The first time I saw Joshua Tree NP I thought I just crossed through the twilight zone and into another planet. The eerie landscape, rock formations, and the uncanny Joshua trees combine to transport me to a different state of mind.
This 800,000 acres park straddles the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in California. It is home to the most stunning rock piles, mountain ranges, desert views, and an unexpected oasis here and there.
The park was named after the most prevalent tree in the area. Mormons passing through the area called it Joshua Tree because it resembled their prophet, Joshua, praying to God.
Tip: You don’t have to be a professional rock climber to enjoy the rocks at Joshua Tree NP. A lot of formations are easy to climb. My family and I often scramble up the rock formation, find the path of least resistance and end up at the top with stunning views of desert and trees.
It took Mother Nature millions of years and many cataclysmic events to finally present us with this natural wonder. It all started with cooling lava flows. Then underground streams started the long process of sculpting the rocks. Mix in several tectonic shifts and several millions of years of wind and rain erosion. The result is unique formations like the Wonderland of Rocks, Arch Rock, and Skull Rock.
There are many ways to enjoy this colossal park. It all depends on your interests and how much time you have. The best way to enjoy it is to camp for a few nights at one of the campgrounds. The advantage of camping overnight is that you can explore the park at your own pace.
Tip: Temperatures in this high-desert can soar to 100's during the summer month. If you visit during the hot months, make sure you have plenty of water.
During the day, explore the campground area or take trips to various hiking trails and rock formations. During the night enjoy an unobstructed view of the stars – no city lights to spoil the view.
If roughing it under the stars is not your thing, some camps offer RV sites. There is a total of 9 campgrounds to choose from - only 2 have water and toilets (Black Rock Canyon and Cottonwood).
Not planning to camp out? You can take a day trip and explore a few sites. Finally, you can always stay in a motel in one of the nearby towns like Twenty Nine Palms. Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley - or drive from Palm Springs.
Whether you are camping or day-tripping, make sure you explore some of the following:
Start at the North Entrance (29 Palms)
From highway 62, take the Utah trail into the park. Stop at Oasis visitor center for passes, maps, guided tours, and souvenirs. Keep going on the Utah trail and show your passes or pay at the gate.
Tip: If you arrive after hours, the attendants may be already gone. If that happens, be ready to pay on your way out.
Take Park Boulevard through the park. This main road passes several important stops and campgrounds like Live Oak; Skull Rock trail; Jumbo Rock campground; Geology Tour Road; Ryan Campground; Cap Rock trail and Hidden Valley trail.
Live Oak Picnic Area
"Live Oak" is a dramatic rock formation with a few oak trees at the base. It was named after an old Oak tree that still thrives between the rocks. Most Oaks in the park are too small to be called trees, but this one stands tall and healthy.
This is a day-use area, so no camping is allowed. But you can still enjoy a quick hike or climb the rocks for a better view of the surrounding area. You can also enjoy lunch or a snack at the few picnic tables or on top of a rock.
Jumbo Rock Campground – Skull Rock
A campground nestled around jumbo boulders. You don’t have to camp here to enjoy the views. Just before you reach this campground you will say a sign on the road for "Skull Rock". Park close to the camp entrance or across the street then take the 1.7 miles hike around the area. Look for a rock that looks like a face or skull.
You can park on the street next to the sign or you can go a little further and park at the camp - close to the entrance. Look for a rock that looks like a face or skull.
After you enjoy the view from across the street, head toward Skull Rock and scramble to the top of the boulders next to it. If you arrive at the right time you can enjoy a dramatic view of the sun setting behind the rocks.
Tip: If you are planning to camp here, you must plan ahead. It is very popular and always crowded.
Geology Motor Tour
Tip: The road is very rough on this tour, so 4-wheel drive vehicles are strongly recommended.
There are 16 stops along a dirt road and it takes approximately two hours to make the round-trip. Get a self-guided tour brochure from the visitor center or at the start of the road.
Some of the highlights of the tour are Boulder Outcrops; Malapi Hill; Pleasant Valley and Gold Coin Camp.
If you are feeling adventurous, instead of turning back at the end of the Geology tour road, continue on to Berdoo Canyon drive. This is a more rugged road that takes you through a camp that was used by the California Aqueduct builders. This is a moderate to difficult drive for 4WD.
Hidden Valley Trail
Further along Park Boulevard (heading northwest) you will find this hidden nature trail. It is easy and family-friendly. The trail winds between multi-colored rocks. Watch out for a rock that looks like a Trojan’s head. Picnic tables are available.
Arch Rock Nature Trail
This trail is on Pinto Basin Road, which connects to Park Boulevard. After you go through the north entrance turn left instead of right and stop at the White Tank campground.
The trail starts from the campground at site # 9. It winds through several rock formations, the most dramatic is a 25-foot rock that looks like an Arch. You can climb around and through the arch.
Nearby, you can visit White Tank. A tank is a reservoir built by early settlers to collect rainwater and runoff.
From there you can easily get to a nature trail and a small oasis with California fan Palm trees. Another more difficult trail takes you to Lost Palms Oasis. This hike will take from 4 to 6 hours. The last part of the trail will climb to an overlook above the oasis.
After enjoying the view from the top, climb down a steep descent to take refuge under the palm trees. Also, from Cottonwood Springs, you can visit Mastodon Peak with sweeping views of the San Jacinto Mountains, Salton Sea, and the Sonoran desert.
Joshua Tree 49 Palms
Along the way, we encountered weird rock formations, hardy desert plants, and panoramic desert views. Many of the slopes were dotted with Red Barrel cacti which add some color to this stark landscape.
The trail is well maintained with many steps in places to ease the climb – a little. After climbing steadily for about 45 minutes, we reached the summit then started climbing down. It was easy going from there, but we kept reminding ourselves that we have to climb another 350 feet on the way back.
On the way down we started to see the tops of palm trees peeking through the hills. That gave us hope that the journey is almost over.
Warning: This hike is considered moderately-strenuous. If you have a heart condition or uncontrolled diabetes, you should avoid this hike.
It is both refreshing and surreal to find this green valley in the middle of this desolate desert. The palms are nestled around a spring with huge boulders all around. To get down to the spring level, we had to scramble down those boulders.
Our reward at the end of this grueling hike was a picnic lunch. We sat on the rocks and enjoyed our sandwiches and drinks. The place was crowded with hikers, but we managed to find a somewhat secluded spot for our lunch.
Note: This trail is only for hiking. The terrain is too rugged for biking.
The hike took us around 3 hours in total - One hour and change each way and a long rest at the oasis.
This oasis is located at the north end of the Joshua Tree National Park – on the outskirts of Twentynine Palms city. Although it is officially inside the boundaries of the park, there is no entrance fee.
Plenty of parking is available at the trailhead and primitive restrooms. No facilities on the trail or at the oasis.
In this high desert, it is very easy to avoid the glare of human civilization. Just walk a few feet away from any road or camp and you are in total darkness. Also, the skies are clear most nights of the year due to the low rainfall.