10 Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park

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Planning a memorable trip to Joshua Tree? Looking for exciting things to do within Joshua Tree National Park?  The park is famous for its whimsical Joshua trees (technically, tree-sized yucca) and its wonderland of boulder-sized rocks. A perfect blend between the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, “JTree” is a rock climber’s paradise. Gorgeous desert vistas, spring wildflowers, and bighorn sheep are enough to please visitors of all walks of life. The magical landscapes and life forms were the inspiration of U2’s 1987 album, Joshua Tree, and continue to inspire hikers and sightseers daily. With a gallon of water, hat, and sunscreen in hand, here are my top 10 Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park.

Things to Know before you go to Joshua Tree National Park

  • Plan on carrying extra on drinking water.  Access in the park is limited.  If hiking, keep an extra gallon or two of water in your car while exploring the park.
  • The best times to visit are between October – May.  Temperatures in the park can scale up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. Even during October to May, temperatures can be high – so do all your hiking early.
  • Visit one of the Joshua Tree National Park Visitors Centers for the latest park information.
  • Be prepared for traffic during the fall and springs.  The park can get very busy and parking can be limited at trailheads.
  • Once you leave the visitor centers, there is NO water or food available in the park. The only food and gas available are in the nearby towns of Joshua Tree, Indio or Twentynine Palms.
    There is very LIMITED cell service in the park.  Do NOT rely on your cell phone.
  • Keep an eye on the roadways.  If you see a Desert Tortoise on the road, please stop and help him/her to the other side.
  • There is NO gas in Joshua Tree National Park.  Please fill up before entering the park.

RELATED – One Day in Joshua Tree National Park

Getting to Joshua Tree National Park

The closest airport to Joshua Tree is Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), located just under an hour away from any park entrance. The next closest airport is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) which is 140 miles west of Joshua Tree. Additional airport options include San Diego (SAN), Las Vegas (LAS) and Phoenix (PHX), although if you’re coming from that far away you should stay in the park for at least three days to make the most of your visit.

Estimated Drive time to Joshua Tree National Park

  • San Deigo, California – 3 hours
  • Los Angeles, California – 3 hours
  • Phoenix, Arizona – 3 hours
  • Las Vegas, Nevada – 3.25 hours

Joshua Tree can be reached by public transportation but options are limited.

Currently, there is no public transportation within Joshua Tree National Park.  As of May 2019, Joshua Tree finished a two year trial period for a shuttle bus system in the park.  As June 2019, no update has been provided on if this service will become a permeant fixture in Joshua Tree National Park.

Best Guided Day Tours in Joshua Tree National Park

If you want to make your trip to Joshua Tree as easy and simple as possible, check out these amazing Joshua Tree Day Trips:

Best time of year to visit Joshua Tree National Park

While Joshua Tree National Park can be visited at any time of the year, the temperatures are the most comfortable from October to April.  The park is busiest between February and April and from October until December.

Spring brings mild days and cool nights.  Depending on the rains storm, Joshua Tree offers stunning wildflowers.  Spring is also the most popular climbing season in the park.

Fall offers the best light for photography.  The temperatures are comfortable and the crowds as slightly smaller than the springs.

Joshua Tree is a desert park which means there is very little shade on the hiking trails and during the summer 100 F isn’t uncommon.

Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree has eight campgrounds; Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, Belle, Hidden Valley, and White Tank. Reservations are required during their busy season from September-May. If you’re planning to visit during spring or fall be sure to book early through Recreation.gov. The rest of the year’s sites are available first come first serve.

There are a range of hotel options depending on budget and which town you would like to stay in.

Twentynine Palms (near the Oasis Visitor Center)

  • Campbell House: A cute Philadelphia-style colonial house. Highest Rated on TripAdvisorBook Now.
  • Sunnyvale Garden Suites Hotel: A western-themed hotel with private patios and BBQ facilities.  Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
  • Holiday Inn Express & Suites Twentynine Palms: A standard hotel option close to the visitor center. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.

Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley (near Joshua Tree Visitor Center and West Entrance)

  • Nomad’s Pad: Rugged & Unplugged: Enjoy camping with a bit of luxury.  Book Now.
  • Hicksville Trailer Palace: Enjoy a stay in a vintage themed Airstream trailer park. Book Now.
  • Americas Best Value Inn and Suites -Yucca Valley: A budget-friendly hotel close to Yucca Valley dining.  Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.

Palm Springs (easy access to the West Entrance)

  • Desert Riviera Hotel: A vintage resort to take you back in old Palm Springs.  This property is adult ONLY. Highest Rated on TripAdvisorBook Now.
  • Andreas Hotel & Spa: A 1930’s Spanish Revival and Craftsman hotel.  Each room fits this theme. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
  •  Delos Reyes Palm Springs: A budget-friendly hotel with a range of amenities.  Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.

What to pack for a day in Joshua Tree National Park?

  • America the Beautiful National Parks Pass: Joshua Tree National Park costs $35 for a 7-day pass.  If you intend to visit more than 3 National Park Services sites in a year, the American the Beautiful Pass will more than pay for itself.
  • Water bottle or bladder: No matter how much or how little you are hiking in Joshua Tree.  You need to be carrying water with you.  For short hikes, a liter water bottle should be perfectly fine.  I prefer the Nalgene bottle because they are lightweight.  If you would like to keep your water cooler, the Joshua Tree Hydro-Flask would be perfect.  For longer hikes, I recommend a 3-liter hydration reservoir.
  • Water Storage: There is no water in Joshua Tree National Park once you leave the visitor center.  You should plan on carrying a gallon of water per person per day.  Personally, I keep a 5.3-gallon folding water cube in my car for extra water.  I keep it so I have extra water plus enough to help someone out if I come across someone in serious trouble.  Be sure to cover the water cube with a towel or shirt when leaving it in the car.  Sunlight reflecting thru the container has the ability to start fires.
  • Snacks: There are no services in the park.  So pick up all your snacks before you go.  Pack a couple of different options so you are prepared for any craving.
    • Fruit:  Pick hard fruits such as apples or pears.  These hold-up in the heat and in packs without getting squished to mush. Another option is freeze-dried fruit. Freeze-dried strawberries are the BOMB.  They are crunchy, sweet and the best part is they are lightweight and yummy.  These are my new favorite trail snack.
    • Vegetables: Cucumbers and carrots hold up well during hiking and in a hot car.
    • Granola Bars:  Take your favorite non-coated in chocolate granola bars.  Anything coated in chocolate will melt and be a sticky mess.  My favorite is a selection of Cliff Bars. They are great even when squished.
  • Cooler: If you want to keep anything in your car remotely cool, bring a heavy-duty cooler with you.   Put a bit of ice and a snack and a drink in the cooler and it will at least be not burning hot when you get back from your hike.
  • Sunscreen: Joshua Tree is a desert.  The famed Joshua Trees are tall and skinny, but they don’t provide a lot of shade.  You need to take extra care to protect your skin from the brutal desert sun.  Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen.
  • Sunglasses: Similar to sunscreen, you need a good pair of polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare of the sun.
  • Hat: A good sun hat can double you sun protection on your face and neck.  I would recommend a wide brim safari style hat.  For added protection, I would go with sun hat with a cape.
  • First Aid Kit: As with any outdoor adventure, accidents happen.  It is better to be prepared and have a compact first-aid kit ready to help with any accidents.
  • Tweezers: Joshua Tree is a desert with that comes a range of cacti.  I’m sure you don’t intend to touch the cacti, occasional a cacti will jump up and embed their cactus spines in your skin.  Having a pair of sharp tweezers will help get those pesky spines out.  The Cholla Cactus might look cuddly but they aren’t.
  • Flashlight: A flashlight is always nice to keep on hand for spontaneous sunrise or sunset hikes.  I keep one in my day pack just in case I get distracted and stay out longer and later than planned.  Here is a great all-weather flashlight.
  • Day Pack: A good day pack can carry all your snacks, water, and other gear while exploring Joshua Tree National Park.  I have had great use out of the REI brand day packs.
  • Sturdy Hiking Shoes: Hiking in Joshua Tree requires sturdy CLOSED toe shoes.  Cactus have spines and those spines LOVE embedding themselves into feet.  A sturdy pair of hiking boots work wonders at preventing spines in feet.
  • Joshua Tree T-Shirt: Get your National Park Obsessed Joshua Tree T-Shirt to celebrate your trip to Joshua Tree.

10 Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

Start your day off right at The Natural Sisters Café

Right outside of the West Entrance into the park, The Natural Sisters Café is the perfect spot for your morning fuel. The interior is snug and inviting, offering a nutritious, all-organic fare of fresh smoothies and wraps. Although vegetarian options draw in crowds, menu items such as their black bean burger, killer bee smoothie, and vegan carrot cake are suitable for anyone who’s hungry!

Climb around the Wonderland of Rocks

From beginner and advanced climbing to bouldering, high lining, and slacklining, Joshua Tree  National Park is the perfect place for adrenaline junkies of all skill levels. Climbers come from around the world to climb in Joshua Tree. Hundreds of climbers can be found in the park each weekend between October and May.

Please practice Leave No Trace Principles and good climbing practices. Be sure to obtain any necessary permits before climbing, and consider hiring a National Park Service permitted climbing guide.

Afraid of heights? Take a seat on a welcoming boulder and soak in all of the sites.

Hike to Baker Dam Historic Reservoir

Hidden in the Wonderland of Rocks is a short 1.5-mile loop that leads to Baker Dam historic reservoir.  The trail leads through the tall boulders, and at its finish emerges at a small pond teeming with wildlife.  The dam was constructed by early cattlemen in 1900 and continues to serve as a hub for wild birds and bighorn sheep.

Along the loop, Native American petroglyphs can be seen on several spur trails. Hike this trail early in the morning for a shot at seeing wildlife and to marvel at the site of water in a desert!

Take the Hidden Valley Nature Trail

Hidden Valley Trail is a simple 1-mile loop trail is a great way to sample the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. The trail’s intricate rock formations and towering Joshua trees will feel like a time warp back to the Paleolithic period. This trail is level and short, making it accessible to nearly all visitors.

It is rumored that the area was once used by cattle rustlers as a hideout.  The trail has signs to help visitors to learn to identify the plants of Joshua Tree and a bit of the geological history that created these unique rock formations.

Visit Skull Rock.

A quick visit to this historic landmark will give display to a desert rock phenomenon – A cranial shaped granite rock with 2 eye sockets, which have been formed by erosion.

You can opt to follow the 1.7-mile Skull Rock Nature Trail nearby, although I personally tend to get lost while taking it. The hike is not required to the Skull Rock.  The Skull is seen from the road.

Hike out to the massive Arch Rock.

Take the Arch Rock Nature Trail.  This nature trail scopes out the 30-ft granite Arch Rock, along with a medley of other rock formations and potential wildflowers in the springtime. The hike may be a brief half-mile, but the views here are some of the best in the park.

Have a blast climbing around the famed Arch Rock, which rivals the arches of nearby Utah. You are welcome to climb (boulder) up to the base of the arch.  The views of the surrounding areas are exceptional.

Photo credit: Ian D. Keating

Experience both the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert.

Take a drive across the entire park to truly experience its vast diversity. The higher and cooler Mojave Desert is home to the numerous Joshua trees that give the park its name, along with the Wonderland of Rocks and other interesting geologic formations.

The Colorado Desert begins at the park’s midsection where the Joshua trees end and provide a more sparse and forbidding landscape. The smaller Yucca plant and the Cholla Cactus live here.

Walk through the Cholla Cactus Garden

I consider this to be a hidden gem of Joshua Tree National Park. The cactus grove is the perfect setting for photographs, and for observing the unique cholla cactus plants. These small, “teddy-bear” cholla cactus appear soft and fuzzy from their outside appearance, but of course, hosts sharp spines.  Don’t give in to the cuteness and hug one.  Seriously, be very cautious to only observe these little guys, and not touch them!  The cholla cacti have an infinite number of very sharp cactus needles which are extremely painful to get stuck by (and then removed).

This nature trail is a 0.25-mile loop that has no elevation gain.  Do not let your children run around here.

Take in a sunset at Keys View.

Joshua Tree’s highest viewpoint and my favorite destination within the park is Keys View. From the top, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and even Mexico. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset (preferably with a packed picnic in hand) to wind down and watch the sun hideaway beyond the mountains.

Book a campground and watch the stars at night!

After an exciting day of hiking and rock-climbing, there’s nothing more relaxing than pitching a tent and sharing laughs and roasted marshmallows with friends. The best part? Joshua Tree National Park hosts some of the darkest nights in Southern California, making it perfect for stargazing and viewing The Milky Way. Regarding campsites, I think that camping at Jumbo Rocks Campground (it’s massive and fun) or Cottonwood Springs Campground (it has actual flushing toilets) are good bets! Wherever you decide to go, be sure to book your campground early, bring your best camera, and check out the park’s Night Sky Program.

Honorable Mentions: 

The Lost Horse Mine produced over 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver.  The mine’s history involves cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and a gun-slinging cowboy.  It is a four-mile round-trip hike to visit one of the most successful mines in California.

Wall Street Mill and Wonderland Ranch is three miles out and back hike to a well preserved gold mill site.  This site was an important local business before Joshua Tree became a National Park.

Keys Desert Queen Ranch is a historic ranch in the area.  The ranch can only be visited as part of a ranger lead tour.  Reservations are recommended.

Ryan Mountain is a tough 3-mile hike.  The first 1.5 miles is all uphill until you reach the second highest peak in Joshua Tree.  Ryan Mountain is a great sunset hike.

Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail is a 1-mile hike near the Cottonwood Visitor Center.  The trail leads to the Cottonwood Spring Oasis.  This small spring showcases a range of trees that have grown due to the steady supply of water in the area.

What do you want to do in Joshua Tree?  Did I miss anything that should be on the Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park list?

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Chelsea Burge

Chelsea Burge is a 24 year old educational specialist based in San Diego, California. Chelsea loves attending live music shows, going to the beach, reading, journaling, and testing out cool food spots. She loves integrating adventure of all shapes and sizes into her life, from sampling local coffee shops to trekking foreign countries. Since moving to California, Chelsea has particularly taken an interest in traveling to national parks. As an educator, Chelsea likes to take trips during school breaks. This past year, she ventured to Yosemite, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. She even went to Iguazu National park in Brazil and Argentina. To say the least, Chelsea Burge is #nationalparkobsessed!

Chelsea Burge has 2 posts and counting. See all posts by Chelsea Burge

18 thoughts on “10 Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park

  • 14 Jul 2018 at 1:43 am
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    What a great, detailed list! I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t made it to Joshua Tree yet, partly because I didn’t know what was really there. After seeing this breakdown of the paths – both how long they are and what’s there – I realize that the trails are not so intimidating and very diverse!

    Reply
    • 14 Jul 2018 at 3:45 pm
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      You’ve got to go! It’s really fun for everyone, regardless of hiking skill level. 🙂

      Reply
    • 14 Jul 2018 at 3:48 pm
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      It’s really such a special place! I’d definitely recommend it, especially if you’re close to SoCal.

      Reply
  • 14 Jul 2018 at 7:21 pm
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    Love the photographs. We haven’t had the chance to visit the Joshua Tree National Park yet but listened to their relaxing radio information (it sounded like it was from the 1930’s) when we were driving from San Diego to Las Vegas. Skull rock really does look like a skull. Hope to return to that area of the US in 2019.

    Reply
  • 15 Jul 2018 at 12:44 am
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    Wonderful tips to see Joshua national park. I especially like the recommendation of staying overnight and gazing at the stars, doing a day trip would be losing out on such wonderful memories.

    Reply
    • 15 Jul 2018 at 1:41 am
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      It’s really such a different experience! Seeing the Stars out in the desert is amazing ❤️

      Reply
  • 15 Jul 2018 at 1:32 am
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    I have not been to Joshua Tree yet but it looks gorgeous. The hikes you mentioned sound great and the formation of the skull rock looks really interesting. I would love to visit.

    Reply
  • 15 Jul 2018 at 3:57 am
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    Joshua Tree looks amazing. I’ve had a load of friends visit there in the past few years, but I’ve never had a chance. The landscape looks stunning and love the shorter trail options too so you can do multiple trails in a day. Good tip on bringing in supplies too, as I had no idea that there were zero options within the park itself.

    Reply
  • 15 Jul 2018 at 3:48 pm
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    That cafe feels like an awesome way to start the day Chelsea. Nothing like beginning a busy day of hiking with a nutritious meal. The park itself looks brilliant and brings back memories of bible study during my childhood years. Super post.

    Ryan

    Reply
  • 16 Jul 2018 at 11:06 am
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    I’ve been to Joshua Tree NP many times and love it! Your tips and tricks were right on. It is such an easy park to enjoy, but I don’t think a lot of people realize the whole food/drink situation!

    Reply
  • 16 Jul 2018 at 9:56 pm
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    Wow this park definitely has a lot to see, so many different landscapes and sights, from arches to boulders and even good old cactus desert, I didn’t know there were so many different aspects to the park. Great capture of the Milky way too, bet it was spectacular Also love your tshirts!

    Reply
  • 17 Jul 2018 at 1:59 am
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    Fantastic photos and a very inclusive list of fun activities! We went to Joshua Tree this past Spring to see the wildflower bloom – so amazing! I think Spring is one of the best times to go because of all the flowers, and it’s not as hot. We took a telescope and joined a bunch of other astronomy buffs at the little observatory right outside the park for a star show. So much fun!

    Reply
  • 17 Jul 2018 at 8:39 am
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    How this makes me want to visit the National Park! Joshua tree is amazing in pic I wonder how mind blowing it must be in real. Thanks for the info on trail options and supplies.

    Reply
  • 17 Jul 2018 at 8:42 am
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    Would love to see skull rock and hike to arch rock. You caught a gorgeous sunset at Keys View. All the rocks in Joshua Tree remind me a lot of Alabama Hills

    Reply
  • 17 Jul 2018 at 1:55 pm
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    Stunning photos. It looked as if I was reading a NG article . Seriously. We are planning an extended vacation in the US but not sure how the itinerary would pan out. If I had time only for one national park Which one would you choose?

    Reply
    • 18 Jul 2018 at 11:16 am
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      If you can only choose one, I would go with Yellowstone! It’s the world’s first national park and it’s also the largest area of geothermal activity in the world. Most of the park is in a caldera of a volcano which erupted ages ago. If you’re from out of the country, this is one of the most unique and cool options to see!

      I also really love Zion in Utah. Utah holds five really great national parks so you may be able to see a few dependent on your itinerary and how long you’re here 🙂

      Reply
  • 17 Jul 2018 at 5:37 pm
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    Joshua Tree National Park is breathtaking! I have heard about it from my mom before, but I had no idea there was a lot to do there! Your photo of the stars is awesome! What camera did you use? =)

    Reply

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