Known for massive boulder formations, stands of iconic Joshua trees, and pristine desert scenery, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the more unique national park experiences. Located near Palm Springs in Southern California, the park protects portions of two famous deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado. The park is named for the native Joshua tree, also called the yucca palm, a highly recognizable species of succulent known for its spiky leaves.
Popular activities at the park include hiking many short and some longer trails. Thousands of climbing routes of all difficulties can be found on the granite rock formations throughout the park. (For more information on Joshua Tree climbing, check out the NPS webpage). Wildlife viewing is another highlight of the park, with chances to see coyotes, bighorn sheep, and desert tortoises, particularly during cooler seasons and times of day. Camping is also popular, mostly from fall through spring, and NPS manages about 500 campsites inside the park. In recent years, glamping Joshua Tree or at private facilities outside the park, including yurts and domes, has become increasingly popular.
Joshua Tree California weather can be quite dangerous at times. Due to extreme summer temperatures, with average highs in the mid- to high-90s, and some days reaching well into the 100s, most people visit Joshua Tree during fall, winter, and spring. October and April see daily highs in the mid-70s to low-80s. Meanwhile, between November and March, daily highs range in the 50s and 60s. If you plan to undertake physical activities like hiking and climbing, it’s typically best to avoid a summer visit. Almost every year, Joshua Tree sees several hikers die due to heat exposure and dehydration. (For other parks to visit, check out our blog posts on winter parks and the nearby Grand Circle!)
For those who do visit during summer, the park service recommends hiking only short trails (less than 2 miles) and starting before 9am. Make sure to take plenty of drinking water and sun protection, including sunscreen, hat, and possibly lightweight, long-sleeve clothing. Even when visiting at other times of year, the climate is very dry and the sun can be intense, with little shade available, so make sure to always bring enough water and sun protection. Another danger to watch out for while hiking is rattlesnakes—keep a close eye out for them on the trail and do not approach if you see one.
Joshua Tree Best Hikes: Western Side
Hiking in Joshua Tree is a great way to explore the unique terrain, diverse park ecosystems, Joshua Tree groves, and stunning desert oases. When selecting park trails, it can be helpful to consider which of Joshua Tree’s highlights most interest you.
The western half of the park is at higher elevation, roughly 3000 feet and above, where you’ll find Mojave Desert ecosystems and groves of Joshua Trees. You’ll also find pinyon pines, junipers, and prickly pear cactus growing amid the boulder formations.
There are more hiking trails on the western side of the park, many of them clustered around the Park Boulevard, which meanders between the West Entrance Station and the North Entrance Station. These include the Barker Dam Trail, an easy 1.1-mile loop through boulder stacks and Joshua trees that leads to a rock art site and a historic dam. From the nearby Hidden Valley picnic area, the Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a 1-mile loop into a rock-enclosed valley that was rumored to be a hideout for cattle rustlers.
One of the most popular trails in the park is Ryan Mountain. Located between Sheep Pass and Ryan Campground, this 3-mile out-and-back hike involves 1,050 feet of elevation gain leading to the summit of Ryan Mountain. The hike offers panoramic views of the park and an opportunity to see seasonal wildflowers. Considered strenuous by the NPS, this trail should be avoided during summer.
Skull Rock Trail, located at the Skull rock parking area near Jumbo Rocks Campground, is a 1.7-mile loop hike through boulder stacks that leads to the Skull Rock formation. Arch Rock Nature Trail, located at the Twin Tanks Parking area on Pinto Basin Road, is a popular 1.4-mile hike leading through boulder stacks that passes a stone arch.
Located on the western side of the park but accessed from the town of Twentynine Palms, on Canyon Road, there’s the Fortynine Palms Oasis. This moderate to strenuous 3-mile out-and-back hike involves 600 feet of total elevation and leads to an impressive fan palm oasis.
Joshua Tree Best Hikes: Eastern Side
The eastern half of the park, below 3000 feet, is where you’ll find the Colorado Desert ecosystems. Here you won’t find Joshua trees but mostly creosote bushes, spindly ocotillos, and cholla cactuses.
Overall, there are less hiking trails on the eastern side of the park, but there are several good ones worth visiting. Near the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, just off I-10, you’ll find the Bajada Nature Trail. This 0.25-mile loop offers a brief introduction to the plants of the Colorado Desert.
At the nearby Cottonwood Visitor Center, there are a pair of very different trails. The Cottonwood Spring trail is only 0.1-mile to a fan palm oasis with cottonwood trees. If you’re looking for a challenging hike (during cooler weather only), departing from the same trailhead there’s the Lost Palms Oasis Trail. This 7.5-mile out-and-back hike crosses rolling desert terrain on its way to a remote fan palm oasis.
Another eastern destination is located 20 miles north of Cottonwood Visitor Center on Pinto Basin Road. The Cholla Cactus Garden trail is just a 0.25-mile hike offering views of thousands of densely concentrated cholla cactuses.
Camping, Lodging, & Glamping Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park manages eight campgrounds with about 500 campsites within the park boundaries. Prices and amenities vary at each campground, with some offering water spigots and flush toilets while others have no water and only pit toilets. Sites are available for both tent camping and RVs/campers. Most of these campsites can be reserved up to six months in advance, and reservations are required at five of the campgrounds (Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, Jumbo Rocks, and Ryan). Three campgrounds are available first-come, first-served (Belle, Hidden Valley, and White Tank), and these often fill up on holidays, weekends between September and May, and everyday during the busy spring season from mid-February to mid-May.
Because of the high competition for campsites inside the park, many visitors look outside the park for accommodations. Hotel and motel rooms can be found in neighboring communities, mostly on the west side of the park, like Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio, and others. Joshua Tree Airbnb is also a good option.
In recent years, glamping—short for glamour camping, aka luxury camping—has become increasingly popular in the Joshua Tree area. Partly due to the proximity of the park to the Los Angeles metro region (about 2-3 hours away), glamping Southern California style can be particularly luxurious.
Glamping camping (as some refer to it) opportunities range widely, including sleeping in canvas wall tents, yurts, domes, stationary RVs, cabins, and other semi-rustic accommodations. Sometimes, glamping establishments may offer swimming pools, hot tubs, restaurants, and other facilities typically associated with a hotel. Many of these options can be found by searching online, meanwhile NPS maintains a webpage for information about camping and glamping outside the park.
We hope you’ve found these tips helpful for planning your trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
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Cover photo: A person walks along the road through Joshua Tree National Park. Helivideo/Adobe