Joshua Tree National Park, while a short drive from dreamy Palm Springs, is another world altogether. A long weekend could suffice in this part of the dusty SoCal desert, but you’ll easily find a week’s worth of activities and adventures there. What exactly is the draw of Joshua Tree, you may wonder. Where in the world to start? Perhaps out of the world entirely. Don’t quite follow? Read on.
Fun Fact: Joshua Tree is a dark sky park.
Have you ever looked up at the stars and marveled at the vastness of the universe? Stargazing has the power to ease our busy minds and rejuvenate our spirit. Stargazing is a simple way to find calm. The modern world has expensive gear and technology to view the constellations, but perhaps the best way to see them is with a cheap pair of binoculars or the naked eye.
Joshua Tree is a Dark Sky Park—a designation that makes it ideal for stargazing and astrotourism. International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) was founded in 2001 to protect dark sky sites globally. This is done through responsible lighting and public education. The IDSP has 195 Dark Sky Sites, which include Dark Sky communities, reserves, sanctuaries, and parks. Batman, are you listening?
Unpolluted skies, a high-altitude location, and dry air is the ultimate stargazing trifecta. Other factors that contribute to stargazing are both moonless and cloudless nights. So grab a blanket, a few bottles of water, and a peaceful mindset. With astrotourism on the rise, there’s no better way to settle into Joshua Tree’s obsidian nights.
Fun Fact: The Joshua Tree isn’t a tree.
Surprise! The Joshua Tree is really a plant. The yucca plants (Yucca brevifolia) for which the park is known are a distinct feature of the landscape and are native to the desert. The Joshua Tree is considered a symbol of hope and faith in the midst of aridity, according to Wikipedia. Early Mormons named the trees after the prophet Joshua as their shape looked as if he was raising his arms in prayer.
In addition to its famous trees, Joshua is also known for its rocks. In fact, some of the parks oldest are over 1.6 billion years old. They owe their sculpted shape to groundwater which eroded the hard edges over time. No doubt these ancient rocks add an element of spirituality to the area.
Fun Fact: California has nine national parks.
Yes, California is home to a whopping nine national parks, more than any other state. In relation to other parks, Joshua Tree National Park is practically bite-sized. It can easily be seen in a day or two. It has three convenient entrances (west, north, and south) from which to gain access.
The park, established in 1994, is about 800,000 acres in size. That’s just a little larger than the state of Rhode Island. The park lies at the crossroads of two distinct deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran. It’s home to all kinds of wildlife, including black-tailed jackrabbits, bighorn sheep, and 55 other mammals. It isn’t unusual to see flocks of migratory birds flying overhead. Joshua Tree is a natural wonderland in which wildlife can freely roam.
Fun Fact: Sometimes it snows in Joshua Tree National Park.
We visit Joshua Tree National Park in March. And while it didn’t snow, it’s one of the coldest Marches on record. In the summer months, temperatures can rise as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But, like typical deserts, even summer nights can get quite cold.
The day we visit Joshua Tree National Park the temperature is a comfortable 65 degrees. Throughout the park, we see golden boulders that look like mounds of drippy, wet sand on the beach. We note the ubiquitous Joshua Trees across the landscape, some of which are over 25 feet tall. The rocks glow against the cerulean blue skies. Desert drama at its best.
Park visitors are welcome to climb boulders, duck under arches, and walk around the trees. The park is busy, but not intolerably so. Joshua Tree National Park attracts over 3 million visitors a year. It’s easy to see why.
A few Joshua Tree National Park highlights:
Keys View: Sunset chasers may want to time Keys View to catch the late afternoon sun. At an elevation of more than 5000 ft, the sun’s descending rays will surely enhance the warm, earthy colors of the desert. That said, Keys provides a spectacular view regardless of the time of day.
Cholla Cactus Garden: Are you a sunrise junkie instead? Then Cholla Cactus Garden is a great place to start your day. Masses of soft and sculpted cacti, sweetly called Teddybear Cholla, abound. Yet, I wouldn’t dare attempt to cuddle one.
Arch Rock: At 30 feet wide, this natural arch at Joshua Tree doesn’t rival those in Arches National Park, but is still worth a visit nonetheless. Joshua Tree allows visitors to scamper over and around the boulders which makes the park feel like a prehistoric playground.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail: Located in one of the park’s most easy-to-access areas, Hidden Valley Nature Trail consists of a one-mile loop. It’s easy terrain for beginner hikers and starts through an opening surrounded by rock walls. This opening was once used by cattle rustlers to conceal their herds.
Ryan Mountain Hike: With fabulous views from the 5,457 ft summit, hikers may just forgive the sun-exposed and steep three-mile, up-and-down trail. The reward for your effort is an extensive and beautiful 360-degree view of the park.
Fun Fact: Many believe the Joshua Tree area is a UFO hotspot.
Do you believe in life on other planets? If so, the Joshua Tree National Park area should be on your elliptical orbit. As an example, note the popularity of the Integraton. Located in Landers, CA, about 20 miles north of the park, the Integraton looks like a sci-fi movie set. It was built in 1954, a geodesic structure that is not only a well-known sound bath, but it’s also a historically recognized place for rejuvenation.
According to the website, the Integraton is built on a powerful intersection of geomagnetic forces. These are thought to amplify the earth’s magnetic field. The 60-minute sound bath experience promotes total relaxation and sonic healing.
I can’t think of a more ideal way to get out of my light-polluted city and into a different mental state. A way to explore the desert in all of its glory. If that happens to include lying down under a blanket with 40 strangers in an alien-engineered, geo-dome miles from civilization, then sign me up.
It’s also worth noting that the dome is said to be created according to the design direction of extraterrestrials. The Integraton experience needs to be booked well in advance. A unique, desert-based activity whether you believe in life beyond our planet, or not.
Fun Fact: Joshua Tree has a store that sells crystals, wine, craft beers, and Tutu’s Tortilla Chips.
For those anticipating Michelin stars among the stars, Joshua Tree is not for you. Think uber-casual roadside eateries, BBQ, and California Mexican, sprinkled with vegetarian-minded cafés and sandwich shops. The low-key desert vibe extends to food, so prepare for hamburger joints and cold pints of beer.
Roughly 40 minutes from the park (but worth the drive) is Pappy & Harriett’s—a Joshua Tree area institution. My advice? Go early, or wait. And I mean wait. As convivial a hangout as they come, Pappy’s offers live music where visitors are all too happy to take a spin on the dance floor while waiting for their table.
Natural Sisters Café boasts food ‘made with kindness, focus, and love.’ A philosophy worth adopting well beyond food, I think. Known for plant-based wraps, smoothies, and sandwiches, Natural Sisters caters to the lunch and breakfast crowd. Its location near the Joshua Tree park entrance makes it a great place to hit before heading into the park.
One of the most eclectic places to forage for food around Joshua Tree is the Wine and Rock Shop. A simple roadside building, Wine and Rock sells it all; from organic wines with names like Gearhead Crazy Sexy Cool to ethereal gems, crystals, and stones. It also sells serums and mud masks, toilet paper, and tortilla chips.
All that, and a healthy dose of good vibes—which are free of charge, naturally.
Fun Fact: Humans have inhabited Joshua Tree National Park for more than 4,000 years.
Joshua Tree National Park has been hosting human life for centuries. From the first groups of Indigenous people who inhabited it four to eight thousand years ago to the miners, homesteaders, and cattlemen of the 19th century. Today, I’m a visitor—one of the millions who visit the park each year. I’m humbled by its sheer beauty, its other-worldly landscapes, and night skies.
The draw of Joshua Tree National Park is clear, no matter which direction you look. Time to head west, that’s a fact. Don’t forget your binoculars.
Jamie Edwards is an avid traveler, travel writer, and photographer. She launched I am Lost and Found, her adventure/luxury travel website after 25 years of living and traveling around the globe. Jamie’s goal is simple: to inspire travel. Keep up with Jamie’s adventures in travel here.
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