It’s becoming a little tradition of ours to go camping during major fall and winter holidays. Last year, we went to Death Valley National Park and this year, we decided to get away from the city life and go camping in Joshua Tree National Park for Thanksgiving 2017. We got a bit of a reprieve from the frustrations of our daily life...while others spent time at large family dinners or shopping on Black Friday. Ignorance is bliss.
Who Should Use This
Joshua Tree National Park Guide?
This guide is meant for solo travelers and couples who are looking to do some digital detox from our crazy world.
Oh, and travelers who are really into scrambling, hiking, or star gazing.
WHAT ARE THE BEST TIMES IN THE YEAR
TO VISIT JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK?
It depends on what you want to do.
Spring is best for checking out the blooming desert wildflowers and the Fall and Winter are best for cooler weather and stargazing. Scrambling and hiking is available year round.
Avoid summer at all cost. It’s the desert so daytime temperatures from June through August hover around 100˚F (38˚C). If you plan on going during the summer, just plan your activities early in the morning or late afternoons; drink lots of water.
Note: Thanksgiving weekend was crowded. Since most campsites inside the park are first-come, first serve, we lucked into a spot as a family was leaving. Keep that in mind if you’re planning on come out during the holidays.
HOW DO I GET TO JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK?
Do I need a car for Joshua Tree?
Yes. Unfortunately, your only option is to drive. We came out from Los Angeles but the closest airports include the following:
Palm Springs International - 45 minutes from park headquarters
Ontario International - an hour and a half from the park
Los Angeles International, Burbank, and Long Beach Airports are all about two to three hours away depending on traffic
Regardless of where you come in from, you eventually have to hop in a car to get around.
Since we got rid our our car last month, we opted to rent a car from Sixt car rentals and only paid $178 for five days for unlimited mileage on a full-sized car. So, we spent about $35.60 per day on a car (split between four people).
WHERE SHOULD I STAY IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK?
Going to a place like Joshua Tree means that you’re looking to reconnect with nature a bit. And there’s no better way to do that than straight up camping. Choose any available campsite in the park. Most of the campsites are either $15 or $20 a night and operate on a first-come, first serve basis.
Here are a few campsites to consider:
- Campsites at the edge of the park can be reserved in advance: Black Rock, Indian Cove
- Campsites inside the park are all first-come, first-serve: Hidden Valley, Ryan, Jumbo Rocks, Belle, Sheep Pass, White Tank, and Cottonwood.
If you’re not that big into nature and prefer the comforts of city life, there are a ton of nearby motels, hotels, and Airbnbs that you can seek out on your own.
HOW SHOULD I PACK FOR CAMPING AT JOSHUA TREE?
If you’re camping, these are the things you should be aware of:
There are washrooms AND toilet paper. Unless you’re backcountry camping, most J-Tree campsites come with bathrooms with toilet paper. However, these bathrooms are basically glorified porta-potties, meaning there's no running water or sink. Hand sanitizer is an absolute must!
Showers are accessible for campers right outside of the park. If you want to camp but also need to shower, there’s a souvenir shop right outside of the west entrance of the National Park and and it offers quick showers for $4.00.
There is NO, I repeat NO cellular service once you enter Joshua Tree National Park. Yeah, let that one sink in. Just let the smartphone go.
Most of my items for Joshua Tree camping are fairly similar to my Death Valley camping list.
Here are a few items I recommend you pack:
For Your Comfort:
- Fleece or vest jacket
- Hand sanitizer (!)
- Baby wipes (one pack for the face and one for...the nether regions)
- Climbing gloves (for scrambling) - we bought cheap pairs from Daiso
- Light blanket/throw for cooler evenings
- Camping chairs or lightweight folding chairs
- Wine because you don’t need to keep it cold
- Ingredients for S’mores
If you don't feel like cooking - we found the following food items worked:
- Pita chips
- Instant oatmeal
- Bananas or apples
- Granola bars
- Lots of water. At least 1 gallon per person per day
Note: If you don’t have everything - don’t worry. There’s actually a Walmart Supercenter in the neighboring town. It’s less than 10 minutes away from the western entrance of the national park. And you can easily purchase any camping necessities (e.g. firewood) or modern conveniences (e.g. batteries) you might need.
HOW DO I USE THIS JOSHUA TREE GUIDE?
For simplicity’s sake, this guide assumes that you’ll be based mainly inside Joshua Tree National Park and you’ve got a car to get around.
The map is divided into the following color-coded areas:
Outdoor activities are in Green
Foods spots are in Blue
The Yellow markers are for optional, more obscure sites
Camping sites are in Purple
Outdoor Activities in Joshua Tree National Park (in Green)
Rock scrambling and climbing. One of the park rangers at Joshua Tree mentioned that Joshua Tree should actually be re-named “Jumbo Rocks” because that’s what is really unique about the area. Many people from all over will come out just to spend the entire weekend scrambling or climbing at this rock “mecca”.
Here are a few suggested areas to do some light scrambling:
Skull Rock: Often crowded but still cool for some beginner’s scrambling (and family friendly).
Hall of Horrors: Steeper drops but supposed to be pretty thrilling…
Hidden Valley: A ton of scrambling and climbing spots.
- Hiking all over the park. The terrain is significantly flatter than I’ve seen at other places but still a pretty pleasant hiking experience. We saw lots of families hiking together along several paths. For the full list, check out the National Park Service website or ask a park ranger when you get there.
Here are a few notable hikes you shouldn’t miss:
- Fortynine Palms Oasis: Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail is 3 miles round trip with 350 feet of elevation change. Once you get into the canyon, you’ll see a cluster of Californian palm trees with boulders and pools of water threaded throughout this strange oasis. It’s a strange sight to see.
Note: We also did the Lost Horse Mine Loop...but the payoff was not worth it. It was a pretty flat and dull trail for the majority of the hike.
- “Garden” viewing at the Cholla Cactus Garden. I actually found this view to be the most breathtaking outside of the sunsets at Joshua Tree. There’s something unexpected about seeing a vast stretch of these prickly cacti at J-Tree. Walk through it and tread lightly. You’ll probably get some needles stuck at the bottom sole of your shoes.
Sunsets at Joshua Tree National Park. My favorite moments were sitting on some large rock/boulder and just watching the sun slowly set after a long day of hiking and running around. And with no internet or cell service, I felt even more relaxed about the entire experience. It’s the type of beauty that makes you think about the big questions in your life.
Stargazing in the winter and spring months. If you can plan your trips around meteor shower events, I highly recommend spending it at Joshua Tree. There are also guided stargazing experiences at the Sky’s the Limit Observatory & Nature Center on most Saturdays. Check out the NPS website for their tips and tricks on stargazing at Joshua Tree.
Where To Eat At Joshua Tree (in Red)
We came during Thanksgiving so...unfortunately for us, nothing was open on Thanksgiving day. Our group ended up eating out at IHOP when we arrive and cooking food the rest of the trip.
Here are a few notable spots that came highly recommended:
Joshua Tree Coffee Company: Organic coffee roasted in only small batches. From what I’ve read this cafe is the perfect way to kickstart your morning. Sip your cup of joe on the attached patio deck as you get caffeinated and plan for a full day in Joshua Tree.
Crossroads Cafe: I got several recommendations for Crossroads Cafe from several trusted Angelenos. This place is right outside the west entrance of the park and offers filling meals, friendly service, and great options for lunch or breakfast.
See the shared map for a few more food suggestions.
Stranger, More Obscure Activities
Near Joshua Tree National Park (in Yellow)
Everything I’m listing below are just free experiences because...why the hell not?
World Famous Crochet Museum: Essentially, a small shrine dedicated to the cozy art of crochet.
Noah Purifoy's Outdoor Desert Art Museum: 7.5 acres of "Environmental Sculptures". There’s something extremely sad and strange about the entire experience in the middle of nowhere.
Desert Jesus Park: A 3.5 acre sculpture garden park; I only found out after but the statues were moved here in 1951 by the local church. Words I’d use to describe this place: eerie, odd, creepy, strange...
Cactus Mart: Eclectic and you can create your own mini-cacti garden at $0.59 a piece. A steal if I ever saw one.
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Have you been camping at Joshua Tree National Park before?
What did you and your group do differently?
Did you come across any unique experiences?