Photograph by Raul Touzon, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its iconic plantlife. But there's much more to explore.

Photograph by Raul Touzon, Nat Geo Image Collection

Everything to know about Joshua Tree National Park

Arid low desert and vegetated high desert meet in this beloved natural gem, offering visitors stunning vistas and rewarding hikes.

Fast Facts

Location: California
Established:
October 31, 1994
Size:
794,000 acres
Annual Visitors: 2.8 million
Visitor Centers: Joshua Tree, Oasis, Cottonwood, Black Rock
Entrance fee: $30 vehicles; $15 individuals
nps.gov/jotr

An enduring symbol of the Mojave Desert, Yucca brevifolia might be the namesake of this national park in the desert east of Los Ange­les, but it’s certainly far from the only thing to see at Joshua Tree. Dozens of trails are open to hiking, biking, and horseback riding, and the stony terrain makes it one of America’s rock­climbing meccas. Spring brings a carpet of wildflow­ers. And the superclear desert night sky makes the park an oasis for stargazing.

The park embraces parts of two distinct deserts—the Mojave and Sonoran—as it tumbles down from the heights into the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs. These two desert systems divide California's southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation.


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The Colorado, the western reach of the vast Sonoran Desert, thrives below 3,000 feet on the park’s gently declining eastern flank, where temperatures are usually higher. Considered “low desert,” compared to the loftier, wetter, and more vegetated Mojave “high desert,” the Colorado seems sparse and forbidding. It begins at the park’s midsection, sweeping east across empty basins stubbled with creosote bushes. Occasionally decorated by “gardens” of flowering ocotillo and cholla cactus, it runs across arid Pinto Basin into a parched wilderness of broken rock in the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains.

Many newcomers among the 1.3 million visitors who pass through each year are surprised by the abrupt transition between the Colorado and Mojave ecosystems. Above 3,000 feet, the Mojave section claims the park’s western half, where giant branching yuccas thrive on sandy plains studded by massive granite monoliths and rock piles. These are among the most intriguing and photogenic geological phenomena found in California’s many desert regions.

Joshua Tree’s human history commenced sometime after the last ice age with the arrival of the Pinto people, hunter-gatherers who may have been part of the Southwest’s earliest cultures. They lived in Pinto Basin, which though inhospitably arid today, had a wet climate and was crossed by a sluggish river some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. Nomadic groups of Indians seasonally inhabited the region when harvests of pinyon nuts, mesquite beans, acorns, and cactus fruit offered sustenance. Bedrock mortars—holes ground into solid rock and used to pulverize seeds during food preparation—are scattered throughout the Wonderland of Rocks area south of the Indian Cove camping site.

A flurry of late 19th-century gold-mining ventures left ruins; some are accessible by hiking trails, or unmaintained roads suited only to four-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikes.

Can't-miss experiences

There are only three ways visitors can enter the park: from Yucca Valley in the west, Twenty­nine Palms in the north, and Cottonwood Springs in the south. The main Visitor Center is actu­ally outside the park, in the nearby town of Joshua Tree. Although the name seems like an oxymoron, Park Boulevard runs from the visitor cen­ter to Lost Horse Valley in the heart of the park, where three short interpretive trails (Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, and Cap Rock) are a great introduction to Joshua Tree’s natural and human history.

See the iconic Joshua trees at night.

More challenging trails can be accessed from the Hidden Valley area, including the eight-­mile Boy Scout Trail into the boul­der­strewn Wonderland of Rocks and the 35­-mile California Riding and Hiking Trail (normally done as a two­- or three-day backpack trip). Another trail ascends to the summit of 5,456­-foot Ryan Mountain. Or cruise the paved road to Keys View at the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains for a mile-­high vista of the Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and San Andreas Fault—a view that’s especially enchanting after dark when Palm Springs sparkles with millions of lights.

Park Boulevard continues over Sheep Pass into Queen Valley and another Joshua tree forest. The 18-­mile Motor Geology Road runs south through the valley, with 16 stops along the way that explain how the park’s dramatic landscape was formed. Anchoring the valley’s eastern edge is eerie Skull Rock, a natural formation that looks like a skeleton’s head. Exiting the valley, Park Boule­vard makes a sharp turn to the north and a rendezvous with a lush palm grove, the Oasis of Mara, located beside the Oasis Visitor Center.

Alternatively, you can drive Pinto Basin Road into the park’s lesser­known eastern expanse where other iconic desert plants—cholla cactus, ocotillo, cottonwood trees, and California fan palms—over­shadow the Joshuas. Cottonwood Visitor Center anchors the park’s southeast corner and a hiking area that includes trails to Mastodon Peak (3 miles) and the remote Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles). Just outside the park, the General Patton Memorial Museum at Chiriaco Summit includes a large collection of battle tanks and mementoes of the gener­al’s military exploits.

How to get there

The west and north park entrances are at the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. From Los Angeles, take I-10 east to Calif. 62 (Twentynine Palms Hwy.) to Twentynine Palms (about 140 miles total). The south entrance is located at Cottonwood Spring, approximately 25 miles east of Indio off I-10. Call +1 760 367 5500 for recorded directions. Airports: Palm Springs, Los Angeles.

When to go

Joshua Tree is an all-year park. Temperatures are most comfortable in the spring and fall, with an average high and low of 85°F and 50°F. Winter brings cooler days, around 60°F, and freezing nights. Summers are hot, with midday temperatures frequently above 100°F, and ground temperatures reaching 180°F. The Mojave Desert zone on the park’s western half is on average 11 degrees cooler than the Colorado. In winter, snow may blanket the Mojave's higher elevations.

Spring blooming periods vary according to winter precipitation and temperatures, usually beginning in February at lower elevations and peaking park-wide in March and April, although cactuses may bloom into June. (Check with park headquarters.) For up-to-date recorded wildflower information, visit www.nps.gov/jotr.

How to visit

The park’s premier attractions—forests of giant branching yuccas known as Joshua trees, massive rock formations, fan palm oases, and seasonal gardens of cholla and ocotillo—can be enjoyed on a leisurely half-day auto tour that includes both “high” and “low” desert zones—although most of your time will be spent in your car. Scenic paved roads lead to viewpoints, all campgrounds, and trailheads. Roadside interpretive exhibits have pull-outs and parking areas, and offer insights into the region’s complex desert ecology, wildlife, and human history.

If you plan to explore the park by mountain bike, you would be wise to avoid the main paved roads, which are narrow and without shoulders. You’ll find far greater solitude and safety cycling the park’s backcountry dirt roads, many of which, like those in Queen Valley, date from the area’s 19th-century homestead and goldmining era. Be sure to acquire reliable information from headquarters about your route, however, as soft sand and occasional steep climbs can make for arduous pedaling.

For a half-day visit starting from the park’s northern boundary, take the Park Boulevard loop either from the town of Joshua Tree through the West Entrance Station, or from Twentynine Palms, by way of the North Entrance Station. If the air is clear (ask at the entrance about haze conditions), take the 20-minute side trip to 5,185-foot-high Keys View, which overlooks a vast panorama of arid desert basin and range stretching south into Mexico. If you are starting from Joshua Tree, return to Park Boulevard and continue east over Sheep Pass to Jumbo Rocks, turning right (south) onto Pinto Basin Road for the drive down into long vistas in the Colorado Desert zone. Be sure to stroll the self-guided nature trails through the Cholla Cactus Garden and the Ocotillo Patch.

Backtrack to Twentynine Palms and the Oasis Visitor Center, which features a small cactus garden and superb desert ecology interpretive displays. It adjoins the historic Oasis of Mara (one of five spring-fed oases within the park's boundaries), where Indians once found water, shade, food, and game. If you are starting from Twentynine Palms and the Oasis Visitor Center, proceed south as far as the Ocotillo Patch, then backtrack to Park Boulevard and follow it westward to Joshua Tree.

Where to stay

There are many hotel options in Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Joshua Tree also has nine developed campgrounds within the park, including two with designated horse camps. Spots fill up quickly, especially on weekends. Check with the Park Service for more information.

This article was last updated on August 26, 2019 and was excerpted from the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas. A previous version was published on November 5, 2009.