Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
What makes Joshua Tree National Park in California one of the best vacation spots for kids and families and one of my “Top Ten National Parks?” There are big rocks and piles of boulders. The park encompasses parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts and all the varying plants and animals that live in both. The night sky is dark and full of stars, not to mention yips of coyotes and hoots of owls. There are plenty of short trails for kids who need motivation and inspiration to hike, but lots of longer trails for intrepid hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.
Did I mention the rocks?
Here’s what makes Joshua Tree perfect for family vacations on a budget: Campgrounds are low cost and high fun, even some of the cool motels nearby have rooms for under $90, picnic areas throughout the park make bringing and assembling your own meals easy, and if you have a National Park Annual Pass, your entrance fee is waived.
We took this trip in 2016, but I updated the post in 2021 to reflect changes – mostly related to which campgrounds take reservations.
When is the Best Time to Go to Joshua Tree?
The main factor in planning a trip is the weather in Joshua Tree. Summers are HOT. Winter is pretty cool at night. The best times to visit are spring and fall. In spring the wildflowers dot the desert in color and the park is popular for spring break family vacations. Fall lacks to wildflowers, but also some of the crowds as many kids are back in school.
What to Do in Joshua Tree
Wondering what to do in Joshua Tree? Depending on how much time you have, you can cover the park on foot, via vehicle, upon the saddle of a mountain bike or horse, or by climbing a wall. And if you have an extra day, you can zip over to Palm Springs with the kids and ride the tram or hike some of the local canyons.
Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is known for its rock climbing and bouldering. We spent lots of time scurrying up the monzogranite; there are plenty of boulders that don’t require climbing equipment or a whole lot of skill. My kids say bouldering was the highlight of their trip and their favorite of the Joshua Tree things to do..
Climbers with more experience than us come from all over the world for Joshua Tree’s traditional-style crack, slab, and steep-face climbing. With more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes it’s a true climbing mecca. If you aren’t a climber yourself you can hire a guide, which is a smart move for safety’s sake.
The Park Service website has everything you need to know about climbing in the park and Amazon sells all the guide and route books you need to get to the top of the park’s features. Plus, you’ll find this Joshua Tree organic climbing salve for when the rock bites back. (I use this on my kids’ abraded knees all summer long, even when we aren’t in JTree.)
Junior Ranger Program in Joshua Tree National Park
We are big fans of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program. I’ve lost count of how many parks we are junior rangers in (yes, I do the programs, too). It’s a great way to learn about desert animals and plants, facts about the desert, geology, and park history.
We were paying more attention to the things to see in Joshua Tree when we are filling out the book and writing/drawing in our nature journals.
For instance, “What is a Joshua tree?” Yucca brevifolia is a member of the Agave family. Mormon immigrants made their way across the Colorado River in the mid-19th century. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Others see it as more Dr. Seussian. We learned this on the way to becoming Junior Rangers.
Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park
It’s hard to pick the best places to hike in Joshua Tree. We went with shorter walks I could convince Finn would be fun. Then we focused on climbing rocks. I depended on the book On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush for the beta on all the hikes and paired it with the Trails Illustrated Joshua Tree map.
I wish we had time and inclination to hike more, but it’s good to leave something for next time, right? When you are trying to figure out what to see in Joshua Tree and how to see all the cool sites in Joshua Tree, hiking gets you there.
Split Rock Loop
- 2.4 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Split Rock picnic area
This is a newer trail (or was when we were there) and I highly recommend it. The trail winds through thick yucca plants, a boulder maze, past interesting formations, and – with a short side trip—to a rock profile that looks like George Washington. Take the trail counter-clockwise.
Hidden Valley Loop
- 1 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Hidden Valley Picnic Area, westside parking area
According to legend, this rock-enclosed valley was a hideout for cattle and horse runners in the late 1800s. Rocky walls and massive boulder piles create a natural corral that desert pioneer Bill Keys blasted a gap in to create an entrance. This is a popular interpretive trail—get there early to avoid some of the crowds.
- 0.3 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: White Tank Campground near site #9
This interpretive trail leads to a natural arch. The arch spans a distance of 35 feet and rises 15 feet above the underlying rock. We took a short side trail (not actually a trail) to White Tank. In the early 1900s, cattlemen constructed this tank with small rocks and cement to hold water for their cattle. Mostly, we sat on the rocks and drew in our nature journals.
Cholla Cactus Garden
- 0.25 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Cholla Cactus Garden
This is where you discover why this species of cholla is dubbed “Teddy Bear Cholla.” And if you are especially curious, you can learn why the name only refers to how the plant looks, not how it feels. This trail is on the edge of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. We were lucky enough to see the endangered desert tortoise here.
- 0.02 mile loop, easy
- Trailhead: Cottonwood Visitor Center
We wouldn’t have driven all the way to the far end of the park for this trail, but since we were at the visitor center accepting our Junior Ranger badges, we wandered through the labeled plants of the Colorado Desert.
Wildflower Watching in Joshua Tree National Park
When can you see wildflowers in Joshua Tree? Blooms begin to burst as early as February at the lower elevations on the park, and as late as June at high elevations. April and May bring the most flowers to bloom in the central area of Joshua Tree. Of course, bloom times and abundance vary from year to year with precipitation and temperatures.
Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree at night is almost a whole other park. Without the light pollution that washes out most of southern California’s night skies, Joshua Tree’s stars, planets, and constellations pop.
The park website has a season-by-season breakdown of what constellations glitter on center stage of the night sky. Grab a blanket or sleeping pad, find a cactus-free spot on the ground, and stargaze.
Horseback Riding in Joshua Tree National Park
Want to see the park from the back of a horse? Horseback riding in Joshua Tree can give you that feeling of the old west. You can legally ride horses within the park on 253 miles of designated park trails. They even have special horse owner specific campsites.
If you have your own horse and gear, you can get campsites at Ryan and Black Rock campgrounds. These sites are designated areas for horses. You can make a reservation for camping at Black Rock horse camp for $20 per night. At Ryan horse camp they charge $15 per night (but bring your own water to this one). Be sure to bring weed free certified hay as the park does not allow grazing. Also, clean up after your horse at the campground and trailhead.
You can park your trailer at several various locations and you can find a list and info on regulations, the best places to ride, and precautions to take on the Joshua Tree park webpage.
However, most of us don’t have our own horses but still want to have a Joshua Tree horseback riding adventure. For us, we can call up Knob Hill Ranch who offer trail rides in the western side of the park. They offer rides in the cool of the morning as well as sunset rides. You can also rent rooms and take part in other activities they offer. While this seems to be the only outfitter offering rides in the park, there are numerous nearby ranches that offer rides in similar terrain.
Geology Motor Tour
Geology buffs and Sunday drivers can pick up an interpretive brochure for the Geology Tour Road. The 18-mile motor tour leads through one of Joshua Tree National Park’s most fascinating landscapes. There are 16 stops along a dirt road and it takes approximately two hours to make the round trip.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
There isn’t any lodging inside the park, but there are several campgrounds. If that’s not your thing, there is lodging outside the park in nearby towns.
Joshua Tree National Park Camping
The only way to stay inside the park is to camp. Fortunately, that’s the most fun and the best way to appreciate the night sky. There are nine different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites for individual travelers, families, and large groups.
Most campgrounds in Joshua Tree used to be first-come, first-served, throughout the year. These days, reservations are available for Black Rock, Indian Cove, Cottonwood, Jumbo Rocks, and Ryan campgrounds. Book a site online through recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777 up to six months in advance of your visit.
Hidden Valley, White Tank, and Belle Campgrounds are first-come, first-served.
Only two campgrounds have water and flush toilets (Black Rock and Cottonwood). The others have pit toilets only, and you have to bring your own water.
Campsites are highly competitive unless you visit in the off-season so it’s worth reserving a site if possible.
Indian Cove Campground
This is our favorite campground. It used to be one of two that took reservations—important if you are driving from a distance and want a guaranteed spot—and there are plenty of big boulders for the kids to climb on. I was able to spend hours in the camp chair reading a book while my monkeys scampered over rocks and played imaginary games.
At night, we’d listen to coyotes yip and owls hoot. By day, I’d photograph wildflowers while the kids played.
You do have to drive out of the campground, through one of the gateway towns, and back into the park to access everything but the campground. This took about ten minutes and didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, it gave me the chance to run by the tea shop and visitor center, or fuel up the car as needed. There is a 0.6 mile interpretive trail that leaves from the campground.
Jumbo Rocks Campground
Before I had kids, I was more willing to wing it. In that case, I’d stay at Jumbo Rocks Campground. It’s a small campground, close to a lot of trailheads, and surrounded by those big rocks JTree is known for. Now you can reserve sites here too! Highly recommended.
HipCamp has a list of the campgrounds with a little info on each.
If you can’t find a campsite in the park, the Park Service has recommendations for camping near Joshua Tree.
Backcountry Camping in Joshua Tree National Park
If you want to get a bit more into the wild you can backcountry camp in Joshua Tree.
If you plan to backpack in Joshua Tree you must stay:
- 1 mile (1.6 km) from roads,
- 500 feet from trails and water sources,
- not day-use only areas.
You don’t really need a permit, but you must register at a backcountry board. These are found all over the park and listed on the NPS site along with rules and regulations for backpacking in Joshua Tree.
Joshua National Park Lodging
There are also plenty of motels hotels near Joshua Tree National Park in the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms. Click through and put in your dates for the best deals and most accurate prices on hotels in Joshua Tree.
The Joshua Tree Inn is my top pick for hotels near Joshua Tree. It’s clean, funky, and fun. It was built in the 1950s and “eccentrically eclectic.” Plus, there is a pool for those hot desert days.
As is the case with most places these days there are a lot of vacation rentals near Joshua Tree. Here are a few of my favorite Airbnbs near Joshua Tree and VRBOs near Joshua Tree:
- This newly restored 1950’s homestead cabin is right on the border of Joshua Tree and has many large boulders and rocks to climb around on. It sleeps 3 in a queen bed and sofa bed.
- For a romantic getaway six minutes from the town of Joshua Tree, but seemingly in the middle of the desert, I like this house. The back porch shower, fire pit, and amazing views in every direction make it perfect for evening cocktails or morning tea.
- For a family or two couples, I dig this house with a pool. If you visit in the summer, you’ll love being able to cool off.
- If you travel with a big group of extended family or friends, check out this architectural landmark that sleeps 8. I want to be in that outdoor bathtub right now.
- There are a lot of beautiful (and Hipster) Airbnbs around Joshua Tree if you are looking for something more than a campsite.
Joshua Tree Resources
Here’s the resources I used for our Joshua Tree National Park camping and hiking trip.
Joshua Tree National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map)
On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush
Mojave Desert Wildflowers: A Field Guide To Wildflowers, Trees, And Shrubs Of The Mojave Desert, Including The Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park by Pam Mackay
Joshua Tree Climbing Salve is an organic, unscented, skin-healer that is effective in treating flappers, gobis, blown tips, scrapes, cuts, and abrasions. Created using a blend of essential oils, freshly extracted from the finest organic herbs.
Other Mojave Desert Camping and Hiking Posts
- Staying and Exploring Death Valley National Park
- Staying and Exploring Joshua Tree National Park
- Staying and Exploring Mojave National Monument and Preserve
- Staying and Exploring Valley of Fire State Park
Frequently Asked Questions About Joshua Tree National Park
- What is the best time of year to visit Joshua Tree?
- Spring and fall are the best time to visit Joshua Tree for optimal weather. Scroll up for the details.
- How many days should you spend in Joshua Tree?
- You can see a lot of the park and take several hikes in just a 2-3 days, but I always recommend more to really get to know Joshua Tree National Park.
- How much does it cost to go to Joshua Tree?
- Weekly Passe – $30.00
- Annual Pass – $55
- America the Beautiful Pass – $80 and covers all entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges and standard amenity fees (day-use fees) at national forests and grasslands and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and US Army Corps of Engineers.
- Why is Joshua Tree so special?
- Joshua Tree National Park is famous for both its slow growing Joshua Trees and abundance rock climbing opportunities.