Joshua Tree: Camping and Hiking Guide
Everything you need to know about visiting Joshua Tree National Park
Have you ever seen the Milky Way so bright it looks like a painter dipped his brush on the moon and smeared it across the sky? Thousands of trees so unique it looks like they may be alien trees from another planet? Huge boulders piled so scatteredly it looks like a giant baby got a hold of them?
Joshua Tree may be in the desert, but it is not flat, boring, or ugly.
Joshua Tree is a paradise for sightseers, stargazers, campers, hikers, and climbers. The Joshua Trees themselves look fascinatingly alien and big mountains of exposed boulders are scattered throughout the valley like piles of toy blocks. There's so much to see, there's abandoned gold rush era mills to find, palm tree oasis' to cool off at, and hidden caves to take naps in.
Joshua Tree is a National Park located in both the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert of Southern California. Joshua Tree was a national monument from 1936 until 1994. In 1994, Joshua Tree was designated as a national park after congress passed the California Desert Protection Act. Joshua Tree was switched from a national monument to a national park for good reason, it really is a gorgeous and special place.
What is a Joshua Tree, anyways? Scientifically known as Yucca brevifolia, Joshua Tree is a member of the Agave family. The Joshua Tree grows primarily in the Mojave Desert. American Indians used the Joshua Tree for baskets and sandals, and also ate the flowers and seeds. In the 19th century, Mormon immigrants found and named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua. The outstretched limbs of the tree reminded them of arms guiding travelers west.
Joshua Trees can live for at least 150 years and can grow as tall as forty feet. Some of them have limbs, some don't. Some droop, some bend, and others twist. People sometimes compare a Joshua Tree to a Truffula out of Dr. Seuss's book, The Lorax. Overall, Joshua Trees are an important part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. They provide shelter for birds, mammals, insects, and lizards.
Why visit Joshua Tree? Seeing pictures of Joshua Tree National Park beforehand don't do the park justice. I got a lot more from visiting Joshua Tree than I expected going in. Go and experience for yourself how beautiful a desert can actually be. There's no shortage of fun at Joshua Tree and I can safely say that you will leave wishing you had more time to see it all.
Planning and Preparing to Visit Joshua Tree
When is the best time to visit Joshua Tree? The seasons with the best weather to visit Joshua Tree from most popular to least are spring, fall, and winter. The winter can be very cold, so bring layers, but winter is still much more accommodating than summer can be. Summer is the least popular season because the desert heat is intense and can even be fatal if you're not prepared. The desert is unforgiving.
Wildflower viewing is popular in the spring. The Joshua Trees bloom beautiful white flowers. March, April, October, and November are the most popular months to visit and have an average high/low of 85°F and 50°F. It's more difficult to secure a campground during these months. We visited in early November and the weather was great.
If you'd like to stay the night at Joshua Tree, you have several options:
Camping and Accomodations
There are nine established campgrounds in the park. If all the campgrounds are full, there is also overflow camping. Black Rock Campground, Indian Cove Campground, and Cottonwood Campground have water and flush toilets.
You can reserve spots at Black Rock Campground and Indian Cove Campground from October through May. Search for Black Rock and/or Indian Cove campgrounds by clicking here. All the other campgrounds are first-come, first-served. We stayed at Hidden Valley Campground and really recommend it, it was gorgeous. More information about camping in Joshua Tree can be found here.
Gear and Weather
Gear you should bring to Joshua Tree depends on the season. Bring layers for winter and shorts and a T-shirt for summer. Bring lots of water and water bottles or a Camelbak. Bring your camping and cooking gear. If you're a rock climber, bring your climbing gear and/or crash pad for bouldering. Don't forget to check the weather before your trip!
How to get to Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is a 3 hour drive from LA, San Diego, or Las Vegas, and 8 hours from San Francisco.
The closest airports to Joshua Tree are Palm Springs International (45 mins) and Ontario International (1 1/2 hours). Las Vegas, LAX, Burbank, Long Beach, and San Diogo Airports are all 2-3 hours away.
When driving to Joshua Tree, plug in the campground's name into your GPS and it'll take you straight there. If you don't have campground reservations and are not sure which campground you're staying at, plug in Hidden Valley Campground and go. Hidden Valley is one of the more beautiful and popular campgrounds, especially with climbers. Hidden Valley Campgrounds are surrounded by large, beautiful boulders and plentiful Joshua Trees.
If you're going on a busy weekend, leave early and plan to get there around the time people usually start waking up, about 7-10am, no later! Drive past people and if it looks like they might be packing up to leave, ask them and confirm they're not staying another night. If they say they're not, ask if you can have their campground. If that for some reasons fails and all the spots are full, you can also ask people with only one car in their parking space whether they're okay with sharing their campground and that you're willing to split the cost of the site with them. You can only have two cars per campsite. If all else fails, just drive to a different campground and repeat. We had about 20 people ask us per day if we can share our campground but we had to turn them away because we were already sharing with someone who had asked us earlier in the day.
Keep in mind the visitor center and city is about a 15-30 minute drive from the campgrounds, so get everything you need in the city before heading to your campground in the actual park. There are no amnesties in the park.
What to do in Joshua Tree
If you don't think there's a lot to do in the desert, guess again. The best things to do at Joshua Tree are:
- Backcountry Driving Roads - Requires high ground clearance 4x4
- Hiking - Check out the 49 Palms Oasis Trail
- Photography - There is an artists in residence program
- Backpacking - 85% of the park is wilderness
- Horseback Riding - Horses can stay at Ryan or Black Rock Campground
- Birding - Over 250 species
- Ranch Tours - Tickets required
- Rock Climbing and Scrambling - Great winter practice area; thousands of named routes
- Mountain Biking - And road biking
- Stargazing - Go during the Night Sky Festival or the Perseid Meteor Shower
- Wildflower Viewing - Joshua Trees bloom in the spring
Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
- Look for rabbits, big horn sheep, and roadrunners
- The coyotes howl very loud at night, don't get scared!
- Do not miss the opportunity to do the 49 Palms Oasis hike
- Take pictures at Arch Rock or Skull Rock
- If you're a climber, take a nap at the Space Station in Hidden Valley
Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Dr.
Twentynine Palms, CA 92277-3597
Back to Reality
It's easy to see why so many people think Joshua Tree is special and why there is a vibrant arts and spirituality community surrounding the park. The scenery really gets your brain juices flowing. The colors and unique plants and and rocks inspire creativeness and imagination.
It's difficult to leave the beauty and head back towards civilization. The concrete jungle that we call home becomes an unnatural disconnection of reality after visiting such a natural place like Joshua Tree. If you really enjoyed your time in the desert at Joshua Tree, consider visiting one of the other similar national parks nearby, like Zion National Park or Grand Canyon National Park.
Joshua Tree Q&A
Question: Hi how long did you stay at Joshua Tree, is one weekend enough to see everything?
Answer: We stayed at Joshua Tree for one weekend. We took the Friday off from work so we got there Friday morning and left Sunday afternoon. We personally felt like one weekend was enough to see a lot of great things at Joshua Tree. If you only have a couple days to spend at Joshua Tree, don't worry, you'll still have lots of fun.