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Joshua Tree National Park

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Joshua Tree National Park Overview

It used to be that Angelenos who had outdoor play on the brain largely ignored southern California's deserts. Joshua Tree was an infrequently visited national monument—it had plenty of desert scenery but lacked the kind of dramatic natural wonders that put Yosemite, Death Valley, and Yellowstone on the map. Then, slowly but surely, word began to trickle out that the best winter rock climbing anywhere in the United States was here. Instead of stowing their ropes and rock shoes when snows ended the season in Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada hot spots, climbers began to make pilgrimages to the warm monzogranite faces of Joshua Tree.

Soon, campers and hikers and other desert nature lovers followed. When President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act and turned Joshua Tree into a national park in 1994, its rise to prominence was complete. As next-door neighbor to the Los Angeles megalopolis, Joshua Tree has naturally become a very popular getaway, but the park remains a wonderfully low-key place with over 75 percent of the park Congressionally-designated wilderness.

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses one of the most interesting and diverse patches of desert in the United States. Its namesake species, the spiky, dramatically crooked Joshua tree, is also considered by many to be the defining characteristic of the Mojave Desert. But this huge desert park actually lies at the meeting point of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The park's eastern and southern precincts, with sub 3,000-foot elevation and plants such as creosote bush, "jumping" cholla cactus, and spidery ocotillo, is Sonoran in character; its western precincts are higher, cooler, wetter, and quite densely forested with the park's namesake tree.

You'll find the tumbled granite boulders to which the park owes its recent fame in the high central range. And don't miss the towering fan-palm oases, where an entire realm of wildlife revolves around their precious water.

Rope Up at Hidden Valley
"J-Tree," as it's known to climbers, is now the top winter climbing destination in the United States. The southern Mojave is just perfect for climbing from September to May, and some 4,500 routes have been pioneered up the park's monzogranite domes and spires. It's rough rock that'll chew up a newcomer's hands, but it's also generally high quality, meaning that holds are solid. Once a cattle rustlers hideout, Hidden Valley is now the climbing hub of the park. Best approached from the north entrance of the park near the town of 29 Palms, it's located near the Hidden Valley campground. "Real" Hidden Valley can be found at the Turtle Rock formation and at Sports Challenge Rock, the most well-known climb in the park, just across the road. Be sure to check at the park visitor center for recommendations and the latest in climbing regulations, as things change quickly (a controversial plan to ban further bolting is currently under consideration, for example). Lastly, J-Tree is a training ground for huge numbers of American climbers, and the Joshua Tree Climbing School is a major reason for it. If you've always wanted to make like Spiderman, this is a great place to give it a go.

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Explore Desert Queen Ranch
Just 1.5 miles from Hidden Valley sits a long-abandoned reminder of the tenacity of the West's original settlers and proof that there is more to Joshua Tree than chalk and climbing ropes. In the high desert country that makes up Joshua Tree National Park, rugged individuals tried their luck at cattle ranching, mining, and homesteading. By 1910, William F. Keys had arrived in the Joshua Tree area with his family and been hired as custodian and assayer of the Desert Queen Mine. Once prosperous, the mine had lost money in recent years. When it finally closed, Keys claimed it and a five-acre mill site for his unpaid wages. In 1917, Keys homesteaded additional acreage adjoining the mill site and these 160 acres became the Desert Queen Ranch. The ranch house, schoolhouse, store, and workshop still stand; the orchard has been replanted; and the grounds are full of the cars, trucks, mining equipment, and spare parts that are a part of the Desert Queen Ranch story.

More on the history of Joshua Tree National Park

Hike to a Desert Oasis
Picture slogging along through a chapped, fire-hot desert, a place where the sparse array of living things all feature malignantly sharp spines or venomous fangs. Now, how does a cool, palm-shaded oasis filled with birds and other wildlife sound? There are five such oases in J-Tree, and certainly the largest of them, Lost Palms Oasis, lives up to this iconic landscapes appeal. The 3.7-mile trail to Lost Palms begins at Cottonwood Springs Oasis and rolls through a series of low ridges and washes featuring typical Sonoran vegetation—Mojave yuccas, jojoba, various cacti, and creosote bush. Along the way are some big views of the lower Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, and Santa Rosa Mountain. By the time you've descended the last steep pitch into the lush, leafy fan-palm grove, you'll be more than ready for a break. Kick back with your lunch and tune in to the sound of trickling water, birdsong, and wind-rustled palm fronds.

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Be There When the Wildflowers Bloom
It takes impeccable timing to see how desert wildflowers can transform a landscape, but if you've got the knack you'll be in for an experience you won't soon forget. Every so often, when spring rains are heavy enough, the desert comes aflame with color—you'll see blooming shrubs like ocotillo, desert lavender, and indigo bush, and annuals such as sand verbena, filaree, the dainty yellow woolly marigold, popcorn flower, and brown-eyed evening primrose. Cacti produce some of the most vivid blooms—look for the magenta blossoms of the small calico cactus, the lime-green blossoms of teddy bear cholla, and the maroon-colored flowers of the pencil cholla. The Joshua Tree, a member of the lily family that is especially abundant in Queen Valley and Lost Horse Valley, has a seldom-seen white blossom. Bloom times aren't something you can mark on the calendar; they vary from one year to the next, affected by fall and winter precipitation and spring temperatures. Wildflowers may begin blooming in the lower elevations of the Pinto Basin and along the park's south boundary in February and at higher elevations in March and April. Desert regions above 5,000 feet may have plants blooming as late as June.

More on ecology of Joshua Tree National Park

Bike the Desert Dirt
Joshua Tree's trails used to be the sole province of hikers, but the Park Service has seen it fit to open up some of this terrain to fat-tire bike enthusiasts. The park's new Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan designates approximately 29 miles of trails for nonmotorized bike use. The ten-mile (one way) Thermal Canyon Bike Trail begins at the Berdoo Canyon 4x4 road off of Geology Tour Road. This rigorous trail follows an old closed road through a very scenic and rugged portion of the Cottonwood Mountains with some very nice overlooks. Overnight camping is available to visitors who register at the Pleasant Valley backcountry board. Riding from this backcountry board adds five miles to the one-way total. The trail exits the park's south boundary at Thermal Canyon near I-10.

More on mountain biking at Joshua Tree National Park

Follow the Spring Migration
Mix the Mojave Desert's scattered oases with the Pacific migratory flyway and what do you get? Bird city, that's what. At spots like 49 Palms Oasis, Cottonwood Spring, and particularly Barker Dam, you might add species such as Bendire's thrasher, ladder-backed woodpecker, and Scott's oriole to your life list. Many eastern vagrants accidentally end up here. The last two weeks in April and the first two in May are usually the peak of migration in this desert region. You'll have a good chance of seeing Rufous hummingbirds, neotropical warblers such as the Nashville, yellow, and Townsend's, ash-throated and vermilion flycatchers, Cassin's kingbirds, and occasional shorebirds and raptors. Stop at Black Rock Canyon for pinyon jays, scrub jays, and others, and check with park visitor centers for further suggestions.

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