I never thought I was much of a desert person. I spent my leisure time in the mountains or on beaches and had no plans to explore the many nearby desert areas. That all changed when I needed a place to stop and rest for a night on my way home from the Grand Canyon last fall. Joshua Tree was on the way, and I decided to give it a try. Since then I’ve been back twice and fall in love with it more and more every visit.
Joshua Tree and the national park that lie within it are less than a three hour drive from Los Angeles. The town and park got their names from the slow growing tree that covers much of the vast desert. The area is popular with hikers, rock climbers, bird watchers, and star gazers; but there is something for everyone to enjoy. Read on to discover the can’t miss spots in and around Joshua Tree and Joshua Tree National Park.
Arch Rock is a really interesting place to visit at any time of day, but the sunrise here is well worth it if you can get moving early. It’s a short walk from the parking lot on a flat dirt path. Once you reach the end there is a small amount of rock scrambling to get to the best viewpoints. If you have a good sense of navigation this is an amazing area to explore and do some additional scrambling. The unique rock formations stretch for miles and are a lot of fun to see, but be careful to always know how to get back to where the path is before you wander too far.
Heart Rock is in the same general area as Arch Rock. It does not have a well defined path, but I found it relatively easy to find. If you continue beyond Arch Rock less than a quarter of a mile you will find Heart Rock to your right. Again, make sure you always know how to get back to the path before going anywhere off trail. This is a popular spot and you will likely find other people in the area you can ask if you’re unsure where to go.
Fortynine Palms Oasis
There are countless hiking trails in Joshua Tree, many of which stretch for dozens of miles through the desert landscape, but if you are looking for something on the shorter side the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail can’t be missed. It’s just over 3 miles round trip and takes you to a beautiful oasis of palm trees in the middle of the desert. As with any hike in the desert be sure to carry extra water with you and do not hike in the heat of the midday sun.
Garth’s Boulder Gardens
Garth’s Boulder Garden is one of those places you have to see to understand. It’s an incredible piece of land just outside of Joshua Tree that Garth has spent years building. There are ponds and teepees, gardens and mosaic covered trees, petroglyphs and caves, and some incredible views. I was lucky enough to camp here for a couple nights and really explore the area, so if camping is your thing I highly recommend staying here. If you’re not up for camping it is still well worth a short (or long) stop.
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum
Just like the Boulder Gardens, this museum is a bit off the beaten path. It’s an outdoor museum featuring an eclectic collection of sculptures and art installations located just outside of Joshua Tree. It’s a fascinating place to wander around and take pictures of the offbeat and ornately decorated façades. Even if you only have a short amount of time Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum will not disappoint.
Joshua Tree Saloon
Joshua Tree Saloon is one place I make sure to stop by on every visit to the area. The Saloon is decorated in an unmistakable style common seen in Joshua Tree and is worth a visit for the décor alone, but my favorite thing about this place is the incredible food and drinks on offer. The prices are reasonable and everything I’ve tried on the menu is delicious (but I’m partial to the burger and breakfast plates).
Pioneertown was built in the 1940’s as a movie set. From the outside it looks like an authentic Old West town, but on the inside of the 1880’s façade there are shops that sell homemade treasures, art studios, restaurants, and even a motel. Many of the businesses are closed during the week (you can still wander around the town to look at the outside of the buildings and take pictures), but if you’re able to visit on the weekend you might catch a wild west gun fight or a live action show in the theater. And make sure to stop at Pappy & Harriets for some excellent BBQ and live music.
There are countless things to see and do within the national park and the surrounding area. This post is just a list of my favorites and what I consider to be the can’t miss spots in Joshua Tree. Skull Rock, Keys View, Cholla Cactus Garden, and Split Rock are all worthy of a visit while driving through the park. If you want to spend some time hiking in the area, Cottonwood Springs, Ryan Mountain Trail, Lost Palms Oasis Trail, and Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail are all great places to start.
There is no shortage of wonderful places to stay in and around Joshua Tree. Within the national park there are five reservable campgrounds to choose from. Indian Cove and Jumbo Rocks are my favorites. Pitching a tent next to the incredible boulder formations is something everyone should experience at least once. These campgrounds have pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire grates, but no water. If you’re looking for water and flush toilets Black Rock or Cottonwood might be a better choice. There are also three first come campgrounds within the park. Campgrounds fill up early and are often reserved months in advance, so if you are unable to get a spot I suggest checking out Hipcamp. I’ve found some incredible campsites through this website (including Garth’s Boulder Gardens), and highly recommend it. Just be sure to read reviews and full descriptions of the site and ask the host any questions you have before booking. There are no hotels or lodges inside Joshua Tree National Park, but there are dozens of unique places to stay in the towns of Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, or Yucca Valley.
Joshua Tree is an incredible place to visit year round, but during the summer months it becomes much too hot for outdoor activities in the middle of the day. If you intend to spend time hiking or rock climbing I recommend going any time other than the summer months. No matter when you visit be sure to have good maps with you, follow trails, and always carry extra food and water.
As with all travel and planning during this pandemic, it would be wise to double and triple check park websites and campground and accommodation websites for closure information and safety protocols in effect before traveling. Be sure to stay flexible with your plans and have a back up or two in place before you leave, but above all else HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!