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The popularity of Joshua Tree National Park dates back 10,000 years, back when the Pinto Culture were hunter-gatherers within the region. Cattle rustlers and miners would later move into the area before Joshua Tree would eventually go on to become the outdoor recreation mecca it is today.
Joshua Tree’s otherworldly landscape is filled with billion-year-old boulders and crazy looking Joshua trees for which the park is named. These famous trees, which are actually a type of yucca plant, led early Mormon settlers across the Mohave Desert, and this is how the distinctive plants got their name (named so because it was Joshua who guided the Israelites, if you're familiar with bible history).
It's now been 25 years since California’s Joshua Tree became a national park, conserving nearly a half million acres of rugged yet beautiful desert wilderness.
The park has been popularized through its appearance in music videos, iconic album covers, and through big name music concerts, though it's major draw is its offering of outdoor adventure.
National Park Hiking
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One of the best ways to enjoy Joshua Tree National Park is on foot. There are a number of great trails differing in length and difficulty, some of which are wheelchair accessible.
Hiking is most enjoyable in the cooler months of fall, winter, and spring. Come summer, temperatures can reach 100+ °F. Regardless of the time of year though, you should always put on sun protection and carry plenty of water, remembering that dogs are not permitted on almost all park trails.
Pro tip: I recommend hiring a local guide for many of the top Joshu Tree hikes so you can ensure a safe experience and gain a thorough understanding of the rich history of the region along with learning about its flora, fauna, and other natural features.
Some easy yet popular trails to start off with include the Hidden Valley Trail and Barker Dam Nature Trail. Both trails are roughly a mile in length and will take about an hour to complete.
Both areas have a history of cattle ranchers and rustlers, with Barker Dam offering great wildlife watching opportunities after heavy rains. You may also wish to check out the historic adobe structure located along the 1-mile Ryan Ranch Trail.
Moderate hikes ranging between two and four hours include the West Side Loop, Mastodon Peak Trail, Lost Horse Mine, and Ryan Mountain Trail. The Lost Horse Mine allows you to explore an old gold mine, while reaching the 5,500-foot summit of Ryan Mountain will give your legs a good workout.
Backcountry Hiking can also be done on trails like the California Riding and Hiking Trail. This serious 35-mile hike takes you across the Mojave Desert from Black Rock Canyon to the park’s North Entrance, taking several days to complete.
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A large percentage of park visitors are lured here because of rock climbing. Considered to be one of America’s premier rock climbing destinations, Joshua Tree offers up over 8,000 established climbing routes.
Much like Joshua Tree hiking, we highly advise you book a rock climbing experience with a knowledgeable guide who can help you select a climb that is best suited to your personal skill level. Local guides are required to have the highest levels of rock guiding certifications, and this is definitely an activity where you want to prioritize safety.
Many popular climbs within the park are situated near campgrounds, providing quick and easy access. Enjoy safe dry climbing in this desert environment filled with hundreds of unique quartz monzonite rock formations.
Beginner rock climbers may want to check out Echo Cove, while more advanced climbers can tackle the Big Moe overhang or vertical face climbs of Loose Lady and Possessed by Elvis.
Booking a climbing tour with a guide means you won’t have to purchase or bring along all your own gear.
There are around 250 miles of equestrian trails within Joshua Tree, making horseback riding quite popular. Clearly marked, the trails offer the chance to explore more remote regions of the park away from crowds of tourists.
Black Rock Canyon and the West Entrance areas are the two most popular for horses and horse trailers can be parked at several areas including Boy Scout trailhead in Indian Cove, North Entrance, and the Lower Covington Flats picnic area.
Both Ryan and Black Rock Campgrounds also offer designated areas for horses; just remember that you must clean up any waste produced by your horse at the campgrounds and trailheads.
Most people who visit Joshua Tree like to make it a weekend or even week-long affair and therefore choose to camp. The park offers 9 different campgrounds with around 500 combined sites.
Many of these book out well in advance during the busy spring period and during popular holidays, so it's absolutely essential to reserve your site well ahead of time. You can reserve campsites 6 months in advance - between September and May, the majority of sites are only available by reservation.
Some of the most popular campsites people choose to reserve spots at include Jumbo Rocks, Black Rock, and Indian Cove. 4 smaller campgrounds are available on a first come, first serve basis, and this includes the White Tank and Hidden Valley Campgrounds which you can self-register and pay for via cash at a kiosk.
Camping costs around $15-20 per night. There are also opportunities for backcountry camping available to backpackers that are interested.
Note that these fill up quickly on weekends, so getting in early on Friday or even Thursday is best to secure a spot. Just be sure to bring your own potable water and firewood.
Camping in Joshua Tree is more of a rustic camping experience, especially for those not camping at Black Rock or Cottonwood campgrounds which both offer flush toilets and water.
You can expect pit toilets and no available water at the other campsites in the park, but there are fire rings and picnic tables available.
Observe and Photograph Nature
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Joshua Tree isn’t just popular with people, a number of animals inhabit the park as well. Nature lovers and wildlife photographers quickly fall in love with the park due to its wild landscapes and unique flora and fauna.
It goes without saying that people come to the park to see and photograph the so-called Joshua Trees. The unique plants which aren’t technically trees at all can easily be observed in the park’s northern Mojave Desert section.
Other notable plants to look out for include cholla cactus and the cactus-looking ocotillo which gets lovely crimson flowers during spring rains.
Head to the Cholla Cactus Garden and nearby Ocotillo Patch to see these two unique plants for yourself. There are also a few oasis filled with fan palms within the park.
Animals that may be spotted in Joshua Tree include coyotes, bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, rattlesnakes, bats, lizards, tarantulas, and desert tortoises. Many of the desert animals are nocturnal, so your chances of spotting them will be greater if you camp within the park.
Wildlife hotspots include Cottonwood Spring and Indian Cove’s nature trail. Birdwatchers will be glad to know the park is home to a large number of species, some which are year-round residents and others that simply migrate through.
Each season tends to bring in different species. You can spot roadrunners, phainopeplas, and cactus wrens throughout the year, while migrating birds such as warblers, western tanagers, and lazuli buntings are only seasonal.
The park is blessed to have a number of birds of prey including golden eagles, American kestrels, prairie falcons, and sometimes large gatherings of turkey vultures.
Besides the Joshua trees and wildlife, the park’s other stars include its many unique rock formations.
One of the must-see rocks is Skull Rock, so named because it actually looks like a human skull. You can witness Skull Rock near the Jumbo Rocks campground, while the equally impressive 9-meter-tall Arch Rock can be seen near White Tank campground.
Pay a visit to the 12-square-mile Wonderland of Rocks to witness a labyrinth of granite boulders, some of which feature ancient Indian petroglyphs. You can also book a jeep tour to check out the Coachella Valley, where your driver and local guide can point out and explain in detail the various geological features in the area including fossil beds and slot canyons.
Lookouts and Starry Skies
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One of the best views in the park can be had at the Keys View Lookout. This place is the best place to come for sunsets, and on clear days you can view Palm Springs, Mexico’s Signal Mountain, and even the San Andreas Fault. You can drive to the summit, the highest point in the park, and do a short walking loop to take in the views at the top.
The incredible views don’t stop even after the sun goes down and that’s because the region has been recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. Joshua Tree’s combination of very low light pollution and low humidity allow you to spy on the heavens.
Check out distant planets, stars, and galaxies like Andromeda and Triangulum. Local stargazing groups host star parties, there are ranger-led night sky programs available, and the park puts on a yearly Night Sky Festival.
There is also an observatory and nature center that is open to the public on certain nights. Mingle with amateur astronomers who bring their telescopes and binoculars for enhanced views of the night sky.