You’re surrounded by nothingness when you drive into Joshua Tree National Park; it’s the lonely roads that turn onto desert plains that eventually roll onto uninhabited hills kind of nothingness.
I decided to run the worst case scenarios, as I did on my road trip through the Southwest. What if my tire blew? What if I ran 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? My desert survival knowledge consisted mostly of what I’d learned watching No Country for Old Men and Mad Max. Unless I was on the run or the world suddenly turned into a resourceless desert wasteland, it seemed I would be out of luck.
A big part of the desert’s beauty is its harshness. Why would a tree as hardy as the Joshua Tree take root somewhere so desolate? More surprisingly, why would any migratory human choose to live somewhere so inhabitable? Well, turns out the federal government used to really want people to live here. The Small Tract Act of 1938 granted 5-acre parcels of land for cheap to anyone crazy enough to build property in the Morongo Basin. All that was required was that the homesteaders built a structure 12 x 16 feet, so build these tiny homesteads they did.
It still seems insane as you wander the park, checking out the many things to do in Joshua Tree in temperatures hotter than hell. But then you see the sunrise. With heat erased, desolation is actually quite stunning. I’d even go as far as to say that Joshua Tree is the prettiest national park in California for its unusual flora, rock formations, and interesting things to do abound.
Want to go to Joshua Tree? It’s well worth the trip. Just see for yourself:
9 Fun Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
1. Wake up early to watch the sunrise
Imagine silence and solitude as you watch Chola cactuses and craggy rock formations catch the colorful light of morning. While it doesn’t sound like much, watching the sunrise is first because it’s definitely the best thing you can do in Joshua Tree. It’s as simple as it sounds. Get up extra early, and rather than having a destination in mind, pull over just about anywhere and enjoy.
2. Take a hike on the Hidden Valley Nature Trail
It gets awfully hot in Joshua Tree so a 1-mile loop is just about the maximum desirable distance for a mid-day hike. Wander along the valley floor on the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, surrounded by massive rock formations on all sides.
3. Avoid thorns in 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 known for their ability to detach when brushed against.
4. Go for a drive through the Mojave and check out desert homesteads
There’s a fascinating mix of emptiness and dilapidation in the desert. Just driving around the Mojave can be one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree, and it will give you a better sense of how rough desert life used to be before the advent of AC and the construction of the town nearby.
4. Visit Keys Ranch, the former homestead of Bill Keys
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 how early settlers of the Mojave Desert survived.
5. Stay in a desert homestead
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. I booked a pretty little Airbnb 25-minutes from the park entrance, but there are plenty of similarly awesome places to stay in Joshua Tree. New to Airbnb? Get $40 off your first booking when you signup with this link!
6. Visit the junk sculptures at Noah Purifoy’s “Outdoor Desert Art Museum”
The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum is an oft-overlooked desert marvel. Noah Purifoy spent the last 15 years of his life constructing enormous junk sculptures across ten acres of desert. Exploring his work is one of the most interesting and unusual things to do in Joshua Tree, if you ask me!
7. Explore unusual rock formations in the Hall of Horrors
Pay a visit to Hall of Horrors for rocks so huge, they look placed by Titans. If you’re into something a bit more adventurous, this is also a popular place for climbing or slacklining.
8. Camp Out
Camping out is one of best things to do in Joshua Tree if you’re looking for a full desert experience. Campsites are available throughout the park, with some of the more popular areas being Black Rock and Indian Cove. Make a reservation at recreation.gov if you’re visiting from October through May.
9. Go Stargazing
Stargazing in Joshua Tree will unveil a whole universe you only believed to exist. With limited light pollution and fascinating foreground, photographing stars in Joshua Tree is a night photographers dream.
Getting to Joshua Tree: The closest airports are Palm Springs or Ontario, but Los Angeles, Long Beach, or Burbank are all within two to three hours, and Las Vegas is about four hours away. Joshua Tree National Park isn’t well served by public transport or park shuttles, so you’ll have to have a car to get there.
The park itself is about 65 miles (east to west) and 40 miles (north to south). You can get in at any of five entrances, four off of State Highway 62 (aka Twentynine Palms Highway) and one reachable from Interstate 10.
Park Entrance: A 7-day permit with vehicle only costs about $15. If you’re visiting tons of National Parks, you might also want to sign up for an America the Beautiful Annual pass to get a year of national park access for around $80.
When to Go: The best time to visit Joshua Tree is between October – May when temperatures are most moderate, but it’s possible to visit during the shoulder season without making reservations in advance.
Traveling to California? You might also like:
- A Get Outside Guide: Yosemite National Park
- 101 Fun + Unique Things to do in San Francisco
- 8 can’t miss travel experiences in Monterey
- Baywatch: Best Places to Go Whale Watching in California