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Joshua Tree National Park

Western Sonoran + Colorado Desert, California

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Joshua Tree National Park

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  • The Hidden Valley Nature Trail winds through incredible rock piles.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • A Joshua tree along the Hidden Valley Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • A bright mariposa lily seems to emerge out of dead stalks.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Yuccas in bloom along the Hidden Valley Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • The nature trails are an excellent choice for families.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Ruins of the old Wonderland Ranch.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Old car near the Wonderland Ranch.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Wall Street Mill Hike.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Wall Street Mill.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Mojave mound cactus (Echinocereus mojavensis) along the Lost Horse Mine Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) along the Lost Horse Mine Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Mojave poppy (Eschscholzia glyptosperma).- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Lost Horse Mine.- Joshua Tree National Park
  •  Twin Tanks Backcountry Campsite.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • View looking down the Lost Horse Road (now the Lost Horse Mine Trail) from the mine.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) along the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) in the Fortynine Palms Oasis.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Sunset view from the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • View of the Ryan Ranch adobe ruin.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • View of the Ryan Ranch adobe ruin.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Hidden Valley Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Indian Cove Nature Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • View back toward Indian Cove Campground from the nature trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Black Rock Canyon Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Water behind the Barker Dam.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Skull rock is accessible by a roadside path.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • An iconic Joshua tree along the Skull Rock Nature Trail.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • California juniper.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • The cactus wren is known to make nests in the dense cholla cactus fingers.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens).- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens).- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Jumbo Rocks Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • View of Oasis of Mara with Joshua Mountain (3,720 ft) in the distance.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) at the Oasis of Mara.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • A climber makes his way up Beginner's Three on Intersection Rock's south face.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Night campfire at Jumbo Rocks Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Looking up the Feudal Wall rock climbing crag.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Exploring an arch at night along the Arches Rock Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Typical campsite at White Tank Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Evening sun at Jumbo Rocks Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Typical campsite at Belle Campground.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • View up into Rattlesnake Canyon from the Indian Cove Day Use Picnic Area.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree National Park.- Joshua Tree National Park
  • - Joshua Tree National Park
  • Willow Hole from a cave above the desert floor.- Joshua Tree National Park
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Phenomenal geology. Two unique desert areas. Excellent climbing. Family friendly.
Cons: 
Difficult to access large portions of the park. Heat and sun exposure. Little water outside of developed areas. Some crowds.
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Region:
Western Sonoran + Colorado Desert, CA
Congestion: 
Moderate
Pets allowed: 
Yes
Parking Pass: 
National Park Pass
Preferable Season(s):
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
Current Local Weather:
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Adventure Description

Adventure Description

Team

Overview | Hikes | Points of Interest | Climbing | Campgrounds | Weather + Seasons | Pets

  Overview

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.

Rattlesnake Canyon. Photo by Tyson Gillard.

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.

 Hikes

Wall Street Mill Hike. Photo by Tyson Gillard.

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.

  • Hidden Valley Nature Trail: A 1-mile loop through large rock piles and climbing areas. Near the Hidden Valley Campground.
  • Wall Street Mill Hike: Near Barker Dam, this short hike provides a great glimpse into the mining history of the park.
  • Lost Horse Mine Hike: A longer hike than Wall Street, the Lost Horse Mine is a great choice for better views into the park.
  • Fortynine Palms Oasis Hike: Miners planted the trees here to mark the spring. A wide variety of desert plants make this a beautiful hike.
  • Ryan Ranch Trail Hike: The homestead linked to the history of the Lost Horse Mine, this short walk to the "gold brick house" is a must near sunset.
  • Ryan Mountain Hike: This short 1.5-mile hike gains over 1,000 feet of elevation and provides unrivaled views of the park, the Coachella Valley, and San Jacinto Peak.
  • Indian Cove Nature Trail: A short trip that is a great option for those staying in the Indian Cove area. Take time to enjoy the scenery and educate yourself about the local flora and fauna.
  • Cap Rock Nature Trail: A very short walk that is perfect for those driving between Barker Dam and Skull Rock.
  • Barker Dam Trail: This 1.1-mile walk leads to the dam that was constructed in 1900. Rock art can also be found along the way.
  • Skull Rock Nature Trail: Plenty of interpretive signs along the trail are excellent at identifying the local fauna and describing its role in the desert ecosystem, and the steep gullies and towering rockpiles beg for exploration. Highlighted by the famous rock that gave the loop its name.
  • Split Rock Loop Hike: This 2-mile loop offers views to the Twentynine Palms Mountains and options to view the Eagle Cliff Mine site and the popular Split Rock climbing area.
  • Arch Rock Nature Trail: Just a short walk leads to this iconic rock formation near the center of the park.
  • Eagle Cliff Mine Hike: This hike starts at the Split Rock Trailhead and leads to a cabin and shelter for the former mine. Original artifacts and equipment provide a fascinating look into the toughness day to day life in this country demanded.
  • Lost Palms Oasis + Mastodon Peak Trail: This 7.5-mile round trip hike features a tour through the unusual palm oasis feature near the south entrance in addition to spectacular views from the highpoints.
  • Willow Hole: While the Boy Scout Trail recieves plenty of attention, this path leaves from the same trailhead and offers a slightly different experience. A moderate 7-mile round trip hike will leave you with plenty of time to enjoy other nearby adventures as well.

 Points of Interest

Skull Rock. Photo by Halvor Tweto.

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.

  • Cholla Cactus Garden: This short interpretive trail provides some intimate views of this unusual grove that seems to appear out of nowhere. The stop is a little far from other attractions, but it is still very much worth the time if you are passing by or moving from the Cottonwood Visitor Center to the park's northern entrances (or vice versa).
  • Ocotillo Patch: A must-see for those driving through the Pinto Basin, the ocotillo is a highly unusual cactus that grows up to 30 feet tall.
  • Oasis of Mara: This oasis has played an important role for the indigenous populations and the settlers that followed. Wildlife frequents this area.
  • Keys View: Unparalleled views of the Coachella Valley and the San Bernardino Mountains.
  • Indian Cove Day Use Picnic Area: Ideal as a staging area for climbers or for short explorations around the rock piles.
  • Pinto Basin: The broad and remarkable area that marks the transition from the higher Mojave Desert down to the lower Colorado Desert.
  • Geology Tour Road: This 17-mile drive is a popular loop for those looking to escape the more popular areas of Joshua Tree National Park. There are plenty of fascinating formations to appreciate along the route, the highlight being the 1.7-billion-year-old Pinto gneiss. Note that the road is for four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles only, and it should be avoided after recent rains.
  • Keys Ranch: Take a tour through this well-preserved ranch run by Bill Keys, who lived here from 1917 through 1969. The only way to view this site is via a ranger-led tour, and rangers provide plenty of historical context and personal detail to help make the tour come to life.
  • Eureka Peak via Covington Road: Covington Road parallels the California Riding and Hiking Trail before leading up to Eureka Peak, where visitors can enjoy fantastic views of Mount San Jacinto and the Coachella Valley.

 Climbing

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.

  • Intersection Rock Climbing Crag: The epicenter of climbing in Joshua Tree, this crag still delivers on classic routes while offering a few newer lines. Beginner to expert.

 Campgrounds

Twin Tanks Backcountry Campsite. Photo by Tyson Gillard.

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.

  • Belle Campground: An ideal campground for exploring Arch Rock and Skull Rock, Belle has only 18 sites and is thus likely to be a little calmer than its larger siblings.
  • Twin Tanks Backcountry Campsites: Twenty-five walk-in sites away from the crowds. A little self-sufficiency goes a long way toward a memorable camping experience here.
  • Sheep Pass Group Campground: One of three group campsites in the park, Sheep Pass is east of Hidden Valley Campground and has six sites.
  • Black Rock Canyon Campground: With 99 sites and 20 horse stall sites, Black Rock stays busy. One of the few campgrounds with running water.
  • Hidden Valley Campground: Close to the West Entrance, this popular campground is also near plenty of main attractions. Forty-four sites.
  • Jumbo Rocks Campground: With 124 sites, Jumbo Rocks Campground is the largest campground in Joshua Tree National Park. This campground is aptly named, as the rocks in this campground are phenomenal.
  • White Tank Campground: A small and remote campground, this 15-site campground may be a great option if other areas are full or just too crowded
  • Indian Cove Campground: This campground features 101 sites and 13 group sites. Near the Wonderland of Rocks.

 Weather + Seasons

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.

 Pets

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)

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