Joshua Tree National Park is a spectacular region. Joshua Trees and Creosote dominate the region and large rocks sit in jumbled piles. Prickly cactus plants are plentiful, and it can take some time to learn to avoid being pricked by sharp spines. Coyote and jackrabbits are commonly seen and views across the desert landscape are expansive. The muted colors of the desert become deep in the fall when the autumn sunlight changes the look of the landscape. It is often said that “the desert smells like rain,” and the smell of the creosote when it rains makes this so. A trip to Joshua Tree is a sensory experience and worth a visit by all.
Joshua Tree National Park can be reached by plane or car. The closest airport is in the city of Palm Springs, but Palm Springs is a good 45 minute drive and more expensive than flying into Los Angeles International Airport. There is no public transportation to the Park, so a rental car is essential. Joshua Tree National Park is 140 miles east of Los Angeles and takes about 2-3 hours to drive. The Park is a 4-5 hour drive, or 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas, and a 3-4 hour drive, or 175 miles northeast of San Diego. Joshua Tree can be reached from three places. There is a south entrance off the 10 freeway at Cottonwood Campground, a north entrance off Highway 62 in Twenty-Nine Palms, and, a most commonly used, west entrance off Highway 62 in the town of Joshua Tree.
From Los Angeles (2.5-3 hour drive): Take Interstate 10 or U.S. 60 east to Beaumont/Banning, and continue on I-10.
From Orange County (2 – 2.5 hour drive): Take U.S. 91 east to Riverside, then take U.S. 60 east east to Beaumont/Banning where it merges into Interstate 10.
From San Diego (2.5 – 3.5 hour drive): Take Interstate 15 eastbound north to U.S. 60, then head east to Beaumont/Banning, and continue on I-10.
From Beaumont/Banning: Continue east on Interstate 10 past the Palm Springs/Highway 111 exit to the U.S. 62 exit north (to 29 Palms). Several uphill grades take you through Morongo Valley to Yucca Valley. The town of Joshua Tree is several miles past Yucca Valley. From Joshua Tree, turn right (south) on Quail Springs Road, and follow it directly to the monument entrance some 5 miles up the road. From Las Vegas (3-4 hour drive): Take I-15 to Barstow, then take Highway 247 south until it terminates in Yucca Valley. A good short cut to 29 Palms from Las Vegas begins about 55 miles west of Las Vegas (Interstate 15). Drive through the towns of Cima and Kelso, past the Granite Mountains, and cross Interstate 40. Drive through Amboy to 29 Palms. This is a desolate road and becomes a grated dirt road.
When traveling from Los Angeles, a stop at Hadley’s Fruit Orchards is highly recommended. Hadley’s is located on Highway 10 in Banning. It opened in 1931 to provide local community members with fruits and dates. Today, the store carries a very wide assortment of dried fruits, nuts, honey, jam, cereals, sauces, and candies. They have a grill inside the store, so it is a great stop for a meal or a snack on your drive to or from Joshua Tree National Park. Do notice the ostrich burger on the menu, you might be dared to try one.
It can take as long as one hour to drive across the park from the west entrance to the south entrance, so be sure to allow enough time for this experience. The landscape throughout the Park changes and is consistently interesting and beautiful. Be aware that entrance fees are charged to enter the Park. Charges vary for walk-ins, vehicles, Joshua Tree National Park Passes, National Parks Passes, and Golden Eagle Passes, depending on your needs.
Staying overnight within Joshua Tree National Park requires camping equipment. There are nine campgrounds in the Park. Hidden Valley Campground is the most popular with rock climbers, and Ryan Campground is preferred by climbers if Hidden Valley is full. These two campgrounds fill up first because they are close to a lot of popular climbs. Indian Cove Campground is accessed from a completely separate entrance near 29 Palms. This campground has family sites and large group sites available by reservation. Indian Cove is situated at lower elevation, so it is a warmer place to camp and climb during cold winter months. Sheep’s Pass has a few group sites, too and is located in the Park near Ryan Campground. It is recommended for groups during warmer months in the Park. A reservation is required for Sheep’s Pass, although not all campgrounds require a reservation. Most are first come, first serve, however, all campgrounds do require at least a $10 fee. Iron rangers are found in most campgrounds, so you’ll need to have cash or a check on you to pay. Note that there is no food or water in the Park, so it must be packed in, or found at local markets outside the Park boundaries in surrounding towns.
The most comfortable times to visit Joshua Tree National Park are Spring and Fall when the temperatures are, generally, most moderate. During these seasons, temperatures range from 50 to 80 degrees F. Therefore, the best months for climbing are mid-October to April or May. Winter days only reach about 60 degrees, at the most, and dip into freezing temps at night. On occasion, it snows in the park. This can be a tough time of year to visit the park. It is hard to stay warm and strong winds often add to the chill. On the other end of the spectrum, summer temperatures consistently reach over one hundred degrees. I don’t recommend ever visiting the Park at this time. It’s just too darn hot to get out of the car and it would be a shame to visit Joshua Tree National Park and not get out of the car.
There are many generic hotels in surrounding towns, but also, a few that are very unique and worth pointing out. First, the 29 Palms Inn is a romantic, historic establishment with a pool and restaurant/bar.
Second, the Oasis of Eden is located in Yucca Valley. It is a very entertaining place. The Oasis of Eden has fourteen theme rooms with in-room spas. I personally recommend the Cave Room and Jungle Room. These rooms are very cheesy, but the hot tub in the room is loads of fun, especially with stuffed monkeys and plastic vines hanging above.
Restaurants located in the town of Joshua Tree are a 30-40 minute drive from Hidden Valley Campground in the Park. The Crossroads Café is probably the most popular with the locals and with rock climbers. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and beer is on tap. It is set up to order at the counter, then find a seat. Chairs are mismatched, giving the place an eclectic feel. I have to mention that the Coyote Burger (chicken, bacon, cheese) is especially memorable.
Another spot popular with climbers is Santana’s Mexican Food. It is located in Joshua Tree on 29 Palms Highway very close to the West Entrance. It is quite good. Another, known for its buffet, is the Royal Siam Cuisine Thai Restaurant. It is, also, located on 29 Palms Highway in Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree is one of the most popular rock climbing areas in the world. Climbers travel from all over the world to climb one of over six thousand routes in the Park. The rock is quartz monzonite, very granular, and provides a lot of friction. Rocks in Joshua Tree are, mostly, large boulders, providing one-pitch climbs and good bouldering. The rock varies in quality throughout the park, but, in general, hundreds and hundreds of excellent climbs, both crack and slab, can be found. Bolts have been installed on many routes on Joshua Tree “sport” routes, but the area is mostly known for “traditional” routes. This requires climbers to place protection and anchors. Therefore, cams, wired nuts, micro-nuts, quick draws, and runners are essential parts to a Joshua Tree rack. Nomad Ventures is a climbing shop located just outside the west entrance of the Park, in case you forget something. For specifics on climbing in Joshua Tree, visit the Mountain Project website.
Joshua Tree National Park has over 794,000 acres of desert land, and backcountry travel is allowed. Joshua Tree backcountry travel is very rewarding in Joshua Tree. Remember that there is no water available, so it must be carried or cached. There are thirteen backcountry boards for registration in the Park, and registered vehicles can be left overnight in these locations.
People visit the deserts of the southwest from all over the world to see the wildflowers bloom because the colors are so vibrant and spectacular. Desert wildflowers often bloom in Joshua Tree National Park in late February or March, but the cactus plants may not bloom until April or May. Bloom times vary from year to year and change depending on plant types and elevation changes. Therefore, it would be a good idea to call the park rangers to get a sense of bloom times before planning a trip to the Park that revolves around blooming flowers.
Birding in the desert is best in the Springtime. Over 250 kinds of birds have been recorded in Joshua Tree National Park. Resident birds include roadrunner, phainopepla, cactus wren, mourning dove, and Gambel’s quail. Winter migratory species and spring and summer nesting species can be viewed at specific times of the year.
Key’s Ranch Guided Walking Tour
For five dollars and a reservation, the ranch of a man named William F. Keys, who was a cattle rancher, homesteader, and miner can be toured. The ranch tour is begins at a locked gate, just past the Hidden Valley Campground entrance, left at the Y in the intersection. The walking tour includes a visit to the ranch house, school house, store, and workshop. From what I remember, the tour is very interesting, and includes many wacky stories about the man and his family. It is very intriguing to imagine a life built in that desert environment and how this man lived.
Geology Motor Tour
This driving tour is 18-miles long and takes about two hours to complete round trip. Sixteen stops along the dirt road are described in a brochure that can be picked up at the start of the road. I haven’t taken this tour, myself, so I can’t give any insight, but it sounds interesting.