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Joshua Tree National Park – what to see and do

Joshua Tree is shown

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Visiting Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California is a great way to experience the deserts of the American Southwest. Because the park lies in the area where two deserts meet, it showcases two distinct ecosystems and allows you to be able to compare and contrast them.

To plan my trip, I used the park’s website, the Falcon Guides “Hiking: Joshua Tree National Park”, and National Geographic’s topographical map of the park.

A cholla cactus is shown

Two deserts, one park

Joshua Tree National Park lies in an area where two major deserts meet – the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, which is part of the Sonoran Desert, which characterizes Southern Arizona. These two deserts are distinguished by their flora and fauna and by the elevation at which they sit. The Mojave Desert is at a higher elevation, above 3,000 feet, while the Colorado Deserts sits below 3,000 feet.

A transition zone divides the two deserts. And in this area, you can see characteristics of both.

Joshua Trees and mountains are shown

What exactly is a Joshua Tree

While exploring Joshua Tree National Park, one main question floated around my head. “What exactly is a Joshua Tree? Is it a cactus? Is it a tree? Or is it something else?” The Joshua Tree is a type of Yucca. Yucca Brevifolia is its scientific name, and it is a member of the Agave family.

A Joshua Tree is shown

Known for its Dr. Seuss look, the Joshua Tree is a great indicator you are in the Mojave Desert. However, you may find a few in the Sonoran Desert or up in the San Bernardino Mountains. The native people of the Mojave Desert found it to have many useful properties. They used its tough leaves for baskets and sandals. Its flower buds and seeds have great health properties, so it made for a tasty addition to their diets.

Top sites to see

Keys Ranch

This guided tour may require a reservation, but it is well worth the $10 and extra planning. Keys Ranch was built in 1910. William and Frances Keys lived and worked the ranch with their children for 60 years. The couple braved the hardships of the hostile land to prosper by operating their mining and ranching operations.

Keys Ranch is only open for a guided ranger-led program. But taking this tour is a great way to step back in time and see how people made the desert into their homes.

Part of Keys Ranch is shown

Fortynine Palms Oasis

Fortynine Palms Oasis is exactly what you think of when you think of a desert oasis. Among the moonscape of rocks, you find tall and vibrant palm trees clumped together. This 3-mile out-and-back hike has about 300 feet of elevation gain. It snakes around through the rocky hills of the northern portion of the park.

When you arrive at the oasis, tread carefully. This is a sensitive biological area and a crucial water supply to the surrounding plants and animals of the area.

Fortynine palms oasis is shown at Joshua Tree National Park

Indian Cove Nature Trail

This self-guided nature trail has many information placards along its path to help you learn about this beautiful area. One aspect I love about the Indian Cove Nature Trail is just the uniqueness of the area. The trail loops through the alluvial plain of a wash, but is flanked by mountain peaks that look like giant rock piles.

Indian Cove Nature Trail is shown at Joshua Tree National Park

Arch Rock

This interesting rock formation offers geology lessons to those who hike this short loop trail. Sculpted out of a bolder, the Arch Rock stands tall but tucked into one of Joshua Tree National Park’s giant rock piles. Hiking around this area makes you feel like an ant crawling around the rocks in your backyard.

Arch Rock is shown

Skull Rock

This rock formation reminds me of something I’d see with pirates nearby. But there are no pirates in this sea of rocks. Skull Rock is a popular destination right off of the roadway.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Chollas are one of my favorite plants. Even though they are spiny, pokey, and a little dangerous, they look like jewels. The cholla is known in the Colorado Desert, and the Cholla Cactus Garden is located near the transition zone between the two deserts. The area has more water, which allows many chollas to grow together making the Cholla Cactus Garden. It almost seems like it was planted that way on purpose.

A woman looks at the cholla

A 0.25-mile trail takes visitors through these beautiful plants. Be careful because the cholla are commonly referred to as “jumping cactus.” Parts of the plant break off and are so good at attaching to people and animals; some say it’s as if they jump on them.

The hours after sunrise and before sunset are the best times to visit because the sun illuminates the spines making them glow. Keep in mind that they sit in the valley of some high mountains, so sunset can come earlier than expected.

Keys View

The view is shown from Keys View

If you are looking for amazing views of the park and Coachella Valley below, the Keys View is a great option. This drive-up view sits atop the Little San Bernardina Mountains.

A 0.25-mile nature trail takes you to the very top with informational placards to educate you on the view below. From here you can see the Salton Sea, and on a clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico.

But don’t get confused. Keys View and Keys Ranch are two different things to explore.

Mountains are shown at Joshua Tree National Park


Joshua Tree National Park is a great destination for climbers, boulderers, and highliners. There are what seem like giant piles of rocks throughout the park. These monzogranite areas make for excellent traditional-style crack, slab, or steep-face climbing.

With more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps, Joshua Tree National Park has something for every level and ability.

Rocks are shown at Joshua Tree National Park

Where to stay

Joshua Tree National Park offers plenty of camping opportunities. There are a total of nine campgrounds throughout the park. Two of those campgrounds, Black Rock and Cottonwood, have water and flush toilets.

The other seven campgrounds only have vault toilets and no potable water, so you’ll want to be prepared to bring all your water.

Joshua Trees are shown

Joshua Tree National Park is also extremely close to the towns of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms, where there are lodging opportunities and private campgrounds. When I stayed at Joshua Tree National Park, I stayed at Black Rock Campground. I had to drive through Yucca Valley to get to the park, so staying in town, isn’t any farther away.

Rocks Joshua Tree National Park are shown

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is full of adventures, beauty, and history. It is a great way to explore the deserts of Southern California. Walking among these cartoonish trees with sculpted boulders that look like they were placed as decoration makes you feel like you are in another world.

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Joshua Tree National Park is full of adventures, beauty, and history. It is a great way to explore the deserts of Southern California.

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