Visit Joshua Tree National Park: A Surreal Californian Landscape

Want to visit Joshua Tree National Park? Here's what it's like to camp at this southern California treasure.

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The Joshua tree is one of my favorite plants, despite the fact that the official name is Yucca brevifolia.

I hate yuccas.

This is a long-standing abhorrence that stems back to my childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana. For some reason, yuccas flanked our driveway, hugging the ground like a cluster of bayonets, and every time I mowed the grass the darn things would reach out and stab me.

Joshua trees, compared to their squat, evil cousins, are tall and stately, and keep their long prickly spines high above the desert floor. They look like supplicants raising their arms to the heavens, which is, in fact, how they got their name.

In the 1800s a group of Mormon settlers saw them for the first time and were reminded of the Biblical character Joshua. If that’s too denominational for you, you can always call them izote de desierto – desert dagger in Spanish.

Mr. TLT and I were in the middle of a month-long road trip from Elgin, Illinois, to San Diego and back. After driving more than halfway across the country, the trip east to Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center was a short one, relatively speaking.

Just a little more than two hours after we’d left Oceanside, a town in between San Diego and Los Angeles, we drove through the town of Joshua Tree and pulled into the gravel parking lot of the west entrance.

From the moment we decided to take this trip, I had wanted to camp in Joshua Tree National Park, even though I knew nothing about the park beyond the brilliant night skies and its namesake. (In August, 2017, Joshua Tree was officially designated as an International Dark Sky Park.)

Related: National Parks Checklist

The drive to Joshua Tree National Park
The drive to Joshua Tree National Park

When to Visit Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park straddles both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. The famous trees for which it’s named are found in the high desert Mojave. The Colorado is the western edge of another California desert, the Sonoran. The park boundaries encompass nearly 800,000 acres; nearly three-fourths of those are designated wilderness.

Joshua Tree is busy from November through May. March, when we visited, is pretty much the best time to visit. At that time, the mild temperatures are reasonable. Instead of the sweltering triple digits of the summer months, the average high temp in the Mojave desert in March is 72F.

At night, it gets down to around 48 degrees, making it cool enough for a campfire, but warm enough that you don’t have to break out the all-weather sleeping bags. Because the weather is balmy, everybody wants to be there. Including us.

Camping at Joshua Tree National Park

We entered the visitor center, checked the campground board, and – OH NO! It wasn’t even two o’clock and nearly all the campgrounds were full. I had been looking forward to this for months, but I couldn’t reserve in advance because at the time, all but two of the campgrounds were first-come, first-served.

(This has since changed and the majority of campgrounds not only accept reservations, but they’re also highly recommended.)

The nice, wonderful ranger told us where we might be able to find a campsite and told us the quickest way to get there would be to drive Twentynine Palms Highway to the north entrance. Before we could hightail it out of there, though, we had to get our National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass.

This beautiful piece of plastic is your passport to the wonder that is America’s National Park Service. It’s $80 for the year and entrance to Joshua Tree alone is $25. By the time we got to Bryce Canyon a few days later, the pass had paid for itself.

As we handed over our pass and ID, the ranger at the gate told us there may still be some spots at Jumbo Rocks.

Big rocks at Joshua Tree
Big rocks at Joshua Tree

As we neared the campground, we began to see granite boulders jutting out of the ground like ancient creatures trying to escape the molten lava below. We pulled into the campground and my concern grew as we passed each occupied site. Jim spotted a sign pointing to the left.

We turned, and there in front of us was a big, giant, beautiful, empty campsite.

To the left was a boulder that was probably twenty feet high with a tree growing out of its base. Erosion had created a natural shelf, which became my “kitchen.” To the right was a giant, sprawling mass of boulders. A fire pit was set on the slope, protected from any wind.

Before we set up our tent we explored, because our site was big enough to need exploring. While we knew there were campers on the other side of the boulders to our left, there was no one else around. It was like we had the park almost to ourselves.

Finding this campsite may have been sheer luck, but I chose to look at it as the Universe giving us a big thumbs-up.

Related: another time we lucked into a campsite, this time at Badlands National Park

Joshua Tree campsite in Jumbo Rocks campground
Campsite in Jumbo Rocks campground

After setting up the basics we had to go back to Twentynine Palms to get some firewood, so we decided to explore the park on our way out. We took one of the back-country roads to the main entrance and passed open valleys of Joshua trees popping up like so many Whack-A-Moles.

It was surreal, otherworldly, alien, a wonderland of rocks, basically any cliché you can imagine when attempting to describe a landscape that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. We drove to the scenic overlook at Keys View and looked out at the Salton Sea in the Coachella Valley.

By the time we returned to the campsite the sun was setting. We didn’t even have time to get out the lanterns before the moon rose, and it was so bright we had no need or desire for artificial light.

As we drifted off to sleep I realized it was absolutely silent. There were no trees rustling, no animals scampering. It could have been eerie. Instead, it was peaceful. Sublimely, supremely and sleepily peaceful.

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park - Salton Sea in the distance
Salton Sea and the Coachella Valley in the distance
Joshua Tree National Park at Night
Joshua Tree National Park at Night

I got up before dawn, as is my habit when camping, so I could see the day begin. I cracked the spine on a new journal and as I wrote the words flowed freely for the first time since we’d left home nearly three weeks before.

It was so quiet I heard a bird’s wings flap as it flew overhead. A tiny lizard scampered on the rocks. I finally made the perfect cup of camping coffee.

We started packing up after breakfast and saw a couple surreptitiously eyeing our site. We invited them in and told them we were leaving so they could have it.

They thanked us profusely because, while they’d arrived the night before, their kids were coming that day and the site they had was too small. Turns out Jack and Gina, definitely outdoorsy folks who were trying to dirt bike across Arizona in their spare time, had camped often, but this was their inaugural tent camping experience.

Joshua Tree could be a little rough for first-timers. There’s no water or electricity, and it was actually our first time camping without power. If you don’t have a great site and it’s your first time, it could put a damper on the whole experience.

“This may well be the turning point,” Jack said. “We’ll look back on this and say ‘that’s when things got good.’”

“This is when we decided we loved camping,” Gina agreed.

Glad we could help.

Best campground ever at Joshua Tree National Park
Sunrise in Jumbo Rocks campground
Sunrise in Jumbo Rocks campground
Fellow campers on top of one of the jumbo rocks at Joshua Tree National Park
Fellow campers on top of one of the jumbo rocks
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park

Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Located in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is a unique experience that encompasses two separate deserts: the Mojave to the north and west, with higher elevations, and the Colorado’s lower elevations to the south and east. To the north of the park is the town of Twentynine Palms, and to the south is the Salton Sea and Palm Springs.

Joshua Tree National Park is 800,000 acres and is known for its rock formations as well as the namesake trees.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

There are tons of outdoor activities to explore when you visit Joshua Tree National Park:

  • Hiking: there are 300 miles of hiking trails, offering everything from a short hike to a much longer hike. This is a desert, so bring plenty of water.
  • Birding: Joshua Tree is home to several year-round birds, including roadrunners and mockingbirds. It also attracts migratory species.
  • Ranger Programs: there are tons of ranger programs at the park, including daily ranger chats. There are also evening programs at some of the campgrounds.
  • Rock climbing: the high desert monzogranite offers traditional-style crack, slab, and steep face climbing and attracts rock climbers from around the world.
  • Back road driving: there are dozens of miles of backcountry roads that are only accessible for 4-wheel drive vehicles.
  • Star gazing: As an International Dark Sky Park, there’s basically no light pollution at Joshua Tree, making it super easy to see constellations and the Milky Way.

Entrance Fees at Joshua Tree National Park

Passes are good for seven days.

  • Private, non-commercial vehicle $30.00
  • Motorcycle or snowmobile $25.00
  • Per person, walk-in or bicycle $15.00
  • Non-commercial vehicles with a capacity of 16 or greater $15.00 per person

As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the Interagency Annual Pass.

Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Centers

There are four visitor centers at the park:

Oasis Visitor Center

  • Open: 8:30 am to 5 pm
  • Phone: 760-367-5500
  • Location: Oasis of Mara in Twentynine Palms
  • Address: 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
  • Exhibits: yes
  • Available Facilities: water, flush toilets, bookstore, picnic tables 

Joshua Tree Visitor Center

  • Open: 7:30 am to 5 pm
  • Phone: 760-366-1855
  • Location: South of Highway 62 (Twentynine Palms Highway) on Park Boulevard in the Village of Joshua Tree
  • Address: 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree, CA 92252
  • Exhibits: yes
  • Available Facilities: bookstore, cafe, flush toilets onsite; public telephone and showers nearby 

Cottonwood Visitor Center

  • Open: 8:30 am to 4 pm
  • Location: Cottonwood Spring
  • Exhibits: yes
  • Available Facilities: water, flush toilets, bookstore onsite; picnic area nearby 

Black Rock Nature Center

  • Open: October through May… Daily (except Friday) 8 am to 4 pm… Fridays 8 am to 8 pm
  • Phone: 760-367-3001
  • Location: Black Rock Campground
  • Address: 9800 Black Rock Canyon Road, Yucca Valley, CA 92284
  • Exhibits: yes
  • Available Facilities: water, flush toilets, bookstore, picnic area

Joshua Tree National Park Campgrounds

Joshua Tree National Park has nine campgrounds. Camping is very, very popular at this park between September and May, and reservations are required at Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, Jumbo Rocks, and Ryan in advance at recreation.gov. Belle, Hidden Valley, and White Tank are first-come, first-served.

  • Belle Campground: 18 sites. $15 per night. 3,800 feet in elevation. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water.
  • Black Rock Campground: 99 sites. $25 per night. 4,000 feet in elevation. Water, flush toilets, tables, fire grates, and a dump station.
  • Cottonwood Campground: 62 sites. $25 per night. 3,000 feet in elevation. Water, flush toilets, tables, fire grates, and a dump station.
  • Hidden Valley Campground: 44 sites. $15 per night. 4,200 feet. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water.
  • Indian Cove Campground: 101 sites. $25 per night. 3,200 feet in elevation. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water.
  • Jumbo Rocks Campground: 124 sites. $20 per night. 4,400 feet in elevation. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water.
  • Ryan Campground: 31 sites. $20 per night. 4,300 feet in elevation. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water.
  • Sheep Pass Campground: Group Campsites are limited to 25 people. Sites are available by reservation only.
  • White Tank Campground: 15 sites. $15 per night. 3,800 feet in elevation. Pit toilets, tables, and fire grates. No water.

For more information on Joshua Tree National Park, visit nps.gov/jopr/