We spent a day exploring Joshua Tree National Park California, and like all of our National Park visits, we were struck by its beauty immediately. In fact, the Joshua Trees themselves reminded us of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax. Remember the Truffula Trees?
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”
― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
Joshua Trees are so unique, and we know you’ll love visiting, so here are our tips for things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. This park can be visited in a day (like we did), but adding a day or two to really explore would be even more fun.
Whether you hike, drive, or stay the night to do some stargazing, enjoying Joshua Tree National Park is easy and fun for the entire family. Enjoy our guide on what to do in Joshua Tree NP!
9 Incredible Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
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1.) Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden
One of the very best things we recommend doing on your visit to Joshua Tree is to make a stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden. If you’re driving in from the south, it’s one of the first stops after the Cottonwood Visitor Center. These spiny plants had us mesmerized, and it was such a cool experience to wander among such strange (to us) plants. It felt like we had stepped out onto another planet.
The trails for the garden are well marked and flat, which make this a great place to stop for families with small children. Just make sure they don’t touch the cacti! Besides the plants, the landscape here is beautiful, and the views sweeping. If you love desert landscapes, make sure to stop here and snap a few photos!Distance
The Cholla Cactus Garden is about a 30 minute drive from both the Cottonwood Visitor Center near the south entrance of the park and the Oasis Visitor Center to the north. From the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center, it’s about a 45 minute drive along Pinto Basin Road.
Length of Time
Visiting the Cholla Cactus Garden doesn’t take long, and depending on your ability to find a parking spot, you could do it in 30 minutes. The trail can be hiked in 15-30 minutes.
Cholla cacti are called Jumping Cholla" because of how they find a way to "jump" on the unwary passerby, so be careful!
2.) Go for a hike
Joshua Tree National Park is full off amazing hiking trails, and we guarantee there’s one for every ability. We’ve already mentioned one of the easier ones at the Cholla Cactus Garden, but there are plenty more like Barker Dam (1.1 miles), Hidden Valley (1 mile), and Skull Rock (1.7 miles).
For more difficult Joshua Tree hikes, check out Fortynine Palms Oasis (3 miles), Lost Horse Mine (4 miles), and Split Rock Loop (2.5 miles). In the cooler months, Boy Scout Trail (8 miles) and the hike up to Ryan Mountain (3 miles) are some of the most challenging in the park.
For our visit, we stuck to the shorter stuff since we only had a day. For the more adventurous, fill up your CamelBak and hit the trail. The scenery is beautiful and any of these hikes would be lots of fun.
All of the trails in Joshua Tree vary by distance and difficulty. To see a full list of trails and the best hikes in Joshua Tree, along with a short description, click here.
Keep alert for wildlife during your hike. Joshua Tree National Park is home to several species, including Big Horn Sheep, Desert Iguana, quail, and the Desert Tortoise.
3.) Get up close with the park’s namesake – the Joshua Trees!
Straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, Joshua Trees are the main reason to visit the park. So, what is a Joshua Tree? They’re from the agave family and not really a tree at all. They can grow quite high, though, and the tallest tree in the park is about forty feet tall!
You’ll find these trees on the northern end of the park until you reach the lower elevations of the Pinto Basin where the plants transition to smaller yucca and cactus. It’s such a dramatic shift, and one we thought was pretty fascinating.
These trees can be found throughout the Mojave Desert and are an important source of food and shelter for many of the park’s inhabitants. Although these plants don’t have growth rings like you would find in other trees, scientists estimate that Joshua Trees can live to be 150 years old.
4.) Get your (National Park) passport stamped at one of the Visitor Centers
Joshua Tree National Park has three visitor centers – Oasis, Cottonwood, and Joshua Tree. We drove in from the south and stopped at Cottonwood first. Each one has a slightly different stamp, so if you have time, be sure to check out each one. Our kids love collecting stamps in their passport books, and it’s such a cool way to memorialize their visits.
The Joshua Tree Visitor Center has a small cafe, shop, restrooms, and a small museum to explore, either on your way in or out, and is worth a stop. We didn’t get a chance to explore the Oasis Visitor Center, but it is also on the north end of the park.
If you have kids who are interested, be sure to sign up for the Junior Ranger Program. It typically includes a fun booklet for kids with tasks they complete during their visit. When they’re finished, they get sworn in as Junior Rangers and get their Ranger badge!
Have a 4th grader or teach 4th graders? Then sign up for the Every Kid in a Park Program and get free admission to all of America's National Parks for a year! Read more about this program here.
5.) Find Skull Rock
Skull Rock is certainly one of the prominent features of Joshua Tree National Park and you don’t want to miss it. It’s easy to find in the Jumbo Rocks area of the park just off the main road.
In addition to Skull Rock, there are a ton (literally!) of rocks and boulders just waiting to be scrambled around, which was one of our favorite things to do in Joshua Tree. Our kids love rock scrambling, and if we left them here, they probably wouldn’t have even noticed. The shapes of the boulders in this part of the park are so unique – they look like big blobs just lying around. You can easily imagine when they used to be molten rock oozing out of the Earth.
While you’re here, take a walk down the nature trail that starts across the road. It’s less than 2 miles long and takes you through all kinds of cool scenery and more places to climb around.
Skull Rock is about a 40 minute drive from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (23 miles) along the main road.
Length of Time
While it only takes a few minutes to hop out of the car to snap a photo of Skull Rock, we played for an hour or so, climbing around, hiking, and taking photos. Regardless of what you like to do, this is a cool place to stop.
6.) View the San Andreas Fault from Keys View
A large part of what makes Joshua Tree National Park unique is the nearby San Andreas Fault. Over time, geologic and volcanic forces shaped the park along the fault, and there’s no better place to see it than from Keys View. It’s just a short drive up to the viewpoint, and the panoramic views of the fault and the Coachella Valley are pretty spectacular – especially if it’s a clear day.
During our visit, it was chilly and windy, so depending on the weather, you’ll want to bring a jacket along. Even so, it was interesting to see the fault line from a unique perspective.
The drive out to Keys View is about a 20 minute drive from the main road.
Directions/How to get here
From Park Boulevard, turn onto Keys View Road and follow it all the way to the parking area and roundabout at the end of the road. From, here, take a look at some of the overlooks down into the valley.
Fun Fact: About 85% of Joshua Tree National Park is designated as wilderness and is closed to mechanized vehicles. Read more about America's wilderness areas here.
7.) Scramble around on the rocks
No matter the park we’re visiting, our kids are always on the lookout for some boulders to conquer. Joshua Tree National Park doesn’t disappoint and is so much fun for kids who like bouldering. One of the best places to do it is at Skull Rock and the Jumbo Rocks area of the park.
Trails up and around the rocks are easy enough for smaller kids, but there are plenty of challenging areas that will keep everyone busy for hours on end. If the kids are ready to get out of the car to burn off some steam, this is a great place to do it. If you want, pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at one of the nearby picnic areas. After lunch, turn the kids loose on the boulders!
Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks is about a 40 minute drive from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (23 miles) along the main road from the north.
Length of Time
You can spend as little or as much time here as you’d like. We stayed for about an hour before moving on to other attractions in the park. If you’re interested in visiting other parts of the park like Barker Dam, Keys View, or The Cholla Cactus Garden, plan accordingly.
Fun Fact: Joshua Tree National Park is unique because of the convergence of three separate ecosystems - the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains. All three offer varying plant and animal life unique to each that are worth exploring.
8.) Visit during a wildflower bloom
Joshua Tree has a variety of wildflowers in bloom around the park during spring and summer. In the lower elevations of the Pinto Basin, wildflowers begin to bloom in February and March. March and April are good times to see wildflowers bloom in the higher elevations farther north in the park.
During our November visit, we didn’t get to see any wildflowers, but we loved the little yellow blooms on the Cholla Cactus. Blooms vary from year to year based an several factors, but you can stay up to date by following the Joshua Tree bloom reports on iNaturalist – a crowd-sourced wildflower watch and reporting site.
9.) Stick around for some stargazing
Although parts of the park are susceptible to some light pollution, darker areas of Joshua Tree are great for stargazing. This is especially true if you plan to stay overnight at one of the many campgrounds. Although we didn’t get to stay and stargaze ourselves, this is something we’d definitely want to do here.
If you plan to stay for awhile, be sure you have some layers to stay warm, pack some extra water, and have a tripod for your camera. Also, try using flashlights with red light as the bright white light will prevent your eyes from adjusting to the dark. Most of all, be patient, practice lots of photos, and have fun!
Tip: Night photography is fun, but takes some practice. If you get the chance, try night writing. Set your camera on a tripod and with a long exposure (use your camera's manual settings for this) have the kids "write" in the dark with glow sticks or flashlights. With some practice, you'll have some cool photos in no time! Here is one we did for the Fourth of July one year with sparklers.
Things to know before you go
Joshua Tree National Park map
Click on the top left corner to expand the points of interest on the map. You can zoom by double-clicking on an area of the map and also click+drag to move it.
Directions to Joshua Tree National Park
So, where is Joshua Tree exactly? Joshua Tree National Park is an easy drive from several big cities: 140 miles east of Los Angeles, 175 miles northeast of San Diego, 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, and 222 miles west of Phoenix, Arizona.
There are three entrances to the park, two on Highway 62 on the north end of the park (Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms) and the Cottonwood Spring entrance off of I-10. For our visit, we entered at the Joshua Tree south entrance and exited to the north.
The nearest airport to Joshua Tree National Park is in Palm Springs. For our visit, we flew into Ontario, CA, and drove from there through Palm Springs to the southern Cottonwood Spring entrance. Palm Springs to Joshua Tree takes about an hour to either entrance.
Joshua Tree weather and the best time to visit
Busy season at Joshua Tree runs from October through May. Summers are hot (think desert temps) and in winter, roads can be closed at any time due to inclement weather like snow and ice. The park is open year round, but as with all National Parks, check the current conditions before your trip.
Joshua Tree entrance fees
A seven-day permit to the park costs $30 per vehicle. If you plan on visiting several parks in the area, do what we do and purchase an annual America the Beautiful Pass. It’s only $80 and is good for visiting unlimited parks throughout the year.
Joshua Tree National Park hours
Joshua Tree National Park is open 24 hours a day all year long. Visitor Centers are open typically from 8:00 – 5:00 although some open at 8:30 a.m.
Joshua Tree camping tips
Joshua Tree National Park has nine campsites available. During the summer, many are first-come, first-serve and don’t require a reservation. Camping from September through May at some campgrounds will require a reservation. Fees run from $15 – $20 per night, but not all have potable water or RV hookups.
To learn more about each site, click here.
Joshua Tree National Park camping reservations can be made at Recreation.gov here.
Where to stay in Joshua Tree
The small town of Twentynine Palms is a good place to base from when visiting Joshua Tree National Park and has several good options for families.
The historic Campbell House is the top-rated hotel in the area and offers family rooms, a pool, breakfast, and is just a few minutes from the park entrance.
If you like to use points for stays to save money, consider the Holiday Inn & Suites Twentynine Palms or the Best Western Gardens Hotel at Joshua Tree National Park. Both are within just a few miles of the park entrance.
Have you visited Joshua Tree National Park? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments!
If you're planning a trip to California, check out our California Destination Guide.
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