It seems everybody wants to go to Joshua tree national park. Why? It’s practically an obligation these days, the Studio 54 of national parks. The place to see and be seen. The mere mention of this location will return a “yeah, i was just there” or an ” it’s on my bucket list” response. It’s become a right of passage. But, is it really that great? What’s the fuss all about?
A lot of road trips will have you sticking to the interstate highways. The scenery throughout the southwest can be awe inspiring. But, is generally not exemplified by what you can see from the highways and bleak truck stop parking lots. To get a real sense of where you are in the natural world, you have to get off the interstate highways and often go beyond the limits of cell phone reception. There are many opportunities to experience the real desert throughout the southwest. But there is only one Joshua tree national park. To bolster my street cred, I first went there around 1992. I didn’t plan it out, the winds of fortune were blowing that day. My best friend and I came here through our hitchhiking rides itinerary. It was a blast, and a place that always stands out in my mind.
about ‘J.T.’ and the Mojave desert
The park was originally created in the 1930’s. We owe it to desert lover and community activist Minerva Hoyt. She persuaded President Franklin D. Rooselvelt to Establish it as a National Monument. In 1994, an act of congress renamed the area Joshua tree national park. This granted further protection by designating 558,000 of its 792,510 acres as wilderness. There’s loads of things to see and experience, with some wild rock formations and the only place in the world where the joshua tree grows. There’s an array of wildlife that make a home in the area, like the fascinating desert tortoise and the curious pinacate or “circus” beetle.
The central features that give the park its iconic look, are its Joshua trees and giant monolithic boulders. Interestingly enough , The Joshua tree isn’t a true tree at all. Although, when mature, grow bark on their lower trunks and can reach 40 feet or so up to the sky, all limbs akimbo. They look as if they came from the mind of Dr, Suess. Some say they may have even inspired him. In fact, they are relatives to the common yucca. The gigantic boulders and bizarre rock formations owe their existence to ancient volcanic activity in the area eons ago. Beginning as intrusions of magma, and over time, they became chemically weathered underground. As the surface soil that once hid them eroded away, they became exposed like bizarre and puzzling art installations.
The park encompasses two desert bio regions. the mojave and the Colorado deserts. the Mojave is more of a high desert, and the Colorado is low desert and a subregion of the Sonoran desert to the east. The southern portion of the park near the cottonwood visitors center, are part of the colorado desert. The Mojave transitions in and around the belle and white tank campgrounds. and then extends beyond the park boundaries to the north and a little to the west.
Which entrance is the best?
There are three gateways into the main part of the park, west, north and south. Generally, if you’re coming from the east, the south entrance makes the most sense. Especially if you’re coming here for the first time. It is also the most dramatic entrance. From this vantage point, you’re entering from the Colorado desert ecological zone. It isn’t until you enter the higher altitude Mojave desert that it transforms into classic J.t. scenery. After a bit of driving and slowly ascending in altitude, you suddenly emerge into a vast boulder strewn landscape. With the unusual looking Joshua trees dotting the horizon, you’ve entered one of the world’s most surreal environments. Several opportunities exist to pull over and explore the rock formations and go on some relatively easy hikes.
The other entrances make the most sense if you’re coming from L.A. or down from the northwest. But by the time you get to the west or north gates, you’ve passed through some revealing terrain and Joshua trees before getting to the park. So, if you want a more dramatic unveiling, choose the south gate.
What is there to do in Joshua tree national park?
We all need to relax. We all need to get exercise too. It’s an opportunity for both! Get some needed endorphins released by climbing boulders. Stage an amazing photo shoot to post later. Plan out some clever snacks or meals and have a picnic. Grab a map from the visitors center and find the places in the park with spooky names like skull rock and hall of horrors. If you’re cool, you can learn a little bit about geology and this unique desert ecosystem. Bring a mat with you and do some yoga. meditate under a Joshua tree. Take amazing photos of you doing these things. picnic. Camp. Go on a hike!
Joshua tree camping
Most people opt for a quick drive through with a possible picnic or short hike before leaving the park. To soak up the experience, you should consider a campsite. Or plan out a back country trip. The most popular and central campsites are Ryan, Jumbo rocks and Hidden valley. These are gorgeous campgrounds. Individual campsites are dispersed around clusters of amazing and photogenic boulder outcroppings. With magnificent Joshua trees dotting the surreal landscape nearby, these are the best sites in the park. They are the closest to the main attractions, and several of the best hiking trails.
A little further east, but still beautiful are belle and white tank campgrounds. they are smaller, and on a first come, first served basis. The other campgrounds are Black rock and Indian cove, which are less accessible, but still pretty sites. black rock, Indian cove, and Jumbo rocks take reservations in the busy season. Check availability through the nps website here.
Of the campgrounds, the 99 sites of black rock and the 62 sites of cottonwood are the premium sites with running water and flush toilets, current prices are around 25.00 and reservation are required. black rock is off by itself not connected to the parks other areas, but is in a beautiful Mojave desert setting with plenty of Joshua trees. the cottonwood sites are in the Colorado desert area, which lack some of the parks iconic scenery.
Indian cove has 101 reservable campsites at 25.00 a night, however, these have pit toilets and no running water. the other two reservation only campgrounds cost 20.00 per night. One is the large 124 site jumbo rocks and the other is the 31 site Ryan campground. Bring your own water supply, there is no running water. Lastly, are the first come,first served campgrounds at 15.00 a night. They are the 18 site Belle, 44 site Hidden Valley, and 15 site White tank campgrounds. less amenities, but also a lot less neighbors. All sites throughout the park have tables and fire grates.
free camping near Joshua tree national park
Weekends in the park can get busy from October until may. Availability can change by the minute at some of the first come, first served sites. In the case you’re unable to snag a campsite, the park will be like a day use area, as overnight parking is not allowed. Many of the park campgrounds ban the use of generators, some limit their use for two hours. However, there are nearby alternatives with super easy access. The south entrance offers bureau of land management camping right before the gate. Also nearby, is Chiriaco summit dry camp, which is free for up to 7 days. Read about free camping near Joshua tree here.
Joshua tree hiking
The most obvious activity to do is go on a hike. Barker dam nature trail is a nice short trail that offers some pretty scenery. It’s an easy 1.1 mile loop with giant Joshua trees, boulders, pinyon pines, and a water feature. In warm weather they can attract some thirsty birds and wildlife.
Across from the scenic hidden valley picnic area, is the hidden valley nature trail. The hidden valley nature trail is probably the most popular and is considered relatively easy. If hiking really is your thing, try the hike up Ryan mountain. The elevation gain is close to 1050 ft. and about 3 miles round trip. Early morning and evening are the best times, as there is little or no shade. However, the hike pays off with 360 degree views of the park, overlooking several mountain peaks and basins. The trail is located near the Ryan campground. If you’re very serious, look into getting a back country permit. Don’t forget to register with the park rangers though! Click for back country hiking info here.
Where to go next?!
The California deserts region is an amazing place to explore! On this trip I also made trips to the Anza-Borrego state park, The Salton sea area including Bombay Beach, Slab City, and Salton city. I also explored San Diego and around Balboa Park. The beaches and hikes nearby were awesome!
Joshua tree weather and Other things to consider
- Temperatures and season: summers can be extremely hot and dry with daily temps exceeding 100. late fall through early spring will provide the best range, mid winters can have some freezing nights and mild daytime temps.
- Supplies: plan ahead and pack a cooler with ice and plenty of groceries for your stay. The park itself is devoid of any grocery stores, so stock up well in whatever town you are in beforehand. The nearby towns of Twentynine palms, Joshua tree and yucca valley to the north, have stores. Yucca valley will have the most variety and bigger box type stores.
- Water: plan on a gallon a day per person.
- Shade: bring hats, umbrellas, tents and sunscreen.
- Reservations or backup plans: During the busy season look into reservations, alternately, if the park is full, bring a setup for camping on nearby free campgrounds. read about those here.
- The cost of admission is 30.00 for a 7 day pass. If you plan on going to 2 or more national parks during the year, it costs 80.00 to get the ‘America the beautiful’ pass. It is good for all entrance fees at all the national parks for one year.
- Pets are not allowed on hiking trails, or wilderness areas, but can be walked on a leash on unpaved roads. Pets can be in your campground, and in picnic areas.