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An Outlandish Guide to Joshua Tree National Park | USA

Joshua Tree National Park - Things to do in Joshua Tree

You’re surrounded by nothingness when you drive into Joshua Tree National Park. Lonely roads that turn onto desert plains that eventually roll onto uninhabited hills kind of nothingness. Your mind starts to wander. What if my tire blows? What if I run out of gas? How long would it take for someone to pass, to ask me if I needed help? How long would my water last? Does La Croix count?

A big part of the desert’s beauty is its unpredictability. Its hostility. But despite adverse conditions, the Morongo Basin has a long human history. Over the centuries, miners and settlers have struggled to make a life there despite the harsh climate and non-arable land. The Homestead Act of 1862 and The Small Tract Act of 1938 were government incentive schemes, giving away free plots of land for those willing to stay.  It wasn’t even until 1994 that Joshua Tree National Park came to be. But people came in pursuit of opportunity.

Of course, these days with the advent of air-conditioning and industrial farming, the area surrounding Joshua Tree is far from undesirable. Its image has been transformed into a dreamy backdrop for Instagram weddings and esoteric retreats rather than hostile country. It may not be the rugged spot that it used to be but never underestimate the desert.

Ready for a glimpse at one of America’s dreamiest landscapes? Dr. Seussian trees, rock boulders, and jumping cholla? Here’s a guide to all the campgrounds, hikes, strange stays, and other unique things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.

VIDEO Joshua Tree National Park

AT A GLANCE

Joshua Tree National Park is a tale of two deserts. The Mojave on the Western side is the higher and cooler of the two where you’ll find the iconic Joshua Trees and rock fields, alongside the California Juniper, desert scrub oak, Tucker’s oak, and Miller’s oak. The Colorado Desert sits on the Southern and Eastern side with a landscape defined by sandy soil grasslands decorated with yucca, saltbrush, and cholla and desert dunes. Put them both together, and Joshua Tree National Park sits on an area of 3,198 km²

Entrance to Joshua Tree National Park costs $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, or $15 per individual (by foot, bicycle, park shuttle bus, railway, raft). If you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands. Read more about why you should get an America the Beautiful pass here.

When to visit: As you may imagine, Joshua Tree gets as hot as hell during the summer months. But at least the stars look excellent! The best times to go are really spring (March – April) when the wildflowers in bloom and fall (September – November) when temperatures are mildest, but those are the busiest times to visit Joshua Tree, too. If you don’t mind layering up, you can avoid the crowds at Joshua Tree by visiting during winter.

9 FUN THINGS TO DO IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

WAKE UP FOR SUNRISE

The most profound beauty at Joshua Tree National Park can be experienced on the edges of the day. Around sunrise, you can watch the sun climb past a vast horizon. Before the day-trippers roll in, you can wander amongst the Joshua Trees or cholla cactus during the relative cool of the morning. Morning is also when the wildlife and birdlife are most active.

My favorite spots for sunrise in Joshua Tree are the Cholla Cactus Graden, Keys View, or Ryan Mountain. But honestly? You can pull over just about anywhere in the park for a fantastical wake-up experience.

Joshua Tree Guide - Sunrise at Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree Guide - Desert Landscapes by Morning

TAKE A HIKE

It gets hot in Joshua Tree, but that doesn’t mean hiking is entirely ruled out. You may just adapt your plans – hiking early or during cooler times of year – to account for this. For a quick-and-easy one-mile hike, try out the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. The sneaky valley is flat and pretty but with massive rock formations on all sides. You can check out some of the easier hikes on the NPS website 

If you’re looking for something a bit more strenuous, there are also some pretty incredible long hikes and backpacking in Joshua Tree. Wonderland of Rocks, Lost Palms Oasis, and California Riding and Hiking Trail to name a few. More info on these in the hiking & backpacking section below.

AVOID THORNS AT THE CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN

The “Jumping Cholla” are perhaps some of the prettiest cacti you’ll ever see. Don’t get too close, though, because the thorny devils are quick to detach and attach right to your skin when brushed against.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park - Jumping Cholla

GO FOR A DESERT SCENIC DRIVE OR OFF-ROADING ADVENTURE

There’s a fascinating mix of emptiness and dilapidation in the desert. Driving around Twentynine Palms or on the main road through Joshua Tree National park is a scenic drive in its own right. Cue on your favorite album of the year, and you’re in for one best things to do in Joshua Tree. But if you’re looking for more than paved roads and pull-offs (and are traveling with a high-clearance vehicle) your options for drives really open up. 

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park - Mailboxes in Mojave Desert 1

You can go off-roading in places like Berdoo Canyon Road, Black Eagle Mine Road, or one of these other off-roading destinations. That said, there are tons of sandy washes and rough roads. Be cautious not to rely on Google Maps as you navigate Joshua Tree and surrounding areas, and instead refer to information provided at the Visitor Center.

VISIT KEYS RANCH

Bill Keys is something of a Joshua Tree legend. Enlisted to manage the Desert Queen Mine, he lived there for more than 60 years and represents the scrap and ingenuity of settlers in Joshua tree.

To reserve a walking tour at Keys Ranch, pop by the Visitor Center first thing in the morning. The tour is limited to 25 people, but you won’t want to miss this glimpse of how early settlers of the Mojave Desert survived.

STAY STRANGE AT A DESERT HOMESTEAD

The desert aesthetic runs strong and Joshua Tree seems to attract more designers and architects than you’d find outside of just any National Park. 

There are more than 2,500 abandoned tin-roof homesteads and several that have been renovated to give you a real off-the-grid sleeping experience. Not far from Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll also find geodesic domes, tiny homes and even spaceships where you can stay strange. Take a look at more unique stays near Joshua Tree in this roundup from FieldMag.

Joshua Tree Guide - Homesteads

OUTDOOR ART & INSTALLATIONS

There are tons of outdoor art and strange installations near Joshua Tree.

Most notable is Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum located on the Northwest side of the park. During the last 15 years of his life, Purifoy created “ten acres full of large-scale sculpture on the desert floor. Constructed entirely from junked materials, this otherworldly environment is one of California’s great art historical wonders.” At his Outdoor Museum, you’ll find toilet towers and domestic wreckage. Repurposed junk turned into large-scale art. It’s free to visit (donations welcome) and super worth it. More info on the Noah Purifoy Foundation website.

Things to do in Joshua Tree - Noah Purifoy's

Joshua Tree Guide - Noah Purifoy

And while we’re at it, I’ve got to call out a few other nearby installations. The Cabazon Dinosaurs on the side of the highway. Desert Jesus Park with more Jesus sculptures than you’ve ever seen in one spot. And Salvation Mountain, the latex-painted mountain about an hour’s drive from the park’s South Entrance.

Joshua Tree Guide - Cabazon Dinosaurs

MARVEL AT OR CLIMB ON MASSIVE ROCK FORMATIONS

With its massive boulders and monzogranite, Joshua Tree is a premier spot for climbing, bouldering, highlining, and slacklining. According to the NPS site, Joshua Tree has “more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from.” 

For some of the best big rocks in the park, pay a visit to Hall of Horrors. These rocks are so huge, they look placed by Titans. 

Things to do in Joshua Tree - Daniel in the Hall of Horrors

CAMP OUT

Camping out is one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree if you’re looking for an off-the-grid, under the stars desert experience. Campsites are available throughout the park, but here are a few of the best campsites in Joshua Tree are Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rock, and Ryan. More info on these sites below.

GO STARGAZING

Stargazing in Joshua Tree will unveil a whole universe you only believed to exist. With limited light pollution from nearby urban areas, Joshua Tree is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park meaning you can see a whole lot more than you would in the city. Go during summer for the clearest views! You can find more information on stargazing in Joshua Tree on the NPS website

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park - Stargazing in Joshua Tree

HIKES IN JOSHUA TREE

If you’re down with desert heat, Joshua Tree has its share of hiking trails and backpacking routes worth exploring. You can check out some of the easier hikes on the NPS website or give one of the tougher hikes below a shot.

WONDERLAND OF ROCKS TRAVERSE (8.8KM)

Like the name describes, Wonderland of Rocks is an epic tramp through the stunning rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park. That said, it’s a tough one. Over the course of 8.8km this point-to-point hike takes you between Rattlesnake Canyon Trailhead and Boy Scout Trail. Despite limited elevation gain, Wonderland of Rocks is a hard hike because of heat, exposure, and wayfinding in addition to the required scrambling and bouldering. Get full details on Wonderland of Rocks Traverse on AllTrails.

LOST PALMS OASIS (11.5KM)

Lost Palms Oasis is a popular hike for good reason. It’s an out-and-back meaning you don’t have to sort out transport. It’s more moderate than some of the other best hikes in Joshua Tree. It offers views of the Salton Sea. And it finishes up at a real-life oasis – a cluster of palms in the middle of the desert. You’ll find the trailhead near the Cottonwood Visitor Center. More on the Lost Palms Oasis Trail on AllTrails.

CALIFORNIA RIDING & HIKING TRAIL (63KM)

The California Riding & Hiking Trail is a point-to-point hike best traveled from Black Rock Canyon in the west, all the way to the east side of the park. It’s typically done as a backpacking trip that takes 3-5 days, but there are some warriors who have made a long day out of it. Much of the 63 km hike is flat and the terrain can get sandy. But the biggest challenge is in the logistics. It comes down to timing your hike for cool-ish times of day and caching water ahead of time since you can’t refill at any point on the trail.

While I didn’t do this backpacking trip myself, people love it! Uncrowded. Remote. And plenty of time to kick back and enjoy the dreamy desert. Read more about the California Riding & Hiking Trail on AllTrails.

GETTING AROUND

HOW TO GET TO JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK

The closest major airport to Joshua Tree National Park is Palm Springs International Airport (PSP). Other options are Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), San Diego International Airport (SAN), and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS), though all of these options still require a significant drive (225km +).

Public transport is limited and you’ll need a private vehicle to explore the park. That said, you can try to cut costs by flying into Palm Springs and using Morongo Basin Transit Authority busses or by booking a bus transit from LA to Indio with Greyhound and Tufesa. From there, you’ll need to rent a car to get into the park.

Joshua Tree - Getting Around

GETTING AROUND THE PARK

While there used to be a Roadrunner Shuttle Service into the park, it stopped operating in 2019. Your only options for getting around Joshua Tree National Park are with a private vehicle or on a tour that includes transport.

ACCOMMODATION

There are 500 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park, dispersed between five reservable campgrounds and three first-come-first-served campgrounds in Joshua Tree. That said, the sites are super competitive and full nearly every weekend from Sept-May and most weeknights between mid-February and mid-May. Here are a few of the standouts.

Hidden Valley | Hidden Valley is probably the best campground in Joshua Tree due to its dreamy location. The 44-sites are beautiful, dispersed amongst rock formations and Joshua Trees. Each site has a table and fire-grate, and pit toilets are available but there’s no running water. First-come, first-served, but find more info here. Sites from $15.

Jumbo Rocks | The largest campground in Joshua Tree, Jumbo Rocks, is centrally located with 124 sites. And as the name suggests, it’s big and beautiful rock surroundings are the star of Jumbo Rocks. Each site has a table and fire-grate, and pit toilets are available but there’s no running water. Reservable. Sites from $20.

Ryan | Ryan is a small campground of 31 reservable sites, often used as overflow for Hidden Valley. It has the same basic amenities as the other sites, though sites are slightly less private than some of the other campgrounds in the park. That said, it’s one of the sites that accepts reservations which is totally worth something during high season! Reservable. Sites from $25.

Homesteads & Other Unique Stays | There are so many incredible properties just outside of Joshua Tree. Take a look on Airbnb!

Desert homesteads. Vast desert. Wonky Joshua Trees and jumping cholla. Camping beneath the stars. Too hot to handle hikes. Ready to experience some of the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park for yourself? Here's a Joshua Tree National Park Guide with campgrounds, scenic drives, entrance info and more.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK? NEED SOME HELP WITH YOUR TRIP PLANNING? ASK ME ANYTHING IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.

8 Comments

  • Reply
    Kerri Guisness
    October 11, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Pretty great right up pretty great time ! That Airbnb was the best !!!!

  • Reply
    Johann
    October 16, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Beautiful pictures!

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      October 18, 2016 at 1:16 am

      Thanks a lot, Johann! It’s tough to take bad pictures at a park like Joshua Tree.

  • Reply
    Julie Cao
    October 16, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    #7 the picture the man gazing upon the rocks is my favorite and that it reflects the harmony between the nature and the mankind

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      October 18, 2016 at 1:15 am

      Thank you, Julie! That one is definitely one of our favorites too. Crazy how giant the rock formations are, huh?

  • Reply
    9 Breathtaking Urbex Spots Around the World - Girl Astray
    December 1, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    […] Read more here: Unique Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park […]

  • Reply
    Megan | Red Around The World
    December 29, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    This makes me want to visit Joshua Tree even more than before! I love the pictures!

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      January 4, 2017 at 10:06 pm

      Thanks so much, Megan! It’s the best National Park in California, in our opinion. Try to get there before sunrise and you’ll be all on your own!

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