Joshua Tree is a little western town hidden away from civilization. It’s known for Yoga retreats, unpolluted views of the Milky Way, and countless thrift shops. But it’s also home to the 790,000 acres of pure desert adventure, Joshua Tree National Park.
Filled with Joshua Trees and a variety of other cacti the barren landscapes are also home to coyote, roadrunners, kangaroo mice, tortoise, and desert hares. Thankfully to explore this park and spot the local flora and fauna you don’t even have to leave your air-conditioned vehicle. The park has an easy to follow paved roadway that cuts through all the best sites and leaves you with parking and many pull outs for all the best photographable moments.
So to start your journey you must first pick an entrance. There are three visitor centers located on the North, West and South ends of the park. The West entrance sits within the town of Joshua Tree and is the most widely used. The visitor center here has all the info you need to start your journey including a free map of the park with all the best trails, climbs, and sites highlighted and ready to go. If you drive off of the paved roadways onto dirt you are going the wrong way. Unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, then you can venture into the unexplored.
DONT FORGET: This is the desert so bring food, water (at least 1 gallon per person), a full tank of gas, and a reliable air-conditioned vehicle. Temperatures hit 125 degrees Fahrenheit and with no services in the park, it’s a good idea to be prepared.
Not including pit stops for photos or exploring, it takes around two hours to get through the park end to end. One full day inside should be enough to see a majority of the sights. The desert is beautiful any time of day but try to get there for sunrise and sunset. You will see the most stunningly colorful skies of your life and have the park mostly to yourself.
Must See Sites
Jumbo Rock, Skull Rock, and Face Rock via the discovery trail
This was an easy 1.3-mile loop that we managed to walk in the heat of the day. Not super creative with the names but it paints a clear picture of what you are looking for.
Cholla Cactus Garden
This is THE SPOT for sunset. Overlooking a vast empty swath of desert surrounded by hundreds of glowing Cholla Cacti, it felt surreal and otherworldly.
Watch the climbers at Intersection Rock and the Hall of Horrors
or join them! If your an avid rock climber Joshua Tree has a ton of great climbs to try out.
Cottonwood Spring Oasis
If you enter from the West entrance Cottonwood is the last stop on the Southern side of the park. It’s a remarkable green oasis surrounded by the desert sand. Palm trees and grassy vegetation (and water during the winter months) make the desert come to life. There’s also a neat hiking trail that goes through the oasis if you’re feeling up to it.
Discovery Trail (easy-1 mile loop)
Takes you to some great rock formations like Skull rock and Face rock.
Barker Dam (Easy-1 Mile out)
A historical hike taking you out to an old dam built by cattle ranchers. This is one of the first sights you’ll come across in the park. If you’re lucky you’ll run into some Big Horn Sheep along the trail.
Key’s View (EASY-.25 mile out)
This very accessible loop takes you about 20 minutes and gives you breathtaking views of the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea, and Mt. San Jacinto.
Mastodon Peak (Moderate 3 Mile loop)
For a little more of a challenge this loop takes you past an old gold mine and ends with a rock scramble to the top of a granite peak overlooking the desert.
For those who want the full roughing-it camping experience or those who came with an RV, there are numerous camping sites within the park. Expect it to be blazing hot during the day and freezing at night so come prepared.
Jumbo Rocks (15$ per night)
This site is nestled underneath, yes you guessed it, Jumbo rocks. Several are easy enough to climb on top of and watching the sunset on top is a sure-fire way to feel one with nature.
Cottonwood (20$ per night)
Close to the oasis and seemed much emptier than the other sites probably due to it being on the opposite end of the park.
White Tank (15$ per night)
Surrounded by Joshua Trees and within the main area of the park giving you easy access to all the nature trails in the morning.
Glamping more your style?
For more of a glamping experience, Joshua Tree the town and the surrounding areas have countless AMAZING airbnb’s that range from teepee to circular stargazing adobe huts to chic desert campers. We stayed at The Now Homestead in the Mac Dreler. We had an outdoor bathtub, a star-gazing platform, and full access to the owners’ Swiss shower in the main house. And even better, it was 10 minutes outside of the West entrance of the park.
Spending just three days out in the sand was enough for us to fully experience the park and enjoy some of the highlights of the town of Joshua Tree. If you’re looking for some food, check out Pie for the People for some tasty pizza by the (massive) slice. Right next door was some delicious coffee to get you going for a day of thrift and antique shopping in town.
If you’re interested in staying at the Mac Dreler or the other house on the homestead check out Airbnb for availability.
Still In the Mood for Exploring??
And finally, while you’re way out here in the desert consider taking a second day to drive out to Slab City, California. You’ll find an amazing art garden and some really unique interactive sculptures. For a little road trip inspiration read about my time at Slab City.