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A first-timer guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Deserts rarely leave us indifferent and the ones in Joshua Tree National Park are no exception.

With its endless plains, cacti, Joshua trees and distinctive rock formations, it’s no wonder this park attracts thousands of visitors each year.

First-timer guide to Joshua National Tree Park

Joshua Tree, with its twisted silhouette, is the big star of the park, but it’s not the only reason to visit this place.

The park is huge and there are many points of interest to see and trails to walk.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit to Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park: meeting point of two deserts

Yucca and Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park - California

The diversity of plants, cacti and landscapes in Joshua Tree is due to the fact that the park is the meeting point of two distinct ecosystems, the Colorado and Mojave deserts.

On one side, the Colorado Desert, which is part of the Sonoran Desert extending to Arizona and New Mexico, offers us among others cholla cactus and ocotillo.

On the other side, you find the Mojave Desert with its yuccas, Joshua trees, prickly pear cactus and many birds and small animals of all kinds.

Joshua trees, these particular trees

Joshua Tree

With their twisted branches, topped with pointed leaves, Joshua trees arouse curiosity.

There are different stories to explain the origin of their name.

One unconfirmed legend states that in the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants named the tree in honor of the biblical figure Joshua, seeing in the tree’s branches arms outstretched in supplication, guiding travelers westward.

Another fact about Joshua trees is that it is difficult to know their exact age since they do not have growth rings on their trunks like other trees.

Instead, their age is estimated on their size, with these trees growing between ½ and 3 inches per year.

These trees could thus live for nearly 150 years and probably even longer.

You may also notice that some of the Joshua trees grow in straight stems. These are trees that have not had flowers since the branches are formed after flowering.

Preparing for your visit to Joshua Tree: what you need to know before visiting the park

Joshua Tree National Park - California

As busy as it is, visiting the park is still a desert excursion and unlike what one might expect, there are not many service points in the park.

Most importantly, there is no (or almost no) cell reception in the park. All the more reason to be well prepared!

This is especially important if you plan to go at the end of the day or in the evening to see the stars, when temperatures are at their highest or if you plan to take a long hike.

When is the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree panorama

Peak season in Joshua Tree is between October and May, with spring and fall being the best times to go.

In summer, the extreme temperatures may discourage you from hiking.

How to avoid crowds

The major inconvenience of the park is its high traffic.

Being located only a few hours from Los Angeles and San Diego, it is a popular weekend destination. And we can confirm that’s the case since we were there on a Sunday.

If you visit during high season, we strongly suggest that you choose a weekday for your visit and avoid weekends and holidays.

This will save you from groups of friends talking too loudly, people all over the trails and full parking lots. ;)

But if you only have the weekend to go, here are some tips to avoid the crowds: Here are some tips to avoid crowds:

  • Buy your tickets online in advance and download them to your cell phone (no reception in the park);
  • arrive early in the morning, before 10:00 am and ideally before 9:00 am;
  • Parking can be a problem on busy days, so start with the trails or attractions you really want to see.
  • Choose a park entrance other than the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (the main one) if you arrive later in the day.

Essentials to bring with you to Joshua Tree

A cactus - Joshua Tree National Park - California

Paper maps or maps downloaded to your smart phone: As mentioned earlier, there is virtually no cell phone reception in the park. To find your way around, a paper map is a must.

Alternatively, you can download the Google Maps map of the park to your phone, making it accessible offline.

Another option is to use the NPS app, the official app of the US National Parks. In the parameters of the latter, it is possible to download all the information about the park. You will have access to maps and descriptions of trails, viewpoints, etc. even offline.

Water, lots of water: Bring lots of drinking water with you. There are not many places in the park where you can get drinking water. The park recommends 1 gallon of water per person per day, more if you plan on doing a big hike or bike ride. Bring more than less.

Your lunch: There are a few options for food in the small towns around the park, but to avoid going out and then having to re-enter the park, bring your lunch. There are plenty of places to picnic that will also allow you to enjoy the view between bites of sandwich.

Clothing: Even if the trails are generally easy and well developed, you should not neglect your clothing for the hike:

  • Boots or closed walking shoes;
  • small first-aid kit;
  • hat to protect from the sun;
  • a light jacket or long sleeves to protect yourself from the sun;
  • depending on the season, a multi-layer clothing. Temperatures can vary greatly between the day and the end of the day;
  • binoculars to observe the fauna (we had the chance to see a ringtail cat during hiking).

Sun protection: In the same vein, don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat!

Where to stay to visit Joshua Tree?

It is possible to camp in the park, with or without reservation.

There are also lodging options near the park in Yucca Valley, which is ideal if you plan to spend several days exploring the park.

Otherwise, Joshua Tree is a great day trip from Palm Springs where there are many hotel options for all budgets*.

Trails and attractions not to be missed on a first visit to Joshua Tree

The road in Joshua Tree National Park

With 800,000 acres, Joshua Tree National Park is best visited by car, so you can see many attractions in one visit.

The park is really beautiful with Joshua trees everywhere.

The easiest way is to take the scenic route and target a few trails and viewpoints that interest you.

You can drive from one point to another while admiring the landscape, park at the beginning of the trail and do the rest on foot.

Also, attractions and points of interest are generally located close to the road, within 2 miles of walking and well developed trails. Here are some of them.

Arch Rock Trail

Arch Rock - Joshua Tree National Park

The rock, shaped like an arch, is one of the most photographed places in the park.

Arch Rock Trail - Joshua Tree National Park

The trail has a “lollipop” shape with a 0.6 mile path that leads to a loop that allows you to see the arch and walk between rocks.

Barker Dam

Barker Dam - Joshua Tree National Park

Barker Dam is another short trail that allows you to see an ancient dam as well as remnants of rock art.

The Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla cactus Garden - Joshua Tree National Park

It is a very small loop of 0.25 mile that allows you to walk among the cholla cactus, near the road.

The cactus are behind wooden barriers since it can happen that sections break off and stick on people or animals. This would be their method of reproduction and they are called “jumping” cholla.

A cholla cactus - Joshua Tree National Park

Since the cactus garden is located at the other end of the park, and therefore quite far from the other attractions, it’s a good idea to finish with this little loop if you decide to go through the whole park.

It’s really pretty although it’s not the most spectacular attraction in the park.

Other trails and stops to make in Joshua Tree

Rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park

Skull Rock Trail: an easy, flat trail that takes between 1 and 2 hours to see Skull Rock, a rock that looks like a skull.

Hidden Valley Trail: a one-mile loop that allows you to see Joshua trees and yuccas. The path is paved but with an elevation of 100 feet which allows for a nice view of the surroundings.

Keys view: for a view of the Coachella Valley.

There are several other longer and more challenging hiking trails that can be done, not to mention an old gold mine, a palm oasis in the middle of the desert or a visit to PioneerTown.

As you can see, there is a lot to see and there is something for everyone in Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree National Park

Our best tips to visit Joshua Tree

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