I have wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park for about 3.5 years. Since my time in California is ending, I figured it was now or never. Located in the Mojave Desert, it sits 20 minutes from the city of Joshua Tree, one hour from Palm Springs, and only two minutes from Twenty-Nine Palms (depending on the entrance). The park is not named after the city of Joshua Tree, but rather for the Joshua Trees that grow there and are the namesake of the park.
Established as a National Monument in 1936, it was upgraded to a National Park in 1994 with the passing of the California Desert Protection Act. Something very cool about Joshua Tree (I will refer to the National Park as just ‘Joshua Tree’ from now on; I am not referring to the city) is that it sits in two different deserts, the Mojave in the higher elevations, and the Colorado in the lower elevations, resulting in two different ecosystems and characteristics. We visited the part within the Mojave.
Super interesting fact: the Joshua trees were first named by early, 19th-century Mormon immigrants traveling West, because they thought the tree branches looked like the raised arms of the biblical Joshua, reaching towards the sky and Heaven. It’s also speculated that they believed the outraised arms were pointing them west, a sign to continue their journey.
Since it sits in the middle of two deserts, it’s not exactly close to any major metropolitan area. It’s roughly a 1.5 hour drive from anywhere in the Inland Empire, 2.5 hours from Los Angeles, 3 hours from San Diego, 8 hours from San Francisco, 3.5 hours from Phoenix, and 3 hours from Las Vegas (of course, when you go contributes greatly to traffic and time estimates). Nonetheless, it quite literally sits in the “middle of nowhere”, with only small desert towns nearby (sans possibly Palm Springs, which is still considered ‘small’ by urban city standards).
We came in through the Joshua Tree entrance, and it’s just one lane as you drive up to the gate, so you may encounter a line. We arrived around 11am and there was a slight line; however, we were only in it for around 7-8 minutes. As we got closer to the front, a park ranger was directing traffic into two different lines, one for National Park pass holders and the other for non-pass holders. She was also handing out maps and guidebooks, as well as children’s guidebooks. We were directed into the non-pass line and told to pay when we exited (I really need to buy a National Park pass). I’m not sure what happened, because as we approached the exit upon leaving, there was not a human in sight and the window to the ticket booth was firmly shut with a metal shade. I guess we got a free trip to the National Park.
There are 3 entrances total to the park, two to the North and one to the South. The two northern entrances are within the Mojave, near Joshua Tree and Twenty-nine Palms, and the Southern is in the Colorado, near Cottonwood Spring, which is about 25 miles east of Indio, California. The cities of Joshua Tree and Twenty-nine Palms are relatively close, only about 15 minutes apart, so visiting both entrances is not difficult. I will add the addresses for the various visitor centers at the end.
The bathroom at the Joshua Tree entrance wasn’t the only bathroom in the park, but it was the only bathroom we encountered with flushing toilets (I assume all the bathrooms at the multiple entrances are the same). There are numerous porta-potty style bathrooms located at various locations throughout the park, but they’re unisex, have no sinks, and do not flush. They weren’t the most disgusting porta-potties I’ve ever encountered in an outdoor hiking area (that honor goes to one of the porta-potties at Ross Creek Cedars in Montana), but it also wasn’t… great. It was a porta-potty, and it smelled and looked like it.
We entered through the Joshua Tree entrance, and right there found a bathroom and information area. The actual visitor center is closed due to Covid-19, but the bathrooms are open. There is a small table set up out front with maps and other important information. Important – this information table was not there when we left around 4pm, and as stated above, there were no park employees around either, so if you need to speak to an actual park employee, you may want to arrive before noon.
There are multiple named areas throughout the park, like Quail Springs, Hidden Valley, Skull Rock, Sheep Pass, and Jumbo Rock. Our first stop wasn’t any of these named areas, but rather a random area/trail that looked cool. You will find many of these various unnamed turn offs and trails as you drive through. It was about a mile or two into the park and had a dirt turn-out on the side of the road for parking. In fact, that’s how a majority of the parking is at Joshua Tree, as there are countless little trails everywhere, so there are a lot of small, dirt patches on the side of the road that cars pull off to. There are actual parking lots as well, but they are not large and are only located near named areas. Also, good luck finding a spot. I tried near Hemingway and failed. I then had to “parking lot stalk” two people at Hidden Valley. It was, as I like to call it, the Hunger Games.
I enjoyed this little off-shoot trail since it wasn’t a main, named one, and the chances of encountering a ton of people was far less. Covid or no Covid, it always puts a damper on things when you are trying to enjoy your time somewhere, particularly if you’ve never been, and you’re fighting your way through a sea of bodies (Disneyland, Niagara Falls, NYC, and literally any zoo come instantly to mind…). Clearly Joshua Tree isn’t going to be packed like Disneyland or NYC, but some spots were obviously more popular than others.
This first spot was apparently not very popular, because we were the only ones out there the entire time and we stayed for about 40 minutes. I’m not sure why, as it was a lovely trail that was very wide and easy and brought you up to huge piles of rocks that you can climb on. Here I nervously helped my daughter climb the rocks and get as high as she could (talk about heart- attack inducing). However, since she is only 4 years old, her attention began to quickly wane. We moved on down the trail, but after getting pricked by a cactus, my daughter went into meltdown mode and it was time to go back to the car.
After a reset in the car and half a turkey sandwich, she was ready to try this hiking and rock-climbing thing again, and we drove towards our first named spot, Quail Springs, which is before Hemingway. At least I am pretty positive it was Quail Springs. One thing I noticed about Joshua Tree is the disproportionate amount of rock formations and mountains to signs/trails with names. Quail Springs is on the official map, but I never saw an actual sign for it. I can only guess this is where we were based off the distance between Quail Springs and Hemingway on the map.
This spot (whether it is Quail Springs or not) was noticeably more crowded and popular; however, it wasn’t too bad and social distancing was possible. Parking is easy, side dirt parking. As for masks, some wore them, some did not. It was easy to maintain the proper social distance and the only time we came close to people was in Hidden Valley, but more on that later.
This spot is fascinating because it looks like God tossed down a bunch of rocks as an afterthought after he was done playing with them. It’s just rocks upon rocks upon rocks. I was mesmerized with how they ended up like that (spoiler: according to Wiki: “The rock formations of Joshua Tree National Park owe their shape partly to groundwater, which filtered through the roughly rectangular joints of the monzonite and eroded the corners and edges of blocks of stone, and to flash floods, which washed away covering ground and left piles of rounded boulders.”).
I enjoyed this area because if you’re a novice rock climber, it’s a great place for that, and if you have kids with you, it’s a more doable climb for them. The rocks are huge and stable (from what I could tell), and there are enough dirt patches in between to catch your footing. I didn’t climb to the top because my daughter would’ve tried to follow, but I did hear others from the top say that it was noticeably windier and colder.
We moved on from Maybe Quail Springs to another nameless area, but I can tell you it was near the Boy Scout Trail, on the opposite side of the highway, and right before Hemingway Buttress. We stopped here mainly because it was the first bathroom we came across. It’s a porta-potty style bathroom and it was as you’d expect. My daughter was NOT a fan and refused to go.
We hiked around that area for about 15 minutes, but my daughter began to go into meltdown mode again, so it was cut short. There are quite a few cactuses and other prickly plants in the area, and my daughter, yet again, had an unfortunate encounter with them. After cutting herself a couple more times (parent hack – never forget the Band-Aids while out hiking. Kids are so dang clumsy. In fact, you should never forget the Band-Aids when hiking, period), I gave into her cries and we returned to the car. I knew she was reaching her limit, as we had already been out there for about 2.5 hours, so we needed to head to Hidden Valley.
Hidden Valley is likely one of the more famous and well-known trails at Joshua Tree. Its popularity is due in part to it being only one mile in length, a loop, relatively easy, and the plethora of rock-climbing possibilities. There are certain parts that require climbing in the form of large stone stairs and a few wedgy places, but other than that, it’s one of the easiest hikes I’ve ever done, and my 4-year-old was more than capable (albeit very tired).
It’s also popular because there are numerous informative signs throughout the trail that tell the tales of the Valley’s history, as well as the vibrant ecosystems present throughout. As I mentioned, it’s also popular with rock climbers, and we saw a pair climbing up the very flat, very vertical, and very high rockface right as we entered the Valley. I looked online extensively for the name for this rock; however, I was unable to find it.
You can stay on the one-mile, circular dirt path, or you can splinter out and explore. I chose to stay on the trail as I had my daughter with me and not only would she have objected loudly, but it also wouldn’t have been the smartest or safest move. The path is relatively easy to follow, but there are parts where you must pay more attention than to others, otherwise you may go astray. However, if you choose, you can venture off and climb the rocks at any point along the loop.
Also be advised, there are parts of the trail that require climbing stairs, as well as maneuvering around rocks. It is not all flat, wide, and straight. The trail doesn’t become incredibly difficult or challenging, just some parts require more energy than others. It’s simply something to be aware of if you have any difficulty climbing stairs or wedging your legs between some rocks.
After we completed the Hidden Valley loop, we called it a day at Joshua Tree because we still needed to head to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum – Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum; it’s really weird. – plus my daughter would have had a high-speed come- apart had I betrayed my “yes honey, we’re leaving after this hike” promise. The truth is, you could camp at Joshua Tree National Park for an entire week and still could not complete all the hikes nor explore all of the rock formations. It’s a massive area with a ridiculous number of trails and rock piles. I’d love to camp there for a weekend, because I bet the night sky is amazing. One day!
P.S. It is strongly advised to go during the spring, fall, or winter; i.e. anytime except summer. The temperatures during summer can easily get up to 100 degrees or more. Camping during the winter isn’t advised either, due to temps dipping as low as 30 degrees at night. Most of the travel websites advise going between March – May or October – November for an average high of about 85 degrees.
Oasis Visitor Center
Open: 8:30 am to 5 pm
Location: Oasis of Mara in Twenty-nine Palms
Address: 74485 National Park Drive, Twenty-nine Palms, CA 92277
Joshua Tree Visitor Center
Open: 7:30 am to 5 pm
Location: South of Highway 62 on Park Boulevard in the Village of Joshua Tree
Address: 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Cottonwood Visitor Center
Open: 8:30 am to 4 pm
Location: Cottonwood Spring
Address: Pinto Basin Rd, Twenty-nine Palms, CA 92277