree national park, famous for its desert landscapes and named after the prevalent Joshua trees in the park, is a great destination for hiking in the desert. With its stunning daytime views and spectacular nighttime stargazing, it’s no surprise that nearly 3 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park every year. Made up of two separate deserts – the Colorado and Mojave – Joshua Tree provides miles of gorgeous hikes and world class rock climbing.

In order to make the most of your trip, you’ll want to do some prior planning to ensure you get to do everything you want to do while you’re there. Read on for how to get there, where to stay, what to bring, and what to do in order to create an experience you’ll never forget!

History

The human history of what’s now known as Joshua Tree national park began around 5000-7000 years ago with the Pinto people. They’re assumed to be hunter gatherers by the stone tools and spearheads found in the Pinto basin where they resided. While incredibly hot and arid today, the Pinto Basin had a wet climate and a lazy river that passed through back then.

Nomadic groups of Native Americans – namely the Serrano, Cahuilla and Chemehuevi – would later inhabit this area due to seasonally available harvests of nuts, beans, and cactus fruits.

Many years later in the 1800’s, cattlemen, miners, and explorers came to the region in search of gold. There are an estimated 300 gold mines in the area, some of which you can explore the remains of today.

From 1863 to 1936 (at which point it became a national monument), US citizens could move west and claim 160 acres as their own as long as they could prove to the government that they built a cabin and outhouse on their land. Many of these homesteaders didn’t survive the test of time as the climate was extremely hot and dry, which made growing and harvesting crops difficult if not impossible.

There were a few families, such as the Keys, who not only survived but prospered in this region during their time and you can take a guided tour of their ranch to this day. Many others, however, didn’t survive and in many places in Joshua Tree are littered with these abandoned and decrepit homesteads.

Some homesteads here have been preserved and you can even stay at one of these historical sites for your trip to Joshua Tree.

In the 1930’s, a southern California member of high society and lover of desert plants, Minerva Hoyt decided federal protection was the best way to preserve the natural desert beauty. She was introduced to then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and armed with reports from the best biologist and desert ecologists, convinced him Joshua Tree was worth preserving.

On August 10th, 1936, Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation naming 825,000 acres in the Joshua Tree region a national monument.

The region remained designated as a national monument for the next 58 years, until 1994, when the US congress passed the California Desert Protection Act and named Joshua Tree a national park.

Rocky Landscape in Joshua Tree NP

Key Facts About Joshua Tree National Park

Size: 800,000 acres (3237.5 square kilometers)

Number of visitors: 2.98 million in 2019.

Established on: August 10th, 1936 (national monument). October 31st, 1994 as a national park.

Length of hiking trails: 191 miles (307km).

Highest point: Quail Mountain, elevation 5816 ft (1773m).

Lowest point: Pinto Wells, elevation 934 ft (285m).

Other interesting facts about Joshua Tree National Park

  • Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) aren’t actually trees, they’re a type of succulent.
  • The exact origin of how “Joshua trees” got their name is unclear, but the best guess is the term was coined by Mormon settlers in the mid 1800’s. They thought the limbs of the trees looked like the outstretched arms of the biblical figure Joshua leading them to the promised land, and the name stuck.
  • The average age of the Joshua trees range from 150 to 200 years old.
  • In 1987, U2 released their album The Joshua Tree and put a picture of a Joshua tree on the album cover, but it’s a common misconception that the photo was taken inside the national park. It was actually taken over 200 miles away from the national park in Darwin, California.
  • Joshua Tree is the second largest national park in California, second to Death Valley.
  • Joshua Tree is inhabited by 57 types of mammal species, ranging from mountain lions and bobcats to gophers, squirrels, and mice.
  • Pinto gneiss is the oldest type of rock in the park, dated at over 1.7 billion years old.
  • The park is home to six different mountain ranges: the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the cottonwoods, Hexie, Pinto mountains, the Eagle, and the Coxcomb mountains.
  • The park is claimed to be one of the best spots in California for stargazing and astronomy studies due to its low light pollution.
  • The Joshua Tree is protected by law, so don’t do anything to damage the trees (always follow hiking etiquettes and leave no trace.
  • The Joshua Tree and the yucca moth have a codependent and symbiotic relationship. The yucca moth is the only insect that can stand the scent of the tree’s blooms and relies on the joshua trees as a place to lay their eggs. In return, the moth pollinates the trees.

Joshua Tree National Park is famous for Stargazing

Climate and Weather

Joshua Tree national park consists of parts of two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado – so it should come as no surprise that the overall climate here is a subtropical desert. The sun shines all year round with usually mild winters and extremely hot summers.

Because the Colorado Desert part of the park sits at a lower elevation than the Mojave part, the average temperature is 11 degrees lower.

As with any desert climate, the temperature at night will be (sometimes significantly) lower than during the day, but during most seasons (except in the winter) night time is still a comfortable temperature.

Because it’s a subtropical desert, year round precipitation is low – averaging less than 10 inches (25.4cm) of rain per year. Storms that come from the Pacific coast of California bring warm air over land into the cool, dry air of the San Bernardino mountain range, which cools and condenses the air, allowing for precipitation to occur before it crosses over the mountains and into Joshua Tree. This makes for an extremely dry climate all year round.

In late August and early September, however, tropical storms approach Southern California from the south and with no mountain range to facilitate rainfall, they may reach Joshua Tree and can drop a considerable amount of rainfall in just a few hours. The US national park service says these storms can bring up to 10 inches of rain, accounting for most of the yearly rainfall, in just a few hours. These massive rainfalls combined with the geography of the park can result in dangerous, although rare, flash floods.

Summer (June-September)

Although there are less tourists during the summer, it’s not recommended to go during this time because of how hot it gets during the day. During these months, daytime temperatures regularly reach over 100 degrees fahrenheit (38°C) and drop to a still-pretty-warm 75 degrees F (24°C). The highest air temperature recorded in the park was 118F (48°C) and ground temperatures have been recorded as high as 180°F, both of which happened during the month of July.

Fall (October-November)

Fall is considered one of the best times of the year to visit the park. Daytime temperatures average 85°F (30°C) and dip into the 50’s at night (~13°C).

Winter (December-February)

Daytime temperatures in the winter are usually around 60°F (15.5°C) but drop considerably at night. At night, temperatures can drop below freezing, which is much more likely on the Mojave side of the park due to its higher elevation. Although rare, it will occasionally snow in the mountains of Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree National Park in Winter

Spring (March-May)

Spring is the other best season of the year to visit Joshua Tree. Not only are the temperatures similar to those in the fall – 85°F during the day – it’s when the wildflowers bloom. At lower temperatures, the bloom typically occurs starting at the end of February whereas in higher temperatures they bloom in March and April.

When To Visit Joshua Tree

The best times to visit Joshua Tree are in the spring and the fall simply due to the much more bearable daytime temperatures. This of course means that’s the most popular time of the year for other tourists to visit, so it’s recommended to make reservations (for accommodation and especially the campsites that take and/or require reservations) well in advance. This is especially prudent advice if you plan on visiting during the spring, as many tourists flock to the area to see the beautiful wildflower blooms.

Although not part of the park, Coachella music festival brings hordes of people to Southern California every year in April, and it’s not uncommon for festival goers to make a stop at Joshua Tree while they’re in the area. In May, the biannual Joshua Tree Music Festival will bring many tourists for a weekend. If you’re looking to avoid crowds, it’s best to avoid these weekends. Of course, if a music festival sounds like fun to you, you can go during that weekend, too. (The second of the biannual Joshua Tree Music Festival is in October.)

Although the park is open year round, due to the brutal heat in the summer, certain campsites, trails, and attractions are closed. So if you are entertaining the idea of going during the summer, double check that the things you’re planning on doing are still open during your trip.

Brown Rabbit in the California Desert

Recommended Gear

Because of the [mostly] year round hot and dry climate, most of the stuff we recommend is to protect yourself from the heat and the sun.

Water. It’s recommended to take 1 gallon (4.5 liters) of water per person per day while in Joshua Tree national park, and twice that if you plan on going hiking or rock climbing. This is viewed as an absolute minimum, as running out of water in this hot climate with almost no chance of being able to collect water can prove fatal.

Only some campsites here have running water, so if you plan on staying overnight, you’ll need to bring extra water for hygiene and cooking, as you won’t be able to get any from most of the campsites. (Cottonwood, Blackrock, and Indian Cove are the only three campsites with running water.)

Sun protection. A hat, preferably with a 360 degree brim, will help protect your face and neck from the sweltering midday sun. Sunscreen is an absolute must to prevent the Southern California sun from burning any exposed skin. Some people even opt to wear long sleeved shirts made from lightweight, breathable fabric to prevent sunburns while staying cool. You will want a pair of sunglasses, as well.

Closed toe shoes, at the very least. Hiking boots if you plan on doing a more strenuous hike. Closed toe shoes may offer protection from some of the dangerous wildlife in the park, including rattlesnakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders.

A map and compass. If you plan on doing any hiking or mountain biking in the park, it’s best to take a map with you. You might be able to use your phone, but in most of the park you will not be able to get cell service.

If you plan on rock climbing…

You’ll need to bring your own gear. There are two stores in the town of Joshua Tree that will rent out equipment for bouldering (crash pads, climbing shoes, and chalk) but, for liability reasons, will not rent harnesses or ropes for traditional climbing. The two stores are Nomad Ventures and Joshua Tree Outfitters.

If you plan on doing multi-day hikes, check out our backpacking checklist.

If you plan on camping…

You will need to bring EVERYTHING you will need, as there are no stores within the park to stock up. (There are, however, stores just outside the park.) This may include a propane stove, as not all campsites have designated fire pits or grills. Click here to see the national park service’s full campsite regulations.

Keep in mind that temperatures drop as the sun goes down, so bringing warm clothing that you can layer is a good idea.

Daytime Scenery in the Desert

What To Do In Joshua Tree

Hiking in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree offers 191 miles (307km) of hiking trails with something to offer from a beginner to the most seasoned hiker, each with their own unique appeal.

Easy hiking trails include:

Rattlesnake Canyon – this is a 2.8 mile (4.5km) out-and-back hike with just under 400ft (121m) of elevation gain. This hike is home to a polished granite slot canyon where you can find desert tortoises in the spring and fall, several small waterfalls and tinajas after a rainstorm, and plenty of rock formations – often with rock climbers on them.

Crestview Trail – this is a 2.9 (4.6) mile out-and-back hike with under 200ft (61m) of elevation gain. The dirt road to the trailhead is bumpy, but reachable even with a 2WD car. Once on the trail, you’ll see the remains of the once the largest Joshua tree in the entire national park (which stood over 35ft (10.6m) tall before it died). At the end of the trail, you’ll find astounding views of Coachella Valley and Mt. San Jacinto.

49 Palms Oasis – a 3.1 mile (5km) out-and-back hike with just over 600ft (183m) elevation gain that will lead you to one of five oasis’ in the whole national park. Once at the oasis, you’ll find over 50 California palm fans and pools of water. While you’re not allowed to go directly into the oasis, you can get close. Because of the watering holes, this makes for a fantastic dusk hike when you can find animals and birds being more active than you would see during the day.

Pine City Trail – this 4.1 mile (6.6km) out-and-back with under 200ft (61m) elevation gain is a gem thanks to its microclimate that makes it populated with pine and juniper trees. Once at pine city, you’ll find two hidden (and blocked off) mine shafts and a garden-like landscape perfect for lounging around. Or you have multiple options to continue exploring the area, including the trailhead to Desert Queen Mine – one of the most successful mines in Joshua Tree that ran up until the 1960’s.

Moderate level hikes include:

Willow Springs Trail – This is a 6.8 mile (10.9km) out-and-back hike with only a 250ft (76.2m) elevation gain. The willow springs trail is one of the easiest ways to The Wonderland of Rocks where you’ll find massive granite boulders, Joshua Trees, pools of water, and canyons. This is one of the best places in the park for rock climbing and you will find trail spurs that lead to climbing routes.

Lost Horse Mine Trail – This is a 6.8 mile (10.9km) loop with just under 900ft (274m) of elevation gain that will take you to the most successful gold mining operation of the entire park. Although the vegetation at the beginning of the trail is plentiful, you will notice a stark lack of trees once you start nearing the mill, as the surrounding trees were used for firewood during its mining operation days. Once you arrive at the mine, however, you will find one of the best preserved ten stamp mills in the entire national park.

Lost Palms Oasis Trail – This 7.2 mile (11.5km) out-and-back with just over 1000ft (305m) of elevation gain doesn’t have any Joshua trees, but boasts one of the largest collections of California Palms in a single area – containing over 100 at the site. The terrain, which includes water available to the local wildlife, makes for some of the best wildlife spotting in the whole park. You can extend this hike by heading south to Victory palms – another oasis, or connect to Mastodon Peak Loop Trail for views of San Jacinto mountains, San Bernardino mountains, and the Salton Sea.

Ryan Mountain – This is a 3 mile (4.8km) out-and-back hike with over 1000ft (305m) of elevation gain that leads to some of the most stunning views in the park. The trail is well kept and even has stairs during some of the steeper portions towards the top. Because of this, it’s a very popular hike, so be sure to arrive early and beat the crowds.

More difficult hikes include:

Carey’s Castle – This 7.5 mile (12km) out-and-back hike with just under 1300ft (396m) of elevation gain will lead you to a hidden home between two rocks (aka, Carey’s Castle) IF you can find it. (There are detailed routes with coordinates on the internet you can find to help you get there.)

A hike through a confusing labyrinth of canyons will lead you to Carey’s Castle – a preserved historic site that will give you a small glimpse of what mining life was like during the 1930’s in Joshua Tree.

Quail Mountain – While there is no official route to make it up to the summit, it can be reached by a 12.8 mile (loop with just under a 1700ft elevation gain starting from the Juniper Flats Backcountry Board. Ask a park ranger for a suggested route or do some internet sleuthing to find your own, because the stunning views from the tallest point in the entire park are worth it. From the summit you’ll catch amazing 360-degree views of Joshua Tree, the Salton Sea, Coachella Valley, Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio.

Stubbe Springs Loop – This 12.8 mile (20.5km) loop with just over 1100ft (335m) of elevation gain boasts both varied terrain and a wide variety of vegetation, including grasses, willows, cacti, junipers, and of course, Joshua trees.

With over 191 miles (307km) of trails, Joshua Tree national park offers hiking for everybody of all levels of fitness with a wide range of terrain, views, and vegetation.

Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park

Rock climbing in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree offers rock climbing so outstanding some of the best climbers from all over the world come here to climb. There are literally thousands of climbing routes to conquer all over the park. Due to its sheer size, it’s a good idea to either do extensive research beforehand so you can find spots suitable to your skill level, or hire a guide even if you’re experienced.

Joshua Tree national park isn’t ideal for a beginner, but if you’ve dipped your toes into bouldering before, you can rent crash pads and check out some of the spots with your group. Of course, your safety is in your own hands, so err on the side of caution and hire a guide if you’re uncertain. If you’re a beginner and want to make the most of your time bouldering, it’s worth hiring a guide as they’ll have all the inside knowledge of the spots and can offer you tips on climbing the best routes.

The Miramontes Bouldering Guide Book, which can be bought at Nomad Ventures is a resource you’ll find to be very helpful. Or go to Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School and get lessons or hire a guide.

Some notable beginner bouldering options are:

Trashcan Rock – This rock has bouldering routes rated from V0-V5.

Pothole Boulder – Located near the Hidden Valley Campground, this has V0-V4 rated routes.

Hobbit Hole Boulder – Also located near the Hidden Valley Campground, this has beginner routes rated from easy all the way up to V6.

If you’re more experienced and want to do some traditional or top rope climbing, there are tons of places for you to climb. Literally thousands of climbing routes all over the park.

If you’re unfamiliar with the area and would like a bit of help from expert guides, Joshua Tree Uprising or Mojave Guides are good places to look into.

Because the local climbing community is focused on keeping Joshua Tree as true-to-nature as nature intended, they focus on traditional climbing and bouldering and less on bolted routes. That said, if you know where to look, you can find bolted routes, although you may find spots with chopped or worn out anchors.

Some of the more popular spots for sport climbing are:

Indian Cove – which has 123 bolted sport routes and 42 top rope routes.

Echo Rock Area – which has 68 bolted sport routes and 41 top rope routes.

Sheep Pass Area – with 51 bolted sport routes and 53 top rope routes.

Joshua Tree is a paradise for Bouldering

Camping in Joshua Tree

With stunning scenery, beautiful weather, and incredible star gazing, it’s no surprise that Joshua Tree National Park is a popular camping destination. This popularity, especially in recent years, means you’ll want to do some research beforehand to ensure you can get a campsite. For some campsites, this means making prior reservations and for campsites that don’t take reservations, you arrive at the right time (hint: at the beginning of the week) to optimize your chances of getting one.

Some campsites come with certain pros (like running water, which is rare) or flush toilets (which are also rare) compared to pit toilets. Some sites take reservations, which can be made here up to 6 months in advance. Most campsites range from $15 to $25 per night. In order to maintain the beauty of Joshua Tree, all sites are “pack in, pack out, means everything you bring with you, you have to take with you again.”

The links below will take you to the National Park Service website and you can get a thorough idea of which amenities are offered at each site.

Some of the more popular campsites that require reservations are:

For “first come, first served” campsites, the following list is comprised of some of the more popular sites. Of course, the “first come, first served” means you’ll want to get there at the right time in order to secure yourself a spot. These sites are usually full by Friday afternoon, and almost certainly full on the weekends. They’re also likely to be full on holidays and during the busy season from February to May.

If you arrive at one of these sites and there is an open site, you can self-pay at the kiosk with either cash or check ONLY. Payment must be made within 1 hour of claiming your site. If the sites are full, you’ll have to find another option.

Something important to make note of, if you can’t find a campground, staying in your vehicle overnight on the side of the road or at a roadside pull-off is not allowed and you are subject to a citation by a park ranger if you are found doing so. If you can’t find an open site on one of the campsites within the park, this is a list of campsites near (but outside the confines of the national park) Joshua Tree.

If you’re coming from out of the area (ie, taking a flight to Los Angeles) and don’t want to pack all of your camping gear, you can rent from Joshua Tree Outfitters. You can view their rental rates here.

Camping under the night sky

How To Get To Joshua Tree National Park

If you’re out of the area and will need to take a flight to arrive in California, Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) is the closest airport, at about 50 miles east of the park. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the second closest, at about 150 miles east. Car rentals are available at both airports, which you’ll need in order to get to the park as public transportation to the park is extremely limited.

From the Palm Springs airport, you can take interstate 10 or California highway 62 (also known as Twentynine palms highway).

There are only three park entrances. Located 5 miles south of where Highway 62 meets Park Boulevard at Joshua Tree Village is the west entrance. Also located near highway 62 is the north entrance. There is one park entrance at the south (the south entrance) which is near Cottonwood Spring along Interstate 10.

Entrance into the park will cost you $30 per vehicle and is valid for 7 days from the day you buy it. (Alternatively, an annual pass to Joshua Tree National Park can be bought for $55 and is valid for a year.) Each entrance offers these passes and takes cash or credit card. You can, however, buy these passes online here and bypass the long line of cars you will often find at the park entrances.

Once you are in the park, it’s worth buying a map (or downloading one here) instead of relying on google maps, which may route you onto backcountry roads which are impassable by your vehicle, especially if you only have a 2 wheel drive vehicle. Off roading in vehicles is prohibited in the park, so be sure to stay on the designated roads.

Desert Landscape in Joshua Tree National Park

Where To Stay In Joshua Tree

For staying inside the park, camping or staying in an RV are your only options. RV’s are often limited to 25ft in length and not all RV spots (which are often inside campgrounds) have running water or electricity hook ups, and in some campgrounds, running a generator is prohibited.

There are 9 total campgrounds that offer just under 500 campsites throughout the park. Check the section above for campground logistics, availability, and amenities.

If you’re looking for something a bit more luxurious than a tent, there are numerous hotels and motels around the park. There are also “glamping” (glamorous camping) sites situated in the areas surrounding the park. Most of them are located along Interstate 10 and Highway 62.

For a more historical experience, you can stay at some of the original homesteads that were built in the times of early settlers. Most have been restored to some degree while keeping its original appeal as much as possible. These can be found on airbnb, such as these examples here and here.

Once you experience the stunning desert beauty in Joshua Tree National Park, it’s easy to see why this is such a sought after tourist destination. Without the right planning, you may find yourself wishing you made better decisions before you even step foot in the park. With the right planning, however, you can create a trip you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

For up-to-date warnings and closures in the park, check the National Park Services website.

 

 


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