Only a 2-hour drive east of Los Angeles and 2.5 hours east of San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park offers an idyllic ideal weekend getaway for anyone living in Southern California but there’s plenty to enjoy for those who want to stick around longer. The landscape might make you think you’ve stepped onto another planet, with massive boulders, some of which have strange shapes like Skull Rock, which looks just like a skull, along with bizarre plants such as the park’s namesake Joshua trees. Watch for abundant wildlife too, with everything from bighorn sheep and desert tortoise to desert kit fox.
The park is especially popular among stargazers, hikers, and rock climbers, with miles and miles of scenic trails, more than 4,500 established climbing routes, and dark night skies filled with brilliant stars. No matter what your interests are, you’ll find lots of things to do in Joshua Tree, and this travel guide for Joshua Tree National Park will reveal the best, along with everything you know to make the most of your visit.
Where to Stay
You’ll find plenty of hotels, vacation rentals, campgrounds, and other accommodation options in the village of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, Pioneertown, and Twentynine Palms, which are all near one of the entrances to the park. There is no lodging within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park, but it does host nine campgrounds with around 500 campsites, most of which can be reserved in advance. Be aware that some close during the hot summer season, including White Tank, Belle, and some parts of Cottonwood, Indian Cove, and Black Rock campgrounds.
Near the park, some of the lodging options include:
- Joshua Tree: Sacred Sands
- Twentynine Palms: Harmony Motel
- Pioneertown: Pioneertown Motel
- Yucca Valley: SureStay Plus by Best Western Yucca Valley Joshua Tree
Is There Drinking Water in Joshua Tree National Park?
Staying hydrated is essential at any time, but even more so during the summer in Joshua Tree National Park due to the intense sun, high temperatures, and low humidity. You’ll need to bring the water you need to the park as potable water is available only at a few locations, including the visitor center in Twentynine Palms, Park Headquarters, the West Entrance Station, Indian Cove Ranger Station, and Cottonwood and Black Rock campgrounds.
The quality of drinking water is comparable to what you’ll find in most of the U.S. based on indicators like metals, bacteria, chemicals, and pH. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates it a 48 as compared to the country’s average of 55. When using the park’s potable water, it’s a good idea to bring your own filtration system to ensure all potentially harmful contaminants are removed. The LARQ Bottle Filtered is ideal when used with your non-toxic UV LARQ PureVis Cap, ensuring clean, pure water for hydration.
Top Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park is the best way to experience it with nearly 80,000 acres of diverse terrain and miles and miles of interesting trails leading to everything from palm oases and colorful wildflowers to unique rock formations.
One of the best natural trails for those seeking something short and sweet, the one-mile loop Hidden Valley route offers big rewards for little effort. It winds around this peaceful valley that’s encircled on all sides by towering rock formations and includes many of the park’s prominent features, like ginormous boulders that are fun to scramble across, Joshua Trees, and a wide variety of desert plants.
Cholla Cactus Garden
While it’s only a quarter of a mile long, this nature trail will bring you through the interesting Cholla Cactus Garden. Located off Pinto Basin Road, it showcases one of the most endearing oddities in the par, the cholla cactus, along with hundreds of other cacti in various sizes, shapes, and colors. The cholla, or Teddy Bear cactus as it’s sometimes called, isn’t cuddly. It has hollow spines which allow them to easily attach to whatever they touch, including skin. The tips of their spines curve once they’ve made contact, which makes them difficult to remove, so stay back and take advantage of the great photo ops.
49 Palms Oasis
Located near the park’s north entrance in Twentynine Palms, the three-mile out-and-back 49 Palms Oasis trail is one of the less-traveled routes in the park, ideal for those who want to avoid the crowds. It leads to a secluded palm tree oasis and will bring you through diverse desert scenery. It concludes at the soaring stands of fan palms which create a canopy over pools of water surrounded by large boulders, the perfect spot for a picnic, or to contemplate life.
A short walk along a .3-mile-loop trail will bring you to Arch Rock, a large natural rock formation that’s about 30 feet across, nestled among the granite formations that surround White Tank campground.
For more of a challenge, head up Ryan Mountain. The hike is just three miles round-trip but it’s rather strenuous, ascending 1,075 feet on the way to the summit which sits at an elevation of 5,457 feet. From here, you’ll enjoy a panoramic view of the Joshua tree forests and jumbled rock formations that surround the peak in the Pleasant, Lost Horse, and Queen valleys.
There are numerous climbing routes throughout Joshua Tree National Park, including Hidden Valley and the Sports Challenge Rock, the most popular, with a wide range of top rope climbs. Wonderland of Rocks has more routes than any other area in the park, with everything from easy bouldering to difficult lead climbs. Despite the name, Hall of Horrors is ideal for beginners who might want to try the chimney on its west face for a confidence boost.
If you want to watch a glorious sunset, head to the parking lot at Keys View. Instead of watching with the big crowds, park here and hike the just under one-mile trail to Inspiration Peak where you’ll enjoy even better views with few others around. Before the sun goes down, on a clear day you can see Salton Sea which sits at 230 feet below sea level, the Santa Rosa Mountains, and the 10,800-foot-high San Jacinta Peak just behind the town of Palm Springs.
Keys View is also a great place to see the effects of earthquakes. The park is crisscrossed by hundreds of faults, including San Andreas Fault which can be observed from here.
Joshua Tree National Park is known as the ultimate playground for stargazers. It offers the best opportunity for Southern Californians who want to enjoy epic stargazing, with clear nights almost every day of the year due with no light polluation and very little if any humidity. In fact, it’s been designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The annual Night Sky Festival in October at the Sky’s the Limit Nature Center and Observatory is worth planning a trip around, but you can enjoy the opportunity to marvel at the Milky Way and countless stars anytime by bringing a telescope or a pair of binoculars.
Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree National Park
The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park depends on the type of experience you’d like to enjoy, but for most, spring and late fall are optimal. Idyllic weather can be enjoyed around mid-March through April when wildflowers create a spectacle of color. While summer is scorching, a month after it officially ends, it will be idyllic once again with afternoon highs in the low 80s. Winter is another good option with average temperatures around 60 degrees, although it’s not great for camping as overnight lows often dip below freezing.
What to Pack
- Mix of long- and short-sleeved shirts, shorts and long pants
- Hiking boots or hiking sandals with socks
- Fleece sweatshirt or jacket for cooler evenings/overnights
- Wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
- Daypack for hiking
- Binoculars or telescope for stargazing
- LARQ Bottle Filtered and LARQ PureVis™ Cap
If you visit during one of the optimal periods, early to mid-spring or mid to late fall, the general rule is warm days and cool nights. If you’ll be doing more than a day trip, you’ll want mostly summery attire such as tank tops and shorts along with a fleece sweatshirt or jacket for evenings. Lightweight long pants are better than shorts for hiking to protect your skin and you’ll want sturdy hiking boots or hiking sandals (with socks) due to the rocky terrain and desert plants.