Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is special.
In the 1930s desert lover and community activist, Minerva Hoyt recognized the human threats of the nearby ecosystem and persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to proclaim Joshua Tree a National Monument in 1936.
It was renamed the Joshua Tree National Park in 1994 and now protects 792,510 acres – mostly wilderness – where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts converge.
Thanks to Minerva, we have this national treasure where we can disconnect from the chaos of our busy lives to unwind and relax amongst the stark beauty and unique desert trees.
In Saguaro National Park in Tucson, we fell in love with the saguaro cactus.
Here in South East California, we fell in love with the Joshua Tree, which reminded me so much of the truffula trees in the Lorax.
It has a similar playful, unique and striking presence and aura.
It helped me keep in the forefront of my mind as we explored this National Park, the dangers that can come when humans turn their backs from Mother Nature, thinking they can supersede her.
Never, it’s where we find our sustenance, not just for our bodies, but more importantly our soul.
What’s special about Joshua Tree?
It’s not just the Joshua Trees to love here but junipers, scrub oaks, Mojave yuccas and prickly pear cactus, one of our favorites from Big Bend National Park.
So what is a Joshua Tree?
One of the interesting Joshua Tree facts is that it isn’t really a tree, but a species of yucca!
They can grow over 40 feet tall at the leisurely rate of an inch a year – typical of a desert plant.
In February through April it blooms clusters of cream-colored flowers. We just missed it!
It’s also home to a wide variety of animals such as ground squirrels, woodpeckers hawks, and ravens.
We saw a couple of jack rabbits and ground squirrels in our visit.
It’s only in the Mojave Desert section of the park (the northwest section) where you’ll see most of the Joshua trees.
The south is dominated by the flora and fauna of the Colorado Desert which has lower elevations. Here is where you’ll find cholla, creosote and ocotillo.
You won’t see any more of those beautiful piles of rock boulders either, created as a result of volcanic activity.
There are a few fan–palm oasis within the park. Fan-palms are so majestic and magnetic. I loved them as much as the Joshua’s.
The oasis will also have cottonwoods and mesquites, more plants of the desert I love.
The longer I live the more I love the desert!
The desert used to bore me as a child and wondered why anyone would want to visit as wasteland. Now I know it as a place full of life and the chance for spiritual awakenings and soul love.
When you’re at the oasis, know you are a top a crack in the earth’s crust!!
But try not to think about the shakes that have to occur along the faultline here!!
Where is Joshua Tree National Park?
The park is situated in San Bernardino County in South East California and within a few hours’ drive of several major cities:
- LA to Joshua Tree is 140 miles
- Palms Springs to Joshua Tree is 49 miles
- 175 miles northeast of San Diego
- 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas
- 222 miles west of Phoenix
Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Hidden Valley Trail
Hidden Valley is named after the cattle rustlers who used to hide their stolen cattle in here.
Easy to see why when you walk through a narrow passage in the outcropping or rocks into a huge area bordered in a circle by more rock outcroppings.
You would never know it’s there if you didn’t walk though the rocks.
It’s a very easy 1-mile loop walk around the perimeter of the valley, and one of the best hikes in Joshua Tree with kids.
The scenery is spectacular with it’s white boulders and Joshua Trees dotting the landscape.
Act like Savannah and find a rock to sit on and reflect.
Use your five senses to appreciate the park. Thank goodness for the Junior Ranger program that inspired her to do this.
This area is popular for rock climbers.
Another easy hike for the kids and you!
Another 1-mile loop walk leading you past Barker Dam Joshua Tree which was created as a watering hole for the cattle.
It opens up to a gorgeous expansive vista of the surrounding mountains, rocks and Joshua Trees making it one of the prettiest things to see in Joshua Tree National Park.
Don’t miss the petroglyphs and pictographs on the rocks near the end of the trail. They are very vivid and interesting to look at.
It’s sad reading how some vandals had drawn over several in an area nearby. I just don’t understand why people want to destroy such natural treasures.
Ryan Mountain Trail
One of the more exciting Joshua Tree hikes is to the top of Ryan Mountain.
We had many people recommend this to us as one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Of course we decided to take the girls up there on the windiest day in the world, which only added to the adventure.
If you’re kids are used to hiking, they will be fine with this walk and will love the thrill of it.
The Ryan Mountain Trail is 3-miles return and gains an elevation of 1,000ft to the 5,458 foot summit.
One one side of the mountain (the start of the tail) you get beautiful views of the rocky outcroppings in Lost Horse Valley, and on the other side of the trail you get views of Queen and Pleasant Valley.
Other Joshua Tree National Park hiking trails I would have liked to do:
- Fortynine Palms Oasis – a 3 mile walk to a shady beautiful oasis
Pinto Basin Drive
If you’re looking for things to do in Joshua Tree besides hike, do this drive.
We only drove the Pinto Basin road to a little beyond the Cholla Garden.
It’s quite a long drive and time was running short. We’re glad we made the call to turn around as it meant we experienced the extraordinary sunset at Key Views.
The drive is worth doing and if you have time, I recommend going all the way to Cottonwood Springs which was used by the Cahuilla Indian for centuries.
The landscape changes quite dramatically along the way.
You lose the Joshua Trees and rock outcroppings and instead have a wide open expanse with mountains as the background as the Mojave Desert begins to meet the Colorado Desert.
Remember when Kalyra was attacked by a cactus in the Sonoran desert in Saguaro National Park?
We returned to her foe, the jumping cholla. We hadn’t seen them since Tucson.
Along the Pinto Basin Drive you will come to a field of them. There are thousands. And it’s one of the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
There is a boardwalk and path winding through the garden to protect you from them.
Don’t stray off the path. They’re called jumping for a reason, and they do like to embed themselves in your skin.
You are close enough to admire them from the boardwalk. They really are beautiful and with the mountains in the background it makes for a gorgeous setting.
Be ready to line up for your photo with the haunting Skull Rock, the rounded shaped rock with a pair of shallow caves that resemble eye sockets.
It’s just off the side of the road so no hiking required although there is a 1.7 mile nature trail around here you can take to the Jumbo Rocks should you wish.
Be sure to end your day with a Joshua Tree sunset at Keys View, the highest point in the park.
It’s just a short walk from the parking lot, and is one of the best spots in Joshua Tree to watch the sun go down!
You get a stunning 360 views of the a vista over the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, Salton Sea and on a very clear day you can even see a mountain in Mexico.
The sun sets behind Mt San Jacinto. Don’t forget to look behind to see the colors as well.
Keys View Joshua Tree is a sunset to remember for your entire USA road trip.
Junior Ranger Program
Don’t forget to stop in at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center with your kids to grab your Junior Ranger program.
This is the best way for children to engage with the National Park experience. We LOVE this program, and it’s one of the essential things to do in Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
The girls take charge of their own learning and are becoming fantastic stewards of the earth as a result.
The activities will help them learn in an effortless and fun way about the flora and fauna of the park and what makes it so special.
It’s a great way for them to reflect on what they have learned and accomplished at the end when they turn their booklet in to receive their badges. A ranger will talk to them about their answers and experiences within the park.
Kane, the ranger on duty was so funny and wonderful in how he interacted with the girls.
We all found it especially funny when Savannah shared the smells she experienced in the park: rosemary and farts!!
The kids say a pledge with the ranger at the end promising to protect the park and then they receive their badges!
We’re doing our best to collect as many as we can on this trip.
We have two Grand Canyon badges and would have had Saguaro National Park and Big Bend National Park, had the government shutdown not gotten in the way.
Bonus video of Joshua Tree National Park
Can You Visit Joshua Tree in a day?
Yes. You can.
Joshua Tree NP is small enough to see most of it in one day.
It will involve an early start and late finish however, and you’ll want to take your food and drinks inside the park with you.
However, there is plenty to do to extend it over several days and I always say, why not?
What can you do in Joshua Tree in one day? My recommendations would be:
- Ryan Mountain
- Skull Rock
- Hidden Valley Trail
- Barkers Dam
- Cholla Garden
- Keys View for sunset
Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
- Watch where you put your hands and feet – rattlesnakes live here
- Only rock climb if you know what you are doing
- Be careful of flash flooding
- Off road driving is not permitted in Joshua Tree California
- There is no cell phone coverage in most of the park – yay. Enjoy being present!
- Camping is allowed only in designated areas or with a a backcountry permit
- Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms, and Cottonwood Visitor Center are open daily.
- Blackrock Nature Center is open October through May
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is easily accessible from Los Angeles (140 miles).
There is an entrance at Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree Village, and in the south near Cottonwood Springs.
You can rent a car from nearby Los Angeles, or Palm Springs.
Although we recommend traveling to Joshua Tree National Park independently, if that is not possible for you there are Joshua Tree tours you can take.
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park
Where to stay in Joshua Tree?
There are nine Joshua Tree campgrounds inside the park, plus a handful of campgrounds near Joshua Tree.
Only Black Rock, Indian Cove, Sheep Pass and Cottonwood Group campgrounds accept reservations from September through May.
The rest are first come first served.
Finding a campsite mid-week is easier than weekends in peak Joshua Tree camping season (Jan – May, Oct – Dec).
Joshua Tree campgrounds have (basic) toilet facilities. All campsites have picnic tables and fire rings, but you must bring your own firewood!
- Learn more about Joshua Tree National Park camping here.
- And for Joshua Tree camping reservations go here.
Hotels near Joshua Tree National Park
29 Palms Inn at Oasis of Mara
Established in 1928, the 29 Palms Inn offers an eclectic mix of guest accommodations looking out to the mountains of Joshua Tree National Park.
Oasis of Mara is also home to the park headquarters and the Oasis Visitor Center.
American Indians were the first people to live here, followed by prospectors than homesteaders. It’s really beautiful and a serene place to stay here in a cute desert cottage.
We ate here for lunch and had a look around the grounds and learned a little about the organic gardens where they grow a lot of the produce for their kitchen.
Oh this place is divine! What a great way to relax after a long hot day in the desert.
I loved the outdoor sitting area shaded by those gorgeous fan palm trees.
There’s also an outdoor hot tub and swimming pool and you can stay either in a room in the main colonial home or cottages on the property.
Campbell House is a Philadelphia-style Colonial house situated in Twentynine Palm. The original homestead was built in the 1920s by Bill & Elizabeth Campbell and is still present today attached to the main house as the lobby.