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Your Guide to the Beautifully Bizarre Joshua Tree National Park

Camp, hike, and rock climb your way through California’s High Desert.

California’s Joshua Tree National Park embodied many of our pandemic fantasies. East of Los Angeles, the nearly 800,000-acre desert has inspired everything from the iconic U2 album The Joshua Tree to the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars. Spanning two very distinct deserts—the Mojave and the Sonoran—Joshua Tree’s hiking trails and campgrounds are wedged between oases (palm tree-dotted desert groves), cactus gardens, canyons, and sculpture-like boulders.

“People come to Joshua Tree for their own special reasons,” says David Smith, park superintendent with the National Park Service. “Sometimes it’s wilderness, other times people come here for the music history, the diversity of raptors, or just the epic landscapes. People come to Joshua Tree to find themselves.”

And whether you find yourself in the spiritual sense (Mormons actually named the Joshua trees after biblical prophet Joshua) or are simply here to embrace the beauty of this otherworldly, Dr.Seuss-like desert, Joshua Tree offers pretty much has everything you need to get your fix, from hiking, biking, and rock climbing to camping in UFO-shaped “homes.”

While the park is a patchwork of natural beauty, there are certainly a few less-trodden trails and sights not as easy to find on most maps. Here’s where to look to see Joshua Tree in all of its natural glory—and where to stay and stargaze when the sun goes down.

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It’s not hard to see why Joshua Tree National Park attracts more than a million visitors each year. | cb_travel/Shutterstock

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is open (and beautiful!) year-round. Come in the spring or fall for the best weather (but keep in mind, the park gets extra busy January through April, so book your Airbnb early). If you visit in the hot summer months, plan outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler.

On average, most people spend about four hours in the park, but given Joshua Tree’s abundance of jaw-dropping geological sights and trails, one could spend days exploring the otherworldly landscape.

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It’s worth stopping at the roadside attractions leading up to the park. | Flystock/Shutterstock

Fuel up in the funky artist towns nearby

There are over 100 miles of roads within the park and not a gas station in sight, so fill up beforehand. The quirky towns surrounding the park—particularly Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley—are your best bet for grabbing a bite and a beer after a long day in the park.

Populated by UFOlogists, solitude seekers, antique dealers, and offbeat creatives drawn to the pull of the desert, there are plenty of unusual adventures to be had in these towns. Be sure to stop by Pioneertown, which served as a film set for old Westerns in a past life and today houses the area’s most famous bar and music venue, Pappy & Harriet’s.

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Cycle through the park’s backcountry dirt roads. | Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Getting into Joshua Tree National Park

The park’s larger than Rhode Island, which means there’s a lot of ground to cover. Of the three main entrances, the Joshua Tree entrance (known as the West Entrance) is often the busiest. The North and South Entrances near Twentynine Palms and the Cottonwood Visitors Center, respectively, are far less crowded. Get there early; parking lots tend to fill up by mid-morning.

Just drive up to one of the park’s entrances and pay at the booth. A seven-day vehicle permit runs $30. Alternatively, $55 gets you a pass valid for a full year—or, if you think you’ll visit more than one national park in the next 12 months (and you should!), NPS offers an $80 pass that scores you entry to any park for a year.

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The reward: spectacular rock formations on either side. | My Good Images/Shutterstock

Hit Joshua Tree’s best hiking trails

Once you’re all geared up with the right shoes and as much water as you can carry (seriously, it’s hot), it’s time to hit the trails. Skull Rock Nature Trail is one of the most popular in the park. From the Jumbo Rocks Campground, it’ll take you winding through about 1.7 miles of desert until you arrive at Skull Rock, an enormous boulder with two eye sockets carved into it by years of water erosion. It’s a pretty mild route and great for beginners.

The second trail you should hit is the Wonderland of Rocks, which—can you believe it—is a wonderland of rocks! Pebbles, stones, and giant boulders are yours to traverse for 5.5 glorious miles. Given the terrain, it’s considered a difficult trail, so be sure you’re up to the task.

Sara Combs from The Joshua Tree House has written an entire book about Joshua Tree with her husband, Rich. She recommends three underrated hiking trails: Willow Hole Trail, which covers 6.8 miles of relatively flat land; Pine City Trail, a moderate, four-mile trek where you’ll see a sprawling rock canyon and very few other humans; and North View Trail, a six-mile hike that can be tricky to navigate at times (download a map!), but will drop you into steep canyon aisles and desert dry washes lush with Joshua trees.

There’s also a ton of trails for riding horses and mountain bikes, if you prefer something speedier than hoofin’ it yourself. The winding roads through the park are perfect for motorcyclists, as well—just watch for desert tortoises crossing the road.

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There’s really no bad view here. | Andrey Zheludev/Shutterstock

Check out Joshua Tree’s most Instagrammable sites

The aforementioned Skull Rock is a great one, and then there’s Arch Rock, a 30-foot-tall formation that’s a favorite of night photographers looking to capture the Milky Way on camera. Though it’s not technically in the park, it’s worth seeking out Giant Rock, an enormous, free-standing boulder that has a bizarre backstory involving Hopi shamans, an espionage conspiracy, and a UFO convention. You know, desert things.

Around sunrise or sunset, wander over to Keys View, the highest lookout point in Joshua Tree. Views look out across the Coachella Valley, and on clear days, you can see as far as the Salton Sea and Palm Springs. If you’re entering from the north, stop to check out the towering rock formations in Indian Cove, considered some of the best in the park.

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Desert daggers are just the start. | JeniFoto/Shutterstock

Scope out the unparalleled plant and animal life

You’re probably familiar with the park’s tall and spiky namesake: the Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the Joshua tree. (In Spanish, the tree is known as izote de desierto, or desert dagger.) It’s important to remember that since these trees are endemic to this 1,235-square-mile expanse of desert, they’re strictly protected—so no touching!

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden (at sunset, if you can swing it) to walk amongst hundreds of beautiful cholla. Swaying in the desert breeze, they almost resemble coral (and, much like coral, should be left alone). You’ll also probably spot the ocotillo plant, which is technically a succulent but is most closely related to blueberries and tea.

Joshua Tree National Park is more known for its flora than fauna, but there’s plenty of wildlife in and around the park. Birding is especially popular, with native species like roadrunners, raptors, and tons of migratory flocks. Predators like bobcats, coyotes, and snakes are also found in these parts, in addition to California’s state reptile, the desert tortoise.

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Even beginners can get their climbing fix here. | Greg Epperson/Shutterstock

Find out why Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise

Whether you’re new to climbing or navigate cliffs like a pro, Joshua Tree’s 9,000-plus climbing routes mean there’s something for every skillset. (We also feel the need to note that most of the routes have fantastic names like Yabba Dabba Don’t, Breakfast of Champions, Room to Shroom, Dangling Woo Li Master, and Possessed By Elvis.)

If you’re a beginner or intermediate climber, head over to the Quail Springs area, home to the affectionately named Trashcan Rock. One of the most popular climbing spots due to its relative ease (and cool shade that covers it during the afternoon), expect to wait in line for your go. Intersection Rock is also great for novices, while The Eye is one of the best for the views (it ends with a tunnel that opens up to sweeping shots of the desert).

If you want a challenge—seriously, these climbs will be intense—push your skills to the limit with Big Moe, a classic climb known to test even more experienced climbers; Lost Horse Wall, for some of the longest routes in the park; or make the 1,500-foot-steep scramble up Saddle Rock for great multi-pitch climbing.

Gear up at Joshua Tree Outfitters (their storefront is currently closed due to COVID-19, but equipment rentals and guide books are still available by appointment) or Nomad Ventures. If you think you’ll need some help navigating the climbs, consider hiring a guide from Cliffhanger Guidesor book a group rock climbing class with Vertical Adventures.

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You’re looking at some of the clearest night skies in the country. | Digati Photography/Shutterstock

Settle in for some stargazing

Joshua Tree National Park is a silver-tier International Dark Sky Park, which means nighttime can be pretty extraordinary. Even though its location is pretty remote, the western part of the park gets a fair amount of light pollution from nearby Palm Springs. Stick to the central part of the park, especially along Pinto Basin Road—it’s the perfect place to admire the Big Dipper, Milky Way, and shooting stars.

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Sleep in everything from a classic camper van or tent to a giant UFO. | Felicia Lee/Shutterstock

Where to lay your weary head at night

Of the 520 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park, about half are first-come, first-serve. The other half take reservations through Recreation.gov. It’s notoriously difficult to score weekend spots, so during peak times, look for reservation-only campsites. Book the Cottonwood campground for stargazing, or White Tank Campground, which is dotted with some awe-inspiring rock formations that are millennia in the making.

If you’re more of an indoorsy person, Joshua Tree is famous for its off-the-wall Airbnbs, meaning you can sleep in, say, a giant UFO or a converted 1950s Spartan trailer.

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Getting off-the-grid is part of the charm. | ThroughLensPhotosNVideos/Shutterstock

What to bring and other essential tips for visitors

Sunscreen and water are must-haves year-round. The National Park Service stresses that there are no water sources inside the park, so again, pack a lot of water—and then pack some more. Binoculars, sturdy hiking shoes, snacks, a flashlight, and hats are also recommended. If you find yourself in need of additional supplies, Coyote Corner, a combination gift shop and general store, sits just outside the park. They sell everything from camping supplies to locally-made goods.

To avoid being one of the approximately 60 search-and-rescue operations Joshua Tree has every year, it’s recommended to explore the park with a buddy and always let people know where you’re going. Cell phones don’t work in most of the park, so if communication is crucial, bring a satellite phone and a printed map to get around.

Over 80% of Joshua Tree is officially designated wilderness—emphasis on wild. Be respectful of wildlife to avoid an encounter with an angry critter. And if you remember one thing about your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, it should be “leave no trace.” Be sure to leave the park as pristine as you found it to help preserve its natural beauty for generations to come.

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Beth Demmon is a contributor for Thrillist.
Tiana Attride is a travel writer and editor based in New York. Follow her on Instagram.

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