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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
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.