I am a city girl to the core and love my concrete jungle, but California has such a bounty of natural beauty with its mountains, water bodies, hiking trails and national parks, that it is hard not to be enticed by Mother Nature. I absolutely romanticize deserts and arid landscapes because there is something magical in their desolation which fascinate me to know end. When I found out about Joshua Tree National Park, which is acres of federally protected wilderness in the Mojave desert of Southern California, I couldn’t wait to get there. Thus a day trip to Joshua Tree was a must do for us when we visited Palm Springs. In this Joshua Tree Guide post, you will find information on Joshua tree trails, our attempt at Joshua tree hikes, restaurants near Joshua tree and a few tips and tricks to navigate Joshua tree national Park as a first time visitor. Continue reading to find out things to do at Joshua tree National Park if you are visiting for the first time, and here is a beautiful postcard from Joshua tree to get you inspired! For more southern California National parks, read this fantastic guide on 5 things to see and do in Death Valley National park. You can also read about how to plan for Yellowstone National Park which is another fantastic west coast gem or spend one day in Death Valley National park in southern California if you have less time!
Visiting Joshua Tree with kids? Read Melissa’s informative guide on exploring Joshua tree with kids
Hotels near Joshua Tree National Park
If you are wondering about where to stay in Joshua tree, you can find a number of options by clicking on this Joshua tree National park Hotels link. Due to our day trip to Joshua tree, we stayed at an Airbnb in Palm Springs which was not the greatest, but here is the Airbnb link for all your Joshua tree lodging needs! I must mention here that of all these, Joshua Tree House is right inside the Joshua tree National Park and if you have the budget for it, definitely snag at least a night’s stay there!
Geography of Joshua Tree National Park
Let me begin this Joshua Tree guide with some trivia on Joshua trees. These are a type of plants unique only to the ecosystem of the Mojave desert and are not any kind of cacti, but belong to the agave family. Their funny, gaunt look with tufts of leaves protruding from randomly spread out branches of different shapes are a delight to behold and they are distinctly different in appearance from other cacti and desert flora. The national park is named after these very trees, which were also immortalized in popular culture when the celebrated pop group U2 released an album by the same name, which went on to become their biggest hit. The trees grow abundantly in some parts of the park, and not so much in others and are not restricted only to the park, but grow all over in the Mojave desert. You will see them all over in the Joshua Tree city and county.
Joshua Tree Guide: Sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park
The one thing that you must absolutely do on your day trip to Joshua Tree is to catch a breathtaking sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park. This experience parallels none other and the ever changing colors of the arid landscape as the first rays of the sun strike it, are a vision of pure beauty and bliss. The Park remains open 24/7, but there is a fee to go in during operational hours ($ 20/vehicle and $10 /pedestrian or cyclist). Just go in super early before the sun rises and you will have the park all to yourself. There are so many great view points and Joshua tree trails that its best to experience them or go hiking in Joshua tree in the early hours to avoid the beating sun and crowds. The campgrounds were full during our day trip to Joshua Tree (you need prior permission for camping) and the incoming visitors plus campers can really make you jostle for space during the day. It is therefore best to arrive very early to enjoy the solitude and go on an exploratory Joshua tree hikes. Joshua tree weather is super hot for summer and fall, so it definitely helps to arrive as early as possible!
Day Trip to Joshua Tree: Joshua tree hikes and recommended attractions
There several entrances to Joshua Tree National Park, but you should enter from the northern entrance which is east of the Joshua Tree Visitor center. Enter the park through the Utah trail and make your way towards the Arch Rock and further down the Pinto Basin road to the most beautiful Joshua Tree trail, i.e. Cholla Cactus Garden trail. Rows and rows of fuzzy cacti will greet you with shimmering golden borders if you arrive as the dawn breaks and that in itself is a breathtakingly beautiful sight to behold. This part of the park is off limits to pets and you are advised to stay on the makeshift trail between the cacti taking care not to venture too close to them or touch them since these are “jumping” cacti and can easily penetrate skin and cause injury. Since we were there at sunrise, we had the trail completely to us with no other living being in sight. The stillness in the air, the golden rays of the sun bathing the rows and rows of cacti around us, painted a surreal scene like no other. This was one of the best Joshua tree hikes for us and definitely a must do for even a beginner while visiting Joshua Tree National Park for the first time.
Joshua Tree restaurants
After witnessing a glorious sunrise and hiking a little bit in Joshua Tree National Park, you will feel hungry. If you are one of those people who do not carry energy bars, then fear not cause in this Joshua Tree guide, I have you covered with some pretty amazing restaurants near Joshua Tree. Country Kitchen, a pint sized family owned diner run by a very friendly Cambodian couple, is a must visit Joshua tree restaurant. You cannot leave this place (btw, it is cash only) without having their melt in the mouth, fluffy chocolate pancakes which are to die for! Once you are done with breakfast, return to the park to explore the Joshua tree trails and lookout points using a handy map from the visitor center where we also paid for the park entrance fee. We started off with a 0.5 mile hike around the Arch Rock, one of the shortest Joshua tree hikes where once can see a rocky landscape dotted with Joshua Trees and piles of boulders stacked atop each other.
Joshua tree Points of Interest and lookout points
Next, we made a quick stop at the Skull Rock (a huge overhanging rock shaped like a skull) but found it too crowded and quickly moved on to our next destination-the iconic Keys View point at Joshua Tree from where you can see the famous San Andreas fault, the city of Palm Springs, the looming snow capped Mount San Jacinto and the Salton Sea. The road from Arch Rock to Keys View as well as the Black Rock Cayon further up north and west are the two best spots for viewing Joshua Trees. Most trees in this part of the park are full grown, mature ones unlike those in sparse southern entrance.
Joshua tree Trails
We had a limited time to see everything during our day trip to Joshua Tree, but boy, were we glad to stop by the Keys View lookout point! The view from Keys View lookout point is jaw-dropping. Stair lead to the viewing area where its best to sit for some time and take in the serenity of the desert valley with the majestic mountains overlooking Palm Springs and Coachella Valley. On a clear day, the shimmering water of Salton sea also visible. After spending some time at Keys View, you have several options for Joshua tree hikes (read this article for 16 awesome hikes at Joshua tree that you cannot miss): you can either retrace your path toward Arch Rock to hike at Ryan mountains or make your way up north towards Barker Dam and Hidden Valley. We drove out of the park following the Park boulevard path towards the west entrance station and bid adieu to this beautiful landscape since it was getting too hot for further exploration. On our way out, we saw a long line of cars waiting to enter the park and thanked our lucky stars that we had managed to get in early. Post our second outing at the park, we had lunch at another amazing restaurant near Joshua tree, i.e. CrossRoads Cafe and Tavern, serving delicious grub with lots of vegetarian/vegan options.
Joshua Tree guide: Parting thoughts
Joshua Tree National park represents a geology, ecosystem, flora &fauna habitat like no other and is unique in its beauty. It is unlike any other North American National park that you’ve visited, with a wilderness that is magical and captivating. I hope I could get you, dear reader, enticed enough by this Joshua Tree guide to visit this unique National Park! The beauty of the desert is understated, yet unparalleled and the only way to experience it is to lose yourselves in the land dotted with Joshua trees, piercing the stony, barren soil. The trails and hiking spots of interest to catch more of the breathtaking vistas are listed in this National Parks Services website. Since Joshua Tree National Park has changing weather conditions and can get chilly in the early morning, it is better to dress in layers if you are interested in a sunrise. Joshua tree looks splendid at sundown as well, with the ghostly silhouette of the trees against a burnt orange-red sky. In addition, the park is also a great spot for some star gazing owing to the sky above being least polluted by the light from neighboring cities. So what are you waiting for? Get your cameras, tripod and hiking gear ready and come explore this park today, at least as a day trip from Palm Springs! As usual, be responsible while enjoying the national parks and play your role in conservation by leaving no trace behind of your visit, i.e. disposing off all kinds of trash, respecting the flora and fauna and following all posted signs.