About two hours east of Los Angeles awaits a landscape so starkly foreign, it’s like landing on another planet. The 3000-square-kilometre Joshua Tree National Park sits at the meeting of two deserts, the Colorado to the east and the Mojave to the west, and those two ecosystems are home to a wide array of curious animals and unusual plants.
Tarantulas and spiny cacti aside, it’s likely the park’s giant rocks that will take your breath away first. Ponderously large boulders crop up from the arid landscape and ask to be explored, climbed, and picnicked beneath by visitors of all ages. Winding paved roads take visitors past these rock piles, the result of long-ago volcanic activity that pushed molten monzogranite up through the earth’s layers. A process of cooling, cracking, chemical weathering, and soil erosion produced the awe-inspiring formations seen today.
Top Park Sites
The beauty of a national park like Joshua Tree is in the unfettered exploration, so pull over and scout wherever the landscape strikes as long as it’s safe to park. You’ll encounter the namesake Joshua trees on the western half, and the craggy-limbed yucca with its spikey evergreen leaves makes for poignant photo-ops.
Apart from the trees, there are several park highlights, including Keys View at an elevation of over 1500 metres. To reach the summit, take a 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard to be rewarded with a 365-degree view that includes the Salton Sea, Santa Rosa Mountains, San Andreas Fault, and Coachella Valley.
Of all the park’s rock formations, Skull Rock is the crowd-pleaser for its towering granite rock that has eroded to resemble a human skull. On temperate weekends, the warren of rocks, crevices, and tiny trails around the formation will be crawling with park visitors trying to get a leg up on nature.
For an easy but interesting hike for all ages, take the two-kilometre Barker Dam trail, which was built around 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining. Due to the drought, there’s not much water, but the hike still offers ample time for lizard and bird spotting (be on the lookout for hummingbirds and the cactus wren).
For yet another otherworldly experience, head to the Cholla Cactus Garden nestled between the two deserts. The short, spikey, furry-looking cacti (nicknamed “teddy bear” cholla) spread as far as the eye can see, and there’s a quarter-mile trail that loops you through them.
Where to eat and drink
Most of the best places to eat and drink in Joshua Tree are clustered on Twentynine Palms Highway near Sunset Road. For a casual sit-down meal, the charmingly eclectic Crossroads Café is the epitome of a small-town café. It’s open seven days a week for breakfast (until 2pm), lunch, and dinner and is as friendly to carnivores (try the corned beef hash or the BLT) as it is to vegans (soy-rizo hash, seitan tacos).
Across the street is Pie for the People, a counter-service pizza joint with tables inside and out on a shaded back patio. While you can get your pie plain, it’s best to get into the shop’s funky spirit and order something like the David Bowie, a pizza topped with mozzarella, bacon, roasted pineapple, jalapeños, and caramelized onions that’s surprisingly good. Connected to the patio is the Joshua Tree Coffee Company, which roasts its own beans, and sells them alongside cold-brew and pour-over coffee and espresso drinks.
Where to Stay
For those who want to experience the magic of Joshua Tree by moonlight, camping is the answer. There are nine campgrounds at the park. Only two have water and flushing toilets (Black Rock and Cottonwood), and none have showers. Reservations up to six months in advance are available at Black Rock and Indian Cove, October through May, while the rest are first-come, first-served. Visitors without reservations arriving on Friday or Saturday will likely not find an open spot.
The towns of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms are dotted with local motels and national chain hotels. The Best Western Gardens Hotel at Joshua Tree National Park has suites available with a separate bedroom and kitchenettes, as well as a pool. 29 Palms Inn on 70 acres next to the park books up fast, and room options include a 1930s adobe bungalow and a 1920s wood frame cabin. There’s an on-site pool and a restaurant that makes take-away picnic lunches.
Explore the surrounding area
Squeeze in a Hollywood sideshow at Pioneertown, a 30-minute drive from the town of Joshua Tree. The replica 1880s Old West town was built in 1946 as a place to film Westerns, among them The Cisco Kid and Annie Oakley. Don’t be surprised if you run into Wild West reenactments on Mane Street on weekend afternoons. For entertainment in Pioneertown, head to Pappy & Harriet’s, a famous all-ages honky-tonk with live music, pool tables, and a steakhouse-style menu.
To experience the quirkier side of the area, make a reservation in nearby Landers for a private or group sound bath at the Integratron, a self-described “resonant tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex in the magical Mojave Desert.” And don’t let the sun set without checking out the World Famous Crochet Museum, created by artist Shari Elf. The lime-green ode to everything crochet is behind the Art Queen sign on Twentynine Palms Highway in Joshua Tree.
Need to know
The harsh landscape mimics the weather, which can be brutally hot June through September, while dipping into the 30s (Fahrenheit) at night December through February. Bringing plenty of water, dressing in layers, and liberally applying sunscreen are all musts. As well, be sure to stop by one of the park’s three visitor centers – Joshua Tree Visitor Center and Oasis Visitor Center on the north side and Cottonwood Visitor Center on the south – to check out exhibits, attend ranger-guided programs, and get park maps. Kids can grab a Junior Ranger booklet; upon completion, youngsters get sworn in as rangers and receive a badge. Admission for non-commercial vehicles is $15 for a 7-day pass or $30 for an annual pass.