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One of the first times I heard about Joshua Tree National Park was during the government shutdown of 2018. Given that parks were not being funded or secured during that time, Joshua Trees were chopped down by hoodlums, feces overflowed the toilets, and ultimately, Joshua Tree National Park lost over one million dollars in entrance fees. The damage caused during that thirty-five days was vast and will take years, if not decades, to recover (Fact: Older Joshua Trees only grow 1.5 inches/year. Newer Joshua Trees grow 3.0 inches/year). That being said, the images of Joshua Tree gave me even more of a desire to visit.
Fortunately, I have been able to visit a few times since its shutdown in 2018, and it is one of the most unique landscapes I have ever seen. Additionally, Joshua Tree National Park was the first National Park that I got to experience with my daughter, Amelia. I know she won’t remember it, but I will never forget it.
The closest airport to Joshua Tree National Park is the Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) less than an hour away. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and San Diego International Airport (SND) are about two and a half hours away.
The awesome thing about Joshua Tree is that it’s just a few hours away from some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas such as San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. This means that it is simple to get to by car. However, plan accordingly because there are only three entrances to the park
|1. The West Entrance is located five miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard at Joshua Tree Village.|
|2. The North Entrance is in Twentynine Palms, three miles south of the junction of Highway 62 and Utah Trail.|
|3. The South Entrance near Cottonwood Spring is an access point along Interstate 10, 25 miles east of Indio.|
Like all National Parks, you do have to pay a fee. The entrance fee is $30.00 and covers all passengers in a single non-commercial vehicle for up to seven days. If you are visiting the park by motorcycle, which is on my bucket list, it is $25.00 and valid for seven days, as well. Lastly, if you are entering by foot or bike, I hope you filled up your Hydroflask before your arrival and your seven day entrance fee is $15.00. Like all National Parks, current U.S. military members, as well as Reserve and National Guard members and their dependents get free admission. Thank you for your service!
Every time we have visited Joshua Tree, we have started at the south entrance (Cottonwood Visitor Center) and worked our way north. I’ll be honest, this is a great way to visit because it gets more and more scenic as you drive. Traveling southbound through the park and ending at Cottonwood Visit Center is not as beautiful.
If you are into hiking, biking, rock-climbing, camping or stargazing, you will absolutely love Joshua Tree National Park. Before you arrive, just know there is very little cell service at the park. I actually really enjoyed this as it allowed me to truly appreciate nature without any outside interruptions. If this is your first time visiting the park, below are my favorite places that I have visited in Joshua Tree National Park. The locations are in order from south to north in hopes that this will make it easy for you when you are exploring the 800,000 acre park yourself.
Cholla Cactus Garden
The Cholla Cactus Garden is home to thousands of Cholla Cacti, or cactuses, however you say it. They are often nicknamed the “Teddy Bear Cactus.” Despite how cute they look from afar, I don’t recommend cuddling with one. They have thin spines that seem to stab anything it can get close to. There are even rumors that they jump. Even though they do stick to just about everything, that rumor is fake news, and they do not, in fact, jump. Although, that would be epic they did!
The garden is about 12 miles away from the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Once you arrive at the Cholla Cactus Garden, there is a quarter mile loop you can take around the cacti. It is a great quick spot to get out and stretch your legs. I highly recommend staying on the trail and staying away from the jumping Cholla (#wearpants).
On your way to Skull Rock from the garden (about 12 miles), you are going to see a big difference in the landscape: less Cholla Cacti (most are concentrated near the garden) and Ocotillos (the tall spiny shrub with cane like branches) and more of the famous Joshua Trees. Also, you are going to see a billion rocks, some of the biggest and most interesting rocks you have ever seen. And one of the most interesting rocks of them all . . . Skull Rock.
Skull Rock is located just off of the main east-to-west park road and is a park favorite. You can almost see it from the road and can park right near the attraction making it a quick and easy pit stop. You can walk up to the rock, take a selfie and continue on your journey, but for those who are more adventurous, there is a 1.7 mile loop taking you from the Jumbo Rocks Campground to Skull Rock and back. It’s also fun to try and climb the rocks around Skull Rock yourself!
What do you expect to see at Jumbo Rocks Campground? That is right, JUMBO rocks. These rocks were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago and were shaped by the elements into the unique rocks that you see today. There are rocks of every single shape and size, even some that are like hollow caves you can go into.
Jumbo Rocks is a great spot to visit even if you are not camping. There are plenty of hiking trails and spots where you can just aimlessly boulder around and have a great time. During one trip, we brought our golden retriever, Samson. Since dogs are not allowed on trails in the park, we just walked him around the campground. Keep your eyes peeled around this area for wildlife. When we were there last, we saw a few black-tailed jackrabbits.
If you want to camp, you’ll need to make a reservation, especially during the peak visitor seasons of October-May. I recommend spots 1-10 and 117-124. They seem to have the most privacy and offer the best opportunity to camp right next to the huge rock formations. The other campsites are more open and less private. As far as amenities go, you won’t have cell service but you will have fire pits, trash services, vaulted toilets and insanely beautiful starry views. The cost per night is $15.00.
Approximately 9 miles away from Jumbo Rocks is Hidden Valley. That’s right, just like the salad dressing. Hidden Valley is a rock climber’s paradise, and you’ll see why once you arrive. One of the most photographed locations within Hidden Valley is Intersection Rock. Intersection Rock is located near Park Boulevard and Barker Dam Road and can be accessed from the parking lot just northeast of the intersection.
Also, while you’re in the area, check out the Hidden Valley Nature Trail. The trail is a 1 mile heavily trafficked loop that offers some incredible rock formations, Joshua Trees and you guessed it, climbing. You can access the trail from the parking location located just southwest of the parking lot for intersection rock.
The Barker Dam Nature Trail can be accessed from the Barker Dam Parking area located approximately two miles northeast of Hidden Valley. The trail is a loop and is almost two miles long. It is a relatively easy hike (honestly, more like a walk) and would be great for anyone. I recommend asking the Park Ranger’s when you pay your entrance fee if there is any water in the dam or else you might be disappointed. Honestly, it is very underwhelming in size but is pretty cool to see water in the middle of the barren desert. Also, the remainder of the loop you are walking amongst more Joshua Trees than you can count and it is an incredible experience. Also a great place to take photos!
I hope that this helps you plan your visit to the Joshua Tree National Park. You can certainly complete this entire list in a day trip or take your time and break it up. Either way, you will love your time wandering around the park. If you are doing a day trip, bring lunch, snacks and plenty of WATER. Joshua Tree in the summer can be in the hundreds! If you are planning to hike off trail, do not go alone, and please bring a friend! Every year, there are stories of people getting lost in the desert heat.
Book for the Trip
I couldn’t think of a book more fitting than The Martian by Andy Weir. The book is even better than the movie. Plus, you will feel like you are walking in astronaut Mark Watney’s shoes since the desert landscape is what I picture it might be on Mars.