Driving into Joshua Tree National Park, you can’t help but feel like you have entered into some other world; like that out of a Dr. Seuss book or perhaps you’ve landed on some planet in a science fiction movie. One of the first features that grabbed our attention was, of course, those TREES! They were so interesting to look at, and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of them! Being from the Midwest, we aren’t used to desert views or exploring a park in extreme HEAT! But that we did in late June. Most people in California would think we were crazy. Because we were passing by this park on a road trip, we had to stop nonetheless, and now I get to tell you all about it! However, if you can, I suggest visiting this park any month OTHER than June, July, or August to avoid extreme heat. Unlike other national parks, peak season here (and the best time to visit without a doubt) is between October and May. Summer months bring excessive and miserable heat; making it next to impossible to hike here.
Joshua Tree National Park gets it name from the whimsical and curious-looking trees you can’t miss throughout the park. Joshua trees grow nowhere else in the world except here! They were important to the American Indians for its usefulness. Its tough leaves were used to make baskets and sandals, and the flower buds and seeds made for a healthy diet. But how did they get their name? It is said that Mormon immigrants who came to this land had named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, who saw the limbs of the tree as outstretched arms, guiding travelers westward. Nonetheless, the Joshua Tree is an important part of the Mohave Desert ecosystem. It provides shelter for many types of animals; including lizards, birds, mammals, and insects.
We found it also interesting that no two Joshua Trees look the same! Some of the trees have winding and curving branches all over; while others grow straight up! After doing some research, I learned that the amount of branches a Joshua Tree has is dependent upon how many times it has bloomed. After a tree has flowered and the blossom dies, it leaves behind a dead stalk, and a new branch forms in a completely different direction. This post by WILDLAND TREKKING has some great information on getting to know Joshua Trees and their history. I highly suggest learning about the trees before leaving for your adventure! Knowing more about the trees will make you appreciate this park even more! Getting to Know the Joshua Tree
What About All Those Rocks?
Another feature of this park you can’t help but notice are the boulders that lie on top of each other, all over the park. These rock piles are a natural playground for kids and adults alike! You can climb on them, at your own risk! These rocks are the result of over 200 million years of plates colliding together and causing reactions in the ground below. Over time, the ground erodes away, revealing the rocks we see today above the surface. I found this quick video from the park service helpful in understanding the geological process that continues to occur today…
Hiking at the Park
Hiking at Joshua Tree National Park is a very rewarding experience, and there are hikes for all ability levels, ranging from easy to challenging! As I mentioned earlier, when we explored this park, it was late June and the heat was extreme; exceeding 105 degrees during our visit with a heat index of 115. Because of this, we unfortunately had to experience the park largely from our car; only to get out for a short time and take quick hikes throughout the terrain. The short hikes are easy to manage, and some are wheelchair accessible, but the moderate and challenging hikes are not recommended in the summer heat. The hikes at Joshua Tree offer little/no shade. Remember to bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen, and stay on the trails to make your hike as enjoyable as possible.
Cholla Cactus Garden Trail: Though it was incredibly hot, we did manage this .25 trail through thousands of cholla cactus. I suggest closed toe shoes at this park, and definitely on this trail!
Barker Dam: This is an easy trail that is only 1.1 miles. You can see bighorn sheep here, though at the time we were there, we didn’t see any. This trail is near the Barker Dam parking area.
Hi-View Trail: We didn’t do this loop trail through the Joshua Tree forest, but I heard wonderful things about it. The park site says that you will “hike up a ridge on the western side of the park and take in panoramic views of the area. There are some steep sections, as well as a several benches to take a break and enjoy the view.” If you come to this park, I’d definitely put this trail on your to-do list! This trail is located northwest of Black Rock Campground.
A moderate hike I recommend is Mastodon Peak Trail, which offers an optional rock scramble that takes you to the top of a craggy granite peak. The trail then loops around past an old gold mine, with an elevation change of about 375 feet. A challenging hike to test your endurance, if you are visiting during a time when the temperatures are not hot, would be Ryan Mountain. This is a 3 miles hike, and is considered one of the most popular hikes in the park in which you can hike to the summit of Ryan Mountain with spectacular views. DO NOT hike any of these in hot weather. The park service highly discourages it. People have attempted to hike during extreme heat, and some have gotten lost and perished.
For a complete list of all the hikes, go to the park website here.
Camping in the Park
Joshua Tree National Park has an impressive amount of campgrounds! With 9 different ones to choose from within the park, there is something for everyone! Below is a description of the campgrounds from the park website with links for more information; including maps of the campgrounds. If you are traveling by RV, be sure to check the length requirements for the campground you choose.
Belle Campground is a small (18 site) campground at an elevation of 3,800 ft (1,158 m). First-come, first-served. Pit toilets. No water so bring plenty of your own. Belle is a great campground to see dark night skies.
Black Rock Campground is a 100 site campground located in the northwest corner of the park. Each campsite has a picnic table and fire ring with restrooms and water nearby. Shopping facilities are only five miles away in the town of Yucca Valley. Campsites vary in size and can accommodate both tents and RVs. A day-use picnic area and a dump station are also available.
Cottonwood Campground is reservations only during the busy season (October-May) and has 62 sites, potable water and flush toilets. The Campground is near the Cottonwood Visitor Center in the southeast part of the park. The closest metropolitan area is Indio about 30 miles away.
Hidden Valley Campground has 44 sites, pit toilets and no water. The campground is located along park boulevard and is surrounded by large boulders and Joshua Trees. All sites at Hidden Valley Campground are first-come, first-served. RV’s may not exceed 25 feet here.
Indian Cove Campground is located off of Highway 62, thirteen miles east of Joshua Tree Village and ten miles west of Twentynine Palms on the north side of the Wonderland of Rocks. Indian Cove Road dead-ends at this secluded area. Indian Cove has 101 campsites, including thirteen group campsites. There are vault toilets and no water. Campers register at the ranger station located at the entrance to the Indian Cove area. Water is available there. Reservations are required for Indian Cove during the busy season from the end of August through early June. Book a site online at http://www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777 up to six months in advance of your visit. Group campsites are reservation only.
Jumbo Rocks Campground has 124 individual/family sites. Reservations are required during the busy season, October to May. The campground is centrally located and offers great views of rock formations.
Ryan Campground has 31 campsite. All campsites are first-come, first-served. The campground is centrally located in the park and is adjacent to the California Riding and Hiking Trail. There are 4 designated equestrian sites and reservations are required. For more equestrian campsites, see Black Rock Campground. There is no water available at Ryan Campground. There are 3 bicycle sites available at $5 per night, with no more than 3 tents and 3 people per campsite.
Sheep Pass Group Campground has 6 group campsites and is centrally located within Joshua Tree National Park and is easily accessible to hiking trails and rock climbing routes. All campsites are by reservation only. It is one of three group campgrounds in the park. Towering rock formations and uniquely-shaped Joshua trees surround the facility. There is no water available in the campground. Reservations are required for group camping. Sites can accommodate 10-60 people and may be reserved up to a year in advance.
White Tank Campground is located off Pinto Basin Road in the northern end of the park, White Tank Campground is nestled among immense granite boulders. All campsites are first-come, first-served. RVs and trailers may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. There is no water available, bring plenty. White Tank has excellent night sky viewing and is located near the darkest section of the park.
Other Things To Do
Climbing, Bouldering, Highlining, and Slacklining: Before coming to this park for the first time, I had no idea how big of a rock climbing mecca this place is. With more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps, it really IS a rock climbers paradise. Love to climb? Check out detailed information here.
Observe the Milky Way: This is one activity we regretfully missed while we were here. We didn’t camp at this park due to the heat, and instead opted for a hotel in nearby Palm Springs. However, if you choose to camp, or stay until nightfall, and it is a moonless night, you MUST check out the night sky here. The best place to see the stars and the Milky Way are at Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood. This area has the least traffic and the darkest skies. When we were at the visitor center, we heard about the awesome night sky programs that are offered here by park rangers for free! Check the calendar of events during the time of your stay to see if any events are going on! Stargazing at Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree offers so many outdoor activities that you could spend days here! Bird watching, biking, photography, ranger programs, camping, exploring the night sky, hiking, horseback riding, four-wheeling, and world class rock climbing can all be found here! Don’t miss your chance for an experience of a lifetime! Visit this park the next time you are traveling through southern California!