Here are my recommendations for Joshua Tree National Park, and tips for accomplishing it all as part of a relatively quick stop on a California road trip. For me, this is the great thing about Joshua Tree–it is relatively easy to hit the major highlights in a few hours if that’s what you want to do, but it offers enough beyond the highlights that you could spend serious time in the park if you so desire. This means that there’s really something for everyone.
I’ve made a few trips to Joshua Tree National Park now, and this post covers my favorite things that I’ve done there. If you’re looking to spend a significant amount of time (say, 2+ days) in Joshua Tree National Park, I’d highly recommend picking up the Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide, which is basically the “deep cuts” look at the park. That’s the only guide you’ll need for a longer trip; if you’re doing a day trip, skip that book and stick with blog posts like this one.
So what are my top picks for Joshua Tree National Park? Well, I hear they have some pretty trees…
As the name implies, Arch Rock is a rock formation in the shape of an arch. I believe it was built hundreds of years ago in a collaboration between dinosaurs and cavemen, but that’s just what I heard (from the guitar hippies–see below).
It’s really easy to access from White Tank Campground, being less than a half-mile hike from the trailhead within the campground. It’s great for photographing under the night sky, and is really just cool to see in general. Joshua Tree National Park actually has a lot of cool rock formations (Skull Rock being another), and is also rising in popularity among free climbers. I think that’s crazy, buy hey, to each their own!
Cholla Cactus Garden
Also known as the infamous “Outlaw California Attack Cactus,” the Chollas are public enemy #1–ahead of even bears and Scientologists–as far as I’m concerned. Seriously, while these cacti are beautiful, and doing the short looping trail through the Cholla Cactus Garden is neat, be sure to heed the numerous warnings that you need to stay on the trail because they are dangerous and hazardous to human health.
The little cactus balls (for lack of a better term) have some sort of charge or kinetic energy (#science) causing them to jump and “attack” humans. Four out of the 5 photographers in our group got attacked one evening, and removing those balls from flesh is not fun. I’m not even kidding here. Enjoy the Cholla from the relative safety of the trail.
Joshua Tree is a cheap and easy place to camp, with three easy places to set up a tent. I love White Tank Campground, which is conveniently located and is in what I think is the most beautiful part of Joshua Tree. This is one of my favorite spots to photograph (Arch Rock is located here), anyway, so camping here makes for the perfect Joshua Tree National Park experience–just watch for rattlesnakes.
It’s $15/night for primitive camp sites in an area with a quiet area with a great view of the night sky, and you can stay for up to 30 days…making this the cheapest way to live in California if you don’t need fancy conveniences like “running water” or “electricity.”
Bonus tip: in one of the campsites (sorry, don’t remember the number) near the entrance, there’s a really photogenic Joshua Tree all by itself with rocks surrounding it. This is my pick for the best campsite and most photogenic tree in the entire park.
At another nearby campground, Jumbo Rocks, there’s a unique Juniper tree near a lone, monolithic rock a short hike above the camp sites. This Juniper tree is defiantly growing out of the rocks, and it’s amazing that it exists in the first place, let alone just happens to be growing in such an awesome spot making for cool photos.
This is a popular spot among photographers visiting Joshua Tree National Park, so even if you come up here in the middle of the night when seemingly no one else is in the park, don’t be surprised if you encounter others up here. This is a pretty small spot and is basically a “one at a time” photo spot, so make sure to bring your patience.
In the summer, there are some areas of Joshua Tree National Park that feel like veritable hippy communes. If perching on a rock, strumming on a guitar, and recreating the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test isn’t for you, well, you can still perch on a rock and enjoy the psychedelic colors painting the desert at sunset as the sky slowly transitions to night.
Any time of year, but especially in the summer, the sunset is a sight for sore eyes, as it offers respite from the heat and a break from the sun. Joshua Tree National Park has very little shade, making the sunset–even a dull one photogenically–welcome relief.
It probably comes to the surprise of exactly no one that Joshua Tree National Park has a lot of Joshua Trees. The eponymous tree is plentiful here, and simply wandering around marveling at these unique trees is something you can spend a decent amount of time doing.
I’ll admit that this is probably not all that interesting for the native Californians out there. My first experience with Joshua Trees was just outside the Park before my first visit, and I was in awe. I had never seen anything like them. When I got to Joshua Tree National Park itself, I was flat out blown away. I had seen the desert before, but this was like an alien landscape, with rock formations and Joshua Trees stretching as far as the eye could see. I regaled my California friends with tales of Joshua Tree National Park and its amazing trees upon returning home, and none of them were all that impressed. To each his own, I suppose.
When I’ve visited Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve timed it so I would be there for the full moon and no moon (separate occasions, obviously). The photo immediately above pictures the full moon rise, and on evenings with a full moon, the park is quite bright. On nights with no moon, it’s quite dark.
Unfortunately, despite being (seemingly) in the middle of nowhere, Joshua Tree National Park is not a “dark sky” park on par with Death Valley. The sky is definitely dark, and you can see plenty of stars, but you will notice light pollution on the horizon in some of your shots, which I assume is coming from Palm Springs. On the plus side, this can make some of your night shots almost resemble a sunrise!
That about covers it for my favorite things to do and see in Joshua Tree National Park. I haven’t done a ton of hiking here, mostly because temperatures have been in the 90 to 100 degree range whenever I’ve visited. Like I stated at the outset, this is one National Park you could experience pretty quickly, but you could also spend a good chunk of time camping here, enjoying the surreal landscape, and disconnecting (cell service is very limited in the park) from the rest of the world.
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it!
Where are your favorite places and things to do in Joshua Tree National Park? Are you impressed by the alien look of this landscape and these crazy trees, or do they not do anything for you? Which of these would you most like to photograph? Favorite sunrise or sunset spots in JT? Any questions? Share any thoughts you have in the comments!