We recently spent a couple of days at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Here’s an overview of what we did and our general impressions of the park. Enjoy!
Where to Stay
There are actually several free options for staying near Joshua Tree National Park. In the town of Yucca Valley there is a Walmart. We stayed there one night without any issues from management. We even did some fairly significant repairs to the RV in the parking lot using an angle grinder and they didn’t bat an eye. There is also some BLM land both North and South of the park. Our impression of the North side was that it looked like Walter White had set up a meth kitchen out there. It didn’t make us feel warm and fuzzy. Everyone there might have been sweet wonderful people, but we just had a bad feeling about it. The BLM lands on the South end seemed better, much more level and easier to get there. However, one ranger did say they had heard of people getting robbed in both locations.
In the end we ended up staying at one of the campgrounds. None of the campgrounds provide hookups, but there are two parks that have water and a dump station available. For those with large rigs rangers at the Visitor Centers can provide a list of campgrounds with space for 35′ and over. However, some campgrounds are limited to 25′ total length (including tow vehicle). In the NE area the ranger suggested two campgrounds for the vicinity to large rock formations; Jumbo Rocks and Belle. We chose Belle ($10/night) because of it’s smaller size and more private spaces (in some areas). We lucked out and secured an awesome spot with room for our RV and a really private picnic area between two sets of large boulders. Spot #4 if anyone is interested! By Friday evening our campground was full – by Saturday mid-day all campgrounds in the park were full and they are almost all first come-first serve.
What to See
Most of what Joshua Tree is famous for can be found in the North Eastern part of the park and this is per a ranger at the Joshua Tree visitor center.
There are three main visitor centers, one at each major entrance into the park. The visitor centers are a great place to chat with a Ranger, they always have great suggestions about what to see.
There are numerous exhibits along the road side throughout the main roads in the park. You can learn much about the plants, animals, desert ecosystems and geology just be stopping at them. You will see if you drive throughout the park that some of them are repeated, probably because they are targeting visitors from different entrances who will exit the same way.
Geology Tour Road
Marked as a high clearance vehicle only road this one-way 18 mile drive takes you through 16 stops. At each stop you take out your guide and read highlights about that point of interest. This road is marked as high clearance but, a Honda Crosstour went through ahead of us and didn’t have any problems. However, that might be a different story if it had been raining.
Cholla Cactus Garden
This “garden” is an easily accessible area of the park that seems to be a fantastic environment for the Cholla Cactus because there are hundreds of them in this one spot. All over the ground there are little baby Cholla that have dropped off the bigger plants. It kind of looked like Tribbles had invaded. There is a trail that wanders through the plants. Along the route there are numbers stops where you can learn more about the area. Unfortunately, all of the guides were gone when we got there. If you plan on seeing this area we suggest asking for a guide at a visitor center when you arrive. We also suggest you stay on the trail and don’t touch the cacti no matter how much you may want to. When we arrived we saw three girls picking cactus needles out of their shoes and one lady yelling at her boyfriend in some Latin language while trying to pick needles out of her hand.
Another easily accessible site is the Ocotillo patch. The Ocotillo is a strange tree that looks dead most of the year so spring is the best time to view it – when it is leafing and blooming. The tree basically looks like a bunch of relatively straight brown branches reaching up out of the ground for the sky. In the spring however they grow tiny little leaves all along these branches and bloom a tuft of red at the very end of the branch. We were lucky to visit at just the right time!
This is the main road coming in from Joshua Tree and has some of the best views of rock formations and Joshua Tree’s in the park. You will likely drive it on your way to your other destinations and you can’t beat the sights from here of the parks main attractions. If you only have a couple of hours just drive through from the town of Joshua Tree to highway 10 or back around to 29 Palms.
Near the Jumbo Rocks campground is a huge boulder that looks surprisingly like a giant skull. It’s a great photo-op!
Arch Rock Trail
At White Tank campground there is a short loop trail among the awesome rock formations that leads you to a rock archway. Along the way there are signposts with geological information. We saw multiple lizards along the trail!
This isn’t something we did, but there were a ton of people out climbing the giant rocks. It might be a popular spot for climbing newbies because the rocks are rough and seem to provide a lot of grip. Of course that is just speculation. It is fun to sit and watch if it interests you.
There are many more things to see throughout the park that we didn’t make it to, especially hikes, additional 4×4 roads, 49 Palms Oasis and Keys Ranch (you have to sign up). We would have needed a couple more days to further explore.
Outside the Park
Sky’s The Limit
Just outside of the parks north entrance, near the Oasis Visitor Center, is the Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center. We took a tour of their observatory and Orrery, which is a mechanical model of the solar system. Theirs was about 1:2000 scale which means it took up about a football field. We also got a chance to look through a telescope at the sun, a special sun only type so we didn’t burn our eyes out. The volunteers who work here are extremely knowledgeable and very enthusiast and passionate about astronomy. On Saturday evenings they have a night program for star-gazing and it’s all FREE!
Very close to the park are the towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms. We only spent time in Joshua Tree. It has a kind of it a hippie vibe with hand painted cars/buses around and a hint of patchouli oil in the air. The people were all very friendly. We liked it.
- Pick up a schedule for the Ranger programs. We have been to several and always have a great time and learn something new!
- If you are an RV with toad they want your toad to be connected on the way in – they will try to charge you for both. We have an annual pass and disconnected prior to entry for ease of navigation in campgrounds. We asked her if she wanted us to hook back up so we didn’t have to pay entry for our toad and, I’m guessing to avoid holding up the line, she let us in but said we needed to be hooked up on the way out.
- Keep your eyes and ears out for rodents in your vehicles. Our neighbor got a rodent in their RV and we had one in our Jeep! Rodents of various types abound in this desert landscape and the smell of food in your rig is hard to resist. We have a cat in our RV so we think his smell kept them out of our RV but the enticing smell of spicy peanuts in the Jeep without a cat was too much for them to resist!