Joshua Tree National Park Essentials

Photo: Jeremy Long Photography/ Tandemstock

How, when and where to best experience the sprawling acreage and dynamic landscapes of this popular desert destination.

Joshua Tree is one of America’s favorite desert destinations. From its Dr. Seuss-like namesake trees and reliably spectacular sunsets to an area named (without exaggeration) Wonderland of Rocks, it’s no secret why “J Tree” has become Instagram famous. Two and a half hours east of Los Angeles (depending on traffic, of course), Joshua Tree contains two distinct ecosystems of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. And FYI, those Joshua trees (aka Yucca brevifolia) are not trees at all; they are members of the agave plant family. 

Joshua Tree National Park is, in a word, vast. The park is 800,000 acres, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. Elevation ranges from 536 feet at its low point to the 5,814-foot peak of Quail Mountain. There are 270 miles of hiking trails within the park, and J Tree is home to more than 6,000 established rock climbing routes. Come for the outdoor adventure or simply the spectacular scenery. You won’t be alone: #joshuatree has literally millions of posts on Instagram. A little careful planning, however, will allow you to peacefully experience all that this national park has to offer.
 

Geology and Ecology

Joshua Tree is a geologically fascinating park, from the unusual rock formations within the park to the San Andreas Fault, which you can see from Keys View. Evidence shows that the rounded monzogranite domes were initially created by volcanic eruptions 100 million years ago, then softer rock weathered away to reveal the contemporary landscape. As for the ecosystems in the park, the northern Mojave Desert part of the park is the classic Joshua Tree you expect to see: Joshua trees and granite domes. The Colorado Desert takes up the southeastern portion of the park, where you will see cholla cactus (best viewed backlit at sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden). The westernmost part of the park is in the Little San Bernardino Mountains ecosystem, found in the Black Rock area, where you will find junipers and pinyon pines. 
 

Human History

People have inhabited this desert for 5,000 years. The Indigenous inhabitants were the Pinto, Serrano, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla peoples. Park archaeologists have determined that Joshua Tree is home to more than 100 plants they used for food, medicine and raw material. Their descendants are the Native American people who still live in the area today, including nine bands of the Cahuilla people, each with tribal governments and reservations. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, ranchers, miners and homesteaders moved in. Some artifacts from this history are still visible in Joshua Tree, like the Lost Horse Mine site, reachable by a 4-mile round-trip hike from Keys View Road. In large part due to the advocacy of Pasadena socialite, gardener and desert lover Minerva Hoyt, Joshua Tree was designated a national monument in 1936. In 1994, Congress upgraded its status to national park, adding more acreage and bringing it up to its current size. 
 

Seasons

Summer. Unlike most national parks, summer is not the season to visit J Tree. In fact, with daytime temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees, June, July and August are months to avoid. It’s not that you can’t visit the park then, but searching out nighttime activities and high elevations will be necessary. 

Spring and fall. March, April, October and November are the ideal times to visit Joshua Tree. Joshua trees bloom in these spring months. Daytime temperatures can reach into the 80s, but with super low humidity, this is comfortable weather. Lows are still above freezing, and days are reasonably long. The only downside is that visitation is highest in the spring and fall. Try visiting on a weekday or searching out more remote trailheads away from Hidden Valley. 

Winter. This is still a nice time to visit J Tree. Daytime temperatures often break 60 degrees, and the sun keeps things comfortable, though the wind can be cold. Temperatures are higher at lower elevations, like in Indian Cove, which is home to plenty of trails and climbing routes. Nighttime temperatures are (often literally) freezing. And considering how short the days are, be sure to have a plan for the evenings with proper clothing and firewood if you camp

Visiting Joshua Tree

The desert is an unforgiving environment, so prepare before entering the park. Start your day in the town of Joshua Tree and fill up on both gas (the west entrance to the south entrance alone is 56 road miles) and water, lots of water. While there are few facilities in the park—only roads, parking lots, picnic tables and latrine toilets—there are unlimited ways to have fun. And if you’re visiting during a popular time, like most weekends, you’ll also need to prepare for the crowds (the park hosts 2.8 million visitors annually). March and April plus holidays can experience extreme congestion. Plan to arrive by 6 a.m. on weekends—no joke. 

 

Climb Hidden Valley 

Joshua Tree is a mecca for rock climbing, and Hidden Valley is the heart of J Tree climbing. You’ll likely hear multiple languages, as climbers from around the world flock here. Whether you’re a beginner hiring a guide or a seasoned climber, Hidden Valley has a classic climb for you. Try getting on the Eye (5.4), Double Cross (5.7+), Sail Away (5.8) or Illusion Dweller (5.10b) and know that, chances are, you’ll soon show up on someone else’s social media feed. 

 

Watch the sunset 

Joshua Tree sunsets are reliably good, with a palette of colors that changes by the minute, heavy on the pinks and blues. Keys View is the park’s most popular sunset location, with its panoramic view of the Coachella Valley. Arrive well before sunset if you want to find a parking spot. From here you can also hike to Inspiration Peak—the name says it all. Beyond the trail, you can soak in stellar sunset views all along Park Boulevard, with backlit Joshua Trees and rock domes completing the picture. Try pulling out at Hemingway, Skull Rock or Split Rock. 

 

Camp Under the Stars 

Joshua Tree has unique and quality campsites—many sites are so close to the rock that you could belay from your tent. Although the park is home to more than 500 campsites spread across eight campgrounds, they can fill up, so reserve a site in advance (some are first come, first served). Though J Tree offers an ideal escape from it all, if you do need phone service, try Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds. Enjoy excellent stargazing, thanks to the park’s distance from city light pollution plus dry air. The new moon is best for seeing stars—a full moon in the desert is so bright you can read by it. 

 

Hike to Fortynine Palms Oasis 

If you’ve never seen a bonafide desert oasis like one you’d picture from a Looney Tunes cartoon, take the 3-mile out-and-back ramble to Fortynine Palms Oasis. Accessed from 29 Palms Highway, you start in bone-dry desert and soon catch sight of a grove of palm trees in the distance, a green patch in stark contrast to the surrounding brown landscape. Once you’re under the shade of the California fan palms, watch your step so as not to disturb the surface water that is so critical to wildlife. To say this is a starting point is an understatement; Joshua Tree is home to 270 miles of trails. 

 

Backpack the Boy Scout Trail

Starting from the Boy Scout trailhead, hike roughly 8 miles to the Indian Cove trailhead. You’ll lose more than 1,000 feet in elevation and slowly leave the Joshua trees behind. Length and relative isolation are the real draws to this trail. You can camp pretty much anywhere you want as long as you’re at least a mile from the road and 500 feet from the trail—be familiar with Leave No Trace principles before you go. Plan a shuttle at Indian Cove, or if you want to do an out-and-back, resupply on water at the Indian Cove Ranger Station (note that it’s down the road from the trailhead) as you won’t be able to access any water along the trail itself.

 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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