Joshua Tree National Park is frequented by SoCal residents, because it’s only a couple of hours from LA. It easily made our list of must-see places while we’ve lived in LA and San Diego. The park isn’t very big in comparison to Death Valley or Yosemite, and there isn’t as much variety in terms of scenery. But for those who like rock climbing or stargazing, you’ll never tire of this place. It also offers beautiful photo opps and has had the most fiery sunsets we’ve seen in our lives.
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Last Updated: July 10, 2019. First Published: Dec 24, 2016
11 Amazing Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
What You Need to Know Before You Visit JTree
- There is no cell service in the park. Although one of our RVer friends told us they found some small patches where he could stream a show. We still have yet to find good areas with service. Download your google maps and pick up a park map to keep handy.
- Get the America the Beautiful Pass to save money. An annual costs less if you plan on visiting Jtree more than once or plan on visiting two national parks within a one year period.
- Oct – May is peak season. March – May has the best weather but is when visitation is the highest. It’s great for viewing wildflowers and peak climbing season. If you come on a weekend, you can expect crowds. In the summer, temps get up to the hundreds, but you can still explore or climb in the mornings and evenings and take a break indoors mid-day.
- Late April – Late July – Best for stargazing and astrophotography since the galactic center is visible longer.
- Bring enough drinking water. There aren’t many places in the park where you can get water.
- If you don’t want to drive, take the free RoadRunner Shuttle Bus. It takes you to all the main attractions and you get free entry into the park. They run every 30 minutes and depart Twentynine Palms Transit Center and Oasis Visitor Center every hour. During peak season, if you don’t go early, parking lots fill up at popular spots.
- If you’re trying to get a campground at peak season, plan ahead. We’ve gone a couple times on a whim where we were constantly circling the campgrounds and ended up having to leave. Most weekends will be full on weekends. Try to arrive between 9 am and noon when people are leaving. If you want to get in for the weekend, you need to arrive at least by Fri morning if not earlier. If you can’t snag a campsite, have a backup plan.
- Pack layers. The desert temperatures can change drastically from day to night.
- Don’t forget your sunscreen. There isn’t much shade in the park.
- Pets are only allowed at campgrounds, picnic areas, and paved and unpaved roads. They are not allowed on trails. They also must always be on a leash.
2. Cholla Cactus Garden
A 0.25-mile loop where you can view a concentrated area of cholla cactus. Also nearby is the Ocotillo Patch. These two areas are extremely far from the rest of the park’s attractions. I wouldn’t recommend visiting them unless you also have other plans to do Desert X, Coachella, or to see the superbloom.
7. 49 Palms Oasis
A 3-mile moderately strenuous hike to an oasis. 300 ft elevation gain twice. Our friends tell us that it’s not exactly what you would picture as an oasis, but I love the desert and it’s not too long of a hike.
Coordinates: 34.006008, -116.085012, map
Take an 18 mile off-roading adventure through Pleasant Valley (four-wheel drives only). While it doesn’t have the most interesting views of the park, you’re going to have a lot of it to yourself.
Note: Check road conditions. If it had rained recently, you can even get stuck in a 4×4.
11. The Scenic Drive
We also saw a lot of great photo ops and plenty of pullouts for Joshua Trees and stacks of boulders along the main road in the park.
Summer Only - Stargazing and Astrophotography
Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky Park, and stargazing is great anywhere in the park. You do get a little light pollution from surrounding communities, and if you’re going for (hour+) long exposures Cottonwood Campground has the darkest skies. If you want to see the Milky Way, make sure you’re visiting during New Moon on a clear day.
Spring Only - See Joshua Tree Wildflowers
In the spring, especially during a superbloom, the valleys fill up with a variety of flowers. We came during the first week of. April and in the south near Cottonwood Visitor Center, we saw California bluebells (wild Canterbury Bells). In Wilson Canyon we saw a variety of flowers, but mostly Parish poppies that weren’t open for the day yet. Now, the flowers are slowly making their way up north in the park.
Pro Tip: I’ve looked at various websites for the superbloom, and this one has been the most accurate. Check the dates carefully, because sometimes posting date is different from their visit date.
Directions To Joshua Tree
We’ve driven in from San Diego and Las Vegas for both day trips and weekend trips. The road from Las Vegas goes through the Mojave National Preserve. It doesn’t have much light and it’s windy, so drive carefully. We saw one person speeding who drove off the road.
More Things to Do IN and Near Joshua Tree
- Become a Junior Ranger. Mostly kids 4-14 complete the Junior Ranger program to get a badge, but adults can too. I always do it at every National Park since it helps me learn so much about the park.
- Desert Institute Field Class – adult classes to learn more about the cultural history, survival skills, desert naturalist studies, creative arts, and more.
- Join a Ranger Program – talks, hikes, and guided walks given by park rangers.
- Ocotillo Patch – it’s not the most concentrated that we’ve seen, but if you haven’t seen ocotillos before, it could be worth the trek to the southern end of the park.
- Barker Dam Trail – see petroglyphs
- Mastodon Peak Hike – A 3-mile strenuous hike with views of the Eagle Mountains and Salton Sea.
- Lost Horse Mine Loop (4 mi, moderate) – pass several mines and ruins.
- Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail (0.1 mile, easy, 10 min out and back) – You end up in a fan palm oasis with cottonwood trees. It’s also a great spot for wildflowers and birding. Other great birding spots are Oasis of Mara and Barker Dam.
- Cottonwood Wash is a good place to spot bighorn sheep.
- Night Sky Festival (Sept)
- Pappy and Harriet’s, Pioneertown – live music and BBQ.
- The Integraton, Landers – a dome used for sound baths. You can choose private or public sound baths, but book early since they book up months in advance.
- World Famous Crochet Museum, Jtree – It’s free and open 24 hours.
- Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum, Jtree – it’s right next to the crochet museum
- Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum, Jtree
What to Pack for Joshua Tree
Places to Eat Near Joshua Tree
Since driving in and out takes time, we suggest packing your own meals. The only exception is if you’re visiting in the summer. Retreating to a restaurant with AC might be a good idea.
Where to Stay
Joshua Tree camping
During peak season (Oct – May), you can only camp for a total of 14 nights. Outside of peak season, there’s a 30 day camping limit. Also, you can only have up to 6 people, 3 tents, and 2 vehicles. Trailers count as a vehicle. There aren’t many campsites that can accommodate large RVs and trailers. The combined max length must be 25 ft or less at Hidden Valley and White Tank and 35 ft at other campgrounds. ADA accessible campsites are only at Jumbo Rocks site 122 and Black Rock site 61.
- Hidden Valley Campground (44 sites, non-reservable, $15) – This is where all the climbers want to stay since most of the climbing is right there. It’s extremely difficult to get a spot here especially during peak climbing season. All the campsites are pretty close to each other too.
- White Tank Campground (15 sites, non-reservable, $15) – This is the smallest campground and quieter We stayed here on our first climbing trip. It’s especially great if you want to shoot some astrophotography of the Arch.
- Belle Campground (18 sites, non-reservable, $15) This is farther away from a lot of the park’s attractions, but we really enjoyed how quiet and spacious the campsites were. Also there aren’t many campsites in the park that fit larger RVs and trailers and we were able to fit our airstream trailer + Ford F150 here.
- Ryan Campground (31 sites, non-reservable, $15) – Also popular with climbers.
- Black Rock (99 sites, reserve ahead, $20) – These have water, flush toilets, and a dump station.
- Cottonwood (62 sites, reserve ahead, $20) – These have water, flush toilets, and a dump station. This is also the darkest campground in the park, if you’re going for astrophotography. They also have the Cottonwood group campground next to it ($35-40).
- Indian Cove (101 sites, reserve ahead, $20) – Water is available at the ranger station.
- Jumbo Rocks (124 sites, reserve ahead, $15) – The family friendly campground.
Campgrounds outside the park
- Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground (44 sites, $) – 40 ft max RV length. They have water and electric hookups, and dump.
- JT Sportsman Club (78 sites, $) – full hookups. 50 ft max RV length
- Twentynine Palms RV Resort (170 sites, $) – full hookups and pull thru sites. 55 ft max RV length.
- Lazy H MHC and RV Park (70 sites, $) – RVs only and they have an age restriction to 55+.
- Little Pioneertown RV (17 sites, $) RVs only with 60 ft max length. They have full hookups and pull thru sites
- North Joshua Tree BLM (Free, Dispersed Camping) – 35 ft max RV length. Must be at least 300 ft from roadways.
- Joshua Tree South Entrance BLM (15 sites, Free, Dispersed Camping) – self contained RVs only with max length of 100 ft.
- Chiriaco Summit (20 sites, Free, Dispersed Camping) – 40 ft max RV length
- Yucca Valley Walmart Parking Lot – We also boondocked in our airstream and car camped here when campsites weren’t available. They just ask you park far from the store. We also buy our snacks and food there if we’re there overnight.
Hotels near Joshua Tree National Park
There’s no accommodations or services within the park. If you don’t want to camp, you have to stay in the surrounding communities.
- Sands Hotel and Spa, Palm Springs (luxury) – 37 miles away from the south entrance.
- Desert Hot Springs Inn (mid-range) – 32 mi from the West entrance.
- Miracle Springs Resort and Spa (mid-range) – we stayed here on a last minute climbing trip. It felt dated but clean. We didn’t use many of the hotel amenities like the pools and spa, but it was great for the price.
- Nomad’s Pad (budget / glamping) – cute glamping in a tent but definitely can’t do it in the heat.
Joshua Trees remind me of Dr. Seuss trees. They just don’t seem like they belong to this world. They were given their name by Mormon settlers who thought the tree’s shape resembled the biblical story where Joshua reaches his hands to the sky in prayer.
Also, if you’ve been, what food options did you try around there? Pie for the People was good but sometimes the lines are too long, so these ended up being life savers for us.
Have you been? Any other things to do in Joshua Tree that we missed? Also trivia question: Do you know what band named their album after the Joshua tree?
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Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.