At the intersection of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in Southern California is the strange, surreal landscape of Joshua Tree National Park. Named after a tree with thick, spiny branches, the park is home to some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Exposed granite monoliths and rugged mountains of twisted rock testify to the power of the natural forces that shaped this unique environment. The rock formations of Joshua Tree have enticed rock climbers, hikers and backpackers to explore this desert wonderland for generations.
Springtime in the park brings colorful shows of desert wildflowers, and Joshua Tree’s clear night skies offer spectacular displays of stars and meteor showers.
If you’re planning a visit, check our suggestions for getting the most out of your trip. The National Park Service is also a good resource for information on camping, day hiking, backpacking, climbing, birding, stargazing and wildflower viewing.
Camping in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree has a total of nine National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds, which are known to fill up on weekends. Find details about park-service campgrounds, as well as overflow camping options on the park’s camping page. All campgrounds have pit toilets. Cottonwood, Black Rock and Indian Cove are the only campgrounds with running water. For the rest, you need to bring all the water you’ll use. Since foraging for campfire fuel is prohibited, you’ll also need to bring your own firewood.
During the summer months, campsites at all campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis. From October through May, the busy season, Black Rock and Indian Cove campground sites are both available by reservation only. Sites at the other park campgrounds, though, are first-come, first-served.
Here are a few of our favorite campgrounds in the park:
Jumbo Rocks Campground (124 sites; non-reservable): The largest campground in Joshua Tree and very family-friendly, Jumbo Rocks lives up to its name with a number of boulder formations that are ideal for scrambling. It’s situated near to some great climbing as well. For a side hike, the iconic Skull Rock is less than 2 miles away. Because it’s the biggest campground in the park, you can expect to find a lot of families and overflow from other campgrounds during busy times.
Hidden Valley Campground (44 sites; non-reservable): If you visit Joshua Tree to climb, Hidden Valley is a convenient choice as a basecamp. Located near the center of the park, it’s next to the Wonderland of Rocks and its many climbing routes. Arrive early to snag a site.
Ryan Campground (31 sites; non-reservable): Another favorite among climbers, Ryan is also a designated horse camp and situated along the California Riding & Hiking Trail. Take a quick hike to nearby Cap Rock or Mt. Ryan. Open October–May only.
White Tank Campground (15 sites; non-reservable): This is the smallest campground in Joshua Tree and your best bet for secluded camping. It’s next to Arch Rock and Arch Rock Nature Trail, a short, easy hike that’s well worth doing. You’ll find a number of other trails nearby and some great rock formations in and around the campground that make for fun scrambling. Open October–May only.
Backpacking and Hiking in Joshua Tree
The best way to immerse yourself in the beauty and the mystery of Joshua Tree is to head into the desert backcountry. You can explore in relative comfort fall through spring, since the winter climate is typically mild (oppressive heat makes summer backpacking less appealing). The park service website has a good selection of backcountry trail maps.
A few rules worth remembering: Because all water sources in the park are reserved for wildlife, you have to bring all the water you’ll use on your trip: 1–2 gallons per day is recommended, depending on temperature and your activity level. That’s just for drinking. For hygiene and cooking, you’ll need more. Consider alternatives to freeze-dried food, which requires water. As an alternative, the park service allows multi-day hikers to cache food and water for up to 14 days.
Pack extra layers, since desert temperatures can plunge dramatically at night. Finally, bring a detailed map and compass and know how to navigate.
Registration For overnight trips, park and register at one of Joshua Tree’s 13 Backcountry Registration Boards. If you park anyplace else or if you don’t register your vehicle, it could be ticketed or towed.
Camping Backcountry campsites must be at least one mile from the road and 500 feet from trails and water sources (animals will avoid their water holes at night if they see you near them). Fires are prohibited in the backcountry, so bring a stove to heat water and food.
Planning a backpacking trip in Joshua Tree? Download the park’s backcountry camping brochure.
Along with great backpacking, Joshua Tree also has a good mix of hiking routes, including several nature trails that range in length from .25 miles to 1.5 miles. We checked with Giancarlo Buttera, Sales Lead at the San Diego REI store, to get some insider tips on hiking and climbing options in the park.
Barker Dam Trail (easy; 1.5-mile loop): Situated just east of Hidden Valley Campground, a quick loop around the Barker Dam Trail will take you back in time. Native American petroglyphs can be found in a few highlighted spots. The dam was built back in the early 1900s by cattle ranchers and is one of the few places in the park you’ll see a body of water.
Maze Loop Trail, Day Hike (easy to moderate; 6.5-mile loop): On this lesser-known hike, you’ll see Joshua trees, prickly pear cacti and wildflowers in spring. The hike gets its name from the maze of mini slot canyons and boulder formations along the trail. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife such as chuckwalla and desert horned lizards, as well as bighorn sheep. You’ll also see a lot of rock formations, including the famous Window Rock.
Ryan Mountain (moderate; 3 miles round-trip): This hike climbs a total of 1,075 feet up a dirt trail with sections of stone steps. At the peak you’ll have panoramic views of Lost Horse Valley, Queen Valley and Pleasant Valley. You can see many hikers on this trail, but with an early start you can avoid the crowd of day-trippers and catch some amazing vistas.
Lost Palms Oasis (moderate; 7.5 miles round-trip): The biggest collection of California fan palms in Joshua Tree can be found at the end of this hike. It starts at the southern end of the park near Cottonwood Campground and takes you across ridges and through washes.
If you get an early start, you may see some bighorn sheep. The Mastodon Peak Loop Trail connects at about .7 miles in, and offers an optional scramble to that peak. A series of ridges and washes takes you onto a flat plateau. It’s a short scramble down to the oasis with its grove of palms. Hike fall through spring to avoid summer heat.
Black Rock Trail Day Hike or Backpack (moderate to strenuous; 10.5-mile loop): Located in the northwest corner of Joshua Tree, Eureka Peak is the 5thhighest point in the park. Its 5,518 ft. summit offers you stunning views of the Coachella Valley and the Little San Bernardino Mountains, capped with snow in winter and spring.
The hike begins at the backcountry bulletin board next to Black Rock Campground. Two miles in, you reach a junction. Go right onto the Eureka Peak Trail. The California Riding & Hiking Trail to the left will be your return route.
Covington Flat to Keyes View Backpack (moderate to strenuous; 15 miles point-to-point): This lightly used backpacking route along the California Riding & Hiking Trail offers the chance of a side trip to the highest peak in Joshua Tree. Soaring to 5,816 feet, Quail Mountain marks the point where the Mohave Desert meets the hotter Sonora Desert. The trail begins at the end of the Upper Covington Flat Road. As described here, it’s a one-way hike; so you’ll need to arrange a car shuttle from where the trail ends at the Juniper Flats Backcountry Board.
The hike takes you over a number of ridges with sweeping vistas of the Pinto Basin and Little San Bernardino ranges. The trail can be overgrown in many places, so wear long pants. The side trail to Quail Mountain is about three miles round-trip and occurs halfway along this route. Scrambling to the peak is a workout but well worth the view and bragging rights.
Boy Scout Trail Backpack (moderate; 12 or 16.5 miles): You’ll find a lot to experience on the Boy Scout Trail, including the Wonderland of Rocks, beautiful groves of Joshua Trees, cholla cacti and impressive views of the San Bernardino Mountains. This can be done as a 12-mile point-to-point route or a 16.5-mile out-and-back (skipping Willow Hole Trail). As a point-to-point hike, it’s best done south to north to keep the hiking mostly downhill.
Begin at the Keys West Backcountry Board and end at the Indian Cove Backcountry Board. At 1.3 miles into the hike, the Willow Hole Trail takes you into the heart of massive monzogranite rock formations. At two miles, you reach a grove of willow trees, your turn-around point. Keep in mind that everything on the right (east) side of the Boy Scout Trail, including Willow Hole, is day-use only. Pick a camping spot on the left (west) side at least 500 feet off the trail. The rest of the route takes you onto a high plateau, then drops into narrow washes among mesquite and mistletoe, as well as mound and barrel cacti.
Climbing and Bouldering in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree offers some of the best climbing and bouldering you’ll find anywhere. Fall to spring is prime climbing season. In summer, desert temps rise above 100°F, limiting climbing to early morning and late in the day, or to shaded areas. The park has more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes for all levels of climbing ability. It offers a mix of canyons, cliffs, washes and boulders. View all the park service climbing maps here.
Most climbing routes require trad gear, with some mixed routes, a few sport and a wide variety of crack climbs. Single-pitch dominates, but there are a handful of multi-pitch choices as well. Joshua Tree’s coarse monzogranite can be rough on the fingers, so consider taping up. You won’t regret having an extra roll in your bag.
Planning to camp? Hidden Valley Campground (HVCG) puts you at the center of climbing and bouldering activity. There’s lots of climbing to do in the campground itself, and you’re close to more premier climbs—namely, the Wonderland of Rocks with its large, amazing cliffs and domes, including the Astro Domes and Lenticular Dome.
HVCG also hosts Climbers Coffee from 8:00-10:00 am Saturdays and Sundays from mid-October to April. You can help yourself to a free cup of coffee, tea, or cocoa, and meet the park’s climbing ranger, who can answer your questions and let you know about any closed areas. To help plan your visit, check the park service’s Climbing Closures page.
Joshua Tree’s biggest formation is Saddle Rock, where you’ll find the longest multi-pitch route: Right On. For more secluded climbing, try the towers and cliffs of Split Rocks in the northwest section of the park. The Roadside Rocks area just north of HVCG is also a quick go-to spot. One of the park’s most popular crags is Trashcan Rock at the Quail Springs picnic area. It has a good mix of beginner climbs and more difficult routes and is considered a good place to familiarize yourself with what you might encounter on the rock.
The Echo Rock area has a variety of great routes, including crack, slab and face climbs. If you like longer ascents, try the Hemingway Buttress area—the Hemmingway turnout is found north of HVCG. It offers a number of routes that are more than 100 feet long.
Other Ways to Explore Joshua Tree
Biking: To protect the desert’s slow-growing vegetation, cycling in the park is restricted to roads that are open to vehicles. That includes many miles of unpaved backcountry roads that make for fun mountain biking. As with any other activity in Joshua Tree, take along plenty of water. See a list of good routes, as well as links to maps, on the park service’s Backcountry Roads page.
Stargazing: Far from the artificial lights of cities and suburbs and with a sky usually free of clouds, Joshua Tree has night skies that are ideal for enjoying a show of stars, planets and meteors. Early sunsets in winter leave campers enough time to view the constellations Orion, Sirius, Gemini and Taurus. Mid-August is prime time for viewing the Milky Way and the Perseid Meteor Shower.
Wildflower Viewing: Every spring, the earthtone desert landscape of Joshua Tree erupts in a kaleidoscope of intense color when the wildflowers bloom. It’s hard to predict exactly when and where the park’s dozens of beautiful species will flower. It depends on the timing of precipitation and temperature changes, as well as the elevation.
The park service does a great job of posting reports on its Wildflower Viewing page each week beginning in mid-February. By the second week of April, temperatures rise and most of the wildflowers begin to disappear.
Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree is within a few hours’ drive from several cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Palm Springs. You can approach the park from Interstate 10 or California Highway 62 (the Twentynine Palms Highway). See the park’s Directions and Transportation page for information on traveling to Joshua Tree.
Park Fees and Passes: Fees for entering the park depend on the type of pass you choose and your vehicle. You can opt for a single-use park pass ($20 for 7 days), an annual parks pass or the America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass that covers all national parks and federal fee areas. See all fee details at the fees and passes page.
Joshua Tree Weather: The park is open year-round, although there are more visitors in spring and fall as temperatures moderate. Visits peaks during wildflower season and are lowest during the heat of summer.
Most days are clear with low humidity. Spring and fall have average highs/lows of 85°F and 50°F respectively. In winter, days average 60°F, with freezing temps at night. It can sometimes snow at higher elevations. Daytimes temperatures in summer soar above 100°F, with nights averaging 75°F.
View the park’s current weather and forecast here.
Guidebooks and Maps: The National Park Service’s online site offers an excellent selection of maps, with different options covering backcountry roads, hiking trails, backpacking routes, rock climbing areas, equestrian trails and topographical details. You can also find guidebooks and maps for Joshua Tree at REI.com.
Special Concerns in Joshua Tree
Hydration and hypothermia: In the arid desert environment of Joshua Tree, staying hydrated is critical. All natural water sources in the park are reserved for wildlife, so you’ll need to bring in all the water you’ll use on your visit. A good rule of thumb is one gallon a day per person. If you’re going to be active (hiking, biking, climbing, etc.) make it two gallons. Water is available in surrounding towns, at the visitor center in Twentynine Palms, at Black Rock and Cottonwood campgrounds, at the entrance station south of Joshua Tree, and at the Indian Cove ranger station.
Another concern is hypothermia. Temperatures in the desert environment can fluctuate by as much as 40 degrees in 24 hours, so have extra layers available.
Flash floods: When it rains, flash floods can appear rapidly in the washes and canyons of Joshua Tree. Even if there’s a chance of rain, you should avoid those places. If you’re camping in the backcountry, don’t pitch your tent in any area where a flash flood could occur.
Abandoned mines: Joshua Tree is home to hundreds of abandoned mines. Many contain tunnels and shafts that haven’t been sealed, so be cautious around mines. Also, abandoned buildings can be home to deer mice. The mice, along with other wild animals, can carry the deadly hantavirus, which might be airborne in those buildings. Play it safe and don’t enter abandoned buildings.
Bees and more: When it’s hot, honeybees in the park search for water to stay cool. They’re drawn to any source of water, even your sweat. Keep water bottles sealed when not in use. Joshua Tree is also home to scorpions, rattlesnakes and tarantulas, which are active during warmer months. It’s a good idea for campers to keep tents doors zipped tight and to shake out clothing and boots before putting them on.
Written by Steve Burke. REI San Diego Sales Lead Giancarlo Buttera contributed to this article.