Spotlight: Joshua Tree National Park
Boulders and buttresses, rugged mountains, gold mining ruins, desert plains dotted with the oddball trees, this is a weird place. Joshua Tree National Park, nicknamed “J-Tree” by locals, lies at an ecological crossroads, where the high Mojave Desert meets the low Colorado Desert. The result is amazing desert flora, including those namesake trees, actually a type of yucca. Joshua Tree’s beauty shines around the clock, with vibrant sunsets melting into nights filled with uncountable stars.
Start out by climbing up to Keys View, where you can get a great panoramic vista of Mount San Jacinto and Mount Gorgonio, with the Salton Sea stretching out in the distance. Then pay a visit to Keys Ranch, where you can take a guided walking tour to get a glimpse into what it was like to be an early 20th-century pioneer on this unforgiving terrain. Close by but standing in contrast is 49 Palm Oasis, where fan palms tower over a crystal-clear spring, and also nearby is Lost Horse Mine, one of the few mines in the area that proved to be a good investment. Today you can see what remains of the once booming operation with an easy 4-mile round-trip hike.
If you’re looking to do some rock climbing, Joshua Tree has more than 8,000 established climbing routes, from easy beginner scrambles to extreme vertical cracks, and camping options are plentiful with nine campgrounds. Or, head out on foot or horseback to set up camp nearly anywhere; there are only a few restrictions. Take a break from roughing it to check out Pioneertown, a 1880s-style false-front Old West “town” where more than 50 films and television shows were made in the ‘40s and ‘50s; today, you can still see mock gunfights and see top-notch live music at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Read on to learn more about these and more things to do at Joshua Tree National Park below.
If visiting the park by car, keep in mind that there are north (at Twentynine Palms) and south (at the intersection of Box Canyon Road and Interstate 10) entrances in addition to the most commonly used west entrance. Avoid the biggest crowds by visiting midweek.
What to Do While Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
With a stunningly stark, almost witchy beauty, it’s easy to fall under Joshua Tree’s spell. Whether you’re looking for a sense of peace, a strenuous adventure, an Old West–inspired getaway, or the best music this side of the Sonoran, Joshua Tree National Park and its surrounding area deliver plenty of delights.
Explore Indian Cove Nature Trail
The walking trail at Indian Cove is one of the best places to enjoy the park’s namesake flora. Its official name is Yucca brevifolia, but it’s better known as the Joshua tree. Accessible from the east end, this 0.6.-mile path is surrounded by boulder formations. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including bighorn sheep and desert tortoises.
Rock climb at Echo Cove
With more than 8,000 known climbs and 400 unique formations, it’s little wonder Joshua Tree is a dirtbag’s paradise. Echo Cove has plenty of routes great for first-timers and advanced climbers alike. BYO gear or rent everything from shoes to chalk at Nomad Ventures. The friendly local shop has been in business since 1980.
Hike among giant boulders on Arch Rock Trail
Millenia of whipping winds and rushing water have served to sculpt some incredible designs throughout these deserts. One of the most miraculous, the 30-foot-tall Arch Rock, is easily accessible thanks to a 0.5-mile out-and-back trail starting from White Tank Campground.
Walk among cacti in Cholla Cactus Garden
Mother Nature’s majesty and her mischief are both on full display in this organically occurring cacti grove. Stay the course on this 0.25-mile loop and you’ll be treated to one of the world’s densest concentrations of the lovely-but-dangerous cholla cactus.
Relax and rewind at the Pioneertown Motel
Utilitarian chic meets Southwestern Americana at the Pioneertown Motel. A former live-in motion-picture set founded in part by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Pioneertown still looks like it’s straight out of an old Hollywood Western. The motel allows visitors to sense the area’s history in a modern context: The rooms are decorated with cowhide rugs, Aztec blankets, and exposed bulbs.
Kick back to live music at Pappy & Harriet’s
Just down the street from the Pioneertown Motel, Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace is a musical oasis in the middle of the desert. Part honky-tonk, part roadhouse, part premier venue, the always-packed Palace is a truly unique experience. Fill up on the bison burger or the 18-ounce ribeye as you listen to live jams. Pappy’s has hosted everyone from Paul McCartney to Vampire Weekend on its intimate stage.
Experience sunset at Keys View
The highest point in Joshua Tree, Keys View offers round-the-clock breath-taking vistas. Night-time serves up sparkling splendour; and during clear days, visitors are treated to sweeping views of the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, and the surrounding peaks that stretch all the way to Mexico. But Keys View is at its very best at sunset, when bright oranges and blistering reds saturate the desert sky.
Pick a clear morning to visit Keys View for a sweeping panorama that takes in two of Southern California’s biggest summits: Mount San Jacinto (elevation 10,834 feet/3,302 meters) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet/3,506 meters). Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley frame the background, and the vast Salton Sea shimmers to the southeast. Look carefully and you can pick out the leafy green of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve directly below you. On the clearest days, peer through binoculars to spot Mountain Signal in Mexico, more than 90 miles away. Stretch your legs on a short paved trail, or, if you’re feeling lively and want the kind of piece and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighboring Inspiration Peak A worthy side-trip: Since you’ve already driven out Keys View Road, be sure to stop at the Lost Horse Mine trailhead and take the moderate hike to Lost Horse Mine.
To most people, life in the desert seems harsh and desolate, but to rancher and miner William F. Keys, it was home for nearly 60 years. Bill Keys was hired to run the Desert Queen Mine in the early 1900s, but when it closed in 1917, he stayed in Joshua Tree until his death in 1969, homesteading on a patch of land that he called the Desert Queen Ranch. Keys owned at least 30 mining claims, where he dug for gold and gypsum. He also operated a stamp mill and crushed ore for other miners in the area. In this remote and rocky canyon, he and his wife Frances brought up five children and built a ranch house, schoolhouse, workshop, and store. They raised goats, chickens, and cattle and grew a fruit orchard and vegetable garden. They dug deep wells for water, built windmills, and dammed up the rocky canyons surrounding the ranch to create a lake. They were—in a word—pioneers.Ranger-led 90-minute walking tours (on hiatus during summer) visit still-standing ranch buildings, left-behind mining equipment, and other relics of the Keys’ remarkable life in this desert enclave.
49 Palms Oasis
Joshua trees are ubiquitous throughout most of Joshua Tree National Park, but you won’t find them on this trail. The elevation is a bit too low for the spiky yuccas. Taking their place is a wealth of low-desert flora: the towering palms, spiky barrel cactus, and clusters of brittlebrush, a shrub with silvery green leaves and a yellow, daisy-like flower.
The trail follows sections of an old Native American pathway, climbing up and over a small ridge and then curving around to the palm grove, gaining and losing about 300 feet/91 meters in elevation. At trail’s end, towering California fan palms form a canopy over a trickling spring and clear pools. Palm oases like this one require a constant water supply, so they occur along geologic fault lines where underground water is forced to the surface. This green, vibrant spot is critically important as a watering hole for native desert bighorn sheep and coyotes, as well as birds—look for orange-and-black hooded orioles, especially when palm berry-like fruit ripens.
Rock climbing and viewing
J-Tree is a belt-notch on many a rock-climber’s belt, and a great place to try the sport—or at least watch others clamber up the park’s signature boulders. More than 100 million years ago, seismic activity from the San Andreas Fault forced molten liquid upward from the earth’s crust. It cooled and hardened below the earth’s surface, and over time, flash floods washed away layers of dirt and exposed towers, domes, and spires of monzogranite, creating an otherworldly landscape that just happens to be a playground for climbers. Today the park’s more than 8,000 established climbing routes present diverse challenges, ranging from easy beginner slabs and boulders to extreme vertical cracks, especially near the Hidden Valley and Ryan campgrounds, and at the vast Wonderland of Rocks. For guides, stop in at local climbing gear shops, like Nomad Ventures or Joshua Tree Outfitters, in the town of Joshua Tree, on the park’s north side.
Desert Institute classes & tours
Turn a vacation into a fascinating chance to learn with the Joshua Tree National Park Association. The organization runs the Desert Institute, a weekend field program for adults and families with courses, many in the field, in natural science, cultural history, creative arts, desert naturalist studies, and desert survival. Family programs include half-day classes in animal tracking and using a map and compass. Creative arts programs include writing desert haiku, photographing desert plants and animals, and painting watercolors. Science classes focus on lichens, snakes, spiders, and other denizens of the desert. If you’d rather give your brain a break and do something physical, women’s yoga and camping weekends are also offered. Proceeds from classes benefit the park, so you’re doing good while you’re going to school.
Camping in Joshua Tree
At Joshua Tree, there’s camping to fit any style. Looking for family-friendly car-camping? Find a site near mounded boulders perfect for kid-clambering. Feeling adventurous? Pack in, on horseback or on foot, to set up camp almost anywhere in the park’s 800,000 acres/323,749 hectares (a few restrictions apply).
The park has nine established campgrounds, six with first-come, first-serve sites. (Note: some campgrounds close during summer, and springtime weekends can be crowded, especially when wildflowers bloom.) Jumbo Rocks Campground is justly popular; its 124 sites are scattered throughout a maze of granite boulders, and there are ranger-led talks on weekend evenings. The camp is especially popular with astronomy groups and 4WD fans. Black Rock Campground on the park’s west side is popular with families and groups thanks to running water, flush toilets, and slightly cooler temperatures. Cottonwood Campground, near the park’s southern entrance, also has drinking water and flush toilets.
Count Stars in the Desert
On moonless nights, almost any spot in Joshua Tree is good for stargazing. The desert’s low humidity and remote location away from city glare lend itself to jet-black nights perfect for spying constellations, glowing planets, and even distant galaxies. Join a ranger-led Night Sky program to help navigate through the heavens. Stargazing groups such as the Andromeda Society organize frequent star parties at the Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater in the town of Joshua Tree (on the park’s north side). And just outside the Twentynine Palms entrance is Sky’s the Limit, a nonprofit observatory and nature center that offers public “observing sessions” almost every Saturday night. The site has its own research observatory plus an outdoor amphitheater and level pads for amateur astronomers to set up their own equipment. Guests are encouraged to bring binoculars and telescopes, but if you don’t have either, no worries. Astronomers are a generous bunch; another stargazer is sure to share.
In 1946, Pioneertown was founded by a group of Hollywood investors, including actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. They dreamed of creating an Old West set that was actually a town worth visiting, with 1880s-style false-front facades but interiors that had stuff for visitors to see and do too. Up went (from the outside) frontier stables, saloons, and jails; inside, they housed ice cream parlors, bowling alleys, and motels. More than 50 films and television shows were filmed here in the 1940s and ‘50s.
While location shooting and businesses here have dwindled, you can still see mock gunfights on Mane Street (pun intended. But the most happening place by far is Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, with surprisingly good live music (Robert Plant and Leon Russell have played here) in a seemingly unlikely setting. This must-see desert find also serves up awesome ribs, plus classic Santa Maria barbecue, burgers, sandwiches, and salads.
Lost Horse Mine
In a rash of hopefulness in the late 1800s, miners dug some 300 mines in the lands now protected as Joshua Tree National Park. Only a handful produced any riches worth bragging about, but the Lost Horse Mine was a bet that paid off. Between 1894 and 1931, the mine produced 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver, worth about $5 million today.
See what remains of this slice of desert history on an easy, 4-mile round-trip hike that begins off Keys View Road. The trail follows the old mine road to a massive wooden stamp mill, still standing and in remarkably good shape; it was used to crush ore to extract the gold. Above and below the mill are several fenced-off mine shafts; look for the winch that lowered men and machinery into the main shaft. For a short hike with a big payoff, climb the .3 mile/.5 km to the top of the ridge to see Queen Valley, Lost Horse Valley, Pleasant Valley, and the park’s east side.