I have been wanting to go to Joshua Tree National Park for quite a long time. And why not ?? Southern California has long drawn photographers and dreamers giving a passage to all that epic wilderness from city slickery. Multiple times I touched California, got an opportunity to feel the northern and coastal side of it, but somehow southern California eluded me for long. Fast forward to this President’s day 2019 long weekend when I decided to take a trip to Southern California. I combined Joshua Tree National Park and Anza Boreggo state park in one visit and boy oh boy – I was in for a surprise. A landscape so different , flora that I had never seen before , the terrain that literally made me feel straight out of mad max fury movie and above all the remoteness of many of the hikes that gave me alone in the world kind of feeling. It was amaaahhhzing. For many long weekends coming our way , I am sharing Joshua Tree National Park – Travel Guide which I am sure will come handy when you plan your next trip to southern California.
Best Time to visit :
Since you will be visiting a desert , it goes without saying that temperatures might be harsh and extreme.
Best Months : March-Apr, Oct- Nov .
During these months , temperatures will be bearable. Days will not be as long as in summer but you will get your fair share of day light. I felt these months are best to see Joshua National Park with kids specially because you can be in the park any time of the day unlike summer where you would prefer being in your hotel in afternoon to avoid heat.
Worst Months : May – Sep (Unbearably hot), Dec- Feb ( Too cold and windy)
How to reach :
The best way to get to Joshua Tree National Park is by car. Park entrances and park roads are not easily served by mass transit. If you are planning to visit this park and not residing in California , you might end up taking a flight to a nearby airport. Here are estimates of driving time from common locations:
Palm Springs : 1.5 hours
Los Angeles or San Diego: 3 hours
Las Vegas: 4 hours
Phoenix: 4½ hours
San Francisco: 8 hours
The main park roads are paved and regularly patrolled by park rangers , so standard two-wheel-drive will work just fine and in case you do get stuck , park rangers will be able to help. ATVs cannot be used anywhere in the park. There are no gas stations or automotive services in the park , so be sure to fill up with gas before you enter the park. Mobile phone service is virtually nonexistent in the park.
Note : Keep in mind your route to park will be dependent on which entrance you chose to enter the park. There are 5 entrances – four of them reachable from State Highway 62 and one reached from Interstate 10.
Where to stay :
Campgrounds: There are over 300 campsites in Joshua Tree and they all are first-come, first-served specially in summer months. They usually fill on weekends specially from mid-February to mid-May , so plan ahead. There is no running water or electricity in the campsites – so you need to bring everything you need. There is no lodging available within Joshua Tree National Park. However, there are many places to stay in nearby towns. You can find detailed information about campgrounds here.
Hotels and AirBnBs :
If camping is not your thing , there are a lot of AirBnB options in the town of Joshua. I will highly suggest to stay local as you will be able to explore the park even late at night and get back to your cozy bed in no time. There are no big luxury hotels in the nearby towns , however there are some really funky , bohemian-feel houses that you can enjoy with a true desert spirit – thanks to airbnb. Most of houses will have a nice fire pit , a hammock and an awesome outdoor space to enjoy a night below the stars.
Things to Do :
1) Hiking :
Besides checking out the Joshua trees, hiking is one of the must-do things in Joshua Tree. There are tons of options for hiking from short nature walks to long treks so there’s something for everyone. Here are few hikes that we did on our trip followed by a complete list of hiking trails along with there duration and desired fitness level.
a) Hidden Valley and Barker Dam Trail :
These two trails are the best way to get you acquainted with the park terrain and a great introduction to park landscape. Both trails are good for all skill levels. Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a 1 mile moderately trafficked loop trail that features beautiful wild flowers and takes you through a valley that is primarily enclosed from the outside world with towering walls of rocks. Barker Dam trail is perfect if you want to see pictoglyphs and an oasis of water in the middle of desert. it is 1.5 mile trail that is really enjoyed by kids.
b) Arch Rock and Skull Rock :
Joshua National Park has some amazing rock formations that are often climbed by the many rock climbers that visit the park. However, there are a few rocks that are their own attraction based on the way they appear. Two of the most notable ones are Arch Rock and Skull Rock. For skull rock , you will be able to see it right from the parking lot. However you can still continue walking around the nature trail which will take you deep in the boulders giving you a glimpse of their formations. Arch Rock on the other hand was a little tough to find. I think it depends on the entry point for this trail. Easiest way to get to Arch Rock is via White Tank Campground next to site 9 . You will have have to walk for about half a mile in boulders to find the arch rock. But once you find it – its magnificent and best part is that you can easily climb up to it .
c) Lost Palm Oasis trail :
Unlike arch rock , skull rock hikes – which were more like walks rather than hikes , Lost Palm Oasis is whole another ballgame. It is a 7 mile ( out and back) hike , that is difficult strenuous and must not be attempted if you do not have sufficient water and stamina for bearing the sun this long. There is absolutely no shade in the entire hike making it a bit dangerous in summer season.
The hike features the highest concentration of native California Fan Palms in Joshua Tree National Park in form of oasis. There are great views of the nearby peaks, and the Salton Sea. The oasis is a perfect place to try to spot some bighorn sheep and other wildlife in the morning. The trail-head is just past the road to the popular Cottonwood Campground, right near the park’s southern entrance.
d) Ryan Mountain trail :
This trail is one of the most popular and difficult hikes of the park. Don’t let the 3 miles ( in and out)fool you; you will be going directly up the entire time to reach the summit of the
second tallest peak in Joshua Tree National Park , making it really hard. The trail-head is located near the west entrance of the park , near skull rock area. You will easily find the parking area as it is always lined with cars. There is a restroom , right at the start of trail. From here you will start your hike up on the Ryan mountain which is second tallest mountain of the park. For summers , I think my warning goes same as lost palm oasis – carry sufficient water and wear something that provides you some shade from the sun. There are absolutely no trees or shade in the entire trail. Once you reach on the top , you will have 360 degrees view of the park . You will be able to see the park’s landscape from a bird eye view and it looks even prettier at sunset time.
Note : If you have time in your hand , attempt this trail at sunset as I have heard views at sunset are just amahzing and photos come out really nice. Do not forget to carry headlamp, in case you do it at sunset time.
For complete list of hikes with their duration , level of difficulty , distance , trail head location CLICK HERE.
2) Rock Climbing :
Joshua National Park is great for rock climbers of any level. If you have no experience in rock climbing , there are plenty of rock climbing schools that can give you rock climbing lessons.There are several campgrounds spread throughout the park. “Hidden Valley” campground is perhaps the most popular for climbers, as it’s surrounded by plenty of routes only steps away from your tent. The rock here features slabs, faces, cracks, and mixed climbing routes of all shapes and sizes.
3) Sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden:
Chola cactus Garden is the defacto place for a sunset of lifetime. The trail for cholla cactus garden is .2 mile lightly trafficked loop trail that features beautiful chola cactii and is good for all skill levels. If you are going there with kids , make it a point that kids do not touch these fluffy looking cactii as they stick pretty quickly and are quite painful.
4) A quick stop at Keys View Point :
This view-point sits at the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, providing panoramic views of the Coachella Valley. I felt this point was best if visited at sunrise. I learnt it hard way because we arrived there around 3 pm or so , and due to wind and sun rays being vertical in the valley , it was hard to get a clear view of entire valley. It is one of those view points which provide you with a vista over Palm Springs, Salton Sea and on a very clear day you can even see a mountain in Mexico. In afternoon there is considerable haze and it gets tough to capture the beauty of the desert.
5) A stop at the vintage Pioneer-town :
Driving into Pioneer-town feels like entering another world , more like transported in to Old West.. It was built as a film set in the 1940s by Hollywood movie makers and features four-block-long “Mane Street” (as opposed to America’s more usual Main Streets) with spaghetti western-style edifices built at two-thirds scale. Inside this set , you will find a bank, livery, town jail (where you can pose for photos behind bars), and a saloon. I am telling you tons of photo opportunities . If you get hungry , head straight to Pappy + Harriet’s – One of the best restaurants with a history ,awesome BBQ and a great selection of draft beers. I am telling you , you will love it.
6) Stargazing at night :
Joshua Tree is one of the best places for stargazing in the country and why not? Located in the High Desert (3000-5000 ft above sea level) and far from any major cities, ther eis absolutely no light pollution. The East side of the park is best for stargazing. Out East there is very little light pollution from cities, since the closest major city (looking East) is Phoenix, about 300 miles away!
Note : Before you head out to do night photography , on a summer day , I would still suggest to wear high boots to avoid any snake bites ( coz you never know!) and you will want to have a moon-less sky
Are you planning a trip to Joshua National Park anytime sooner ? What activities have you planned , I will love to know? What did you find the most unique about this national park. Do let me know in the comments below. Thank you so much for stopping by.