Guide to Joshua Tree National Park
Passing Mormon settlers came through the region and saw strange tall plants with many branches that looked to them like a person pointing to the sky. They called them “Joshua Trees” and this large desert park in southern California is named after them. The land became a National Monument in 1936 and a National Park in 1994.
In addition to fantastical joshua trees you’ll also see all kinds of other cacti and desert plants as well as wonderful rock formations. The park is an amazing place to camp, hike, climb and explore!
Joshua Tree National Park
The rock formations in Joshua Tree are some of the most interesting aspects of the park. It seems like a giant tossed handfuls of boulders in the air which landed in piles. How did those rocks get like that?
While Joshua Tree is simply a beautiful place to visit, it is also fun to learn about the geological forces that have shaped the landscape. The striking rock formations we see today were originally sedimentary rock under the oceans two billion years ago. Then plate tectonics heated and smashed these sedimentary rocks to form gneiss. The rocks were still underwater until about 210 million years ago when plate tectonics caused the area to uplift. The vast amounts of pressure from the moving plates pushed ocean water underground where it boiled and melted the nearby rocks, turning them into magma. The magma rose from underground, met up with the gneiss and cooled into granite. As the granite cooled, cracks formed. Groundwater slowly dribbled through these cracks, eroding the rocks and creating the boulders and strange formations we see today. Wow!
Joshua Tree National Park covers nearly 800,000 acres. The high Mojave Desert section is home to the joshua trees and crazy rock formations while in the lower elevation Sonoran Desert section you’ll find cholla cactus, ocotillo and smoke trees. There are also mountain peaks and flat expanses. You might not think lots of creatures live in this barren climate but there are many species of reptiles, mammals, birds and insects that call this area home. You might spot hawks, snakes, coyotes, tarantulas, quails, bighorn sheep, scorpions, foxes or the desert tortoise. So drive carefully please!
You’ll notice joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in all shapes and sizes. Some are rather straight while others have tons of branches. Some are very tall while others are stubby. Maybe you’ll even get lucky and see some in flower. Joshua trees are fascinating. It is thought that in prehistoric times joshua trees spread by being a favorite food of the Shasta ground sloth. As the sloth moved across the landscape, it pooped out joshua tree seeds, spreading the plant’s range. Now that the sloth is extinct the joshua tree reproduces asexually with shoots and also has a symbiotic relationship with the yucca moth, which fertilizes the flower and uses the seeds as food for their larvae.
Why are joshua trees branched like that? When Yucca brevifolia flowers, the plant branches off from that spot. Each time it flowers, it branches again. Changing environmental factors like temperature and rainfall determine when and if an individual plant will flower so each one looks totally different.
The local Cahuilla people have used the plants to weave baskets and sandals, and ate both the seeds and the flowers. They call it hunuvat chiy’a or humwichawa. Personally I think they should rename the park, and honor the native people including the Cahuilla, Serrano and Chemehuevi who were here before the Mormons and other white settlers came. Do you agree?
In the park you’ll find many campsites, hiking trails, and places to rock climb. Joshua Tree is an extremely popular park, attracting over 2.8 million visitors in 2017. If you plan to stay in or near the park you should definitely make reservations in advance.
There are three main entrances to the park, known as West Entrance, North Entrance and South Entrance. There are also entrances near a few of the campsites or hiking trails but often these don’t connect with the rest of the park. The West Entrance is often the busiest with long lines of cars on some weekends.
Due to the popularity of this special place, the National Park Service is testing a new shuttle service from near the North Entrance in Twentynine Palms. Hop on at the Oasis Visitor Center there and get dropped off at a trailhead to explore. This would be an excellent option for those who don’t have their own car too! Best of all, while the park is testing this service, entry to the park is temporarily FREE for those who ride the shuttle! YES!
Entrance to the park is currently $30 per vehicle for a seven day park pass, but if you have an America the Beautiful annual pass or Joshua Tree Annual Pass it is free. If you will visit more than one National Park in a year I highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful pass which gives you free access to the parks. You can purchase the pass here.
The park is free to visit on the following days:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- The first day of National Park Week
- National Public Lands Day
- Veterans Day
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park
There are many trails in Joshua Tree National Park, both short and easy and long and challenging. Some of the most popular trails include Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, Arch Rock Nature Trail and the Boy Scout Trail. Some hikes are paved and accessible for wheel chairs while others are multi-day backpacking trips. There are peaks to climb and canyons to explore.
If you enjoy expansive views you should take the detour to Keys View to see all the way to Palm Springs and even to the Mexican border on a clear day.
Other interesting sights that are near parking lots and the main roads are Skull Rock and the Cholla Cactus Gardens. Lovely short walks include Cap Rock, Hidden Valley, Cottonwood Spring and Indian Cove.
When hiking Joshua Tree be sure to bring plenty of water and wear sun protection and a hat. Even in the winter the desert air is dry, and daytime temperatures can get warm. In the summer it can be absolutely scorching! There is no water in the park aside from a few of the campgrounds so be sure to fill your bottles before you go.
Also be warned that there really is no cell reception in the park, so bring maps and plan ahead. People have gotten lost just wandering away from their car and some have disappeared or died here! Yikes!
Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is extremely popular with rock climbers from all over the globe, but is especially wonderful in the winter when other rock climbing spots might be experiencing snow and ice.
There are more than 8,000 climbing routes in the park, not counting the random boulders that newbies might practice on. Speaking of newbies, why not take a rock climbing class in the park?
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park
There are nine developed campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park with 540 campsites. You can also backcountry camp in the wilderness areas, although a permit is required from the visitor center.
You can make advance reservations for camping at the campgrounds, and they also operate on a first-come, first-served basis if there are spaces available. If you don’t have a reservation you can try to show up and look for a vacant spot. I’d recommend arriving mid-morning, and look for spaces where people are leaving. However the campgrounds are usually full on weekends throughout the year. If you can plan ahead it is best to make a reservation, especially in the high seasons of autumn and spring.
Camping is $15-$20 per night depending on the campground.
Joshua Tree National Park campgrounds include:
- Jumbo Rocks: Popular with rock climbers, reservations required. A shuttle stop so you can get around the park and leave your vehicle there – or – don’t bring a car at all!
- Hidden Valley: You’ll find large boulders and joshua trees at this campground.
- Indian Cove: A very beautiful campground with a separate entrance off Highway 62. Reservations possible. There is water at this campground.
- Black Rock: A large campground with sites for RVs, tents and equestrians. Reservations possible. There is water at this campground.
- Ryan: This campsite includes four equestrian sites and is near the horse trails.
- Belle: A smaller campground with scattered rocks.
- White Tank: A great campground for watching the stars, best for tent campers, vans and smaller RVs.
- Cottonwood: located on the southeastern, lower elevation side of the park, it is quite a driving distance to the section of the park with the rock formations and joshua trees. Reservations possible. There is water at this campground.
Outside the park you’ll find a variety of campsites that can be reserved through sites like Hipcamp. Register here and receive $20 off your first booking. Some night have simple spots for a tent, while others might have bathrooms, kitchens or even interesting structures to sleep in! Check out a few favorites here.
If you don’t want to pay to camp in the park you can also stay on BLM land nearby on the southeastern side of the park, although there are no restrooms or other services, and there are no joshua trees around.
Keep in mind that summer temperatures in the desert can be scorching, and there is not really much shade in the park. On the other hand, desert nights can be very cold, especially in the winter. It usually snows at least a few times each winter. So be prepared!
Places to Stay Near Joshua Tree National Park
If you’d prefer not to camp, there are plenty of lodging options near the park. Check out this post on cool places to stay near Joshua Tree National Park.
The town of Joshua Tree is just outside the West Entrance to the park, while Twentynine Palms is near the North Entrance where the shuttle departs.
You can also stay in the Palm Springs area and do a day trip to the park. Check out these fun hotels in Palm Springs.
Here are a few accommodation options near Joshua Tree National Park:
- Experience minimalist cowboy chic at Pioneertime Motel. The hotel looks straight out of the wild west from the outside but has modern amenities inside. It’s one of the most popular boutique hotels near Joshua Tree and it’s next door to famous Pappy & Harriets bar and restaurant. The hotel is about a 30 minute drive from the park. Check here for rates and availability at Pioneertown.
- Safari Motor Inn is located in the heart of Joshua Tree town just next to The Station and Saloon. It is very convenient with about a 10 minute drive to the park’s West Entrance. The rooms are basic but they are also inexpensive, and every room has a mini fridge and microwave. Check prices for the Safari Motor Inn here.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites in Twentynine Palms is perfect if you’d like to avoid the crowds at the West Entrance or if you’d prefer to take the shuttle into the park. Book this hotel here.
Enjoy your visit to Joshua Tree National Park!
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