Twentynine Palms, California
Due to its rich and varied flora, Desert Plants was the initial name suggested for Joshua Tree National Park. Over 750 plant species have been documented in the 794,000-acre park. The amazing diversity is due to an ecosystem trifecta: Sections of the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Desert, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains are all located within Joshua Tree’s vast desert landscape. March through May, blossoms burst into color at various times and places throughout the park. What you’ll see—yellow desert dandelions, fiery red ocotillo flowers, clusters of creamy-white flowers sprouting from Joshua trees—depends on when and where you visit. According to lead park ranger David Denslow, a favorite area for spring wildflowers is the Bajada Nature Trail on the park’s southern border. In March, this quarter-mile trail “usually catches the first blooms to hit the park,” he says. It’s also one of four wheelchair-accessible trails and is easy to walk. Check the park’s weekly Wildflower Bloom Report (posted February through early May) to plan your trip. Park entrance fees ($15 per vehicle) are waived April 18-19, opening weekend of National Park Week.
How to Get Around: Driving is the most convenient option. There is no public transportation to the park, which is located 140 miles east of Los Angeles via Interstate 10 or California Highway 62. The closest airport is 45 miles west in Palm Springs. There are visitor centers with maps, restrooms, exhibits, and bookstores within seven miles of each park entrance: West near Joshua Tree Village, North in Twentynine Palms, and South near Cottonwood Springs (25 miles east of Indio).
Where to Stay: Camping is the only way to stay in the park. There are nine campgrounds. Most operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Two (Black Rock and Indian Cove) accept reservations. Campgrounds regularly fill up on spring weekends, so plan a weekday visit or reserve a site. There are hotels in the communities closest to each park entrance.
What to Eat or Drink: No food or drink is sold in the park. Carry in whatever you will need, including plenty of water. The Natural Sisters Café in downtown Joshua Tree is a popular pre- and post-park fueling stop. Try the homemade granola for breakfast, order a takeout avocado and veggie sandwich to put in your pack for lunch, and recharge after hiking with a Rock Climbers Revenge smoothie (soy milk, banana, cashews, and dates). Open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
What to Buy: Visitor center bookstores stock Joshua Tree memorabilia, gear, and helpful guides, such as the "Wildflowers of the Joshua Tree National Park" brochure ($2.95). Wildflower-related gifts include local artist Pat Flynn’s Desert Bloom Assortment #1 note cards. The set features reproductions of original watercolors depicting seven Joshua Tree blooms: brittle bush, coyote melon, Mojave yucca, beavertail cactus, buckhorn cholla, desert Canterbury bells, and Mojave mound claret cup.
What to Watch Before You Go: Longtime California PBS broadcaster Huell Howser’s California’s Golden Park television series includes a Joshua Tree episode filmed on location in spring.
Practical Tip: It’s rare to get a cell signal within the park. Don’t count on your phone or GPS for directions or emergencies.
Fun Fact: Of the 794,000 acres of land in Joshua Tree National Park, 585,000 acres are preserved as wilderness. Designated wilderness areas are protected and primitive: no roads or permanent buildings and no trails, signs, or other improvements are permitted unless required to protect the public or resources. That means that, in most parts of Joshua Tree, you're free to roam (on foot) off-trail, off-road, and without boundaries.