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Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect Southern California road trip destination or for those that live near, the perfect weekend getaway. The park is an easy drive from both San Diego and Los Angeles and is located just a couple of hours away.
Joshua Tree National Park is a large protected area where the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet. Each desert has its own distinct ecosystem and a variety of plant and animal species. The magical landscape is dotted with cholla cactuses, rock formations, hiking trails, and of course the park’s namesake, the Joshua Tree.
There are many fun and unusual things to do outside of the park as well. The Joshua Tree area is made up of three small and eclectic towns. These include Yucca Valley, Twenty-nine Palms, and Joshua Tree. The towns offer a fun art scene, great shopping, delicious food, live music, and some of the best Airbnbs. Continue reading to discover the best things to do in Joshua Tree in this weekend guide to Joshua Tree National Park.
- About Joshua Tree National Park
- How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park
- Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree National Park
- Must-Dos in Joshua Tree National Park
- Fun Things to Do Around Joshua Tree NP
- Where to Eat & Drink Near Joshua Tree
- Best Places to Stay in Joshua Tree
- Joshua Tree National Park Entrance Fees
- Other Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
About Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park was originally declared a national monument in 1936 but was later designated as a national park in 1994 when the California Desert Protection Act was passed. Joshua Tree is a vast park, covering 1,238 square miles (3,207 square kilometers). The park sees nearly 3 million visitors each year but because it is so large, it rarely feels crowded and during the off-season, it may even feel like you have the park to yourself.
The park contains two deserts that each have its own distinct ecosystem, the Mohave and the Colorado deserts. The characteristics of these ecosystems are primarily determined by elevation. The Mohave being higher and Colorado being lower. The Colorado desert is located in the eastern portion of the park where the elevation is below 3,000 feet (910 m).
The Joshua Tree, or Yucca Brevifolia, is native to the cooler Mojave desert. The slow-growing trees are twisted, spiky, and look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They grow 2 to 3 inches each year and take about 50 to 60 years to reach maturity. The trees can live to be hundreds of years old but due to development and climate change are now at risk of extinction. They have recently become the first plant species to be protected under California’s Endangered Species Act.
How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park
In order to explore Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding areas, you will need a car. The area is somewhat remote and public transport is limited. You may be able to get around the surrounding towns by bus but you will need a car to explore the park. There are a couple of rental car agencies in town but I would recommend getting one at the airport.
The closest airport to Joshua Tree is Palm Springs. The airport is located just 50 mi (80 km) east but flights can be expensive since it is such a small airport. The closest major airports are Los Angeles International Airport and San Diego International Airport. The drive to Joshua Tree from LAX is about 150 mi (241 km) and takes about 2 hours and 30 min depending on traffic. The drive is fairly easy and the majority of it is spent going east on Interstate 10.
The San Diego International airport is located about 165 mi (266 km) and the drive from San Diego to Joshua Tree is about 2 hours and 45 min. You’ll take Interstate 15 North to Interstate 10 East. Make sure to include a stop at the famous Cabazon Dinosaurs along the way. They’re located along Interstate 10, just 45 min outside of Joshua Tree.
There are three entrance gates to Joshua Tree National Park. The gate you enter will be determined by where you are coming from and what you would like to see in the park. You will likely want to stay near and use the West Entrance.
- The West Entrance is located five miles south of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard at Joshua Tree Village.
- The North Entrance is located in Twentynine Palms, about three miles south of Highway 62 and Utah Trail.
- The South Entrance is near Cottonwood Spring and about 25 miles east of Indio. It can be accessed from Interstate 10.
Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree National Park
The best time to visit Joshua Tree is during the spring and fall. The months from April through June and October through November are ideal. However, these months are also the most crowded. Temperatures are mild during the day and cooler at night. It’s a great time to visit if you are interested in outdoor activities, such as hiking and camping within the park.
The summer and winter months are considered the low-season. Summer months can be unbearably hot and the winter can be extremely cold and windy. A visit is doable though. During the summer, temperatures often reach 100°F (38°C) and above during the day. Summer nights, however, are pleasant and great for camping. The daytime heat makes hiking dangerous so plan outdoor activities for the early morning hours.
December through January are the coldest months and there is even the occasional snowfall. Don’t be fooled, desert temperatures can be quite cold, especially at night. For most people, camping during this time won’t be enjoyable but a day visit is doable if you dress warm and come prepared. There are usually few people within the park during these months.
Must-Dos in Joshua Tree National Park
There are many beautiful sights and hikes in Joshua Tree National Park. Upon entering the West Entrance, you’ll see many of the park’s famous Joshua Trees along the right-hand side of the road. This area is great for quick roadside photos. The Joshua Trees themselves are enough reason to visit the park but the following are some of the best things to do in Joshua Tree:
Skull Rock is located near the Jumbo Rocks Campground and can be a quick roadside stop. However, depending on how busy the park is, there may be a queue for a photo. Skull Rock is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a giant granite rock that has transformed over the years into what now resembles a skull. The accumulation of rainwater and erosion have given the rock hollowed-out eye sockets.
There are lots of giant boulders surrounding Skull Rock. The Skull Rock Nature Loop is an easy trail that takes you on a 1.7 mi (2.7 km) walk through the massive rocks. The trailhead can be found directly across from Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail is one of my favorite areas of the park. The trail is a flat loop that is just .25 mi (.4 km) long. The short trail is surrounded by the teddy bear cholla, an unusual type of cacti that looks fuzzy but can actually be quite painful. Wildflowers can also be found here in the spring. The pathway is wide and easily accessible, making the trail a great one for families.
Arch Rock Nature Trail is a 1.2 mi (1.9 km) hike leading to Arch Rock, a naturally formed arch that spans 30 ft (9 m) across. If you continue past the arch there are lots of fun little trails with boulders to climb on.
The trail is easy with little incline. However, it isn’t marked well. If you stick to what looks like the more well-traveled path, you should be fine. The trailhead can be somewhat difficult to find as well. The park recently made it easier to access and it is now located at Twin Tanks parking lot.
Broker Dam Loop is one of Joshua Tree’s prettiest trails. The dam was built in 1900 to hold water for cattle and for mining use. Today, it’s the primary source of water for wildlife in the park. Keep in mind that the water does dry up during drier months so spring and winter are the best times to visit.
The loop is 1.1 mi ( 1.8 km) and takes about 30 min to complete. It winds through boulders, Joshua Trees, Yucca, and cacti. Wildflowers are present during the spring and Native American petroglyphs can be found a short distance from the trail.
The trail is well marked and easy to find, but parking can be challenging during busier times. However, it does have an overflow lot, called Echo T that is located nearby. Parking at Echo T will add about 0.6 miles (1 km) to the trail length.
Fun Things to Do Around Joshua Tree NP
There are lots of fun and unusual things to do in the Joshua Tree area. There are small roadside art galleries, cute boutiques, vintage and antique shops, and more. The following are just a few of my favorite things to do around Joshua Tree:
Pioneertown is a tiny town just outside of Joshua Tree. It was built as an old western movie set in 1946 and has an interesting history. The original investors, a group of Hollywood actors, envisioned an interactive set that the public could actually visit.
They created a street, called Mane Street (not a typo) and lined it with 1880s-style facades that include a jail and saloon. During the 1940s and 1950s, more than fifty films and television shows were shot here. Pioneertown can be visited at any time but its small shops don’t keep a strict schedule and may not be open.
5040 Curtis Road, Pioneertown, CA, 92268
Glass Outhouse Gallery
The Glass Outhouse Gallery is located a few miles outside of Twentynine Palms and is fairly close to the park’s east entrance. The Gallery opened in 2009 and features an artist or two each month. Outside of the gallery, there are trails marked by glass bottles leading past different “art” displays. There is a mirrored outhouse for which the gallery is named after, a giant Pepsi can, and other odd but fun things. The gallery is free to visit. It’s open 1-5 pm every day, with the exception of Monday.
77575 Twentynine Palms Highway, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
Shopping in Joshua Tree
There are a handful of great boutiques, as well as vintage and antique shops, around Joshua Tree. Some must-visits are:
The beautiful pottery in this shop is handmade by owner and sculptor, Brian Bosworth. He uses many geometric patterns and neutral glazes that are reminiscent of the desert. His work is stunning and would be the perfect addition to your boho home.
61705 Hwy 62, Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Hoof & Horn
I try to make a stop at Hoof & Horn every time I’m in the area. It’s a cute boutique with a little of everything. They have a great collection of flowy dresses, candles, jewelry, accessories, and more. They carry small, independent labels as well as some bigger brand names such as Brixton and P.F. Candle Co. Plus it’s located next to my favorite coffee shop.
55840 Twentynine Palms Hwy, Yucca Valley, CA 92284
Other great places to shop include Pioneer Crossing Antiques, Funky Desert Vintage, Moon Wind Trading Co., Ricochet Vintage Wears, and The End.
Where to Eat & Drink Near Joshua Tree
Pappy & Harriets
Pappy & Harriets is a must-do for dinner and might just be my favorite thing mentioned in this weekend guide to Joshua Tree. Not only is it the best barbecue in the Joshua tree area but it’s also a live-music venue. They have a house band but also bring in big, well-known acts (you’ll likely need to buy a ticket in advance for these). It’s located adjacent to Pioneertown and is open for dinner Thursday through Monday and offers lunch Thursday through Sunday. Reservations are recommended.
53688 Pioneertown Rd, Pioneertown, CA 92268
Frontier Cafe is the perfect way to start your day. They have fantastic coffee and a small but great breakfast menu. I recommend the avocado tartine or the classic egg sandwich. Both are delicious. It’s located close to Pioneertown and is an easy stop if you’re planning a visit.
55844 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley, CA 92284
Natural Sisters Cafe
Natural Sisters Cafe is a great vegan choice for breakfast or lunch. The biscuits and gravy are delicious and they have a large selection of fresh juices and smoothies.
61695 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Joshua Tree Saloon
Joshua tree Saloon is a great spot for lunch, dinner, or drinks. The saloon has a large menu with a little of everything. The burgers are especially tasty. It gets pretty lively in the evenings and is a fun place to end your day after exploring the park.
61835 Twentynine Palms Highway, Joshua Tree, CA 92252
Best Places to Stay in Joshua Tree
Lodging in the Joshua tree area isn’t super plentiful but there are some great options. You can choose to camp, AirBnb, or book a hotel/motel. Personally, I usually go the motel route but an Airbnb can be great if you’re going with a larger group.
Most of the campsites in Joshua Tree National Park are first-come-first-serve but there are a handful that take reservations. If you are going in peak season, plan on arriving mid-week or first thing on Friday morning. Campsites can fill very quickly.
All of the campgrounds have basic toilet facilities but only Black Rock and Cottonwood have water. There are many great campgrounds but some of the best include Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Belle, and White Tank.
Hotels/ Motels Near Joshua Tree
The typical roadside motel around Joshua tree is easy to find. There are all the well-known names, such as Motel 6 and Best Western, as well as some smaller properties.
Americas Best Value Inn & Suites Joshua Tree National Park
Americas Best Value Inn & Suites looks like your average roadside motel and for the most part, it is but what few know is that the motel has a handful of fun-themed rooms that you can book. The motel has a safari, Roman, cave, tiki, jungle, and a 1950s-themed room that all have large jetted tubs.
Pioneertown Motel is located adjacent to the old movie sets on Mane Street. It was originally built as a place to lodge the movie stars of the old Westerns. Since then, it has been renovated into a charming little motel that has recently opened its own lounge, called “The Canteen”, on the property. It’s a great place to stay if you want to explore Pioneertown or plan on having a late night at Pappy & Harriets.
Airbnb and Rental Homes Near Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is known for its collection of hip, luxurious, and quirky AirBNBs and rental homes.
Stay in a UFO-like Futuro House. The property is an original Futuro and is one of only 85 remaining in the world. It has been fully restored and made into a glamping experience.
Invisible House Joshua Tree
Ok, so I know this property is out of most of our budgets but I had to include it because how cool is this place? The property is almost completely made out of glass. It has large windows that give you beautiful desert views and the outside is made of mirrored panels. It’s three bedrooms and has a fantastic pool.
Casa Agave: Comfy Joshua Tree Cottage
This property is often booked but if you are lucky enough to get a reservation then it’s the perfect place to spend your weekend in Joshua Tree. This great little cottage is affordable and just 2.5 mi (4 km) from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. It has a patio, hammock, and the cutest decor.
Joshua Tree National Park Entrance Fees
Joshua Tree National Park offers three types of passes that can be purchased in advance through recreation.com or at the park gate. If purchasing online, make sure to print or screenshot your reservation in advance since you will likely not have cell service upon arrival. The available passes include:
- Vehicle ($30): Admits all passengers of a single, non-commercial vehicle on the day of purchase and for the next six days
- Motorcycle ($25): Per motorcycle for 7-days
- Individual ($15): Per person entering the gate on foot or bike for 7-days
If you plan on visiting any other national parks, I highly suggest purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass. The pass is $80 and includes unlimited entrance for a year to all National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management sites. If you plan to visit at least three parks within the year then the pass is definitely worth it.
Other Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
- There is no cell service in Joshua Tree National Park and it’s spotty in many areas around town. Make sure you download maps beforehand.
- Bring a battery pack. Since your phone may be searching for service while in certain areas, expect your battery to drain faster.
- Bring more water than you think you need. It can get really hot and dry in the desert. Drinking water isn’t readily available in the park, so come prepared.
- Bring a jacket. Early mornings and evenings can become chilly.
- Don’t venture too far off marked trails. Landscapes can start to look the same and it’s very easy to get lost. If you are planning some more serious exploring, bring a compass. Don’t rely on your phone. Make sure to tell others where you are going and when you expect to return.
- Dogs are only permitted in some areas of Joshua Tree National Park.
Have you been to Joshua Tree National Park? Do you have anything to add to this weekend guide to Joshua Tree? I would love to hear about your experience. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Interested in more fun things to do in Joshua Tree? Continue to my post, “10 Weird Things to Do in Joshua Tree”.