Roughly two hours north east of Orange County’s playground of pristine beaches and family resorts lies a very different type of adventure. Established October 31st, 1994, Joshua Tree National Park is a younger national park compared to classics such as Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. But what this park lacks in years it more than makes up for with it’s notoriety for world class rock climbing, diverse terrain of the merger of two distinct desert ecosystems (the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert), an oasis of cacti, and the infamous twisty, Dr. Seuss-channeling Joshua Trees.
With over 100 miles of hiking and at least 8,000 climbing routes, it may be daunting to know exactly where to start your first visit to this magical place. Have no fear as I share some highlights, treks and camping you just do not want to miss out on at Joshua Tree National Park.
Where To Stay
Inside Joshua Tree National Park proper are nine campgrounds ranging in size of facilities. Six of these campgrounds are walk-in, first come first serve only and the remaining three campgrounds require prior reservations.
A great family friendly campground to reserve is Indian Cove Campground. It has a hundred and four campsites, – please note thirteen of those sites are tent only sites – pit toilets and is dog friendly. Climbers also prefer this campground for its proximity to climbing routes.
If you prefer a smaller and more secluded campground, Belle Campground with its first come first serve eighteen campsites may be more up your alley. A more tent friendly area, you will be surrounded by Joshua Trees and not much else.
Since the campgrounds are very popular you may need to look at areas outside of the National Park to camp. Within minutes of the entrance are free Bureau of Land Management areas where you can stay for no charge for up to 14 days. Be mindful that these areas have zero services and you should always practice Leave No Trace principles.
More options outside the Park include cute private rentals and chain hotels such as the Best Western in Twentynine Palms that my family has been known to frequent on our Joshua Tree getaways.
Pioneertown, about twenty minutes from the park, is a functioning movie set that takes you back to the Western towns of the late 1800s, complete with a dusty Mane Street and the occasional weekend gunfight.
For campers, Pioneertown Corrals offer cheap camping ($10 per person per night) under the stars and is open to tent campers and RVs. For in-room stays, Pioneertown Motel, Desert Willow Ranch, and Rimrock Ranch all offer a bed and a roof with varying levels of amenities.
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park is unique and brimming with geological wonders as well as historic importance. There are more than 100 miles of trails with varying levels of difficulty so you can find something for everyone, including accessible trails for the differently-abled.
From a hidden lake oasis to decaying mines, skull-like formations to mountains – you will find yourself adventuring in vastly diverse cholla gardens and boulder fields all within this beautiful park.
Here are a few you should definitely not miss out on!
- Skull Rock: This immensely popular stop is not far from the main road. Starting at Jumbo Rocks campground, take the 1.7 mile loop to this creepy skull. Since it is so very popular, try coming early in the morning to miss the crowds and get an opportunity to climb on this boulder display.
- Barker Dam: Starting at the Barker Dam Loop trailhead you begin your hike climbing up into what appears to be just a trail of rocks. Tall boulders rise on either side of the trail, hiding a wonderful surprise – a beautiful desert oasis. This hike is most ideal in winter or spring when the lake is full. The adventure continues with two historical sites–the water tank built by early cattle ranchers, and petroglyphs in a cave. This hike is around 5 miles in total.
- Ryan Mountain: A mountain in a desert? Yes! This hike is only 3 miles in total but ascends over 1,070 feet to give you incredible 360 views of the vast landscape. On clear days you will even see giants such as San Jacinto and San Gorgonio in the distance. Make sure to pack plenty of water and enjoy climbing the second highest peak in Joshua Tree National Park.
- Desert Queen Mine: A short and easy 1.6 mile hike deposits you right back into history as you visit an old gold mine. Along the trail you will discover panels telling the history of the profitable Desert Queen Mine which was operational from 1895 until it closed its doors in 1961. A beautiful classic Joshua Tree landscape, try coming in spring to see the vibrant Mojave Mound Cactus blooming.
- Hidden Valley Loop: This easy one mile loop trail takes you into a desert valley surrounded by towering boulder walls. Hidden valley is believed to have been used as a hideaway by cattle thieves as they made their getaway.
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the very best and most difficult rock climbing destinations. With more than 8,000 routes to choose from it has become a climbing Mecca of sorts. But don’t let the reputation detour you; Joshua Tree is also an ideal location for first time climbers to get their hands dirty – or, well, chalky in this case.
The best way to start climbing is to hire a climbing guide. Most guides work with mixed ability levels and will tailor locations to make sure everyone in your family will have a good time. Joshua Tree National park maintains a list of permitted climbing guides to ensure all activities are safe and reputable.
Already a climber? Here are a few of my favorite spots to run a rope.
- Intersection Rock: This crag is a prominent 150-foot tall monzonite monolith that is distinctly recognized as the birthplace of climbing in Joshua Tree by many. Climbs start at an easy 5.3 but go up to a tricky 5.12b.
- Quail Springs Rock: A super popular spot since it is the first turn off you find on the western portion of Park Boulevard. This wall is great for beginners and has picnic tables to relax on between climbs.
- Thin Wall: Located in the “Real Hidden Valley” of Joshua Tree. This crag encompasses various crack systems starting at easy 5.6 climbs to more challenging 5.11a routes.
If you don’t want to gear up to rock climb, there are many opportunities to simply climb, jump, and explore the massive boulders. A great place with miles of boulders to wander through is Indian Cove Campground. Make sure you feel confident in orientation or stay within eyesight of the road to ensure you do not get lost.
Junior Ranger Program
“Explore, Learn, Protect!” If you have a young child or are a young child at heart yourself, make sure you check out the The Junior Ranger program available for free at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. After receiving your book all interested parties just need to complete the activities listed in the workbook to encourage education and exploration of the wildlife around them. Once the workbook is complete simply turn it into a Ranger on duty, review what you have learned about Joshua Tree and receive your very own official Junior Ranger Badge.
Like other National Parks, this program is a wonderful way to install appreciation and wonder for the protection of our parks at a very young age. Plus, it’s free!
Other Joshua Tree Adventures
Horseback Riding: Joshua Tree has over 250 miles of equestrian trails and there are designated staging areas at some trail heads for parking horse trailers. If you have your own horses and you plan on camping, Ryan and Black Rock Campgrounds have designated areas for stock animals. Be sure to bring plenty of water for both you and your horse.
If you don’t have your own horses but would like to go on an equestrian adventure, Knob Hill Ranch offers horseback riding tours.
Geology Tour: Best for vehicles with 4-wheel drive, this 18-mile motor tour takes visitors through one Joshua Tree National Park’s most amazing landscapes. The 2-hour round trip tour will take autos along a dirt road to 16 stops that includes scenic views of the desert, notable geologic formations, natural and man-made dams, old mines and shafts, and more.
Most vehicles can handle the Geology Tour Road through marker #9, Squaw Tank, at which point a sign will inform 2WD vehicles to turn around. A 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for the remainder of the trail.
Pack your bags and take a weekend getaway to Joshua Tree National Park. You definitely won’t be disappointed!
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus