Joshua Tree was designated as a national park in 1994 as a part of the California Desert Protection Act. It is now America's 15th largest park, encompassing almost 800,000 acres and two distinctive desert ecosystems. A visit to Joshua Tree likely means spending most of your time in the higher Mojave Desert, home to the world famous joshua tree. A surprisingly small percentage of the park is accessible by vehicle, but it still provides an amazing look into these unique desert spaces.
Embrace the slow pace of the desert lifestyle. Enjoy early morning sunrises, crystal clear skies, and the seussical landmarks that dot this landscape. While you can get a quick look at joshua tree in one day, I recommend taking at least 3 full days to really experience this park.
Joshua Tree provides a unique blend of interpretive, designated, and off-trail hiking opportunities. The majority of designated hikes are half-day experiences which provide a look at the peculiar geology, flora, or fauna found throughout the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Highlights include relaxing at a fan palm oasis, summiting a central peak, romping through off-trail canyons, and exploring seasonal water.
The most extensive network of trails is found at Black Rock in the northwestern corner of the park, but it's easy to find a trail anywhere along Park Boulevard or the northern parts of Pinto Basin Road as well.
One of the most unique aspects of hiking in Joshua Tree is the limitless backcountry available to be explored. There is no need to follow a trail, just use your navigation experience to maneuver your own way through the desert. Please always be mindful of your impact when traveling off-trail, as desert ecosystems are very fragile and need to be treated with care.
Make sure to bring A LOT more water than you would expect. The hot and dry climate found at Joshua Tree can quickly lead to serious heat-related illnesses if not properly combated. 3 liters of water is a minimum for half-day hikes, and a gallon or more can easily be consumed during hotter or longer excursions. When in doubt, turn back before you're halfway through your water supplies.
Backpacking in Joshua presents an intriguing set of opportunities and challenges. There are over 585,000 acres designated as wilderness throughout the park. That's almost 2/3rds of the entire park! The desert landscape provides an open canvas for you to chart your own route, with one BIG caveat -- water.
The very limited water found in Joshua Tree is reserved for the animals that call the park home. This means that you have to carry and cache any water you plan on using for your entire trip. Assuming that you allocate 1.5 gallons of water per person per day, that means you're adding 12 pounds of weight to your pack for each day of the trip. I've found the most effective solution is to set out caches before the trip. Try to arrange things so that you visit a cache in the evening, just before you reach camp. That way you minimize the distances you travel with a heavy water load.
Camps can be set up anywhere 1 mile or more from a road, with the exception of a few day-use only areas that are mostly found in the northern parts of the park. Start your backcountry experience at any of the 13 self-register backcountry boards. Don't leave you car parked anywhere else overnight, or it may be towed.
While Joshua Tree doesn't have the roadside spectacles that can be found at other national parks, there are still some worthwhile roadside exhibits. Skull Rock, Key's View, and the Cholla Cactus Garden are some of the popular highlights. The best way to tour the park is actually to do a series of short hikes. Many trails are 1 mile or less in length and allow you to see some of the best environmental and historical features. Barker Dam, Wall Street Mill, and Bajada All-Access trails are all great options.
Geology Tour Road provides a fascinating interpretive drive along 14 miles of dirt roads. Grab a brochure and travel at least 5.4 miles to Squaw Tank (high-clearance is required for the entire loop). You'll learn about the geologic processes which shaped the park at specified markers along the way.
Multiple roadside exhibits dot Park Boulevard and Pinto Basin Road. These signs give you a glimpse into desert life and opportunities for good photography. And of course, make sure to stop at whatever visitors center you happen to be passing by. Each offers a small exhibit area and friendly park employees to help guide your way.
Few people would argue that Joshua Tree is one of North America's finest rock climbing locations. Over 8,000 routes (and counting) can be found throughout the park. The majority of them are within a short walking distance from a road. On any given weekend, hundreds of climbers test their abilities on the high angle slabs, steep faces, and classic cracks found among these Monzogranite boulders.
The Wonderland of Rocks is home to many of these routes, with Hidden Valley campground serving as the primary hub of climber activity. Climbing in Joshua Tree can be intimidating. Ease into the climbing by starting a few grades easier than you normally climb -- you might be surprised about how hard things feel. The Trad Guide to Joshua Tree is a great guidebook for the first visit. It focuses on classic easy to moderate routes. Randy Vogel's Rock Climbing Joshua Tree is the best "comprehensive" guidebook for the park.
Stop by Nomad Ventures in the town of Joshua Tree for any gear needs, or just to chat up the awesome folks that work there. There are a number of climbing guide services available for those new to rock climbing. It's a great place to try it for the first time!
At this point biking is limited to only roads that are open to vehicles. Road bikers will enjoy stretches of Park Boulevard and Pinto Basin Roads. There is no designated bike lane, so be mindful of cars. Mountain bikers can explore the slightly more extensive and safe network of backcountry roads. Covington Flat is a route I would recommend -- you get to ride through a mix of juniper, pinyon pines, and the parks largest joshua trees. Make sure to carry at least a gallon of water, wear a helmet, and be mindful of other vehicles. The Joshua Tree Wilderness Management Plan has designated 29 mile of off-road trails for future mountain bike use, pending approval from Congress.
The park has a large network of equestrian trails already established and a plan for a 253 mile network currently being developed. Horseback riders are very welcome at Joshua Tree, but have to deal with the same water restrictions that backpackers have. Black Rock campground and Ryan campground both have designated areas for stock animals, making them good choices for caches. For more information regarding horseback riding, visit the NPS webpage.
Twisted joshua trees, life-like boulders, and dark skies make Joshua Tree a splendid choice for photographers. Visit during the spring bloom (early to mid spring) and capture wildflowers covering the desert floor. Or capture clear night skies at one of the backcountry boards located throughout the park.
Joshua Tree has nine established campground within the park. Two of them, Indian Cove & Black Rock, have individual campsites available for reservations (6 months in advance). Three of them, Indian Cove, Cottonwood, and Sheep Pass, have group campsites available for reservations (12 months in advance). The remaining campgrounds -- Hidden Valley, Ryan, Jumbo Rocks, Belle, White Tank, and Cottonwood are all first-come first-served.
While every campground is nestled among jumbles of rocks and the vast open desert, each one has a unique characteristic.
Free camping is available to the north and south of the park on BLM land. There are no amenities at these locations, just flat desert. But they are both good back-ups for those busy weekends, or if you are planning on having a late night party.
There are multiple lodging options ranging from motels to nicer bungalow style cabins along Highway 62. Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and especially Twentynine Palms are the three towns along that route. Joshua Tree is located just north of the west entrance to the park, while Twentynine Palms is located just north of the Oasis entrance.
Lodging south of the park is pretty scarce until you arrive at Indio or Palms Springs. These locations are an hour or more from the park, so plan accordingly.
Groceries, mail, gas, and restaurants can be found along Highway 62 to the north. Some of my personal favorites are Sams Pizza (Indian Pizza!), Crossroads Cafe (good for breakfast), and Pappy & Harriets (american food and music).
Another thing to note is that water is only available at the visitors centers, NOT anywhere inside the park. Plan on packing lots of extra water if you are camping inside the park.
Joshua Tree is best experienced during the late autumn to mid-spring months. Between May and late September average highs skyrocket well above 100 degrees. While people still visit during these hot times, they have a very limited number of cool hours to explore the park.
Mid-March to mid-April is the most likely time to catch the ephemeral desert bloom. During this short window, the sandy ground is briefly covered with small wildflowers. The bloom is dependant on winter rainfall and elevation -- see the Wildflower Bloom Report for current conditions.
Because of the bloom and good temperatures, March and April are the busiest months in the park. Late October and late January are good times to visit because the crowds are a little smaller and the temperatures are still reasonable. A visit anytime between November and late-January can easily mean below freezing temperatures at night, so come prepared with cold weather gear.