Joshua Tree National Park Travel Guide

Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA

Introduction

Joshua Tree National Park has been described as a landscape straight out of a Dr Seuss book, and visitors will not be disappointed if you have this image in your head! This national park has some of the most unique and iconic landscape in the world, boasting strange and random rock formations, colourful rock layers, and obscure trees with clumps of spiked leaves. The park gained international attention after the world’s most famous band, U2, recorded most of their 1987 album there, in a motel called the ‘Harmony Motel’, and named the album after this bizarre landscape.  If it’s good enough to be a muse for U2, then it’s good enough for us! We have put together a guide to assist you on your visit, including where to stay and what to do. You’re going to love this intriguing and eccentric part of the world.

History & Geography

Joshua Tree National Park is located in California, USA, a two-and-a-half-hour journey east of Los Angeles. There is a north, a west and a south entrance to the park, however the north and west have the most facilities, camp grounds, and are closest to the main hikes and visitor centres. The official visitor centre is located just before the west entrance, however there are three more smaller centres at the north and south entrances. The area covers over 3,000 square kilometres, where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, filled with three information centres, 10 picnic grounds, 27 hikes and an array of scenic viewpoints.

To enter the park with your vehicle it will cost $25, for a 7-day pass. If you’re entering by foot, it will cost you $12 per person, for the same amount of time. You can also purchase an annual Joshua Tree pass for $40, or of course the country-wide annual National Parks Pass for $80. The annual pass is well worth the money, especially if you’re adventurous and will visit a number of parks throughout the year. The options are as follows:

Joshua Tree was a designated monument in 1936, and finally gained national park status in 1994. After the development of roads through this area, hordes of people were attracted to the unique plant life of the area in the 1920s, even poaching cacti for their own gardens. Over the years, people fought to protect this area, and built it into the famous national park that it is today. In 2016, 2.5 million visitors explored the park.

The Joshua Tree, technically known as the Yucca Brevifolia, is native to southwestern United States, where it is mostly found in the Mojave Desert. The name Joshua Tree was given by a group of Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid 1800s. The tree’s unique shape reminded them of a biblical story, in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. Their strange appearance makes them extremely popular, with spiked clumps of green leaves protruding in different directions off the trunk. The landscape is made even more interesting with the juxtapositioning of the large rock boulders and formations that litter the area. Smooth rocks balance precariously on top of one another, forming unique shapes and vivid backgrounds to the obscure Joshua Trees.

Joshua Tree provides habitat for 813 higher plant species, 40 reptile species, 41 mammal species, and 240 bird species. It has one paleontological area and potentially eight more. The park protects over 700 archaeological sites, 88 historic structures, 19 cultural landscapes, and houses 230,300 items in its museum collection.

Accommodation and Camping

Camping 

There are many options for camping in the national park. You can either camp in your car, bring a tent, rent a van, or bring your RV. There are 8 official campgrounds in the Joshua Tree National Park. Two of them take reservations only, called Black Rock and Indian Cove. You must reserve early! Any tie between April and October and you’ll find yourself struggling to get a spot. Ensure that you reserve early, at least 6 months in advance if you can. These will each cost $20 per night and will provide the basic access to facilities. They have pit toilets, picnic tables and water supply.

The remaining 6 campgrounds are ‘first come, first serve’. If you are arriving for a long weekend, get there early, even on the Thursday or Wednesday before. Each of these cost $15-20 per night. They are dotted throughout the national park, so grab a map on your way in, and followed the paved roads to each of the camp grounds. Some however, do not have potable water available, but all have pit toilets.

If all of these are booked out or already full when you arrive, try the free dispersed camping within the park. Try the south entrance, before you reach the information centre. On either side of the road there is wide, open dispersed camp sites. Be warned – these do not have any facilities – no toilets, showers, or official camping sites. But, they are free and perfect to explore the park. Ensure that you take any trash with you when you leave.

Accommodation outside of the park

You do have the option to stay outside of the actual National Park in the town of Joshua Tree. There are a range of hotels and motels to stay in, including the famous motel that U2 stayed in while they were recording their album.

Hiking Trails and What To Pack:

There are 27 different hikes to complete in this national park, all varying in difficulty. They include treks up mountain, through Joshua Tree forests and along desert paths. Two of the best hikes are the moderate Hidden Valley hike and the challenging Boy Scout trail.

Hidden Valley

This hike is considered as moderate by park rangers, however it’s a fairly easy hike. Starting at the Hidden Valley picnic area. it takes you through some very unique rock formations in a valley in the national park. You’ll need to do some climbing, so pack some sturdy shoes. You’ll scramble over giant, smooth rocks, past high rock formations and gaze up at the unique Joshua Trees that scatter through the valley. It’s a loop, and will take about 1 hour to complete. Have your camera ready, but beware, the desert winds can be vicious and cameras have been known to stop working once dust and sand gets into the camera. While on this trek, always look up – there are some brilliant rock climbing opportunities – so pack your gear! You can drive through the park to arrive at the picnic ground, grab a map from an information centre to assist you.

Ryan Mountain hike

For those adventure devils out there (you know who you are) why not try something a little more challenging. A climb to the top of Ryan Mountain is about 5kms, and will take about 2 hours, as you gain 300m in elevation. But prepare to be rewarded – the views are spectacular. There is the Ryan Campground nearby to stock up on water and use the restroom before you depart. There is parking between Sheep Pass and the campground for specific access to this hike. Arrive early to avoid parking woes. Be warned – this is the desert! Many of the more challenging hikes are not recommended in Summer, even if you are an experienced adventurer. The park rangers will advise against this hike during the warmer seasons.

What to pack

When you enter the park, and especially when you go on a hike, ensure that you have the following things:

  • sufficient food
  • water
  • layered clothing
  • first aid kit
  • sturdy shoes
  • compass/maps/navigation device
  • sun protection
  • flash light

For camping:

  • tent
  • gas stove (with extra propane gas)
  • cookware
  • eating and drinking utensils
  • water/food
  • camping chairs
  • camping table
  • camping hammock
  • shelter
  • flashlight/camping light
  • personal items/clothing
  • sleeping bags (it gets cold at night! Even in the desert!)
  • travel pillow
  • extra batteries for all devices
  • solar powered battery charger (particularly useful for charging phone and navigation devices)
  • lighter
  • dish washing liquid and cloths

Well there it is! Everything you need to know about visiting the famous Joshua Tree National Park. If we have forgotten anything from the camping list – let us know! We promise that you’ll be blown away by the unique and bizarre trees, the incredible rock formations, and the contrasting colours of the orange rocks and bright blue skies. Don’t forget to stay safe, be prepared, and always tell someone where you’ll be going when hiking. Happy exploring!

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