Joshua Tree National Park: Explore an otherworldly California landscape

(Last Updated On: May 5, 2021)

The USA’s desert southwest has a lot of strange landscapes, but Joshua Tree National Park in southern California stands out as one of the most alien-looking. That makes it a fascinating place to explore. Along with the park’s signature Joshua trees, visitors will discover mountains, huge boulder piles, cacti, and even a few palm oases.

photo of a Joshua tree plant with hills of boulders in the background

Keep reading for everything you need to know to get the most from a short trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

Get to know Joshua Tree National Park

Located where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet the Little San Bernardino Mountains in southeastern California, Joshua Tree National Park protects more than 1,200 square miles of wilderness. With three ecosystems, visitors can explore some very different places without leaving the park. That means visitors can see the park’s iconic boulders and Joshua trees as well as large stands of ocotillo and cholla cacti, palm trees, and mountains with juniper and pinyon pine.

The park is home to over 800 plant species, 57 kinds of mammals, 46 kinds of reptiles, and more than 250 different bird species. It also protects more than 700 archeological sites and historic structures.

Almost 200 miles of road and as many trails provide access to a wide variety of the park’s riches. However, wander very far beyond the park’s roads and you’ve entered a wilderness area where permanent development – even campsites and trails – are largely prohibited.

Joshua Tree National Monument was established in 1936, largely due to the work of Minerva Hoyt to keep the area’s desert plants from ending up in the gardens of Los Angeles. It became a national park in 1994.

What is a Joshua Tree?

With their spikey “branches,” Joshua trees look like something created to illustrate a novel about life on another planet or a children’s cartoon.

picture of Joshua trees along a national park trail

But they are real. They just aren’t trees.

Yucca brevifolia is a type of agave. It’s closely related to Mojave yucca, which also grows everywhere in Joshua Tree National Park.

The best easy things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

A visit to Joshua Tree is all about seeing the park’s namesake Joshua tree plants and experiencing the odd landscape where they grow. A visit can take many forms and can range from a day trip from Palm Springs to an extended camping trip.

There are multiple ways to explore the park as well. There are hiking trails suitable for everyone, ranging from short strolls that barely take you out of sight of the parking lot to challenging multi-day backpacking treks. Rock climbing and bouldering are very popular activities here. Horseback riding is also an option.

But the main park roads offer a good introduction to some of the best places to visit in Joshua Tree. And many of these can be enjoyed even if you aren’t very fit or your time in the park is limited!

photo of a road running through Joshua Tree park

The following lists some of the best fast and easy things to do in Joshua Tree. Most of these can be relatively quick stops that require little or no hiking. (Although many also access longer trails too.) All of them offer a chance to see and explore this unusual landscape.

Joshua Tree National Park map

(I’ve added a few labels to identify sites not included on the official Joshua Tree National Park map)

I’ve generally listed the stops below as if you were driving through the park from the northwest. If you only have one day in Joshua Tree, pick a few that look the most interesting and work your way through the park.

(See the Joshua Tree hiking page for more information on hiking in the park and a list that includes more challenging trails.)

Quail Springs Picnic Area

You’ll start to see more and more Joshua Trees and weird piles of huge rounded boulders as you drive into the park from the West Entrance (from the town of Joshua Tree). I guarantee you will want to stop and start taking pictures, but there aren’t a lot of places to pull off the road until you reach the Quail Springs Picnic Area.

picture of hill of boulders

Fortunately, this is a good place to stop. There are Joshua trees, huge boulders, and a very large parking area. (There are two sections to the parking area. If the first if full, keep going.) Picnic tables are nicely spaced along the boulders and there is plenty to see right there.

Hidden Valley

One of Joshua Tree’s most popular and best short hiking trail, the Hidden Valley trail is an easy 1-mile loop around a scenic little valley encircled by rock. It’s a beautiful area with an intriguing history that includes cattle rustlers and dynamite-wielding ranchers!

photograph of large boulders and plants

Read about my visit to Hidden Valley  

Besides the hiking trail, Hidden Valley has picnic tables and a large parking area.

The Hidden Valley Campground is on the other side of the road, along a smaller road to Keys Ranch and Barker Dam.

Keys Ranch

While Joshua Tree National Park is generally thought of as a wilderness park, it also protects a large number of cultural resources. One of these is Keys Ranch. This former ranch is now a historic site listed on the National Register of Historic places.

I have not taken the Desert Queen Ranch tour, but it looks fascinating. And Bill Keys was quite a character, so there should be lots of stories to go with the odd collection of buildings, vehicles, equipment, and general detritus on the ranch site.

Keys Ranch can only be visited as part of a guided tour. Tours are limited to a very small number of visitors and are not offered during the summer. Tickets can be booked 60 days in advance and almost always need to be reserved well before your visit.

Barker Dam

Once called the Big Horn Dam, Joshua Tree’s Barker Dam was built by cattlemen in 1900. It was raised to its current height by Bill Keys (of Keys Ranch) in 1949. Because this area has more water than most of the park, this is a good spot to look for wildlife. It’s also absolutely gorgeous when water pools behind the dam. However, decreasing rainfall and falling water tables greatly reduce the likelihood of seeing that most years.

When there is a pool of water here, Barker Dam is among the most beautiful spots in the entire park.

photo of desert pools reflecting dry hills

Cap Rock nature trail

Park Boulevard turns to the south between Hidden Valley and Barker Dam. Keep heading south at the intersection with Keys View Road. Cap Rock is located right at the intersection.

The nature trail here is only a ½ mile long. However, it winds past some great rock, lots of Joshua trees, and a juniper woodland. Lots of other plants grow here too, and in spring this is a great place to look for wildflowers. Informational signage makes this an easy place to learn about Joshua Tree’s ecology and geologic past.

photo of a Joshua tree and boulder with more Joshua tree plants and hills behind

This area isn’t named on the Joshua Tree park map, but there is a hiker icon.

Keys View overlook

I’d recommend continuing south a side trip to Keys View. This little detour will take about an hour, but it’s well worth it. It’s a scenic drive past a lot of Joshua trees that ends at a truly spectacular overlook about a mile above the Coachella Valley.

photo of landscape from high above with a broad valley and mountains

From here you have a fine view of the San Andreas Fault and Palm Springs. The Salton Sea is also visible from here and, on a really clear day, you can see Signal Mountain in Mexico.

There’s a short, paved trail along the rim with a few benches. There’s also lots of parking. However, this area is insanely popular at sunset when the mountain ridges glow in the fading light. (Watching sunset here is often cited as one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree.) But you can visit almost any other time of day for a great view without a crowd.

If you want to be here for sunset, plan to arrive at least an hour or more before the sun will set to get a place to park. Better yet, show up a few hours in advance and enjoy a picnic while you wait for sunset.

Hall of Horrors

Back up on Park Boulevard, you’ll soon come to an area called the Hall of Horrors. This is a popular spot for rock climbing. But it’s also a great spot for an easy hike that includes a good view of a large Joshua Tree forest and plenty of boulders non-climbers can explore. And a wet spring will bring lots of wildflowers.

photo of Joshua tree plants

There’s a short loop trail around the main rock formation.

photo of people sitting on a hillside of boulders

(I have no idea why this area is called the Hall of Horrors, although some of the rock formations do create halls of a sort. Maybe it’s horrible for climbing, but it’s a fun place to scramble around.)

This area isn’t identified on the Joshua Tree park map. It’s easy to spot though, since there is a very large parking area right off the road.

Skull Rock

Skull Rock is on this list because everyone, including park rangers, identify it as a must-stop location. It’s not. Yes, there is a large rock along the road here that looks sort of like a huge human skull. But it will be teeming with people no matter when you stop. The same is true of the otherwise great trails that run through the jumble of rocks behind and spread out from Skull Rock.

photo of a large boulder that looks like a skull

Apparently, it’s possible to see Skull Rock without masses of people if you visit in December. Photo by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Unless you really need a picture of yourself (or a stranger) standing it what sort of resembles the eye socket of a humongous skull, spend your time exploring a less-crowded pile of rocks elsewhere in the park. (After all, you have a lot of these to choose from.)

Parking at this spot is very limited, but it’s an easy walk from Jumbo Rocks. Expect both parking areas to be full most of the day.

Split Rock

At first glance, Split Rock looks a lot like any other boulder in Joshua Tree. But take a closer look as you walk around it to find the 2½ mile trail – you’ll see how it got its name. You’ll also get a good view over the surrounding landscape.

photo of boulders and rocky desert landscape

We hiked a bit around and below Split Rock, but the trail was hard to follow so we crossed the parking area and hiked the other direction for a while instead.

landscape photo of large boulders

If you don’t want to wander too far, there is plenty to see right around the parking area.

Live Oak

Like the Quail Springs picnic area, the Live Oak picnic area is a pleasant spot to stop with enough plants and boulders to make it worth exploring for a bit. It’s also way less crowded than nearby Jumbo Rocks or Skull Rock.

photo of a path winding between boulder hills

Picnic tables and parking are spread out along a boulder outcrop with a variety of informal trails through and around the site. Despite being right off the main road, this layout makes the area pretty private. Just be sure to check it out even if the “parking full” signs are out – once they go up, they seem to stay up even after everyone leaves.

This is the last picnic and hiking area in this part of the park. Continuing on Park Boulevard will take you out of the park and up to the Oasis of Mara Visitor Center. To continue exploring the park, head south on what becomes Pinto Basin Road.

Oasis of Mara

The Oasis of Mara is located behind the national park visitor center up in Twentynine Palms. It’s actually outside the park in the town itself.

While the oasis itself isn’t the most scenic spot in the park (apparently, I’ve walked through it twice without taking any pictures), it’s a good orientation stop. The visitor center located here is good and the ½ mile paved trail through the oasis begin right outside the back door. Plaques along the trail identify various plants and explain the history of the oasis and the people who once lived here.

The oasis as it came to exist was as much a work of humans as of nature. Surface water from a spring attracted the Serrano people. They tell of planting the first palm trees (one for each son born, with 29 planted in their first year here) and who sustained their community by managing the area and its abundant water to provide what they needed.

There’s no longer a functioning spring here, but the park service ensures enough water flows into it to keep the remaining California fan palms and other vegetation alive. Sadly, its reduced and rather bedraggled state make it hard to imagine what this place was like when it was the living heart of a thriving native community.

Now we’ll go back and re-enter the park at the North Entrance, following Park Boulevard down to the Pinto Basin Road.

Arch Rock

The White Tank campground provides access to the Arch Rock trail. This 1 ½ mile loop leads to a small arch. It’s poplar with hikers even though it isn’t named on the park map.

Around White Tank you move from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado Desert. As that happens, the Joshua trees disappear. They are replaced by cholla and ocotillo. And, when conditions are right, loads of wildflowers appear.

Cholla Cactus Garden

While there are cholla scattered all over this part of Joshua Tree, the biggest concentration of them is called the Cholla Cactus Garden. It’s an easy walk on a ½ mile loop trail.

Don’t be fooled by these fuzzy-looking cacti: They immediately hook into anything that gets too close. (Most people call them “jumping cholla” for a reason!) But you don’t have to worry too much here, as paths and fences keep all but the most determined visitors a safe distance from the cacti.

photo of a fence with cholla cacti and mountains

Cottonwood Spring Oasis

Cottonwood Spring Oasis is located just past the Cottonwood visitor center at the far southern end of the park. The 1-mile trail passes through a small oasis with cottonwood trees and California fan palms. It’s an easy walk with interesting vegetation and lots of birds.

photo of cottonwoods and palm trees in the desert

The spring was used by the native Cahuilla people for centuries and some signs of their lives remain.

Miners also used this area. Remains of their activity can be seen if you continue past the oasis on the 3-mile Mastodon Peak loop trail.

Explore Joshua Tree’s unpaved roads

All of the sites listed above are located right along the park’s main paved roads. But there are also a few unpaved roads in Joshua Tree. These include short routes suitable for vehicles of all types as well as longer routes that require 4-wheel drive. Mountain bikers are also welcome on these roads.

Brief descriptions and links to maps are available on the park website.

Unpaved roads suitable for all vehicles

Short, unpaved roads suitable for all vehicles:

  • Queen Valley, Bighorn Pass, and Desert Queen Mine Roads
  • Stirrup Tank Road
  • Odell Road
  • First part of the Geology Tour Road

Although they are a little rough and dusty, the roads into Queen Valley are suitable for regular passenger vehicles.

photo of hikers on a dirt road with Joshua trees

(Keep in mind that Queen Valley Road is one-way coming into the Barker Dam area.)

Wildflowers in the park

I was on a wildflower viewing trip when I visited in 2011. It wasn’t a fabulous year for wildflowers, but there were some areas with nice color. By 2021, the park was suffering from several years of drought (and lots and lots of tourist tramping all over off the established trails), so there were almost no flowers in early April. The only exceptions were a few Joshua trees and ocotillo.

But when the park gets enough rain, you can get a good wildflower show here – especially in areas with fewer visitors where the soil hasn’t been disturbed.

landscape photo of wildflowers and hills

Although spring flowers may start blooming as early as February and continue through June, you’ll see the most flowers in bloom during March and April after a wet fall and winter. (Joshua trees generally bloom sometime between February and late April.)

Follow my 2011 search for wildflowers in Joshua Tree

Plan your trip to Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park used to be a pretty quiet place. Not anymore. That means a little advance planning is required for the best experience. The following tips will help you avoid unwanted surprises and make the most of your time in the park.

Where is Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree National Park is located near Palm Springs in southern California. On the north side of the park, entrances are located in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.

area map showing Joshua Tree National Park location

What is the best time of year to visit Joshua Tree?

The best time to visit Joshua Tree is spring and fall, when temperatures are the most pleasant. (I love spring when at least a few flowers should be blooming.) Of course, these are also the busiest times to visit. Expect full campgrounds and parking lots, especially during holiday weekends and spring break.

Basics before you head to the park

While the entrance to Joshua Tree park is all but located in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, once you are in the park, basic services are a long way away.

Be ready to travel without your phone

Expect that you will NOT have cell service in Joshua Tree. That means no ability to pull up a map or other information or contact others on your phone while you are in the park.

Be sure to check the Joshua Tree National Park website well before your trip. Not only will it provide the most up-to-date information on the park, it will have information on temporary closures, COVID restrictions, and other issues.

Print or download a copy of the park map to your phone BEFORE you get there. On our recent (2021) visit, the basic Joshua Tree map was the only printed information available. Besides, you may want to enter the park before the gates are staffed.

If you are staying outside the park, put your route in Google maps or another app and download it to your phone before heading into the park for the day.

Prepare for a day in the desert

There are very few places to get water in Joshua Tree park. This is the desert, so bring more water than you think you will need for the day. Pack a few salty snacks too. If you plan to spend a full day in the park, bring lunch with you. There is no place to purchase food once you enter the park.

Bring sun protection. There is very little shade anywhere in the park and the reflected light can be really strong – you can overheat or burn here faster than you expect.

Sturdy, closed-toe shoes or hiking boots are a good idea even on paved trails. There are lots of rocks and sharp cacti and other spiny things around.

Prepare your vehicle

Fill your vehicle’s gas tank too. There are no gas stations or other services in the park, so have enough fuel for the day before you head into the park.

Entering and getting around Joshua Tree

There are two entrances on the north side of the park – the West Entrance outside the towns of Joshua Tree and the North Entrance in Twentynine Palms. The West Entrance is the busiest of the two. Consider using the one in 29 Palms on weekends and other busy periods.

The main part of the park is also accessible from the south through the Cottonwood entrance.

Both the Black Rock area and Indian Cove have separate entrances on the north side of the park. You cannot drive to the rest of the park from either of these entrances.

Park facilities

Visitor and nature centers

The park has four visitor centers. All have park information, a bookstore, exhibits, and flush toilets. Staff is available to answer questions and help you plan your time in the park, although lines can be long. All but the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (in the town of Joshua Tree) also have picnic tables and water.

Avoiding crowds

Since spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons, that’s also when you’ll see the biggest crowds. But beyond that, Joshua Tree isn’t very far from Palm Springs, Los Angeles, San Diego, or Las Vegas. That means weekends, holidays, school breaks, and even the first nice day after a span of cold grey weather all draw carloads of people to the park. So don’t expect to have the park to yourself during those times.

Midweek will be less crowded than weekends.

The earlier you start your day, the fewer people you’ll be sharing the park with.

Popular sites like Skull Rock, Hidden Valley, and Barker Dam get increasingly busy throughout the day. If you’re visiting in the afternoon, stop at a less well-known area and hike a bit. There are odd boulders and Joshua Trees everywhere, so you don’t have to go to one of the most popular spots to see them.

Sunset from Keys View is pretty great, but it’s packed with people every evening. Don’t head down there 20 minutes before sunset and expect to find a place to park.

But a better option might be to just stop and enjoy the sunset wherever you are. If there are any clouds, all you need is a spot where you can see the sky.

photo of sunset with Joshua tree and scenery

If you are comfortable driving on dirt roads, Joshua Tree has a number of short unpaved roads suitable for vehicles of all types. Very few people seem to use these, so you are generally more likely to meet a biker or hiker than another vehicle.

Get out of your car

While it’s easy to tour Joshua Tree from your car, everyone should get out and explore at least a little. Just be realistic about your own ability to handle both the trail or route you are considering and desert conditions.

Eating and drinking

There is no place to buy food or beverages once you enter Joshua Tree National Park. Even if you don’t plan to hike, always have water and at least a few snacks with you when you enter the park.

Dining options

There are a few dozen places to eat and drink in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Bars and restaurants come and go and change all the time – for the most up-to-date information check TripAdvisor or your favorite review site.

On my most recent trip, we had a great take-out pizza from Rocky’s New York Style Pizza and amazing pastries from Campbell Hill Bakery (affiliate links).

Grocery stores

There are convenince stores and other small markets in both Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Stater Brothers groceries are located in Yucca Valley (before you reach the park) and Twentynine Palms.

There are liquor stores in all of the communities along the park’s northern boundary.

Lodging

Many people visit Joshua Tree as a day trip from Palm Springs. While I’ve done that, it makes for a long day if you want to see a lot of the park and do a few short hikes. It also makes it harder to visit early in the morning or evening, when the light in the park is beautiful, the weather is cooler, and the crowds a little thinner. Spending a night or two in the park or near one of the entrances makes for a more relaxing visit and lets you see and do a lot more.

There is a wide variety of lodging available around the park.

I’ve always rented a house or cabin when visiting Joshua Tree so I can be out in the desert even if I’m not camping. My favorite is Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway, where I stayed years ago. (You can see what it looked like then, and it seems to be just as wonderful now.)

Airbnb (affiliate link) has a few options although, when I booked, fewer than I expected. (Timing is everything.) But they have a mix of locations that are both in town (both Joshua Tree and 29 Palms are artsy towns and would be fun places to stay) and out in the desert. If you’ve never tried Airbnb, use this link to create an account and save up to $40 on your first booking. (I’ll get a $15 credit after your stay.)

TripAdvisor is a great place to see what’s available in the area and check reviews and prices. You can book right there or head over to Hotels.com or Expedia (affiliate links).

Camping at Joshua Tree

I’m not much for camping, but I’ve long wanted to camp at Joshua Tree because most of the campgrounds look pretty fabulous. But we don’t have the gear or organizational skills required for desert camping far from home ☹ Still, every time I go to Joshua Tree I look longingly at those campsites!

photo of campsites amid giant boulders

Joshua National Park has nine campgrounds with more than 500 individual campsites, although not all are open in the summer.

Two campgrounds, Black Rock and Indian Cove, are not connected to the park road system. They are on the north side of the park and have separate entrances.

Learn more about Joshua Tree National Park

If you wonder how all those boulders ended up piled on top of each other, the park website has a nice video that explains the park’s odd geology in a simple, straightforward way.

Other places to see Joshua Trees

Travelers can find Joshua trees growing in parts of western Arizona, a tiny bit of southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, and northwestern Mexico, as well as southern California. Most often they grow in open, sandy expanses. However, sometimes, you might find them mingling with giant saguaros (at the edge of the Sonoran Desert) or pinyon pines (in the San Bernardino Mountains)!

See more photos of Joshua Tree National Park

photo of a Joshua tree and boulders with text "Joshua Tree National Park California"

link to Joshua Tree National Park: Barker Dam postlink to post Hiking Hidden Valley Joshua Tree National Park flowers and palms above the ocean with text "Exploring California" Pacific coast in northern California with text "California"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.