It was about a year ago now that I embarked on a "half-country" road trip with a friend from Albuquerque, NM to San Francisco, CA where I had only one sightseeing request for the entire trip. I was completely game for stopping anywhere and doing anything (I slept in a WigWam one night ... but more on that later) as long as we could make a stop in Joshua Tree while en-route to LA. For years I have wanted to go to Joshua Tree National Park - located right outside of Palm Springs, CA - but have never been able to find the time to get there while in LA so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Joshua Tree is one of our many National Parks in the US and is unique in that it is the point at which the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert ecosystems join together within this ~800,000 acre park. The division of the Mojave and Colorado is distinct, as the Mojave is full of the parks namesake Joshua tree while the Colorado is home to the equally unique and mesmerizing cholla cactus. Word to the wise, learn from my mistake and try not to confuse the cholla cactus for the Joshua trees, they are in fact quite different.
I was fortunate to visit Joshua Tree in late November and while a bit warm for the season, it was the perfect time to be at the park. It wasn’t too busy, which allowed for open trails and plenty of uninterrupted photo opts. I’ve heard from many that during the spring it can get be very hot and dry, which in turn can mean crowded trails, busy campgrounds and significant planning with both food and water.
The park is open to guests all year and is easily accessible from I-10 and Twentynine Palms Highway. While the park is always open, the visitors centers are not, so make sure to plan ahead depending on where you will be entering from.
- Joshua Tree Visitor Center - Open all year, 8am to 5pm
- Oasis Visitor Center - Open all year, 8:30am to 5pm
- Cottonwood Visitor Center - Open all year, 8:30am to 4pm
There is an entrance fee of $20 to enter the park. Apparently it’s only $10 if you are entering on foot, although I’m curious as to how many people that applies to. There is an annual pass as well for $30 which is definitely worth the extra money if you plan on returning within 12 months. There are additional fees as well for camping, tours, etc. However, for those able to plan ahead - and not afraid of the crowds - there are a few days where admission is free including:
- January 18 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
- April 16-24 (National Park Week)
- August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend)
- September 24 (National Public Lands Day)
- November 11 (Veterans Day)
HOW TO GET THERE
Joshua Tree is accessible from I-10 and CA Highway-62 (Twentynine Palms Highway) and there are three entrances (West Entrance, North Entrance, and South Entrance) depending on where you are coming from. I was coming from Phoenix when I visited, so the South Entrance via Cottonwood Springs Road was the most direct for me. There isn’t much of a difference between the entrances, if you enter from the south you will reach the cholla cactus before the Joshua tree’s and vice-versa when entering from the north/west. Each entrance has a visitor center to pay admission, gather information (including maps, etc) and purchase water. On the Joshua Tree website the park suggests not relying on GPS to get to the park, but we used it and had no problems at all. If you are going to rely on GPS I suggest comparing Apple / Google Maps to the routes provided on the website to ensure that the routing is correct. Depending on which entrance you enter from, it takes about 90 minutes or so to drive through the entire park, but I suggest stopping - at a minimum - for a few incredible photo opts.
WHAT TO DO
From basic photo opts and nature trails to hiking and camping, Joshua Tree has no shortage of options for filling your day or week depending on how much time you have to spare. If you find yourself with 2 hours or so - or only enough time to drive through - I suggest trying to allocate an extra 30 minutes to stop for a few priceless photo opts at Skull Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Cap Rock. If you can, try and coordinate with the sunset so you can make a stop at Keys View for an incredible view of Coachella and the San Andreas Fault as the sun goes down.
If you are able to allocate a little more time (as I was) your options open up a bit more. The park offers a wide range of nature trails ranging from .25 mile to 1.5 mile loops and allow you to see more of the beauty that the park has to offer. One thing to note is that the nature trails are not strenuous hikes, they are really more casual trails appropriate for all fitness levels. I scoped out a few of these myself before tackling one of the more established hiking trails at Ryan Mountain. There are 5 established hiking trails ranging from a strenuous 3 miles to a moderate 7.2 miles so there are options depending on your fitness level and how much time you have. I had about 1.5 hours before the sun was setting so decided to hike Ryan Mountain which - while steep at points - offered amazing views of Lost Horse, Queen, and Pleasant Valleys.
If you are lucky and have a day or more to spend in the park, there are plenty of other options to fill your time including rock climbing/bouldering, mountain biking, exploring on backcountry roads, and of course camping. Make sure to plan ahead though, because water and food within the park are limited.
BONUS NOTE: In early December a new Lululemon Outlet opened up in Palm Desert, CA so make sure to allow some extra time to check it out on your way in/out of the park!
Depending on which entrance you come from, food options before entering the park can be limited. If you are heading to the park only for the day, be sure to take plenty of water to suffice for the activities you have planned (i.e. hiking), the same goes for food and snacks. If you are planning on camping, it would probably be a good idea to stop at a grocery store before heading to the park. If heading from the south entrance, there are a few fast food options a few miles away from Cottonwood Springs Road, but it is certainly nothing glamorous. Think hot dogs and ice cream cones. However, heading from the north entrance there are a few more options, including Pappy and Harriets located in Pioneertown, CA. If the name Pioneertown doesn’t sell you, I’m not sure what will, but think honkytonk and drinks in mason jars. The park is very close to Palm Springs as well, which offers lots of unique coffee shops and restaurants for a post-park refuel. Joshua Tree offers many picnic areas, but remember that it is a National Park and as such each visitor is responsible for leaving the park as clean (if not cleaner) than how they found it.
The temperature within the park can vary as much as 40 degrees during the day, so if you are planning on spending the day or camping, make sure to plan ahead when it comes to clothing (think layers). Another important thing to note is that camping is first-come, first-serve, although Black Rock and Indian Cove can be reserved from October through May (considered the busy season) and can be reserved up to six months in advance. During the summer no reservations are needed for any campsites within the park. Camping costs $15 for sites without water and $20 for sites with potable water; if you are bringing an RV, note that there are no hookups at any campgrounds.
LET'S TALK ...
So tell me, have you been to Joshua Tree? If so, how did you choose to spend your time; are there any things that I missed that are worth going back for?