Joshua Tree National Park encompasses 792,510 acres in California’s southern Mojave and Colorado deserts, making it the eighth largest national park in the contiguous United States. Given its remote location as California’s southernmost national park, the fact that over 2 million people visited Joshua Tree National Park in 2015 is a testament to its amazing recreational opportunities. The character of this national park is unmistakable, from the lumpy, gigantic rock pile formations that spark the imagination and inspire exploration to the iconic Joshua trees that seem frozen in the midst of some mysterious desert dance. Arid, expansive, tranquil, and severe, Joshua Tree National Park is a rich and diverse landscape that invites visitors to look more closely at an environment that, at a distance, may appear hostile and homogeneous. To the contrary, visitors who take the time to ride, hike, mountain bike, climb, camp, and stargaze in Joshua Tree National Park are bound to discover a unique and beautiful park that is easy to love.
While there are a handful of access points into the park, three main entrances are connected by the park’s principle road system. Park Boulevard connects the West Entrance with the North Entrance in the northern portion of the park, while Pinto Basin Road extends south to the Cottonwood Visitor Center. The majority of Joshua Tree’s visitors stick to these two roads, and there are abundant hiking, camping, and sightseeing opportunities situated along each; that said, the vast majority of Joshua Tree National Park lies beyond these corridors. While access into these areas can be rough, visitors who plan to get into the park’s vast backcountry will experience a world that is very far away from the somewhat crowded roadside points of interests.
Geologically, Joshua Tree can feel like another planet. Magnificent rock piles abound throughout the park like colossal cubist sculptures, and many a hike in Joshua Tree has an almost gallery-like feeling. Arches, skulls, faces, giant marbles…as with a cloudscape, the shapes you discover are limited only by your imagination. These formations are monzogranite that intruded upward and away from the earth's crust while still molten, but cooled while still below miles of earth and rock. Joints in these monolithic formations developed from the weight of the strata above, and groundwater seepage eroded along these joints to create broader cracks and, in many cases, completely detached boulders that remain in place. As the wind and water elements erode the surface, these formations are exposed as fully formed rock piles.
Two deserts meet in Joshua Tree National Park. The western portion of the park is the Mojave; here the altitude is higher, the temperatures cooler, and the climate generally wetter. The Joshua trees that greet visitors who enter from the West or North entrances flourish here along with piñon pines, juniper, and countless shrubs, wildflowers, and cacti. Visitors traveling into the Pinto Basin, however, will notice a dramatic shift in the landscape and corresponding fauna: this is the Colorado Desert, a much lower, much hotter, much drier environment where only species that are optimally adapted to arid climates can thrive. This is the land of otherworldly cactus gardens and famously clear night sky views that are far from the light of the Inland Empire.
The earliest evidence of humans in this area pre-dates the onset of a desert climate. Spear points from at least 4,000 years ago indicate a culture of hunters and gatherers lived in the area when it was a grassland. As the climate transitioned toward the arid deserts that we know today, occupation of the land became a matter of seasonal allowance and the availability of food. Tribes like the Chemehuevi would subsist on the area’s abundant nuts, seeds, and cactus fruit in addition to hunting bighorn sheep, deer, and rabbits. Early inhabitants have left behind pictographs and petroglyphs that are still visible in places such as Barker Dam.
Throughout the 1800s, cattlemen used the area to graze livestock, and miners started approximately 300 mines in the park; by the 1900s homesteaders were claiming 160-acre parcels of land with only modest improvements. The Keys family was undoubtedly the most successful of these homesteaders, and the Keys Ranch remains a popular tour near the park’s West Entrance. Joshua Tree National Monument was created in 1936 as a response to fierce and persistent advocacy from Minerva Hoyt, who was disturbed by the damage being done to fauna, particularly cacti, in the region. Approximately 420,000 acres of the monument was designated wilderness in 1976, and another 163,800 acres were granted that protection as the park was elevated from a monument to a national park in 1994 under the California Desert Protection Act.
Joshua Tree National Park is best explored on foot. What appears magnificent at a distance only becomes more fascinating with a closer perspective. Fortunately, Joshua Tree National Park has a plethora of trails for all types of hikers. In terms of access, the vast majority of Joshua Tree National Park is backcountry. Hardy explorers with the time, the navigational expertise, and the strength to carry water can jump into multi-day trips through the desert and sleep beneath unrivaled views of the night sky. Day trippers have a variety of mid-distance hikes that will provide great views along with a big workout. Families and those on a compressed itinerary may want to opt for the several short nature walks throughout the park that also offer enriching educational content along the way. Day hikes don’t require a permit at all, and camping in the backcountry only requires registration on the board where you will start your trek.
However you decide to hike, be sure to carry plenty of water and protect yourself from the sun. Few trailheads have potable water sources, and while you may find a little shade against a rock pile, stretches of exposed trail are inevitable. Also, please remember that desert soil is quite fragile and has an especially hard time recovering from impacts as simple as footprints. Please remain on established trails.
Some of the most interesting areas in Joshua Tree National Park are easily accessible from the road or with just a short walk. While ranger-led tours can be an option, the signage in these areas does a superb job of educating the self-guided visitor. Of course, Joshua Tree is a popular place, and many of these stops are the most popular places in Joshua Tree; expect crowds if you choose to visit from mid-morning to late in the day. But it would be a mistake to let the possibility of crowds keep you from these places. In the end you'll remember the magnificent views, the strange rock formations, or the examples of homestead life more than anything else.
For decades Joshua Tree was strictly second tier in terms of climbing. From the earliest escapades in the 1940s all the way through the 1950s, Joshua Tree was a training ground for more renowned climbing areas or a backup plan when weather foiled other agendas. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the area began getting attention as a climbing destination in its own right, and areas such as Intersection Rock earned permanent recognition in the annals of western climbing lore. Today, with more than 8,000 routes, it is fair to say there is a route for every skill level and ability. The National Parks Service welcomes climbers who choose to enjoy Joshua Tree National Park, and there are a few essential regulations to help ensure future climbers can continue to explore the area.
Some areas are only open to day use to protect the animals that visit water sources at night. Other areas are off limits to protect rock art or raptor habitat. Signs prohibiting climbing are there for very good reasons, and respecting those limits is vital.
Fixed anchors can be replaced in the wilderness (75% of the park), and a permit is required to add a new one. No permit is required if you are climbing outside of the wilderness, though the impact should be considered very carefully. Other areas are completely fixed-anchor free. Power drills require a permit.
Practice Leave No Trace principles and be sure to pack out what you pack in.
Joshua Tree National Park has nine campgrounds that are mostly first-come, first-served. Black Rock and Indian Cove accept reservations from October through May. If you’ll be camping in Joshua Tree National Park on the weekend in this period, expect to find full campgrounds late in the day. Arrive early for the best selection. Campers should be aware that water is scarce! Black Rock and Cottonwood campgrounds have water; no other campgrounds do. Campers can also find water at the Oasis Visitor Center, the Indian Cove Ranger Station, and the West Entrance. Also, none of the 500 sites in Joshua Tree National Park have RV hookups, though Black Rock and Cottonwood do have dump stations.
Heat extremes are perhaps the first thing to come to mind when considering the climate of Joshua Tree National Park, but the park also experiences a very comfortable temperature range for much of the year. The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are perhaps the ideal seasons to visit as highs normally don't exceed 90 degrees and lows stay above freezing. Winter brings high temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, which can make for absolutely perfect hiking. Be prepared for overnight lows to dip below freezing occasionally, however, and some storms may bring light snow. Summer visitors simply must plan wisely and take heat and sun exposure seriously. Highs regularly top 100 degrees, there is little shade from vegetation, and water is available in relatively few places. Nighttime lows may dip below 70 degrees.
This desert environment naturally receives precious little precipitation at any time of year, but July and August are the wettest months statistically speaking (.62 and .68 inches of rain on average, respectively). Rain can be quite heavy when it happens, however, and visitors should be aware that washes and low-lying areas can flood quickly.
While pets are technically allowed in Joshua Tree National Park, there are several restrictions that may make boarding your pet a better option. Aside from the Oasis of Mara Trail, pets are not allowed on any of the park's trails, and the backcountry is off limits to pets as well. Parking lots, picnic areas, developed campgrounds, and unpaved roads are fair game. If you do decide to bring your pet, leashes are required at all times outside of a vehicle, and pets cannot be left unattended. Heat exposure may be the most obvious and serious threat to pets, but cacti, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and coyotes also should be considered before bringing your pet to the park.
Cover photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith. Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)