“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. ‘It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” — Jeannette Walls, “The Glass Castle”

Just two-and-a-half hours from Los Angeles and San Diego, Joshua Tree National Park serves as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, rock climbers, star gazers, and anyone wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the nearby cities. If you’re looking for an ideal spot for a day trip or weekend getaway, consider this your guide to planning the perfect adventure.

Photo by Robert and Tara Lemezis
Photo by Steven Moore

BASICS

  • Location: Southeastern California
  • Established: October 31, 1994
  • Size: 1,235.37 mi2 (3,199.59 km2)
  • Closest Major Cities: Los Angeles, San Diego
  • Annual Visitors: Around 2.5 million

THE JOSHUA TREE

The national park takes its name from the unusual tree that is native to the land. Joshua trees are odd-looking and a bit vicious — their pointed spines are unforgiving if you get too close. Researchers say that the average tree reaches an age of 150, and many a creature are known to use their branches for food or shelter. You’ll notice the curvy trees before you even enter the park, as their presence signifies that you’re in the Mojave Desert. These intriguing plants are the life and soul of the national park, and there’s no doubt you’ll grow to love them as you explore.

PLANNING YOUR VISIT

First and foremost, decide what you’d most like to do while visiting Joshua Tree. The park offers plenty of activities for those who want to partake in outdoor adventures, but, with its wide and winding pathways, it’s also great for road trips.

The park rangers organize a number of different programs throughout the year, so check the events calendar before you go to see if there’s something you don’t want to miss. Joshua Tree also features an array of hiking options, from nature trails and short treks to long hauls and backcountry hikes. You can find the trail that’s right for you by using the park’s website.

Photo by Jonathan Williams

Along with hiking, you’ll have the option of rock-climbing, bouldering, highlining, slacklining, mountain biking, and horseback riding. An array of guides offer services within the park, so choose one that’s suited to your specific skill level.

For those looking for a more relaxing excursion, turn your time in Joshua Tree into a photographic exploration. With interesting landscapes, a wide variety of subject matter, and plenty of wildlife, both amateur and professional photographers will find inspiration in the park. Or, stay overnight and simply look to the sky. Far from the urban centers of Southern California, Joshua Tree is extremely remote, which makes it the perfect location to spot stars, meteors, planets, and the Milky Way.

If you do plan to camp overnight, be sure to reserve your spot well in advance. The campgrounds inside Joshua Tree fill up quickly from October to May but are quieter (and first-come, first-served) during the summer months. Note that you will have to pay for a reservation, and that the prices vary depending on which campsite you choose.

Photo by Jonathan Williams

Before you head inside, remember to pack plenty of food and water — there won’t be anywhere to stock-up on supplies once you’re in the park.

You’ll also want to wear sturdy shoes and plenty of layers — the prickly vegetation is known to stick to visitors, and temperatures drop significantly when the sun goes down in the desert. Be prepared.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Joshua Tree is very much the middle of nowhere. There’s no cell service or water available within the park, so be sure to plan ahead.

Photo by Robert and Tara Lemezis

Given that cell service is limited, have a plan for what to do in case of an emergency. Bring along a first-aid kit and a map — emergency phones can be found at the ranger station in Indian Cove and the parking lot at Intersection Rock.

While Joshua Tree is arguably one of the best parks to explore by car, you should probably leave your furry companion at home. Dogs are permitted on the grounds but not on trails, in the backcountry, or more than 100 feet (30.5 meters) from any road, picnic area, or campground. Additionally, they must be leashed at all times.

Photographers will delight in the subject matter at Joshua Tree (the trees themselves are particularly lovely as the sun goes down), but note that drones are not permitted.

Finally, plan to stop at one of the visitor centers before you head inside. There, you’ll be able to stock up on water, snacks, and park maps. And, if you’re collecting national park badges, this is where you’ll want to go to add another to your collection.

 

GETTING THERE

While there isn’t any public transportation to Joshua Tree, you’ll want to drive yourself anyway (it’s one of the best ways to see the park!). Both Interstate 10 and California Highway 62 lead right to the entrance stations, of which there are three off of Highway 62 and one off of Interstate 10. Cell reception is likely to drop off the closer you get to the park, so be sure to start your GPS ahead of time or download the map onto your phone for navigation. That said, getting to the park is fairly easy, as there are plenty of signs along the way that will lead you in the right direction.

Photo by Travis Wild

ENTRANCE FEES

Various permits to Joshua Tree are available depending on your mode of transportation. Non-commercial vehicle admission is $25 USD, while motorcycle, bicycle, and walk-in admission will run you $12 USD. All permits are valid for the day of purchase and the next six consecutive days.

However, the more economical option is to invest in an Annual National Park Pass. Valid for 12 months from the month of purchase, this pass covers admission to all 59 U.S. National Parks. At just $40 USD for the whole year, the pass practically pays for itself.

Passes and permits can be purchased at any of the park entrance stations and visitor centers.

WHERE TO GO

Black Rock Canyon

This area of the park is dominated by its Joshua tree forest — miles and miles of strange trees in every direction. Black Rock Canyon features a campground, plenty of hiking trails, and a visitor center, as it’s only five miles from the nearby town of Yucca Valley. If you’re just passing through, you won’t even need to get out of the car, since much of this area’s wildlife can be spotted from the road.

Keys View

Head down Keys View Road to stop at this overlook, where you’ll be able to admire the Coachella Valley, spot the San Andreas Fault, and maybe even see all the way to Signal Mountain in Mexico, though it’s typically only visible on the clearest of days.

Photo by Britton Perelman

Cottonwood Spring

Photo by Jasmine Thompson

The NPS website calls Cottonwood Spring one of the park’s best-kept secrets — though you won’t actually find many Joshua trees in this area — and its stunning landscape is great for photographers, bird-watchers, and anyone interested in geology.

Cholla Cactus Garden

The unusual-looking teddy bear cholla cactus fills this 10-acre garden near the park’s north entrance. There’s a parking lot located at the trailhead, so make a quick stop and walk along the completely flat quarter-mile trail through the garden. Just don’t get too close to the cacti!

Skull Rock

Clearly marked as you drive through the park, this location provides a look at one of the most interesting rock formations in all of Joshua Tree. We’ll give you one guess as to what it resembles …

Header image by Mike Soulopulos