Named for the short and unusually shaped trees found throughout the park, Joshua Tree National Park offers both natural beauty and quirky history. This vast desert landscape has attracted Mormon pioneers, cattle ranchers and rustlers, adventurous souls, and nature lovers over the years.
Most people in Southern California can reach this park in just 1 to 3 hours, making it a popular weekend destination. But with its more than 100 miles of hiking trails, numerous rock formations for climbing and scrambling, and some of the best stargazing in the world, it’s also a worthy destination for out-of-state and international visitors.
Here are seven things to know about Joshua Tree National Park.
1. It’s An Awesome Place To View The Stars
Designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, Joshua Tree offers great opportunities to view the stars and the Milky Way. Most people live in urban areas filled with artificial light, which makes the stars difficult to see. By drastically limiting man-made light after dark, Joshua Tree has made it possible to see millions of stars on a clear night.
The National Park Service offers a variety of tips for enjoying the night sky. After finding a good observation spot, be patient — it can take up to 20 minutes for the human eye to adjust to the low-light conditions and see all the stars in the sky. And don’t use a bright white light, like the light from a flashlight or cell phone. Instead, bring a red light, or simply cover a household flashlight with red cellophane.
2. There’s World-Class Rock Climbing
Joshua Tree is a dream destination for rock climbers — it offers 8,000 climbing routes! A climbing guide can be purchased at the visitor centers, or novices can arrange for a climbing instructor through local outfitters. Just be sure that your instructor is properly permitted with the park. A list of permitted climbing outfitters can be found on the park’s website.
For a less intense activity, rock scrambling can be enjoyed throughout the park, often along the marked hiking trails.
3. The Trails Offer Great Desert Views
There are more than 100 miles of trails in Joshua Tree National Park, so the place is understandably popular with local hikers. First-time visitors should opt for the trails with the best views: Ryan Mountain and Keys View.
Ryan Mountain is a 3-mile out-and-back trail that climbs more than 1,000 feet. But the views at the summit are worth the trek and cover much of the park and its environs.
A much easier option is the .2-mile Keys View trail loop. The area is the highest point in the park, and the views are stunning. And fortunately, this trail is wheelchair accessible.
4. The Area Has A History Of Homesteading
Bill and Frances Keys spent 60 years in this desert raising children, cattle ranching, and mining. Their former home, schoolhouse, and workshop are still standing and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. From October through May, you can reserve a ranger-guided tour of the Keys Ranch here. The tour lasts 90 minutes and gives great insight into the tough lives of desert homesteaders.
5. You’ll Have Terrific Photo Opportunities
Joshua Tree is well known to photographers. Unique rock formations, gorgeous vistas, and star-filled night skies offer photo ops for Instagrammers and pros alike.
Two of the most photographed rock formations include Skull Rock and Heart Rock. Skull Rock can be seen along the Skull Rock Nature Trail, which is 1.8 miles long. Heart Rock is part of the Arch Rock Nature Trail, just .5 miles long.
For skilled nighttime photographers, this park is an ideal spot to capture starry skies or moonlight. Amateurs looking to improve their skills should consider scheduling a weekend workshop.
6. The Wildflowers Are Magnificent
The desert may appear to have limited vegetation, but there are actually 700 species of plants in the park. From February through May, colorful wildflowers bloom all over Joshua Tree National Park. Lower-elevation flowers begin blooming in February, and higher-elevation blooms may be seen into June. The extent of blooms and location can change each year in response to the weather, so do some research before making a trip to the park to see the flowers.
7. You Can Enjoy Excellent Birding
Avid bird-watchers will also appreciate Joshua Tree and its 250 species of birds. Some birds call the park home, while others pass through just once a year. Some even make their nests in this desert landscape.
Cottonwood Spring, the Oasis of Mara, and the 49 Palms Oasis are three ideal locations for birding. The park’s website gives an overview of the birds to be seen and the best time of year to spot them.
What To Know Before You Go
Due to the high temperatures in the park during the summer, June, July, August, and September are not ideal times to visit the park. Instead, opt for a visit between October and May. And definitely head to one of the visitor centers at the start of your trip to learn more about the natural environment and recommended activities.
Whether you’re visiting on a short day trip or a long weekend, Joshua Tree National Park offers a wealth of natural wonders and endless activities for visitors of all ages.