Iconic Joshua trees stand tall in a desert landscape dominated by huge jumbles of rock. Arid hills form a remarkable backdrop. Blue skies offer a stark contrast to the yellows, browns and greens of this unique scenery. Roadrunners scurry across the sandy desert floors while ravens circle overhead. Rattlesnakes hunt spiny lizards and kangaroo rats, hummingbirds feed on blossoming bushes, and bighorn sheep hop about boulders.
With this kaleidoscope of features and featuring many fascinating attractions, Joshua Tree National Park is weirdly enchanting. Boasting one of the most obvious names of any American national park, Joshua Tree caters to adventure-minded travelers like few other parks do.
Filled with rough-surfaced boulders and huge piles of rocks, this is one of the best U.S. national parks for rock climbing and bouldering. Hikers and campers, too, will find satisfaction in this amazing desert park in Southern California. (Nearby desert parks that are also worth visiting are Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Death Valley National Park.)
Joshua Tree National Park is exceptional in the sense that it’s the meeting place of two huge deserts.
It lies at the very intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, the latter of which is actually part of the much larger Sonoran Desert that stretches south into Mexico.
This results in a wide variety of landscapes, as well as fauna and flora. The Mojave Desert, in the northwestern part of the park, lies more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) above sea level, making it a relatively cool desert. This is where you’ll find almost all of the Joshua trees and the boulders that typify the park’s landscapes.
In the southeast, the lower-lying Colorado Desert is much hotter. There, cacti and ocotillo plants dot bone-dry, rocky hills. In spring, wildflowers carpet the desert floor, turning the otherwise monotone desert into a colorful spectacle.
The drive from one part to the other is fantastic, clearly showing how one type of desert slowly changes into another.
Although this is a desert park, and desert is often viewed as monotone and singular environment, Joshua Tree National Park is actually incredibly diverse. From boulders and rugged mountain summits to abandoned gold mines, palm oases and those strange-looking trees—they’re actually a type of yucca and not a tree at all—, there’s plenty to keep you busy.
Best of Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park Highlights
- Keys View (epic sunset views of the Coachella Valley)
- Lost Horse Mine (remains of one of the most productive gold mines in the region)
- Lost Palms Oasis (largest collection of California fan palms in Joshua Tree National Park)
- Hidden Valley (hiking, rock climbing and bouldering, Joshua trees and wildlife)
- Cholla Cactus Garden (patch of desert filled with prickly cholla cacti)
- Barker Dam (hiking, petroglyphs, historic water reservoir, Joshua trees and wildlife)
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park is so particularly rewarding because of the park’s huge diversity in landscapes. The trails give you the chance to explore various landscapes and experience how different deserts can be. The occasional wildlife sighting only adds to the beauty of these hikes.
Note that hiking is not recommended in summer. If you’re planning on doing some serious hiking in Joshua Tree, you simply have to visit in spring or fall, when temperatures are bearable.
- Hidden Valley (1-mile (1.6-kilometer) loop past huge piles of boulders and numerous Joshua trees)
- Lost Horse Mine (4 miles (6.4 kilometers) out and back or 6.5-mile (10.5-kilometer) loop to an old gold mine)
- Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles (12 kilometers) out and back to a large California fan-palm oasis)
Where to Stay?
If you want to spend the night in Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll have to camp. The only type of accommodation within the park’s boundaries are campgrounds. Most of them have only basic facilities like pit toilets, fire grates and picnic tables—nothing more. Water in the park is scarce and not available at the majority of the campgrounds.
However, it’s exactly that primitiveness of those campgrounds that makes them so irresistibly appealing. There are several campgrounds in the park, but arguably the best one is the first-come first-served Jumbo Rocks Campground, set amid large boulders and dotted with Joshua trees. I personally couldn’t have imagined a better place to pitch my tent. In fact, this is possibly the most fun campground I’ve ever stayed at.
Because the Jumbo Rocks Campground is first-come first-served, I suggest arriving no later than 8 am, especially if you’re visiting in spring, which is by far the busiest season. However, it’s not necessary to get there super-early in the morning. This is because, if the campground is full, you’ll have to wait until other people leave anyway. People typically start packing up between 8 and 9 am.
When to Visit?
The comfortable temperatures of spring make this the best time of the year to visit Joshua Tree National Park. This is definitely the busiest period, so keep that in mind when planning your visit. Campgrounds will fill up by noon at the latest; make sure to arrive early in the morning.
Just like in the other Southern California desert parks, Joshua Tree gets excessively hot in summer. Winter nights are cold. Spring (and fall as well) offers cool nights, warm afternoons and a plethora of glorious sunshine.
How Much Time Do You Need?
Three days and two nights is enough to see most of what Joshua Tree National Park has to offer. It’s essential, though, to spend at least one night in the park. The beauty of “J-Tree” doesn’t disappear once the sun’s gone. This park is stunning around the clock, from the quiet sunrises to glorious sunsets and star-studded night skies.
In this time frame, you’ll also have time to do some of the many great hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, go for casual scenic drives and simply relax at your campsite. Any national park visit is best when you have plenty of time. Rushing through a list of highlights doesn’t exactly improve your travel experience, no matter where you go. Therefore, take your time and relax. Pitch a tent, kick up your feet, and give yourself the chance to enjoy two nights of stunning night skies, instead of just one.
Joshua Tree National Park Map
Location: Southern California, United States
Nearest Towns: Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley
Area: 1,235 square miles (3,199 square kilometers)
Features: Joshua trees, boulders and rocks, historic mining sites, California fan-palm oases, desert landscapes
Main Attractions: Keys View, Lost Horse Mine, Lost Palms Oasis, Cholla Cactus Garden, Hidden Valley, Barker Dam
Main Activities: Rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, camping, stargazing
Suggested Stay: 3 days / 2 nights
More Information: National Park Service
Joshua Tree National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Death Valley National Park.