NPS Spotlight – Joshua Tree National Park

I can’t remember when I got latched onto Joshua Tree. Probably a random photo I saw that made me go, “whoa.” Sometimes that’s all it takes. And a mini obsession was formed.

Joshua Tree Fast Facts

  • At 795,156 acres Joshua Tree is the 15th largest national park (eighth largest if you eliminate the Alaska national parks). It’s larger than Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Zion, and Acadia, all of which see more yearly visitors.
  • It was originally designated a national monument in 1936 and became a National Park in 1994.
  • The elevation in the park ranges from 536 feet to 5814 feet.
  • It is the convergence of two deserts: the Mojave Desert and the Colorado desert, each with distinct ecosystems.
  • Joshua Trees are not actually trees but a type of Yucca plant.
Cool trees and rocks and stuff

Things to Know

1.) There are three visitor centers: Joshua Tree, Oasis, and Cottonwood. All have your basic amenities but Joshua Tree is the largest and is open longer hours than the other two. Cottonwood is in the south end, and least visited, part of the park.

2.) There are only a few roads in the park. Park Boulevard connects the West Entrance Station (and Joshua Tree Visitor Center) to the North Entrance Station (Oasis Visitor Center). It takes about an hour to drive through the park between these two points (they can connect in a full loop by exiting the park and taking route 62). Most of the big hitter attractions are on, or just off, this road and it will be the most populated stretch.

3.) The other two roads are Keys View Road and Pinto Basin Road. Keys View has a couple of hiking trails off of it and ends at Keys View roughly 15 minutes/5.5 miles down. Pinto Basin will connect to the Cottonwood Visitor Center about 30 miles down and can be used to enter/exit the park via the South Entrance. The most notable trails down this road are Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Lost Palms Oasis Trail.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Popularity

Overall, Joshua Tree is a pretty popular park. Pre-covid (which affected different parks in different ways) it was hovering just outside the top ten most visited. This surprised me when I learned that because it never seems to be a consistent focus of many travel and national park feeds (and you know ya girl follows a lot). It crops up to be sure, but never quite gets the attention as many, even lesser visited, parks. It also didn’t feel popular and crowded when I was there. I didn’t see nearly as many people as in other parks that I’ve been to and I felt like I had a lot of solitude. But perhaps that’s just the nature of the desert.

Or, more logically, I’d actually wager Joshua Tree is popular without being popular for a few other reasons.

First off is it’s location. It’s about 35 minutes from Palm Springs – the unquestionably popular golf resort town. People visiting Palm Springs can easily pop up to Joshua Tree for a day or two to check it out. This is opposed to people doing a national park trip and spending several days in the park. This ups the number of visitors to the park without actually making Joshua Tree NP the main destination.

Secondly is its size. As mentioned above, Joshua Tree is larger than a lot of parks that see more yearly visitors. Even with so many visitors, when they’re staying for shorter visits and have more room to spread out, the park easily gives the peacefulness and solitude that the parks and park-goers deserve. That being said, the most popular months (May and October) camp grounds and popular trail heads will still fill quickly.

Skull Rock, near Jumbo Rocks Campground – probably the most popular area of the park

Hiking the Park

This park is interesting by way of the fact that, while there are definitely designated trails in the park, there is also the right to roam pretty much anywhere. As most of us know, many parks, especially popular ones, have signs everywhere reminding you to stick to the trails. Sometimes this is for hikers’ safety but often it’s for the well-being of the flora and fauna. Joshua Tree, however, is one of the exceptions. Amongst the designated trailheads there are a multitude of pull-offs where you are free to get out and explore whether there’s a dotted trail line on your map or not. Here’s my recommended hikes:

Ryan Mountain

3 miles/out & back/ a little over 1000 foot elevation gain

I almost did not hike this trail. It’s the top hike listed on Alltrails, but the user uploaded pictures made it look unimpressive and I got the (wrong) impression that it was only done because it’s really one of the only peaks to do in the park. I ended up fitting in more on my first day than I thought I would so, on the second day, made a last minute decision to do it. And I am sure glad I did! Despite the elevation change, it’s really not all that difficult because there are stone steps built into a lot of spots. I enjoyed the hike itself and the views of the park, and Mount San Jacinto were gorgeous.

Top of Ryan Mountain

Wall Street Mill

2.4 miles/out & back/ very little elevation change

This trail is cool because it shows a little history of human influence in the area before it was a park. At the end you’ll see left-over equipment and along the way you’ll see a rather interesting headstone from a shoot-out.

Quick note: This is an unmarked trail that you will not find on the official NPS website. There will be a sign for it at a shared trailhead but otherwise there are no trail markings. The herd path is easy to follow but, at the beginning, the trail splits and, while the left looks more traversed, you want to go right.

Looks totally safe and useable

Keys View

Less than a quarter mile, paved, to a really awesome lookout.

This is at the end of Keys View Road and is a popular sunset spot. I’m not sure it’s really a hike so much as a look-out but, whatever you want to call it, it’s absolutely stunning.

Hazy Keys View Sunset

Nature Trails

There are several nature trails in the park that have information signs along the way explaining plants, wildlife, or rock formations.

  • Hidden Valley Nature Trail: 1 mile loop. This was one of my favorite of the nature trails. Some of them are really similar (cool rocks and trees) but I liked that this one you felt partly immersed in the boulders and partly out in the open.
  • Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks Loop: 1.7 miles. Skull Rock is right off the road so you can always just park and jump out of the car to see that, but I liked doing the whole loop. If you connect it to the Discovery Trail you can get a view of both Skull Rock and Elephant Rock from afar and do a quick side trail to catch a peek of Face Rock as well.
  • Cholla Cactus Garden: .25 miles/no elevation change. I LOVED this little trail. The Cholla Cactus are so cool! This is about ten miles down the lesser traveled Pinto Basin Road and in the Colorado Desert portion of the park. I very much recommend taking the drive down just for this little quarter mile loop.
  • Arch Rock: 1.4 mile/lollipop loop. I did this trail at the end of my time in Joshua Tree and it stuck out to me because it still felt like I was experiencing something different from the other stuff I had seen in the park.
  • Barker Dam: 1.1 mile loop. For the most part there wasn’t much new to see on this trail compared to the other trails with the notable exception of an old cattle-rancher water tank. I read this is also a possible trail to see bighorn sheep but I, sadly, did not spot any.
Face Rock (they’re really creative when naming things)

Where to Stay

Staying in Palm Springs is always an option. It’s an easy 35 minute drive between the two and the city has a lot going on. There’s a great downtown area with a ton of shops and restaurants. There are museums, tours, and golf courses to entertain.

If you do want to stay closer to the park, the nearby towns are close and have lots of amenities. Grocery stores, fast food, restaurants, shops, coffee, and anything else you might need or want, line the main street in a 16-mile stretch between the two main Joshua Tree Visitor Centers from Twentynine Palms to Joshua Tree (the town). Joshua Tree, where I stayed, is more desolate than Twentynine Palms and less expensive. While I was only about a mile from the visitor center and had easy access to the park, my motel was still incredibly cheap ($58). However, you get what you pay for. I would be inclined to spend a little more for what Twentynine Palms has to offer by way of amenities; there’s nothing like some good eats after a great day of hiking. I ate microwaveable macaroni one night and subjected myself to non-dairy powdered coffee creamer.

Downtown Palm Springs (I swear I did not just pick this picture because it has a MINI)

When to Go

It’s the desert. The height of summer is the least ideal time to go. Not only will the average temperature be near, if not over, triple digits, but there is not a lick of shade to help you out.

May and October are the most popular months so, if you’re looking for a campsite, these months will fill up the fastest. The shoulder months (April/early June and November/late September) are still great alternatives if you want to stick to the ideal Spring and Fall temperatures.

However, depending what you want to do, almost anytime is a good time to go. I was there in February and found the temperatures great to hike in. However, as people often forget, while the desert can get very hot, it can also get very cold. If you are looking to camp, keep in mind that in the winter the temperatures will drop well below freezing at night.

If birdwatching is your jam then Spring is touted at the best time to go. If you are hoping to spot a majestic Bighorn Sheep then avoiding summer, when they’ll be resting during the heat of the day, is the best chance.

Other Things to Do

  • Rock Climbing: Joshua Tree is very popular for rock climbers. It has over 8000 climbing routes spanning all ability levels. Even if you’re not a climber, get out and do some bouldering anyway! Part of the Joshua Tree experience is climbing around on the rocks. As always, be careful, and know your limits.
  • Mountain Biking: I imagine mountain biking to be a great way to explore this park. With the freedom to roam anywhere in the park, mountain biking would be a lot of fun.
Just chillin’ on some rocks

I did other things in the park as well and hiked a handful of other trails that I didn’t list. What I’ve included is a well-rounded guide to being able to see different aspects of the park. But, if there is a trail you were eyeing that I didn’t list, you can probably count on it being awesome. This park is truly spectacular (shock!). And, as always, feel free to comment your own favorite parts of the park or ask any questions!

2 responses to “NPS Spotlight – Joshua Tree National Park”

  1. Nice, Kris! Makes me want to visit the park, and the nearby towns. Anyone who thinks about going there would have all the info they need, thanks to you!

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