If you know me even just a little bit, then you are likely to know that I am a big fan of two things: 1.) the state of California and 2.) National Parks. Joshua Tree happens to tick both of those items on my list making it one of my favorite little spots in Cali. While it could never compare to the mountains of Yosemite or the pristine waters of Tahoe, Joshua Tree National Park still has a magical appeal all its own. The dry desert air casts colors across the sky most sunset spots could only dream of. And, the endless array of Joshua Trees, unique rock formations, and cholla cactuses give way to an other world feeling that catches you deep in your soul. If the desert is calling you, then Joshua Tree might just be your answer. Here is everything you need to know before you go:
WHAT TO PACK:
With quite warm and dry temperatures even at times in the winter, what you pack for Joshua Tree can be quite important. For starters, water is scarce so packing a refillable water bottle is a must. I happened to visit during the government shut down which meant non of the facilities were operating. And, while I did see a few bathrooms, I think preparing to use the outdoor facilities (if you catch my drift) might be the way to go. This particular park does not have the resources we are accustomed to in other National Parks. Great walking or hiking shoes is almost a must in these situations, along with good, breathable performance clothing. One of my personal favorite brands is Vuori as shown below. Also, it can get quite cold at night so pack warm clothing! Lastly, once inside the park, there is no where to buy either food and/or water, so pack in everything you might need for the day. Here are a few items that I recommend for your trip:
BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT:
As with any destination, the best time of year to visit is dependent on your desired temperatures and tourist numbers. Personally, I recommend visiting during mild temperatures that are perfect for hiking and/or rock climbing. This means that either early spring (March, April) when the desert wildflowers are in bloom, or even late fall (October, November) when the autumn light is quite something would be the ideal times months to visit. All of the photos in the article were taken on a trip that we did in January. With the sun out during the day, we found it quite nice. The desert temps did get a bit cold at night, but all in all the weather was lovely and there were next to no tourists around.
BEST TIME OF DAY TO VISIT:
The best time of day I suppose is a bit obvious. The sunset and/or sunrise here is incredible. If you are camping sunrise is quite easy to experience straight out of your tent. If you re staying outside the park, that might be a bit a drive that early in the morning. But, either way, sunset is a must! The colors immediately change the landscape and are well worth seeing from start to finish. So, if you only have a few hours to experience the park, sunset is your time slot I promise! (Below is info on our favorite sunset spot) Another great time to visit here, is at night to experience the dark sky and endless stars. The Milky Way is usually visible making it well worth the trip (More on night photography below).
HOW TO GET THERE:
Coming from Los Angeles, we simply drove the direction of the desert. If you aren’t in California or within a driving distance of the park, then flying into LAX may be your best bet in terms of flight pricing. There is a small airport in Palm Springs which would place you quite close to the park, however er prices are higher to go that route. Only a couple of hours from LAX, the drive really isn’t bad into Joshua Tree. You also are just on the other side of the mountains from Big Bear if you wanted to road trip and see an entirely different type of mountain escape.
WHERE TO STAY:
Due to the government shut down, we couldn’t stay inside the park. We did not want to add any sort of waste or impact on the landscape. We stayed in a little airbnb right outside the park in the town of Joshua Tree. The town itself is quite small but there are a couple of eateries and even a coffee roaster along with a few vintage, antiques, and clothing boutiques. While staying outside the park is totally doable, driving in and out every day does add quite a bit of drive time that would be cut down by actually camping inside the park, so that would be my recommendation if that is possible for you.
WHAT ARE THE SITES TO SEE:
To be honest, like most National Parks, just driving through the park and stopping along the way is a great way to explore the landscape. There are plenty of turn offs and small parking sites along the way with all sorts of Joshua Trees and rock formations to adventure around. Bouldering and rock climbing are quite huge here, so if that is something specific that you are interested in, I highly suggest doing some research specific to that activity. If you are looking for a few spots to stop and explore around, here are a few of the places that we quite enjoyed.
JUMBO ROCKS CAMPGROUND
Our favorite sunset spot has to be here. The colors casting across the sky and illuminating the rock formations were incredible. Hardly anyone was there and we largely had this spot to ourselves. The colors surrounding us in all directions was truly breath taking, and climbing up on the rocks to see the sunset turned out to be a great way to get some cool photos of this place so I highly recommend this spot. There is a small parking lot as well so it is quite easy to pull off and explore the area.
RIGHT PASSED THE JOSHUA TREE PARK ENTRANCE:
At the entrance of the park from the town of Joshua Tree, it doesn’t take long before you start to enter this area of the park. All these photos were taken not that far from the entrance where the sun setting behind the mountains was quite beautiful. There is not a specific name to this area, but it is worth mentioning if you are specifically looking to see the sunset through the Joshua Trees, because further up the road, the trees become more sparse and you don’t get quite the same succession of mountains like we found right here along the side of the road.
JUMBO ROCKS CAMPGROUND’S NIGHT SKY:
Night photography is something I have continued to get more and more interested in as I have traveled. It is certainly not something I have mastered. Like with anything, it is a practice. Getting the camera to focus on stars that it cannot see is not an easy task, but the results can be quite beautiful especially with a dark sky like you will find in Joshua Tree. All of the photos were taken at the same spot as our previously mentioned sunset spot. Make sure to bring a tripod and a remote if your camera doesn’t have a timer. Even if photography isn’t your main goal, get out and see the night sky for yourself because it will certainly be one to remember.
BARKER DAM AREA:
Water isn’t your first thought when thinking of Joshua Tree. But, turns out there is a nice hike to the Barker Dam that adds a nice break from this dry landscape. It is a rather easy hike to and from the dam. It is quite a sunny walk so make sure to pack plenty of water and sunscreen which is true of any hike in Joshua Tree. Once you reach the dam, it is a nice place to sit out on the rocks and have a lovely picnic so pack some snacks and make sure to explore around!
JOSHUA TREE’S SKULL ROCK:
Quite a lot has been made about this rock, and I gotta tell ya, it just didn’t do much for me. It is a nice area and worth popping out to explore around, but of all the spots to stop, I wouldn’t say that it changed my life in any way. Cool to see, a nice break from the car to stretch your legs, but will your entire life perspective be altered by the experience, nah I doubt it. Either way, this is Skull Rock:
JOSHUA TREE CHOLLAH CACTUS GARDEN:
Alright, this was pretty cool. I don’t know that I had ever seen a tree, natural cacti garden before. It is a bit out of the way from the rest of the main sections of the park, but personally, I quite liked the change of scenery and unique experience of walking through the cactuses. With the sun reaching close to its setting time, the sun rays through the arms of the cacti were quite nice as well. It is beautiful all in all and a great last stop through the park on your way back to LA after a weekend in this beautiful desert.