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 these scraggly yet strangely beautiful trees to be national treasures. Then, visitors began to appreciate other aspects of the delicate desert ecosystem. The park is famous for its namesake, the Joshua Tree, which has a distinct look between a palm tree and a cactus.
Nevertheless, almost 60 years have gone by 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. The winter is the most popular season at the park, as summer temperatures can soar well above 100 degrees.
Joshua Tree National Park is easy to reach from many major cities in the Southwest since it's under three hours from L.A. and about four hours from Las Vegas. The roads throughout the park are flat and easy to navigate, even in a big rig.
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. The north entrance is also off Twentynine Palms. Visitors coming from Arizona may want to use the south entrance. It’s located off Interstate 10 just east of Indio.
Use caution when driving in the summer months since temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees in the desert, which is when cars and RVs are at risk of overheating and breaking down. Make sure you bring plenty of water, snacks, and other provisions you may need in case of an emergency. Having a map is also advisable since GPS may be inaccurate in the desert.
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.
The National Park Service offers limited shuttle service originating from the Joshua Tree Visitors’ Center and the Oasis Visitors’ Center. A bus, named the Roadrunner, runs about every two hours and provides service to much of the park. The service is absolutely free, and pets are even welcome to join you. However, they must be in a crate. Service is limited to weekends in the fall and winter. Schedules are available at all visitor centers and shuttle stops. You should also check service availability with the Morongo Basin Transit Authority.
Deep in southern California’s Coachella Valley rests a camper’s oasis: Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA. This campground feels like a resort with its beautiful landscaping and modern amenities. Each RV site is spacious and provides full hookups. The campground boasts a mini-golf course, a swimming pool, and three hot tub spas. The area is known for its warm therapeutic hot springs. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might be interested in exploring the nearby San Jacinto Wilderness, Indian Canyons, or Joshua Tree National Park. The campground is also near the Palm Springs Aerial tramway, the world’s largest rotating aerial tramway, and a myriad of museums such as the General George Patton Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the Sunny Land Museum.
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.
One of only two RV campgrounds that accept 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 the town of Twentynine Palms about ten miles away. Also, there is no road access to the rest of the park from this campground.
This centrally located campground has 124 campsites with picnic tables and BBQ pits. Campfires are only allowed in the designated fire rings, which are also provided. A maximum of six people and two vehicles are allowed at each site. However, a motorhome, trailer, or popup counts as two vehicles. Amenities include trash collection, vault toilets, and a large amphitheater.
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, picnic tables, trash pickup, campfire rings, and no hookups. Pets are welcome but you must keep them restrained during your stay. Generator use is only permitted during certain hours.
One of the most intimate campgrounds in this vast park has 18 parking spots. Its remote location makes it especially ideal for nighttime stargazing. Each campsite has its own picnic table, campfire ring, and BBQ grill. Also, pets are allowed as long as they are supervised and kept restrained at all times during your visit.
Reservations are only required for the four equestrian areas of this campground. Ryan Campground features 31 parking sites, a central location, year-round trash pickup, picnic tables, BBQ pits, fire rings, and vault toilets. It is located next to the California Riding and Hiking Trail, so this campground is popular with equestrians. It is also popular with climbers as it is connected to the path to Headstone Rock and Ryan Campground Boulders.
For a nice RV parking area that’s a little closer to civilization, try Cottonwood Campground. It has 62 individual sites, three group sites, and, believe it or not, drinking water. Furthermore, the Cottonwood Visitors’ Center is very close by. Each campsite has a BBQ pit, picnic table, and campfire ring. They can all accommodate RVs up to 35 feet, and there are 27 sites that can accommodate larger rigs.
Huge granite boulders dwarf this 15-site RV campground. Because of these rocks, there is a 25-foot vehicle length limit, and each has a table, fire ring, and BBQ pit. 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.
One of the more scenic campgrounds in the park is nestled among giant boulders and the signature Joshua Trees. There are 45 campsites for RVs up to 25 feet in length and pit toilets at this campground. Each site also has a fire pit, BBQ pit, and a large picnic table. This site is also popular with climbers as it has plenty of large boulders and a trail that takes you to Echo Tee, which is a climbing area.
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.
For those who are up to the challenge, backcountry camping is the best way to get up close and personal with Joshua Tree National Park. Just park your RV and check in at one of the 13 registration boards. Prepare thoroughly and remember to pack out what you pack in -- nothing less and nothing more.
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.
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.
The long, dark winter nights are outstanding for stargazing. And, there are free events almost every weekend at the Sky’s the Limit Observatory. 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.
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.
This mine was not as productive as the aforementioned Lost Horse mine. But the Desert Queen remained in operation for about 75 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.
There are several really great equestrian trails in and around Joshua Tree National Park. The Ryan Campground has six reservable equestrian campsites and the 10.6-mile California Riding and Hiking Trail can be accessed here. The three-mile Black Rock Canyon Trail is also nearby and features a plethora of vibrantly colored wildflowers along the way.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
Geocaching is a fairly new activity that is becoming increasingly popular and has gained in popularity at national parks recently. The basic gist of it is that you use your GPS on your phone to find a hidden container, which has a logbook, pencil, and trinkets or tokens inside. You are supposed to sign and date the book and you can take a token or trinket if you leave your own behind. Then put it back exactly where you found it so others can find it too. There are several in the park including one by the Wonderland of Rocks.
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.
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.
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.
Bar none, this is 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.
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.
This activity is something you probably never thought of but is a fun and interesting way to spend a dark evening in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park. All you need is a camera and a flashlight. It is best to put the camera on a tripod and take long exposure shots while moving the flashlight quickly around the desert. You can be creative and spell names or highlight objects in the background like rocks and Joshua Trees. However, do not spotlight people or animals.
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.
March or April may be the best time to see the cacti 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.
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.
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.
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 maybe 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.
Go ahead and hook the bikes to the RV before heading out because there are some awesome biking trails here to explore and enjoy. Mountain biking is popular here, and there are even three sites specifically for bikers at Ryan Campground. Some of the most popular rides include the easy 1.2-mile Onaga Trail, the 0.7-mile Southridge Trail that is intermediate to difficult, and for a challenge try the 12-mile Desert Riders Tour. Make sure you bring plenty of water no matter which trail you choose.