I recently spent a few days escaping the winter by heading south to the desert of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The sun was bright, the desert was warm(ish) during the day and the scenery was spectacular. I spent three nights camping, hiking and exploring with friends, but I wish I had more time there. There are just so many things to see in Joshua Tree! I’ve put together a list of must-do things for you. Think of it as your Joshua Tree Bucketlist. So here you go: 15 awesome things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
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Joshua Tree Basics
Location: Joshua Tree National Park is located in southern California, 2 hours drive east from Los Angeles or 3.5 hours south west of Las Vegas. There is a shuttle system inside the park but it doesn’t go everywhere so I recommend having your own vehicle. (If you have more travel planned in the area, check out this great California Travel Guide or this huge list of 100+ things to do in LA.)
Highlights: Joshua Tree National Park protects a unique desert ecosystem. It has crazy rock formations, cacti and of course the signature Joshua trees. It’s such a remarkable landscape that it’s considered one of the 100 best things to do the in the USA.
Fees: Admission to the park is $25 per vehicle for up to one week. Annual passes are also available.
When to Visit: High season is September to May when temperatures are cooler. If possible, time your visit to avoid weekends and holidays to avoid crowds.
Weather and Climate: The desert is generally warm during the day and MUCH colder at night. Check out the chart below to get a better idea.
Where to Stay: You can camp at one of the park campgrounds or at a private campground outside the park. There are also lots of vacation rentals and hotels just to the north of the park. Need a recommendation on where to stay? Check out my guide to the best places to stay near Joshua Tree. It includes hotels, rental homes, campgrounds and more.
Guide Books and Maps: You can get a free brochure at the visitor centre, but it is pretty sparse on details. There is no cell service in most of the part so it’s hard to look things up on the go. I was really glad I bought a map and guidebook. I used them to plan before the trip and also to choose where to go each day in the park.
The best guidebook is The Complete Guide: Joshua Tree National Park by James Kaiser. It has a great overview on things to do in Joshua Tree, history of the area, geology, and animals as well as good descriptions of the main hikes.
The map I used was the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Joshua Tree National Park. Its an easy to read map with all the roads and trails marked, plus distance markers and points of interest. Plus it’s waterproof and tear resistant so you can’t wreck it. (I’ve wrecked so many maps 🙁 )
Check out the Joshua Trees
There are tons of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, but the checking out the joshua trees is the main attraction. Joshua trees are pretty insane: they look more like something Dr. Seuss dreamed up than an actual tree. And in fact they aren’t technically trees since they have fibres instead of growth rings – they are part of the yucca plant family. The early Mormon settlers thought the trees looked like Joshua from the Bible raising his arms to the sky in prayer, hence the name: Joshua tree. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. And like snowflakes, I think no two are exactly alike. I spent hours taking photos of Joshua trees on my trip and I’m sure you’ll want to as well.
Best Place to See Joshua Trees: Stop your car at any of the pull outs along Park Drive – the Joshua trees are pretty much everywhere in the northern section of the park.
Visit the Unique Rock Formations
If you’ve watched a western film or been on the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disney, you’re familiar with the cartoonish landscape of piled round rocks. Well it turns out it doesn’t just exist in fiction – at Joshua Tree this landscape is real! The park is covered in unique jumbles of rocks. Some of them are famous enough to have their own names and are tourist attractions!
Best Places to See the Rock Formations in Joshua Tree: Skull Rock is near the Jumbo Rocks campground is a must see (although I didn’t think it looked that much like a skull.) You can see it right from the park road. Arch Rock near White Tank campground is also cool, and it’s the only a half mile walk. Split Rock is a giant boulder with a split running through it (they named it well). You can drive right up to it.
Go For a Hike
Besides checking out the Joshua trees, going for a hike 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 to suit every fitness level. Make sure to bring lots of water, a hat and sunscreen as the desert weather can be harsh, even in the winter.
Best Hikes in Joshua Tree: For a short and easy walk check out the Barker Dam Trail. This 1.5 mile loop goes past a dam and some pictograms and takes about 45 minutes. For a longer and more challenging hike I liked the trail to the Willow Hole. It’s an out and back trip of 7 miles that leaves the desert on the Boy Scout Trail and heads deep into the Wonderland of Rocks to a subsurface oasis of willows. There’s lot of interesting vegetation, plus you might see wildlife. (We saw a fox!!) Here’s 6 more easy hikes you can do in less than 3 hours.
Try to Spot Some Wildlife
While the desert can look uninhabited, it’s actually home to lots of wildlife. You just need to slow down, be quiet and know where to look. On my visit I saw a gray fox, coyotes, lizards, cottontail rabbits, Jack rabbits, ground squirrels, chipmunks, a golden eagle, hawks, quails, hummingbirds and bats. Joshua Tree National Park is also home to big horn sheep and an endangered tortoise, but we weren’t lucky enough to see them. There are also rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas and mountain lions in the park, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about running into them. (And thankfully I didn’t!)
Best Places to Spot Wildlife in Joshua Tree:
If you camp in the park you’re likely to see some of the more common animals that hang around the campgrounds. These include rabbits, ground squirrels and chipmunks. You might also hear bats chirping or coyotes howling at night. Your best chance to see big horn sheep and other more reclusive wildlife (like foxes) is to venture into the Wonderland of Rocks on the Boy Scout Trail or the Willow Hole Trail.
Camp in the Desert
You might picture the desert as bathed in sunlight, but you haven’t experienced it until you’ve seen it at night too when the stars come out and the heat of the day fades away. The best way to do that is to camp. Joshua Tree National Park has 9 campgrounds, some of which require reservations and some of which are first-come-first-served. Most of them don’t have water or flush toilets, so camping is a rustic experience. But it’s sooo worth it. Camping is pretty popular so make a reservation or plan to show up early to try to get a first-come-first-served spot. For the more adventurous, you can also backcountry camp in the park. You have to start at one of 13 backpacking trailheads and your campsite must be more than 1 mile from the trailhead and at least 100 feet from any water sources.
Best Places to Camp in Joshua Tree National Park: If you want to be close to town and like the certainty of a reserved site, stay at Black Rock or Indian Cove campgrounds. You’ll be a bit further from the main sites at these locations, but you won’t have to rough it as much. Plus Black Rock has water and flush toilets! If you want to stay in the heart of the park camp at Hidden Valley. This campground has sites set amongst boulders and outcroppings and is very popular with climbers. My tip: Campsites 32-45 along the road to the right are quieter and more private than the sites in the main loop. Camping costs $15-20 a night. Unless you reserved online, bring cash.
Watch the Rock Climbers
Rock climbing is one of the most popular activities in Joshua Tree National Park and climbers travel here from all over the world. Many climbers will spend a few weeks here each winter, enjoying the mild weather and living in their vans. There are over 8000 established rock climbing routes in the park! Watching the climbers can be really entertaining as they scale seemingly impossible cliffs.
Best Places to Watch Rock Climbers in Joshua Tree National Park: There are tons of climbing areas in the park so you are likely to see people climbing or bouldering almost anywhere. (FYI: Bouldering is climbing on small rocks that aren’t very high off the ground without using a rope.) Some popular places to see climbers are at the Quail Springs picnic area, at Intersection Rock, on the cliffs around the Hidden Valley campground and at the Hall of Horrors climbing area pull out. These places are all signed from the main park road and easy to find.
Visit the Cactus Garden
The cactus garden is full of teddybear cholla cactus (pronounced choy-ya). These fuzzy looking cactus also have the nickname “jumping cactus” since if you brush against them parts of the cactus will break off and get embedded in your skin or clothes. There is even a first aid kit chained to a post near the entrance since so many people accidentally get cactus spines stuck in them! There also lots of other desert plants in the cactus garden, but there are just SO MANY teddybear cacti that it is hard to see anything else.
How to Find the Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park: The Cholla Cactus Garden is located in the southern portion of Joshua Tree National Park along the Pinto Basin Road. It’s a 20 mile drive from the Cottonwood Visitor Center in the southern part of the park or a 14 mile drive from the intersection of Pinto Basin Road and Park Drive in the north.
Check out the Panorama at Keys View
Make the drive up to 5185 feet to the Keys View for panoramic views to the south. From up there you can see Palm Springs, the Salton Sea and even Signal Mountain in Mexico. You can also see the Indio Hills, which are the result of movement along the San Andreas Fault. It’s one of the few places you can actually look right at the San Andreas Fault, besides from an airplane. Bring binoculars if you have them.
How to Get to Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park: From the intersection of Park Drive and Keys View Road in the northern part of the park it’s a 20 minute drive up the mountain to the viewpoint. At the top there is a short viewpoint loop.
Go Star Gazing
Joshua Tree National Park has very low levels of light pollution, making it perfect for star gazing. They even host a Night Sky Festival in January.
My Tips for Star Gazing in Joshua Tree National Park: Even if the desert is warm during the day, the temperature drops at night so bundle up with warm clothes. Pick a night with no clouds and avoid the full moon. If you want to take photos of the night sky you’ll need a tripod and a camera that has a manual mode to shoot long exposures.
Best Places to Star Gaze in Joshua Tree National Park: The most convenient place to star gaze might be right at your campsite, especially if you stay at one of the campgrounds in the heart of the park. Turn off your flashlights and put out your campfire for the best visibility. For even better star gazing, consider backcountry camping. If you aren’t camping, you can drive into the park at any time (it’s open 24 hours) and stop anywhere to look at the stars. Choose a roadside pullout as far from light sources as possible. Consider driving down the Pinto Basin Road towards the Cholla Cactus Garden for the darkest skies.
Drink a Date Shake
Date Shakes have been popular in the Palm Springs area since the 1920s. Date growers in the Coachella Valley south of Joshua Tree National Park needed to figure how to market dates to Americans… so they added them to milkshakes. If you’ve never had a date shake before, you’ve got to try one.
Where to Get Date Shakes Near Joshua Tree National Park: There are tons of places to find date shakes in the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs, south of the park. Shields Date Garden in Indio is where it all started. It’s a 40 minute drive from the Cottonwood Visitor Centre at the southern edge of the park to Shields. If that’s too far to go, don’t worry. There’s one place that serves date shakes north of the park: Country Kitchen on 29 Palms Highway near the intersection with Park Boulevard. They’re delicious! (Note: Country Kitchen is only open for breakfast and lunch so you can’t get a date shake after 3pm. Believe me, I tried and there’s no where else in the towns of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley or 29 Palms that sells them. Sad face.)
Check out the Ocotillo Patch
Joshua Trees and cacti aren’t the only interesting plants in Joshua Tree National Park: enter the ocotillo. It looks kind of like a super tall, spindly cactus, but it’s actually a deciduous shrub. Unlike most deciduous plants which shed their leaves once a year in the fall, the ocotillo grows and sheds it’s leaves multiple times a year – each time in rains. It sometimes blooms bright red flowers as well. These plants are really cool to see and make for great photos, especially against the blue sky of the desert.
How to Find the Ocotillo Patch in Joshua Tree National Park: The Ocotillo Patch is located on Pinto Basin Road in the southern part of the park. It’s a 25 minute drive from the Cottonwood Visitor Centre in the south or a 5 minute drive from the Cholla Cactus Garden to the north. There’s a small sign just before a parking pull out. There are ocotillo on both side of the road.
Go Rock Climbing or Scrambling
If you’re an experienced rock climber, Joshua Tree is a paradise. If you’re a beginner, there are lots of guiding services near the park that can take you out. But rock climbing doesn’t have to be a hard core activity with ropes, harnesses and dangling over the abyss – there are lots of short rock scrambles in the park that you can just walk up on your own. Many of the rocks are arranged in easy stair steps that make climbing easy, even for those who don’t like heights. Just remember that it’s way easier to climb up than to climb down, so choose your route carefully and don’t take any unnecessary risks.
Best Places to Go Rock Scrambling in Joshua Tree National Park: There are good roadside rock formations for scrambling all over the park. My favourite areas to explore are at Quail Springs picnic area, near Skull Rock, on the Arch Rock trail and near the Hidden Valley campground.
Walk Among the Palm Trees at an Oasis
The word oasis conjures up stereotypically images of a group of palm trees growing up out of the desert. It turns out that’s totally a real thing and there are a few different oases in Joshua Tree National Park. (“Oases” is the plural of oasis – the more you know, right?) Some of them you can drive right up to and a few of them you can hike to. They all have groves of palm trees and other water loving plants like willow trees. Unlike the manicured palms you see in cities, these ones are all shaggy since no gardener removes the dead fronds to keep the trunk exposed.
How to Find the Oases at Joshua Tree National Park: The easiest oasis to visit it the Oasis of Mara at the 29 Palm Visitor Centre. A short half mile paved trail winds around the oasis. The Cottonwood Spring Oasis near the Cottonwood Visitor Centre is also easy to visit since you can see it from the parking lot. For more challenging hikes, check out the 3 mile 49 Palms Oasis Trail in the north of the park or the 7 mile round trip hike to the Lost Palms Oasis near Cottonwood Spring.
Spend Some Time People Watching
Joshua Tree attracts an eclectic bunch: dirtbag rock climbers living in vans, ageing hippies looking for enlightenment in the desert, L.A. hipsters on weekend Instagram photoshoot missions, U.S. Marines from the nearby base, European families on camping vacations in rented RVs, grey haired retirees taking a break from golfing in Palm Springs… and regular old tourists. They all seem to love the wide open desert and blue skies of Joshua Tree, and since it’s a pretty chill place, they all get along. The people watching is amazing here… almost as good as on the New York Subway 🙂 Of course, remember to be respectful and avoid staring because everyone deserves to enjoy the park.
Best Places for People Watching Near Joshua Tree: Start with any of the three visitor centres. You’re sure to spot some interesting people browsing the bookstores or asking questions at the info desk. Outside the park check out the restaurants, cafes and outfitters near the intersection of 29 Palms Highway and Park Boulevard in the town of Joshua Tree. Inside the park take a stroll through the Hidden Valley campground on weekend mornings to grab a free cup of coffee and chat with climbers and climbing rangers at the park’s Climber Coffee program. Head to Keys View at sunset to see a wide cross section of visitors enjoying the beautiful colours at the end of the day.
Explore an Abandoned Mine
Most of Joshua Tree National Park is littered with old mines. The area was part of a large land grab starting in the 1800s as western settlers scrambled to find gold and other minerals. Many of the mines in the park operated for only a short time. The mining ruins have left rusty metal and machinery strewn about so watch your step when exploring. Never go inside or climb on anything since it’s definitely not safe. Many of the mine shafts drop straight down!
How to Visit an Abandoned Mine in Joshua Tree National Park: There are tons of mines but most are well off the beaten path and involve cross-country travel in trail-less terrain. One of the easiest to a mine is the 1.6 mile trip to the Desert Queen Mine. Another easier option is heading to Wall Street Mill which was used for processing gold ore. This 3 mile out and back trail passes some ruined buildings before ending at the ruins of the mill. In the southern part of the park, check out the Mastodon Peak trail, a 3 mile loop that goes right by the ruins of the Mastodon Mine. For the more adventurous, hike to the Lost Horse Mine. It’s a 7 mile loop that passes lots of ruins and visits the mine.
What are your favourite things to do in Joshua Tree National Park? Can you recommend any hikes I should hit up next time I’m there? (Because you know there will be a next time!)