Joshua Tree National Park: Things to do

Joshua Tree Park

If you are planning a trip to Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles or anywhere in that area, then I would definitely recommend including a detour to Joshua Tree National Park into your itinerary. It is possible to see the main highlights of this park in one or even half a day, but the experience you will get there will be completely unique. Also, like many other natural heritage parks, it is threatened to undergo changes in the near future due to the climate change and human activity. So I strongly encourage you to go, see it, be inspired and overwhelmed by the charm of the desert and come back home bringing not only beautiful memories, but also determination to protect the beauty of the nature.

Some time has passed since our grand Californian honeymoon road-trip, and the more time passes, the more selective your memory becomes. Some of our stops I remember so vaguely that if I did not have any pictures or notes, I could not tell you much about them. Others got so imprinted in my memory that I could retell the smallest details, as if I was in that place just yesterday. Joshua Tree Park is one of those places, which got stuck in my mind. Maybe because of so many cactus plants there!

Writing about it now, I feel that I did not see even a fraction of what this place has to offer. In this article I will try to give you a road map – a kind of inspiration list of activities to do in the park, which you can later adapt to your interests and possibilities as well as your time limitations.

About one third of pictures in this post are taken by me, the rest – by my best photographer Kathulta.

History of the Joshua Tree National Park

The story of Joshua Tree National Park begins with the woman. Her name is Minerva Hoyt.  Minerva belonged to a high society of Southern California, and among her other talents and activities, had an interest in gardening and landscaping, and was particularly fascinated with desert plants, cacti and Joshua Trees. The desert area which the present Park covers was mostly inhabited by miners during 1870s-1940s. During her visits to the desert, Minerva noticed the destruction to the area caused by mindless people, who dug up, replanted and burned the plants.

With time Minerva Hoyt became more and more dedicated to preserving the desert nature. She organised plant exhibitions from her area in Boston, New York and London. With the help of biologists and ecologists she lobbied to President Roosevelt, and finally the Joshua Tree National Monument opened in 1936.

In the 1950s Joshua Tree National Monument lost almost one-third of its territory, as the new mines were open. However, about the same amount of land was given back to it in 1990, when it officially became a National Park.

Highlights of the Joshua Tree National Park

The Park is rather easy to navigate. You can get a map at the entrance, where all the main highlights will be marked. The roads also have signposts, so you will find what you are looking for without any problems. But what should you be looking for?

Joshua Trees

Joshua Tree, after which the park is names, is called Yucca Brevifolia in Latin. It is a type of palm and one of the cutest trees I have ever seen in my life. This tree only grows around the Mojave Desert area; you will not find it growing even in similar climates in other continents.

The name Joshua was given to the tree by the Mormon settlers, who thought that the shape of it reminds them of the Bible episode where Joshua prays to the sky with his hands raised up. In Spanish the tree has another name: “izote de desierto”, which can be translated as “dagger of the desert”.

The tree grows rather fast – up to 10 cm every year. It blooms with beautiful white flowers (which I unfortunately have only seen in the pictures) in February-April. So if it is the flowers you are after, early spring might be the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The flowers actually need help of a special yucca moth to pollinate them.

You will see the best examples of Joshua tree in the so-called Lost Horse Valley within the Park. And if you are even remotely interested in the mining history, look for the sign for the Lost Horse Mine.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden is located right on the border between the upper Mojave and lower Colorado deserts. There is a short walk you can do around the garden. The walk is around half kilometer (quarter-mile). We visited it in September, and in this blazing heat this was just the hike I could do before running back to the car and turning the conditioner on.

Cholla cactus is also nicknamed Teddy Bear cactus because of its cute shape. Cholla cactus plant other name is Jumping Cactus and this name is very correct. The spikes attach themselves to anything, which touches them even lightly. You will see many precaution signs around the garden to not touch this cactus. If your friend does it and has the spikes attach to them – do not help them remove the spikes with your bare hands, as after this act of altruism you both will have them in your skin.

Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks

The Skull Rock I am speaking about here is not the one from Peter Pan’s Neverland. It is located just along the main Park road, so you can easily stop by to admire it and take a few pictures. Skull Rock is a granite rock with two hollow-out eye-like sockets eroded by the rain.

From the Skull Rock you can continue onward for a bit under 3 km hike around the Jumbo Rocks Joshua Tree Campground. To camp there you actually have to be well-prepared and take plenty of water with you, as the ground does not have water access.

Keys Views in Joshua Tree

Keys Views in Joshua Tree NP is a well-accessible point. To reach it, take a short (around 20 minutes) detour from the Park Boulevard on the Keys View Road.

On a clear day you can see panoramic views of the Coachella Valley, and if it is extremely clear (and the air pollution suddenly got blown away by the wind), you can actually even see into Mexico.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

As I said before, our visit to the Joshua Tree Park was very short. When I saw the list of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, I at once wanted to plan another trip to the area, and this time spend at least couple of days just exploring the Park.

Best Campsites in Joshua Tree National Park

There are many campsites within the Park. The most popular time for camping is February till May, as during this time there are plenty of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. So if you want to camp during that time, it is best to book the site well ahead of your visit. The low-season is summer. During those months some camp grounds will be closed altogether.

Normally, there are two most popular campgrounds, which you should book in advance. The Black Rock has water and flush toilets and costs 20 USD for a night. The Indian Cove site does not have any water and only pit toilets for the same price.

There are also other campgrounds, which you can reserve on arrival. These are: Belle, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, Cottonwood and White Tank. Most of them have no water, so remember to take plenty with you. The price of these grounds will vary from 15 to 20 USD for a night.

Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park

Most of the Park is open 24 hours long, so you can actually do stargazing without camping, if you happen to be more of a sleeping-in-a-proper-bed kind of person. At the Park’s home page you can see the description of the night sky of each season and chose the one which attracts you most. Call me biased, but I personally think this is one of the coolest things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.

If you have already tried stargazing in Joshua Tree Park and liked it, there is another option. In November the Park hosts its annual Night Sky Festival, during which you can learn more about stargazing, solar viewing and universe in general. The festival is free of charge.

Wild flowers

If you need an additional reason to fall in love with this austere type of nature, come to the Park to watch the desert bloom! Normally the flowers will appear between February and May, some elevated areas will still have some flowers blooming in June. The website of the park has a blog, where you can keep updated on the most recent flowers starting to bloom and plan your visit accordingly.

Bouldering and Rock Climbing

The Park is a great destination for boulderers and climbers, as (according to the Park’s information sheets) it has more than 8.000 different climbing routes and 2.000 boulder problems.

There are also classes and training programmes organised, if you are not familiar with this sport or want to really improve your skills.

Other activities at Joshua Tree National Park

If you have not found something on this list (which I doubt) or have already tried all of them, there is actually plenty more things you can do in Joshua Tree National Park. You can do birding, hiking, ranger programmes, horseback riding, mountain biking (as well as normal biking) and many more. The official webpage has an extensive list of activities as well as much more information about the history, educational programmes and ways to get involved in the life of the Park.

Prices and visiting hours of Joshua Tree National Park

The Park is open all year round. Entrance fee to the Park for a car is 25 USD and will last for a week. The price per person on foot (and you have to be really fit, if you are planning to walk all around it, especially during the hot season) is 12 USD. If you live in the area or plan to stay longer, it might be worth considering getting an annual pass for 40 USD, as there are plenty of things to do in Joshua Tree Park.

Make sure to take plenty of water (and some food) with you, as there are not so much water access points across the Park.

Final Notes

For me visiting the Joshua Tree National Park was one of the most memorable experiences during our California road-trip, and a great starting point to explore California further. I feel like I only got a taster of the Park, and now feel a kind of hunger after seeing, feeling and experiencing more of it.

Liked this post? Pin it!

25 thoughts on “Joshua Tree National Park: Things to do

  1. Mille Mirah Seiersen says:

    I had never heard of this before I read your post.. I’m so glad I did! I’m planning a road trip and stargazing in the Joshua Tree National Park just got a spot on the itinerary! I love the history behind it too!

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      Thank you so much for your comment! This is exactly the kind of comment which gives me motivation to write 🙂 Have a lovely trip and do let me know, if you write about the stargazing!

  2. Renada says:

    I lived in Arizona for five years, and never visited Joshua Tree National Park. I like how you talk about your experience, then end with travel tips.

  3. Anisa says:

    I have seen some Joshua Trees in Arizona, but have not made it to Joshua Tree National Park. They are really unique plants and I would love to make it to Joshua Tree National Park one day.

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      I actually didn’t know they also grew in Arizona. And true, they are so unique, I was happy seeing them live!

  4. Edith says:

    Glad I came across this! Joshua Tree is one of the few main places I still haven’t visited while living in California. I really want to go stargazing but I need to learn how to shoot stars first and wait until it cools down a bit so I can camp.:) Great pictures!

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      I love that album! I’m glad you liked the history part. I was a bit afraid it is dry and boring, but I loved having it in just to make people a little bit more aware.

  5. Jasmin says:

    I went to LA last year and really wanted to visit Joshua Tree but I don’t drive and the public transportation in US is ridiculously bad so couldn’t access the park. It looks so beautiful! Would love to go hiking and climbing in there!

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      Yeah, I can believe it is very very hard to get to it as well as around it without a car. Hopefully next time you are there you can drive around. Or maybe there will be some organized tours – I believe sometimes there are some, my friend went there once without the car.

  6. Aireona- Nightborn Travel says:

    I went to Joshua Tree while on a trip to Palm Springs. Sadly, I missed getting my NPS stamp there because we were too early for any of the visitor centers to be open. Loved it though! Your pictures are a great reminder of an awesome place.

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      Palm Springs are great too, I’m planning to write about it! I didn’t even know about the stamps, so far it is the only National park I visited in the US. 🙂

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      The Cactus Garden was amazing. I wasn’t too keen to go, but my friend loves them, so she insisted – and I’m sooo happy I ended up going. Recommended 😉

  7. Cory Varga says:

    We are outdoors people so the Joshua Tree Park is right there on our bucket list. We love the wild flowers, I love photographing nature. I am not experienced with boulder climbing, but that’s something I’d love to try for sure.

    • merrygoroundslowly says:

      It will be perfect for you then. I’m not into bouldering myself, tried it when we use to live in the Peak District, and didn’t like it. But my husband enjoys it a lot.

      We were in Joshua Tree park in September, and it is extremely hot, so couldn’t try it there. But maybe another time. 🙂

  8. Kris says:

    I really wanted to visit here when I was in southern California a couple of years ago. It was just a little too far to make it during my short trip though. I’d definitely love to visit sometime on a longer trip. It looks gorgeous.

Don't be shy, write what you think!