Insider’s Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

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  • Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Christopher Michel
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At first glance, Joshua Tree National Park (or J-Tree as the locals call it) looks like a barren desert landscape, littered with brown boulders and the signature, spiky Joshua trees. But those who know this southeastern California park, it has much more to offer than meets the eye. The human history of the park dates back 5,000 years, as it was first inhabited by the Pinto Culture, followed by Native Americans tribes, then cattlemen, miners, and finally homesteaders from the 1800s to the 1900s. Though it was designated a National Monument in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it wasn’t bumped up to National Park status until October 31, 1994.

Covering 790,636 acres, Joshua Tree National Park includes two desert ecosystems – the higher elevation Mojave Desert and the lower elevation Colorado desert. The Mojave Desert is where visitors will find the Joshua trees, piñon pine, California juniper, oak trees, and the loose boulders that rock climbers flock to the park for. In the Colorado Desert there is more scrub brush, but also natural cactus gardens.

There are nine established campgrounds in the park, several hiking trails that range in distance and offer views of the park, Coachella Valley, and Salton Sea. Joshua Tree National Park is also well-known for it’s rough granite climbing and is one of the best places to get away from Southern California light pollution and stargaze.

Classic Adventures

Adventurers who visit the park come for two main reasons: hiking or climbing (and often times, both).

One of the more popular trails at the Joshua Tree National Park is the one mile Hidden Valley loop. This scenic route weaves through some of the gigantic boulders that J-Tree is known for and is thought to have been used by cattle rustlers. This is a great trail to stop and watch climbers. Hidden Valley is also unique in that it has it’s own microhabitat, so visitors will see plants that aren’t found together in other areas of the park (such as Joshua Tree, pinyon, juniper, oak, mesquite, yucca, and cacti).

The cholla cactus garden.
The cholla cactus garden. Mark McKnight

The Cholla Cactus Garden is another popular nature walk in the park. It’s just 0.25 miles but is a great little walk to see a dense concentration of cholla cacti. The cholla is known as “teddy bear” cacti, but be sure to just look, don’t touch!

For a longer and more strenuous hike, check out 4-mile Lost Horse Mine and Mountain trail that leads hikers out to the historic Lost Horse Mine, where thousands of ounces of gold and silver were produced between 1894 and 1931. Lost Palms Oasis is a 7-mile adventure that is known for beautiful palm trees, pools of water (hence the name “oasis”), and bighorn sheep that drink from the pools.

Some people visit the park to simply drive around and stop at the lookouts and various rock formations, like Skull Rock. There is also an 18-mile Geology Motor Tour that has 16 stops along some of the most fascinating geology in the park. Most passenger vehicles can access the first few miles, but a 4WD may be necessary beyond that.

Climbing on Old Woman Rock.
Climbing on Old Woman Rock. Chad Fennell

The only activity that could be considered more popular than hiking is rock climbing. There are thousands of bouldering and climbing routes at Joshua Tree. It’s known for crack, slab, and steep-face climbing, and many of the routes were put up by old school climbers, so the grades are pretty stout. Most of the boulder problems are in the moderate range, but there is plenty of variety with the trad routes. Some of the “easier” climbs worth trying are White Rastafarian (V2) or Slashface (V3), and SW Corner (Trad 5.6) or Mental Physics (Trad 5.7). Some of the more popular harder boulder problems include Streetcar Named Desire (V6), Caveman (V6-8), Alexandria (V7), and Thin Lizzie (V8). While these grades aren’t among what would be considered “elite”, don’t underestimate the difficulty. Harder trad routes to try are Clean and Jerk (Trad 5.10c), O’Kelley’s Crack (Trad 5.11a), or Equinox (Trad 5.12c).

Secrets of the Park

The 3-mile Mastodon Peak trail in the often-overlooked Cottonwood Spring area leads hikers to a wonderful view of the Eagles Mountains and the Salton Sea. With a summit elevation of 3,371 feet, this trail is somewhat strenuous, but passes through the Colorado desert section of the park, offering a different view than most hikes. It also passes Mastodon Mine, which was in use until 1971. Before or after hiking to the peak, spend some time around the Cottonwood Spring oasis and look for the bedrock mortars, used by the Cahuilla Indians, along the stream.

Another secret area of the park is Indian Cove. It’s unlikely to stumble upon Indian Cove because it’s only accessed from Indian Cove Road, seven miles west of the town of Twentynine Palms. The Indian Cove Nature Trail is only a half-mile long, but has flowery desert willows and desert almonds, and is a good place to spot the desert tortoise in the spring and early fall, as well as the elusive LeConte’s thrasher.

Just about anywhere in the park is going to be beautiful.
Just about anywhere in the park is going to be beautiful. Christopher Michel

The Maze Loop Trail is a longer, 6.5-mile day hike that gets its name from the mini-slot canyons along the way. Hikers will see the famous Joshua trees, as well as prickly pear cactus and blooming wildflowers in the spring. Look out for desert horned lizards and chuckwalla lizards.

While most of the rock at Joshua Tree is known for being sharper, gritty granite, the Underground area is filled with edges and smooth patina. It’s only a bouldering area, but has some great problems, like the Nicole Face (V4), Body and Soul (V5), or Dark Matter (V10).

Joshua Tree National Park is also one of the best places in Southern California for stargazing. In the winter, it is fully dark by 5:00 p.m., so campers have plenty of time to see the stars before bedtime. Prominent winter constellations to look for include Orion, Sirius, Gemini, and Taurus. In the summer, the best views of the Milky Way are on moonless nights, and it’s almost guaranteed that visitors will be able to see the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August.

Camping is probably the best way to experience the park, and a weekend or even weeklong trip is a great way to explore the peaks, mines, and wildlife. Spend the days hiking or climbing, and the nights stargazing. For a real challenge, attempt all ten of the peaks at the park, or hike to all five of the fan palm oases. There are nine developed campsites and backcountry camping is also allowed.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit


  • Joshua Tree is open year-round, but the best times to go are the spring and fall. If you go during the summer, plan to hike early in the day – temperatures can get up to over 100 degrees, and it only gets down to about 75 degrees at night.

  • Spring is the best time to see the wildflowers in full bloom and see how colorful the desert can be.

  • Early morning is the best for spotting coyotes and twilight is a great time to snap some photos.

  • There is no cell service in the park and there are very few places to get water, so make sure you have everything you need before you go in, especially if you are camping.

  • There are two main northern entrances to the park from Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms. The Cottonwood Springs area is in the south.

  • Grab breakfast at the Crossroad Café in the town of Joshua Tree before heading in, or stop at the Joshua Tree Saloon for dinner on the way out.

Prickly pear and cacti.
Prickly pear and cacti. NPS/Jesmira Bonoan

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