Joshua Tree National Park
Guide

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Introduction

Until the 1940s, most people thought of the Mojave Desert area as a large and unpleasant stretch of land between the country’s midsection and Los Angeles. It was something to be endured and not enjoyed. But that began to change in 1936, when Congress set aside the Joshua Tree National Monument. At that time, many people already believed to be these scraggly yet strangely beautiful trees to be national treasures. Then, visitors began to appreciate other aspects of the delicate desert ecosystem.

Nevertheless, almost sixty years passed before lawmakers passed the California Desert Protection Act. This law also created the Joshua Tree National Park. This Park is roughly the size of Rhode Island. It contains over 400,000 acres of protected wilderness area. These vast swaths of land are not off-limits to visitors. In fact, the opposite is true. The National Park Service encourages hikers, rock-climbers, birders, and other individuals and families to visit these areas.

In a nutshell, the western half of the park is the Mojave Desert (High Desert). This area is slightly cooler than the Colorado Desert in the eastern half of the Park. Of course, “cooler” is very much a relative term in a desert environment. There are plenty of things to do, and plenty of RV camping places, throughout Joshua Tree National Park.

A brief word before we go further. When we say “wilderness,” we mean wilderness. The park has neither cell phone service nor drinking water. So, always plan accordingly.

Park Alerts (4)

[Information] Missing Hiker [+ Info]

Paul Miller, 51, was last seen on Friday, July 13th as he departed his hotel with the intention of hiking Fortynine Palms Oasis, a popular hiking trail. Anyone having information as to the whereabouts of this individual, please call: (909) 383-5651.

[Park Closure] Areas Closed to Climbing and Bouldering [+ Info]

Some areas of the park are permanently closed to climbing due to their proximity to sensitive resources or private property. Seasonally, a few climbing areas close to protect wildlife. Visit our Climbing Closures page for more information.

[Park Closure] Road Closures [+ Info]

Black Eagle Mine Road is closed. All paved roads are open. Call 760-367-5500 for more information.

[Caution] Road Restrictions from Flash Flooding Damage

Due to heavy rains in October, South Entrance is open but restricted to one lane in some areas. Use caution. Consider finding an alternate route if you are in an oversized vehicle or driving an RV. The North and West entrances remain open.

RV Rentals in Joshua Tree National Park

Transportation in Joshua Tree National Park

Driving

There are three park entrances. Since the park is utterly huge, it’s almost impossible to miss these points of entry.

The west entrance is closest to Los Angeles and San Diego. Take the San Bernardino Freeway (Interstate 10) east almost to Palm Springs. Just east of Whitewater, take Twentynine Palms Highway (Highway 62) north to the Park Visitors’ Center (Park at Twentynine Palms).

The north entrance is also off Twentynine Palms. Take the Quail Springs Road cutoff. The lines at the north entrance are usually much shorter, especially on holidays and weekends.

Visitors coming from Arizona may want to use the south entrance. It’s located off Interstate 10 just east of Indio.

Parking

Generally, the wide-open spaces at Joshua Tree National Park mean that there is plenty of RV parking space. That’s particularly true at visitors’ centers, trailheads, and other points of interest. The Park has a very strict “no trace left behind” policy. So, be sure you clean the area thoroughly before moving on.

Public Transport

The National Park Service offers limited shuttle service originating from the Joshua Tree Visitors’ Center and the Oasis Visitors’ Center. A bus runs about every two hours and provides service to much of the Park.

Campgrounds and parking in Joshua Tree National Park

Campsites in Joshua Tree National Park

Reservations camping

Indian Cove Campground

One of only two RV campgrounds that accepts reservations in the winter, Indian Cove is a first come, first served campground in the summer. Lots of rock climbers stay in this campground. The temperatures here are a little warmer and there are more opportunities for rock climbing. The dry desert air and dark sky also present excellent stargazing opportunities. The campground’s ninety-one parking spaces have no hookups; however, there is a ranger station two miles away and a town (Twentynine Palms) about ten miles away. Also, there is no road access to the rest of the Park from this campground.

Black Rock Canyon

This place is located on the edge of the Park and it’s ideal for first-time RVers. All campsites have fire rings and picnic areas. Camp amenities include a large day-use picnic area and an RV dump station. Restrooms and drinking water are close at hand, and Yucca Valley is a mere five miles away. Like Indian Cove, Black Rock is reservation-only during the winter.

Jumbo Rocks

This centrally-located campground has 124 parking sites. Amenities include trash collection, vault toilets, and a large amphitheater.

First-come first-served

Belle Campground

One of the most intimate campgrounds in this vast park has eighteen parking spots. Its remote location makes it especially ideal for nighttime stargazing.

Cottonwood Campground

For a nice RV parking area that’s a little closer to civilization, try Cottonwood Campground. It has sixty-two individual sites, three group sites, and, believe it or not, drinking water. Furthermore, the Cottonwood Visitors’ Center is very close by.

Hidden Valley Campground

One of the more scenic campgrounds in the Park is nestled among giant boulders and the signature Joshua Trees. There are forty-four parking sites and pit toilets at this campground.

Ryan Campground

Reservations are only required for the four equestrian areas of this campground. Ryan Campground features thirty-one parking sites, a central location, year-round trash pickup, and vault toilets.

White Tank Campground

Huge granite boulders dwarf this fifteen-site RV campground. Because of these rocks, there is a 25-foot vehicle length limit. As in all the other campgrounds, limited campfires are allowed. Since this is a national park, RVers cannot use any vegetation, living or dead, for fuel. All fires must be thoroughly doused, so have lots of water on hand. White Tank is located in one of the darkest areas of a very dark park, so the stargazing is quite good.

Sheep Pass Campground

This campground has six group sites. Its central location is close to many popular hiking trails and other points of interest. Like most other Park campgrounds, Sheep Pass has vault toilets, trash pickup, campfire rings, and no hookups.

Alternate camping

Backcountry Camping

For those who are up to the challenge, backcountry camping is the best way to get up close and personal with Joshua Tree NP. Park your RV and check in at one of 13 registration boards. Prepare thoroughly and remember to pack out what you pack in--nothing less, nothing more.

Private Campgrounds

A number of RV parks and campgrounds in the area provide alternatives to RV camping inside Joshua Tree. Amenities at privately-owned facilities range from restrooms and showers to full hookup, pull-through sites. A range of bonuses are available, such as clubhouses, storage facilities, and swimming pools.

Seasonal activities in Joshua Tree National Park

Spring

Barker Dam

One of the most interesting sites in Joshua Tree National Park actually has nothing to do with trees and everything to do with land use. C.O. Barker and a few other cattlemen constructed this dam around 1900. The dam is on the U.S. National Historic Places registry. Today, it’s a gathering place for bighorn sheep and other roving wildlife. There are also lots of birds around. The loop trail leading to and from the dam may be even nicer. It’s one of the few ranger-guided trails in the Park. The trail is also rather flat, making it good for beginners. Nevertheless, be sure you bring lots of water, even in springtime

Jumbo Rocks

This place is more than a nice place to park your RV. Some visitors describe the surrounding rock formations as a play area for adults. Rock-climbing is a great springtime activity and not nearly as dangerous as it sounds. Sunrises and sunsets are very nice in this part of the Park. That’s especially true because of the diverse landscape around Jumbo Rocks. There’s a good mixture of canyons, boulders, and desert scrub. So, the interplay between light and shadow is really cool. In addition to these rock formations, there are hiking trails to other points of interest, such as Face Rock and Skull Rock.

Keys View

Don’t miss one of the highest points in Joshua Tree National Park. It offers breathtaking views and visitors can really see where the two aforementioned deserts come together. There are also views of the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Jacinto, and some other points of interest. The road leading up to the View is quite nice and suitable for RVs most of the time. And, since it’s a little higher up, the temperature is cooler. So, the View is comfortable even in late spring. More adventurous visitors may enjoy biking to the summit and then speeding down.

Cholla Catus Garden

March/April may be the best time to see the cactus in bloom, but the Cactus Garden is colorful most of the year. More than a dozen varieties of cacti thrive in this 10-acre garden. It’s amazing how much beauty one can see on a quarter-mile nature hike. An all-weather boardwalk covers much of this trail. Come early during spring, because the Garden is a very popular spot this time of year. Also, resist the temptation to go off the trail and get an up-close look. It’s sometimes easy to forget that these beautiful plants are still cacti.

Mecca Hills

These rolling, rocky hills almost look like the Himalaya Mountains to visitors, because they stand out in such stark contrast to the surrounding flat desert landscape. There are a few winding canyons as well. These canyons basically serve as natural mazes. The Mecca Hills are quite close to the San Andreas Fault, so the geology is quite interesting as well. Although the area is a designated wilderness, there are some prepared campsites, picnic areas, and a few other facilities for visitors. Be prepared to see some desert wildlife as well.

Summer

General Patton Memorial Museum

Created in 1988, this Museum is at the entrance to the former Desert Training Center. Military history fans will really enjoy this stop. There are a number of artifacts here, including rare examples of World War II trench art. Larger artifacts include some Sherman tanks along with some other 1940s vehicles. Be sure and take in the video presentation as well as the imposing statue of the General himself.

Skull Rock

Granted, you have to use your imagination a little. But it is rather easy to see the two hollowed-out portions of this rock that do look like eye sockets. Picture the rock as a guy who is slightly slumped over, and the skull portion is a little easier to see. Like many other Park attractions, there is plenty of parking nearby and the road is generally flat and accessible. Talk to the rangers before you set out, because rainstorms or other unexpected events do close some of these roads from time to time. There’s also a nice loop trail nearby. If you hike the trail in summer, drink at least one liter of water an hour.

Ryan Mountain

The hike to the top of this mountain is strenuous to say the least. But the trail is very well-maintained and, since it’s a mountain, the temperature is cooler than it is in other parts of the Park. Once you get to the top, you may well forget about the effort it took to get there. The view is stunning. SInce there are very few high points around, visitors may take in Lost Horse Valley, Queen Valley, Pinto Basin, Pleasant Valley, and other points of interest.

Arch Rock

One of the largest rock formations in the Park is easily accessible from a half-mile loop trail. Parking is rather limited, so summer is a good time to see this hidden gem. Crowds are usually thin in summer. Furthermore, the rocks are fairly easy to climb, even for children. Sundown is incredible, and the night sky is really awesome as well, especially in new moon or no-moon periods. The actual Arch Rock may be a bit of a disappointment, but all the other activities more than make up for this shortcoming.

Joshua Tree NP Visitors' Center

Bar none, the best visitors’ center in the Park. Like all the other centers, the staff and rangers are all very passionate and knowledgeable. But that’s just the beginning. This visitors’ center has a number of amenities, including a cafe, a hiking/camping supply store, and a diverse souvenir shop/bookstore. Stop by on your way into the Park to get the latest information along with some very accurate paper maps, which are also easy to read. There are also very nice restrooms, shower facilities, a public telephone, and some museum-style exhibits.

Fall

Cottonwood Spring

The ancient Cahuilla Indians were the first people to discover this spring, which an even more ancient earthquake exposed. Many Indian artifacts, such as brick and pot fragments, remain behind. Beginning about 1875, gold prospectors worked the area, as it’s basically the only water source around. Today, there are a number of hiking trails in the area. Our favorite is the three-mile Mastodon Peak loop trail. In addition to wildlife and interesting geological formations, visitors see sites like the Winona Mill and the Mastodon Mine on this hike. Ranger-led hikes are available, as are ranger-guided evening stargazing sessions. The sky is active during the day as well. Cottonwood Spring is a great place for birding. Be sure you take lots of water and sunscreen.

Hidden Valley

Some locals claim that, back in the day, cattle rustlers used Hidden Valley as a hideout. The campground is quite nice and also quite busy. Depending on how much you value solitude, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. There are lots of rock formations in the area, so opportunities abound for rock-climbers, from newbies to professionals.

Wonderland Rocks

Series of intersecting lines dominate these rock formations. Impress your friends and neighbors by referring to these rocks as monzogranite formations. Over time, the joints eroded and produced these rectangular rock formations. There are also lots of bighorn sheep among these rocks. For many people, the Wonderland of Rocks is a must-see in this Park. The geological formations are that distinctive and that much different from similar areas in the Southwest.

Quail Mountain

For the most part, Joshua Tree National Park is not known for its mountain peaks. But at 5,800-plus feet, Quail Mountain qualifies as such. Fall is definitely the best time of year to tackle this peak. Summer is awfully hot, winter is quite windy, and the rattlesnakes come out in the spring. There isn’t much else in the way of wildlife here, although there are many different plant and shrub species. A number of trails lead to the top. Their skill level varies from very easy to very difficult. We recommend the Keys View Road trail which runs through Juniper Flats. This trail goes most of the way up the mountain. To reach the summit, you must do a cross-country hike.

Cabot's Pueblo Museum

This Hopi-style pueblo building contains many Native American artifacts as well as homesteader and rancher memorabilia. The museum also includes a large Indian head sculpture. This work of art is the last of its kind in California. Twenty-four solar panels provide all the facility’s electric power. Recent additions include a trading post, which highlights the work of local artists.

Winter

Oasis of Mara

The Serrano Indians came to this area and named it mara (“the place of little springs and much grass”). A medicine man supposedly told them that the oasis was a good place to have boy babies, and so they planted a palm tree with each male birth. Twenty-nine went in the ground the first year, which is how the nearby town Twentynine Palms got its name. The trees also provided shelter and food for both people and wildlife. The first white farmers arrived around 1850, and the first prospectors around 1970. Following World War I, veterans who were exposed to poison gas flocked to the area because of its dry climate. In addition to all this history, the Oasis of Mara has a very nice nature trail.

Lost Horse Mine

Between about 1890 and 1930, this mine produced about $5 million in gold, which was a staggering sum at the time. We would tell you the story of good-hearted Jonny Lang, the nefarious McHaney brothers, and the shadowy “Dutch” Frank, but we couldn’t possibly do it justice. There’s also a very popular four-mile loop trail in this area which passes by this mine and several other ones. Parts of these mines are not safe to traverse, so pay attention to the signs.

Pinto Mountains

These centrally-located mountains are nowhere near the tallest ones in the park, but they are quite significant. One of the major fault lines in California runs through these peaks. The mountains themselves are covered with creosote bushes, which is a rather rare site in the Joshua Tree National Park. The Pinto Mountains are also easy to hike during winter.

Sky's the Limit Observatory

The long, dark winter nights are outstanding for stargazing. And, there are free events almost every weekend. The Observatory has thirteen high-powered telescopes. These instruments offer great views of most Solar System planets (including the rings of Jupiter) and the Milky Way. Expert guidance enhances the sky-watching opportunities.

Desert Queen Mine

This mine was not as productive as the aforementioned Lost Horse mine. But the Desert Queen remained in operation for about seventy-five years, which was far longer than any other San Bernardino-area facility. This mine has a colorful history as well, which involves the ne’er-do-well McHaneys as well as some other shady characters.

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