Established in 1994
Take a trip through the unique landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. Wander through flourishing cacti gardens, explore rocky canyons, and take in the beauty of star-filled night skies. This magical desert sight is not to be missed.
Joshua Tree National Park is a mythical, magical desert lifted straight from a legend. The untrained eye might see an expanse of barren rock baking in the summer sun, scattered sparsely with the odd-looking trees the park is named for.
But there is much, much more going on behind the curtain here.
Tucked away in pockets of this apparently lifeless waste are oases, where gigantic palm trees sway in the coastal wind. Insects, amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles creep, buzz, and crawl. Silent canyons turn blue under the milky light of the night sky. The sand, rock, and trees seem to hum with an ethereal energy.
To really get the picture, you need to see it firsthand. But before you get whisked away to this fantasy landscape, there are a few things you should know.
And lucky you, I’ve compiled everything you need to have an amazing trip to Joshua Tree right here. All the reasons the park is great, and everything you need to know to enjoy it. Let’s dive in.
Humans In Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree’s story starts way, way back.
The area’s first residents were the Pinto Culture, who first moved in around 10,000 years ago. Down the road a ways, three distinct cultures of people (the Serrano, Cahuilla, and Chemehuevi people) coexisted in and around Joshua Tree.
The park’s oases were crucial to these early cultures. In particular the Oasis of Mara, which was later called Twentynine Palms. They hunted small game and used local plants for medicine and tools.
But, as is almost always the story in the Southwest, the arrival of Spanish missionaries put an end to their way of life.
War, Industry, and Conservation
When Mexico won its independence, the park sat within its boundaries. But the land changed hands again after the Mexican-American War, along with the rest of California.
The latter half of the 1800s brought grazing to the region, changing the ecology of the park permanently. The mining industry followed shortly after.
Around 300 small pit mines dotted the landscape, which produced gold and silver, among other metals. Mining left a lot of scars on the land, but also some very interesting ruins and historical sites that you can visit today.
In the early 1900s, local activist Minerva Hoyt made a persuasive argument to protect the area. President Roosevelt took notice and established Joshua Tree National Monument in 1906. The Monument wouldn’t receive park status until 1994 under the Desert Protection Act.
Weird, Wild Desert Geology
When you think of Joshua Tree, you probably don’t even think of Joshua trees. The park’s most charismatic feature by far are the gigantic formations of whitish rocks.
Older Than Dirt
Not quite hills, definitely not mountains, but also certainly bigger than your common boulders. The rock formations of Joshua tree are old. How old, millions of years? Not even close. In fact, the oldest stone in Joshua Tree (the Augen Gneiss unit) is around 1.7 billion years old.
Like with most beautiful things in California, these formations are the result of the San Andreas Fault. This is where the continental tectonic plate meets with the Farallon Plate that the ocean sits on.
The pressure of these converging plates produced a huge amount of magma underground, which cooled and formed a bunch of really cool rocks. Around Joshua Tree, you’ll find several kinds of gneiss, as well as metasedimentary rocks.
Metasedmintary rock is metamorphic, but was sedimentary before its metamorphosis. If you’re really into rocks, there are a lot of cool things to be on the lookout for, like ganofels, dolostone, and dolomite.
The Artist’s Chisel
But to climbers, the ancient history of the place is only important because it formed such perfectly climbable walls and boulders. After the subterranean magma layer cooled into stone, groundwater seeped down and cut through it.
Slowly but surely, the rock was worn into the aesthetic rounded shapes that we see above ground. Then weathering exposed these newly-formed stones as they were uplifted, resulting in the landscape of mountains, valleys, and rock outcroppings we see today.
The Ecology Of Scarcity
Joshua Tree National Park is part of the charismatic, harsh, hot, and dry Mojave Desert, as well as the Colorado Desert. The park is roughly half and half, the western half being Mojave, and the east being Colorado.
It’s a wild life living in such a desolate place, with so little water and so much sun. But there are a lot of animals and plants that thrive here.
In any hot desert, life is an obsessive search for water. How to get it, how to keep it, and how to survive until you can get more of it. It’s almost always an all-or-nothing cycle of feast and famine.
Joshua Tree Seasons
Joshua Tree has two seasons: rainy, and rainless. The rainless season lasts almost nine months, from mid-March to December. The rainy season makes up the “winter” months, and is usually still very dry.
Rainfall usually amounts to a drizzle in the winter. Trickles of water will fill perennial pools in shady places, drawing fauna from their hiding places to drink. Once the rain turns off in March, the majority of the landscape turns bone dry.
Monsoons And Flash Floods
However, that’s not always true. Joshua Tree does have a monsoon season, during the late summer and early fall, when flash floods can happen. The golden rule for visitors is, “if you see running water, get out.” Sounds ominous, right?
The reason is that if there’s enough water to flow, there’s more behind it. Desert landscapes tend to feature narrow channels, where the rainfall on an entire mountain face gets funneled and crashes down with the force of a natural disaster. This is the epitome of “all or nothing.”
When flash floods roll through an area, years worth of weathering will happen overnight. You can sometimes return to a place after it has flash flooded to find it completely unrecognizable.
Canyons and washes are worn down, mud and rock are carried, and trees can be completely uprooted. Ironically for a place where life is so dependent on water, flash floods are often deadly for plants and wildlife (not to mention people).
There is another, significantly less dangerous source of water in Joshua Tree, though. A lot of the park’s biodiversity is due to the oases that dot the landscape. These little pools create entire ecosystems and support populations of unique plants and wildlife, like the desert fan palm tree, which can reach 70 feet tall.
The oases support amphibians, like the red-spotted toad, and allow hundreds of species of insects and arachnids to reproduce. These invertebrates, in turn, feed everything above them on the food chain.
So if you were to take away the oases, what would we be left with? Not much, honestly. Ecologically, the park would lose a majority of its biodiversity, not to mention its character. The hot sun makes this place a desert, but the oases are what really make it Joshua Tree.
Best Times To Visit Joshua Tree National Park
As I mentioned, the weather conditions in Joshua Tree National Park are pretty stable year-round. There’s never a “bad” time to visit, but there are a few times when you might need to prepare a little more.
The most extreme time of year is mid-summer, particularly from June to August. Daily temps average above 95°F every day for this three month stretch. But, this is also when the park sees the fewest visitors. So if you’re after some serious solitude, it might be worth it to brave the heat.
The rest of the year is usually very temperate in Joshua Tree. December has the lowest temps, dropping to 35°F on average at night, and reaching just under 60°F during the day. January, February, July, and August all tie for the “rainiest” with a whopping half inch of rain per month.
March and April are the busiest months, with 431,000 and 358,000 visitors, respectively, in 2022.
Given all that, I recommend going in the fall or winter. Bring a good sleeping bag and an extra layer, and enjoy the pleasant sun during the day. You’ll have more space to yourself, and the weather will be perfect for hiking and climbing.
The Best Things To See In Joshua Tree National Park
Alright, crash course time. If you’ve got a long weekend and you need to hit the highlights, what’s worth your time in Joshua Tree National Park? Lace up your hiking shoes, let’s go for an adventure.
Hidden Valley is a perfect spot to give you a general vibe for what Joshua Tree is all about. It’s easily accessible and full of the kind of scenery the park is famous for. Joshua trees sprawl among rocky outcroppings that are (go figure) full of climbing routes.
But even if you don’t climb, it’s worth the short hike, just to see what this fantastic desert landscape looks and feels like.
Fan Palm Oases
I really can’t overstate how cinematic the oases in Joshua Tree are. They’re exactly what you picture when you think of an oasis; sleepy, cool pools of water buzzing happily with the sounds of life. It’s a nice diversion from the harsh sun and hard rock of the surrounding landscape.
There are six oases around the park. The Oasis of Mara is the easiest to get to, just a half mile hike from Ryan Ranch Trailhead. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, Fortynine Palms Oasis is about three miles round trip, but well worth it.
Keys View has got to be one of the best panoramas in Joshua Tree, and it’s certainly the easiest to get to. Bang for your buck-wise, it doesn’t get much better than this in the park. The view includes the San Andreas Fault, Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountain. It’s a splendid spot to catch a sunset or sunrise.
Incredible Rock Formations
There are a few stand-out rock formations in the park that are well worth a short hike.
Skull Rock Trail is a 1.7 mile loop near Twentynine Palms ending at the titular Skull Rock. Go figure, it looks like a gigantic skull. A foreboding personification of the harsh spirit of the desert, picturesque as it is spooky.
Arch Rock is a naturally-formed arch like you might find in Southern Utah. But it’s very out of place in a landscape of granite, rather than sandstone. The trailhead departs Pinto Trail Rd and heads east about .7 miles before looping back. A great romp through the sand and rocks to a photogenic payoff.
Joshua Tree Camping
You can’t go to the desert without laying out under the stars. You just can’t! The night sky in Joshua Tree is too good to miss.
Most of the camping in the park is on the western side, in the Mojave region of the park. There really are no wrong answers as far as camping in Joshua Tree goes, but there are a few standout spots to pitch a tent.
Hidden Valley Campground is probably the most scenic spot in the park. The sites are surrounded by top-notch boulders and rock formations that are a ton of fun to scramble and goof around on.
The location is also pretty prime. Hidden Valley is right in the middle of the action on the west side of the park, with lots of hikes and climbing nearby to enjoy.
The campground has 44 sites, with a mix of RV and tent sites. There are no reservations here, just first-come-first-served sites. Show up early to snag a good one. No potable water is available, so bring plenty with you.
Belle Campground is a little further east, but still an ideal spot to pitch a tent and lay out. The scenery is similar to Hidden Valley, with tall Joshua Trees and tall rock for some partial shade.
The location puts you close to Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock, and the Split Rock Loop Trail. Lots to explore and enjoy, without quite so much traffic around.
Belle Campground is pretty small, with just 18 sites (options for tents and RVs), all first come first served. There’s no water out here, so be sure to pack in plenty of your own, or fill up at the ranger station a few miles north.
Jumbo Rocks Campground is the park’s biggest. Big rocks, and a big spread with lots of sites. It’s a reservation site (from September to May), so if you’re planning way in advance, this is a great option.
There’s not a ton of climbing right around the campground, but there are a lot of sweet nooks and crannies to explore. You’ll also be in the neighborhood of all the same hikes as Belle Campground.
The campground has a total of 124 sites, with a mix of tent, RV, and group sites. No water is the norm around here, if you haven’t noticed already. But you can always fill up at the ranger station a few miles up the road, or pack it in.
Looking For An Amazing Adventure? Book A Guided Hiking, Backpacking or Cycling Tour in Joshua Tree National Park with REI Adventures.
Best Desert Hikes and Backpacking Trails
Unlike somewhere like Death Valley, where the inescapable sun puts a damper on hiking anywhere, hiking Joshua Tree is a blast. And that’s a good thing, because most of the stuff worth seeing takes a little legwork (pun intended) to get to.
Here are the highlights, for hikers of every fitness and experience level.
Beginners new to hiking should absolutely go after all the trails I’ve mentioned so far. You’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of the park’s main attractions.
But there are a few other short hikes that are well worth your time. The Cholla Cactus Garden is definitely one of the prickliest places on Earth, but it’s pretty marvelous to behold.
And if you get a kick out of old buildings and broad, open views, check out Ryan Ranch. The trail features sweeping desert landscape views, capped off with an old adobe structure that looks right at home among the park’s rock formations.
Intermediates can throw some scrambling into the mix on the Mastodon Peak Trail. This loop climbs a bit, with a little hands-on scrambling to gain the peak. Then you’ll pass an old gold mine as you head back to the trailhead.
Lost Horse Mine is another decent climb, covering a total of 4.1 miles out and back. It’s got some great views, and another historical gold mine along the way. If you want to tack on some extra mileage, check out the loop variation.
Last up, don’t overlook the Hi-View Trail. You’ve got two options here, a 1.4-miler from the parking lot, or a 3-miler from the visitor center. Sweeping views of desert scenery and distant high peaks ensue. A nice bit of soothing desert solitude for those who like it quiet.
Experts would be remiss not to seek out some of the park’s deeper, harder-to-access oases. Fortynine Palms is a three mile out and back ending in one of the park’s most spectacular oases.
Be warned though, people have died hiking this trail. It’s always a pertinent reminder, but it bears repeating here to bring water with you and know the signs of heat exhaustion. Getting hauled out by search and rescue is not the worst outcome in the desert.
Ryan Mountain is another worthy high point in the park. It gains about 1,000 feet over 1.5 miles or so, which will feel like a lot more in the sun. For experienced hikers, this one is a must-see, and one of the best views in the park.
And if you’re just aching for some more trail miles, check out Lost Palms Oasis. This one starts on the Mastodon Peak Loop, but passes up the high point and charges on through clusters of Joshua trees. The terrain rolls in and out of washes, before ending at a placid oasis.
Backpacking in Joshua Tree is no joke. The heat here can be deadly, and the lack of water is a huge challenge.
When planning a backpacking trip, normally you would pick a trail, get a permit, and go from there. In Joshua Tree, the park allows you to plot your own route. Off-trail hiking is allowed, provided you minimize your impact.
Most backpackers will plan routes around hiking and camping on rock or in wash bottoms. The most important rule here is to Leave No Trace. Pack out your waste, camp on durable surfaces, don’t start fires, and so on.
The most popular area for backpacking in the park is called Boy Scout. This includes the Boy Scout Trail, a relatively short trek with designated campsites. If you’re looking for simple and low-commitment, this is a good spot to start.
But if you’re after a little bit more adventure, you’ve got a lot of research ahead. Start by checking out park regulations for backpacking, which includes rules for parking, planning a route, and permitting.
J-Tree Rock Climbing
If you’re a climber, you’ll probably refer to Joshua Tree National Park simply as “J-Tree”. This area is revered by climbers near and far for its amazing conditions during the off-season and excellent rock quality.
And on top of that, there’s just so much climbing to do. Go figure! Just about everywhere you look, there are rocks.
The real bread and butter of Joshua Tree is bouldering and trad climbing. Pack a full rack of trad gear and a few bouldering pads, depending on your mood.
But there is still a little sport and toprope climbing for newbies who aren’t ready for highball boulders and sketchy runouts quite yet.
It would take an actual lifetime to see all the climbing there is to do in the park. These are just a few of the highlights, good starting places for climbers of all ability levels.
Beginners (especially beginner boulderers) have a ton of options in Joshua Tree.
White Rastafarian is the park’s most famous boulder problem. And it’s an easy one, at least technically. The crux is the height.
Pigpen is another killer problem, found on the Manx Boulders Circuit. Rated V4, this one could be called beginner or intermediate, depending on who you ask. It’s a fun start in a cave that swings up and on to a flat face before topping out.
Double Cross, found on the West Face of Old Woman, is a nice trad intro if you’re trying to get better at leading trad. Rated 5.7+, it features a nice hand crack. The downside is a sizable line which is usually present. It’s popular, but for good reason.
Intermediates also have a ton of options to pick from in J-Tree. But once you get above 5.8 or 5.9, most of the “good” routes are trad. Sorry, sport climbers.
Illusion Dweller is a must-see on the West Face of Sentinel Wall. A right-angled hand crack that incorporates a bit of laybacking. The way back down is either a rappel or a walk-off, dealer’s choice. Rated 5.10b.
Caveman, on Caveman Boulder, is a very picturesque problem starting in a cave with grippy huecos for holds, but worse feet. Looks easy from a distance. Looks can be deceiving. A fun project, either way, at V7-.
Experts, prepare for a challenge. The rankings may not seem impressive. But if you haven’t climbed in the desert before, you’ll quickly realize the major difference between a 5.12 crack route and a normal 5.12.
Caveman Yabo, another high-intensity romp up Caveman Boulder, pushes through Caveman and adds another dozen moves or so, totaling about 40 feet, including the cave. V10.
Leave it to Beaver (Sports Challenge Rock) measures about 70 feet of stuff you typically don’t see all in one place. Deep pockets, horizontal cracks, overhangs, and a lot of weirdness all put together for a very fun route. Typically rated 5.12a, you can approach this one with trad gear, or just hike up top and do it on a toprope.
Asteroid Crack, found on Asteroid Belt, is a short-but-sweet vertical finger crack that gets thinner as you go. On top of everything, there’s a slight overhang near the top. 30 feet is plenty for something this spicy. Rated 5.13a.
Mountain and Road Biking
Biking is a great way to explore desert landscapes. The main rule in the park regarding bikes is to stay on roads. Luckily, there are a ton of roads, both paved and dirt, around the park.
Road cyclists can have a ton of fun cruising through the desert landscape, enjoying the views. There are some big climbs and downhill sections on the paved roads, so be prepared to sweat it out.
But mountain bikers will have a lot more opportunity to see the less-often explored nooks and crannies of Joshua Tree. There are quite a few high clearance dirt roads that venture into the backcountry around the park.
Most of these are pretty short, maxing out around 23 miles (Old Dale Road). The majority of them average 5-10 miles.
One of the more popular trails for mountain biking in the park is the Geology Tour Road, beginning at Jumbo Rocks Campground. It’s just two miles, and includes some fantastic mountain views along the way.
Berdoo Canyon is a longer, more technical, and even more rewarding route. It measures 11.5 miles one way. Be prepared for deep sand and some rock hopping. But the payoff is pretty cool – the Berdoo Camp, a historic ruin tucked away deep in the mountains.
If you want some more aggressive downhill and stretches where you can really put the pedal to the metal, you’ll have to leave the park. Desert View Conservation Area is located just outside the park boundaries. It contains a more traditional network of trails designed for mountain biking, with options for all ability levels.
4X4 and Off-Roading
The same options that are open to MTB folks are open to motorheads. Check out the park’s backcountry roads page, and do as much reading as you can before you go.
There are a few pretty technical trails in Joshua Tree, but for the most part the difficulty comes from road surfaces and isolation. There is a lot of deep sand, which can be challenging for drivers that are unfamiliar with offroading in the desert.
Beyond that, though, you need to be prepared to self rescue. Don’t expect to have cell service once you get into the backcountry. If you get stuck, the heat may get to you before help can. Be prepared for trail repairs and with enough gear to self-recover, if need be.
That being said, here are the highlights.
If you just want to get a little dust on the fenders, check out Berdoo Canyon. It’s got a bit of everything: sand, sharp rock, rock crawling, and even a choke point that will weed out larger offroad rigs. Not recommended for those unfamiliar with driving in deep sand.
The Old Dale Road is a full day. It starts with a long trek across a flat salt pan, which may include deep sand. Then, you come to a hill and start climbing.
There is some rock crawling, mixed with some sections of loose rock which is challenging in a different way. You’re going to want a short wheelbase, for starters.
Last up is PInkham Canyon and Thermal Canyon. This is one of the toughest trails in the park, featuring just about everything I’ve mentioned already. Deep sand, some rock crawling, loose gravel, bottlenecks, you name it. But once you top out, you’ll be rewarded with some amazing views.
Step one, go to nature. Step two, look at the nature. This one almost goes without saying, but there is a lot of unique natural splendor to see in Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park is home to more than 250 bird species. A large number of these, if not a majority, are migratory birds that use the park seasonally.
What this means to birders is that you never know what you might see in Joshua Tree. The species list is ever-rotating, and you can have a completely different experience birding at different times of the year.
Of course, the big event of the year for birdwatchers is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. And because it’s so warm in the winter, Joshua Tree is a perfect place to be for this birding extravaganza.
The stable climate also makes it a stellar spot to study the night sky. The sky is often clear, and warm nighttime temps make for very comfortable skywatching conditions.
Whether you’re into astrophotography, long-exposure photography, or just enjoying the vastness of space, be sure to set aside some time at night to enjoy the sky.
Similar to Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree sometimes sees super blooms of perennial wildflowers. Wildflowers are a seasonal surety, but the scale of the spectacle mostly depends on rainfall.
The park usually forecasts what the spring bloom will be like. During good years, when the El Niño Southern Oscillation is favorable, the park transforms into a landscape of color. If you have the opportunity to see the park dressed in wildflowers, don’t pass it up.
Pure Desert Magic
Once you get a taste for Joshua Tree, you’ll understand why so many people feel connected to this place. It’s like a lot of deserts in the American West in that it almost feels alive.
Don’t believe me? Ask a local what keeps them coming back for more, year after year.
If there was ever magic in the world, Joshua Tree is full of it. All you need to do to find it is look, and listen.