Joshua Tree National Park
It is located along the San Andreas Fault, the tectonic boundary between the Pacific and North American plates, and near the Salton Sea, man-made in the early 1900s to divert Colorado River water to California farmers. The park is also just a few miles from Coachella, where thousands of new Bohemians convene each year to celebrate spring, music, and good living, and not far from Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs, oases of modern design and architecture south of L.A. A trip to Joshua Tree National Park could certainly include visits to some or all of these iconic places, but if you have just a few days, exploration of the park itself provides a more-than-fulfilling experience.
This easy trip from Los Angeles (traveling east 140 miles), San Diego (northeast 175 miles), or Las Vegas (southwest 215 miles) transports you to another world altogether – one where silence replaces chatter and awe restores the soul. “That’s the beauty of being in Joshua Tree,” says L.A.-based blogger Linda Ly of the popular travel and gardening site, Garden Betty. “The silence and solitude really lets you get into your own head. It's breathtaking and commands your full attention.”
Joshua Tree (or J-Tree, as regulars like Linda call it) offers a chance to slow down, for sure, but there’s plenty of opportunity for adventure too. More than 80 percent of the park is designated as wilderness according to the Wilderness Protection Act of 1964, which gives you an opportunity to explore with little distraction. Plan for hiking, climbing, bouldering, backpacking, and backcountry driving or biking (on approved roads only), or just plan to camp, relax, and get reacquainted with the Milky Way.
DAY 1: Camp and Ride
As you approach Joshua Tree National Park, take note of the rich cultural history of the area, occupied by humans for more than 5,000 years. From the 1800s until the area’s designation as a national monument in 1936 (it was elevated to park status in 1994), cattle ranching and mining provided the bulk of activity here, and the evidence remains in abandoned homesteads and long roads seeming to lead nowhere.
While off-roading isn’t permitted in the park, many of the official roads are unpaved and best traversed with a 4x4. Rent a Jeep or other four-wheel-drive vehicle for the trip to expand your options. If you’re coming from L.A., enter the park via the west entrance at Joshua Tree Village, and stop in the Joshua Tree Visitor Center to orient and learn more about the area and current weather predictions.
There are no RV hookups in any of the nine campgrounds at Joshua Tree, but Black Rock (at 4,000 feet with 100 sites) and Cottonwood (3,000 feet, 62 sites) are the most well-appointed, with water and flush toilets and fresh-water fill-up and dump stations for camper trailers. The most remote at the south entrance, Cottonwood is first-come, first-served year-round, but reservations can be made at Black Rock during the busy spring and fall seasons (before June, after September). Fees for both Black Rock and Cottonwood are $15 a night; fees range from $10-$15 ($30 for group sites) for other campgrounds in the park.
After you’ve set up camp, go exploring. The 18-mile Geology Motor Tour introduces you to the landscape’s deep history and takes about two hours round-trip.
DAY 2: Chasing Oases and Hidden Valley
Leave the four wheels behind and explore the park on two feet -or two feet and two hands. Day hike options range from easy and accessible to strenuous, often requiring bouldering. Some hikers make it their goal to reach all five of the park’s fan palm oases: Cottonwood Spring, Lost Palms, Oasis of Mara, Victory Palms, and 49 Palms. These lush oases form along fault lines, where underground water is forced up to the surface of an otherwise parched terrain.
If you don’t have time to tackle all five, the most well-known is Oasis of Mara, which has a rich cultural history, from the native Serrano people who farmed the area, to cowboys and cattlemen in the 1800s, to WWI veterans in search of a dry climate to soothe sicknesses acquired at war. The 0.5-mile walk loop is accessible and gives a taste of the story here. Be sure to stop in the Oasis Visitor Center before you move on in search of more oases to explore.
If you prefer to avoid the obvious spots (after all, who doesn’t look for an oasis in the desert?), Linda Ly suggests the hikes in Hidden Valley. The rock-enclosed valley, once used by cattle ranchers, is now the playground for hikers-turned-climbers who love scrambling among boulders. “It's truly a natural playground, as you climb up and over what look like stacks of giant building blocks,” Linda explains. The one-mile Hidden Valley Trail loop is one designated option but adventurers are encouraged to safely explore off-trail on-foot here.
DAY 3: Wildflowers at Black Rock Canyon
The busiest season at Joshua Tree is spring, when rains cause this landscape to erupt with much-welcomed color. “Spring is my favorite time of year to head to Joshua Tree because of all the wildflowers that are in bloom. Desert sunflowers, Indian paintbrush, and wild hyacinth bring beautiful pops of color,” Linda says. “I especially love when the cacti are flowering – my favorite flowers are the large fuchsia flowers on beavertail cacti. They look almost tropical.”
It is always a guessing game as to when, exactly, the trees and wildflowers will bloom from year to year. It depends on temperatures and precipitation through the winter, but a visit from February to May will likely deliver, if you know where to look. Try lower elevations early in the season and the high desert, above 5,000 feet, later on. One good spot for viewing blooms, including the greenish-white blossoms of the namesake Joshua Tree, is Black Rock Canyon. The campground at the mouth of the canyon, surrounded by Joshua trees, junipers, cholla cacti, and desert shrubs, is a prime spot for wildflower lovers. The Joshua trees are often the first to bloom here in late February, with other plants following on into May.
The small Black Rock Visitor Center is also a good spot to get your bearings and talk with rangers about the best current hikes for viewing wildflowers. Rangers may recommend any number of paths and trails, depending on your day of visit. This is also the visitor center where backpackers register before trekking a 35-mile section of the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Black Rock Canyon is a spectacular wildlife-viewing area, too, home to desert animals from roadrunners, to mountain lions, to the desert tortoise, a native species that, like all of Joshua Tree National Park, reminds us to slow down, relax, and enjoy the ride.
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By Kelly Smith Trimble, Photos by the National Park Service