Joshua Tree National Park Visitor's Guide

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Joshua Tree National Park in California is nearly 800,000 acres of magic.

Magical landscapes, fauna, wildlife, sunsets and night skies.

Joshua Tree National Park is easily accessible and visitor's can drive through and enjoy he beauty of the park, or stay for several days and even weeks discovering all the secrets of Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree is within hours of Los Angeles and San Diego, California, and once you have experienced the deserts of Joshua Tree, you will want to come back to seek out solitude or adventure.

The park embraces parts of two distinct deserts—the Mojave and Sonoran—as it tumbles down from the heights into the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.

There are only three ways visitors can enter the park: from Yucca Valley in the west, Twenty­nine Palms in the north, and Cottonwood Springs in the south. The main Visitor Center is actu­ally outside the park, in the nearby town of Joshua Tree. Although the name seems like an oxymoron, Park Boulevard runs from the visitor cen­ter to Lost Horse Valley in the heart of the park, where three short interpretive trails (Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and Cap Rock) are a great introduction to Joshua Tree’s natural and human history.

More challenging trails can be accessed from the Hidden Valley area, including the eight-­mile Boy Scout Trail into the boul­der­strewn Wonderland of Rocks and the 35­-mile California Riding and Hiking Trail (normally done as a two­- or three-day backpack trip). Another trail ascends to the summit of 5,456­-foot Ryan Mountain where stunning views of Joshua Tree can be had.

Things to See & Do In Joshua Tree National Park

The Cholla Cactus Garden, a field filled with Cholla Cactus, is easily accessible via a quarter-mile loop trail. To get to the trailhead, simply drive 20 miles north of the Cottonwood Visitor Center, lace up and go.

Before it became a national park, cattle ranchers, miners and homesteaders made a go of it in Joshua Tree. Park ranger-guided walking tours (the only access) to Keys Ranch tell the story of Bill and Frances Keys who made a life for themselves and their five children. You’ll see the remains of their ranch, including the ranch house, school house and store, and the grounds are filled with cars, trucks and mining equipment that were used long ago.

Panoramic views of the Salton Sea (230 feet below sea level), Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault (which runs 700 miles from the Gulf of California to north of San Francisco) can be seen from Keys View, a perch atop the Little San Bernardino Mountains; the best views are from the 0.2-mile loop trail. These views aren’t hard to get to, either – just a 20-minute drive into the park.

Accessible via a one-mile loop trail, rock-enclosed Hidden Valley is thought to have once been used by cattle rustlers. Today, take your time to check out the rock formations that surround you.

Everyone from experienced to novice rock climbers and boulderers will find challenging climbs on Joshua Tree National Park’s more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes. That’s a lot of rock to conquer. Before heading out for your climb, check the park’s website for climbing route closures and guidelines.

When the sun sets in Joshua Tree National Park, Mother Nature puts on quite a show – oranges, reds, purples and yellows fill the sky. Once the sun disappears below the horizon, the show continues with the incredible show overhead filled with stars. In October 2016, the park is hosting its Night Sky Festival, so mark your calendar.

Things to Remember When Visiting Joshua Tree

1. There is no water. Bring your own, and make sure you have enough for your stay. We recommend 4 Litres or 1 Gallon per person, per day.

2. There is no electricity. Bring extra batteries and have them fully charged.

3. There are no lights. None. If you drive at night, it will be pitch black.

4. There are no hotels or motels or bed and breakfasts inside Joshua Tree National Park. There is camping, but it is primitive. There are basic washrooms, but no water or electricity.

5. There is no cell phone service. Make sure you note where you are going and how long you will be. In case of emergency, there are telephones at the visitor's centers.

If you are visiting for the day you are probably coming in from Palm Springs or Indio and perhaps even LA. The first thing you will want to do is fill up on gas and grab a lot of drinks and snacks and perhaps a meal-to -go for you adventure within Joshua Tree. If you are planning to star gaze, bring and extra layer of clothing for the chill nights and of course a flashlight to help guide you.

Accommodations Near Joshua Tree National Park

Accommodation in Joshua Tree National Park is pretty simple: It is camping and only camping. The campgrounds in Joshua Tree are some of the most unique and picturesque I have seen, with many of the tent sites nestled in the monzogranite rock formations and yucca plants.  There are two campgrounds: Black Rock and Indian Cove, who accept advanced reservations. If bathrooms and flush toilets are a necessity for you, you will want Black Rock to be your campground.  However, for those who can stand the sometimes pungent odours of a pit toilet, Indian Cove offers, in my opinion, a more unique and picturesque place to stay, with tent sites that provide a bit more privacy due to being nestled among the rock formations, as well as plenty of photo opportunities without even leaving the campsite.

If camping is not your thing, there are many hotel and motel options along Highway 62 along the northern boundary of the park. Below we will have a search tool for finding the best and cheapest hotels and motels near Joshua Tree as well as those that are most popluar based on reviews.

Places to See & Photograph in Joshua Tree

Skull Rock is one of the most recognizable and easily accessible locations in Joshua Tree, situated just a few dozen yards from Park Boulevard.  The rock formation is unique and the mood it provides can change drastically with the lighting conditions. Skull Rock is also situated on a 1.7-mile nature trail that begins at nearby Jumbo Rocks Campground.

The Cholla Cactus Garden is another amazing spot in the park due to its high concentration of cholla cacti.  Chollas are found in various other places throughout Joshua Tree; however, the garden gives you the most concentration of the cacti in a relatively small area. Be aware of your surroundings when walking around the Cholla. Their spines attach very easily to skin, clothing, and shoes, and are difficult and painful to extract.  Chollas also drop balls of spines, so be aware of where you step and wear durable closed-toed shoes.  If you do happen to get stuck with spines, don’t try to removed anything with your hands, as it will certainly result in getting impaled with spines there as well.

Arch Rock is a natural granite archway located along a nature trail in the White Tank Campground and is a popular spot with limited parking, so avoiding busy times. The most popular view of the archway has you facing to the southeast; however, you can easily climb around. In springtime during the dark night the milky way is visible in the sky through the arch making fro amazing photographs.

Keys View is one of the only easily accessible elevated lookouts in Joshua Tree, and its west-facing view makes it ideal for sunset.  The viewpoint is situated at the top of Keys View Road, and, although it has a paved observation deck, there are plenty of places to walk around, find a compelling foreground, and enjoy the view without being surrounding by other people.  Looking west from the viewpoint gives you a view of the valley below that is home to the San Andreas fault, Palm Springs, and the San Jacinto Mountains to the west.

Adventure In Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree isn't just a place to take a hike and snap sunset photos. It is also the home to adventure.

Biking In Joshua Tree

Biking is limited to the roads and backcountry roads only. You will be able to get around and experience the park in a unique way, but remember to bring 1-2 gallons of water per day or ride.

Climbing In Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree welcomes climbers, boulderers and highliners from around the world. This high desert monzogranite climbing mecca is famous for its traditional-style crack, slab, and steep face climbing. Joshua Tree offers challenges for all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from. It is truly a world-class climbing destination.

If you are learning to climb or are looking to expand your climbing skills, a guided day or class could be of interest to you. When hiring a climbing guide, make sure that they are permitted to work in Joshua Tree National Park. Before getting a permit each guide is required to have the highest levels of rock guiding certifications through the PCGI, AMGA, or similar organizations. They are also required to be certified in Wilderness First Aid and CPR; and they must carry insurance.

These requirements protect both the guide and the climber making your day safer.

You may wish to purchase a climbing guide or hiking map if you are unfamiliar with the park. They are available at park visitor centers and at outdoor shops in the surrounding communities.

Fifty years ago, the impact of rock climbers at Joshua Tree was minimal, but today the park hosts hundreds of climbers and boulderers on a busy weekend. Learning about and practicing Leave No Trace principles is an important way all visitors can help protect this fragile desert environment, lest it cease to be a viable habitat for plants and animals, a valuable research area for scientists, and a welcoming place for climbers to enjoy.

Horseback Riding in Joshua Tree

Horseback riding has long been a popular way to access and experience Joshua Tree National Park. Two hundred fifty-three miles of equestrian trails and trail corridors traverse open lands, canyon bottoms, and dry washes throughout the park.

Desert ecosystems are fragile and require special care. Desert soils, when disturbed, take years to heal, so it is important for riders to travel on established trails.

The lack of available drinking water is both a challenge and a limitation for riders and horses. Care should be taken when planning your trip since stock animals may not use natural or man-made water sources within the park.

The Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan provides for 253 miles of equestrian trails and trail corridors that traverse open lands, canyon bottoms, and dry washes. Many riding trails are already open, clearly marked, and ready to be enjoyed. The two most popular areas of the park for equestrian users are Black Rock Canyon and the areas near the West Entrance.

Stargazing in Joshua Tree

The night sky is a glittering dome peppered with stars, planets, and passing meteors—but most people no longer get to see it. In urban and suburban settings, artificial lighting and atmospheric pollutants wash out the light of the stars. This is a serious loss. For millennia, our ancestors experienced a dark night sky. Cultures around the world told stories about the constellations and used the stars as a calendar. Only for the past few generations have humans been denied the chance to stand in awe of the heavens. Boasting some of the darkest nights in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park offers many visitors the chance to admire the Milky Way for the first time in their lives.

Learn more about the local Night Sky Festival.

Tips for Stargazing:

Use Red Lights Only Do not use bright white flashlights, headlamps, or cell phones. It takes 20-30 minutes for the human eye to fully adjust to very low light conditions. Bright lights delay this process. You can turn a regular flashlight into a red light by covering it with red cellophane, tape, fabric, paper, or similar materials.

Bring Food and Water Plan ahead. There is no running water in most areas of the park.

Layer Up Temperatures drop quickly in the evening. Bring extra layers of warm clothing.

Bring a Chair You may be on your feet and looking up for long periods of time. A lightweight folding chair will help keep each person in your group comfortable and reduce strain. Do no trample vegetation and be aware of cacti in your area.

Watch Your Step Cacti, nocturnal animals, and uneven surfaces may be difficult to see at night. Use a red light to check your viewing are for hazards.

Avoid the Moon Bright moonlight reduces the number of stars you'll see. Check the moon's phase and rise and set times to find the best time to stargaze.

Where to View the Stars and Milky Way

On a clear night and moonless, you should have no problem viewing the stars from anywhere in the park. However, light pollution from surrounding communities does impact Joshua Tree's night skies, so some areas of the park are darker than others.

Campgrounds Pitch a tent, roast some marshmallows, and spend the night under the stars in one of Joshua Tree's nine campgrounds (additional camping fees apply). Cottonwood Campground has the darkest skies.

While Wilderness Backpacking Get away from roads, people, and other light sources in Joshua Tree's vast wilderness. Park at a designated backcountry registration board and hike away from your car to view the night sky. Wilderness backpacking should only be done by those prepared to undertake an overnight backpacking trip. If camping, you must carry all your supplies at least one mile from the trailhead and any road, and 500 feet off the of the trail.

Roadside Pullouts Park at any of the roadside pullouts and set up chairs to watch the stars overhead. Stay awake and alert within 20 feet (6 meters) of your vehicle. The Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood has the least traffic and darkest skies.

Things to Remember:

Overnight camping is not allowed along roadsides or in parking lots. Day Use Only areas are closed from dusk to dawn in order to protect wildlife.Pets must be leashed at all times and are not allowed on trails or in the backcountry. Watch your step in the darkness (use a red light flashlight or headlamp; wear closed-toed shoes).

Joshua Tree National Park never closes. If entrance fee stations are closed when you arrive, proceed and enjoy your visit. You can pay upon exiting if the fee stations are open.

The Best Hotels Near Joshua Tree National Park:

There are many hotels and motels near Joshua Tree National Park and it is best to find comfortable accommodations neat the park entrance as you will most likely be arriving at the park very early to avoid the heat of the day and arriving very late after hours of stargazing.

There are many options in the little desert towns around Joshua Tree but here is a list of the most popular based on reviews. Of course, always check out and for a complete selection of available rooms near Joshua Tree National Park.

The Best Tours at Joshua Tree National Park

You may want to find a unique tour or activity while visiting Joshua Tree after you have driven the loop roods and hiked the roadside trails. Below is a list of some amazing tours and activities for you and your family to enjoy at Joshua Tree National Park:

Our Family Visit To Joshua Tree National Park

We decided to take a day trip from our vacation to Palm Springs to drive and hike Joshua Tree. We arrived in the late afternoon and grabbed dinner in Joshua Tree before setting off for a desert drive into Joshua.

My eldest son, Matthew, was eager to see the desert landscape and hike the large rocks. He was just starting to get into photography and also took control of my camera. My youngest, Ryan, at the time, hated hiking, especially in the desert heat. But after the sun started going down, and the air cooled, he was interested in checking out places like Skull Rock and watching for lizards and birds alike.

We did several hikes and returned through the main entrance. Here we found a foot massage studio and had our feet massaged for $20 each. It helped with not only making my feet feel so much better, but also for the drive back to Palm Springs.

Our sons were just young teens when we visited, and I would recommend Joshua Tree to anyone with young children as the landscape and the views will no doubt get them excited for adventure.

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