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. There is also an all-inclusive (i.e. no entrance fee) shuttle bus service that makes multiple stops within the park. Avoid the biggest crowds by visiting midweek.
Choose 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) and Mount Gorgonio (elevation 11,502 feet). Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley frame the background, and the vast Salton Sea shimmers to the south-east. Look carefully and you can spot 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 peace and quiet found only in deserts, follow the path to neighbouring Inspiration Peak, a worthy side-trip: Since you’ve already driven out on 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 mines, 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 shop. 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 (seasonal) visit still-standing ranch buildings, left-behind mining equipment and other relics of the Keys’ remarkable life in this desert enclave.
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 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.
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.
Turn a holiday into a fascinating chance to learn with the Joshua Tree National Park Association. The organisation runs the Desert Institute, a weekend field programme for adults and families with courses, many in the field, in natural science, cultural history, creative arts, desert naturalist studies and desert survival. Family programmes include half-day classes in animal tracking and using a map and compass. Creative arts programmes include writing desert haiku, photographing desert plants and animals, and painting watercolours. 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.
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 (a few restrictions apply).
The park has nine established campgrounds, six with first-come, first-served sites. (Note: some campgrounds close during summer, and springtime weekends can be crowded, especially when wild flowers bloom.) Jumbo Rocks Campground is rightly 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.
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 lends itself to jet-black nights perfect for spying constellations, glowing planets and even distant galaxies. Join a ranger-led Night Sky programme to help navigate through the heavens. Stargazing groups such as the Andromeda Society organise frequent star parties at the Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theatre in the town of Joshua Tree (on the park’s north side). And just outside the Twenty-nine Palms entrance is Sky’s the Limit, a non-profit observatory and nature centre that offers public ‘observing sessions’ almost every Saturday night. The site has its own research observatory plus an outdoor amphitheatre 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 façades 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 parlours, 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.
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 pay off, climb the .3 mile to the top of the ridge to see Queen Valley, Lost Horse Valley, Pleasant Valley and the park’s east side.