Travel

Your Guide to the Beautifully Bizarre Joshua Tree National Park

Camp, hike, and rock climb your way through California's High Desert.

Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images

California’s Mojave Desert has inspired a number of monumental artistic endeavors, including the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars and the iconic U2 album The Joshua Tree. But Joshua Tree National Park, which lies within the boundaries of the Mojave, has a landscape and special magnetism all its own.

“People come to Joshua Tree for their own special reasons,” says David Smith, park superintendent with the National Park Service. “Sometimes it’s wilderness. Other times people come here for the music history, the diversity of raptors, or just the epic landscapes. People come to Joshua Tree to find themselves.”

And find yourself you will-whether you’re hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, stargazing, or daydreaming about selling all your stuff to move to the desert. (Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.) Here’s how to do it all on your next trip.

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree is open (and beautiful!) year round. Come in the spring or fall for the best weather (but keep in mind, the park gets extra busy January through April, so book your Airbnb early). If you visit in the hot summer months, Cane West, an interpretive park ranger in training, suggests planning outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler, just to be safe. 

“Most people spend four hours in the park,” says West. But Joshua Tree’s abundance of jaw-dropping geological and ecological sights mean one could spend days exploring the otherworldly landscape.

Unsplash/Steven Wright
Unsplash/Steven Wright
Unsplash/Steven Wright

Fuel up in the funky artist towns nearby

There are over 100 miles of roads within the park and not a gas station in sight, so fill up beforehand. The quirky towns surrounding the park-especially Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley-are also your best bet for grabbing a bite and a beer after a long day in the park. 

Populated by UFOlogists, solitude seekers, antique dealers, and offbeat creatives drawn to the power of the desert, there are plenty of unusual adventures to be had in town. Definitely swing by Pioneertown, which served as a film set for Old Westerns in a past life and today houses the area’s most famous bar and music venue, Pappy & Harriet’s.

Getting into Joshua Tree National Park

The park’s larger than Rhode Island, which means there’s a lot of ground to cover. Of the three main entrances, the Joshua Tree entrance (known as the West Entrance) is often the busiest. The North and South Entrances near Twentynine Palms and the Cottonwood Visitors Center, respectively, are far less crowded. Get there early; parking lots tend to fill up by mid-morning.

Just drive up to one of the park’s entrances and pay at the booth. A seven-day vehicle permit runs $30. Alternatively, $55 gets you a pass valid for a full year-OR, if you think you’ll visit more than one national park in the next 12 months (and you should!), NPS offers an $80 pass that buys you entry to any park for a year.

Flickr/Joshua Tree National Park
Flickr/Joshua Tree National Park
Flickr/Joshua Tree National Park

Hit Joshua Tree’s best hiking trails 

Once you’re all geared up with the right shoes and as much water as you can carry (seriously, it’s hot), it’s time to hit the trails, baby. Skull Rock Nature Trail is one of the most popular in the park. From the Jumbo Rocks Campground, it’ll take you winding through about 1.7 miles of desert until you arrive at Skull Rock, an enormous boulder with two eye sockets carved into it by years of water erosion. It’s a pretty mild route and great for beginners. 

The second trail you should hit is the Wonderland of Rocks, which-can you believe it-is a wonderland of rocks! Pebbles, stones, and giant boulders are yours to traverse for 5.5 glorious miles. Given the terrain, it’s considered a difficult trail, so be sure you’re up to the task.

Sara Combs from The Joshua Tree House has written a whole book about Joshua Tree with her husband Rich. She recommends three underrated hiking trails: Willow Hole Trail, which covers 6.8 miles of relatively flat land; Pine City Trail, a moderate four-mile jaunt where you’ll spot a sprawling rock canyon and very few other humans; and North View Trail, a six-mile hike that can be tricky to navigate at times (probably wise to download a map!), but will drop you into steep canyon aisles and desert dry washes lush with Joshua trees.

There’s also a plethora of trails to ride horses and mountain bikes if you prefer something speedier than hoofin’ it yourself. The winding roads through the park are perfect for motorcyclists as well-just watch for desert tortoises crossing the road.

Unsplash/Sean Parker
Unsplash/Sean Parker
Unsplash/Sean Parker

Check out Joshua Tree’s most Instagrammable sites and rock formations

The aforementioned Skull Rock is a great one, and then there’s Arch Rock, a 30-foot tall formation that’s especially beloved by night-photographers out to capture the Milky Way. Though it’s not technically in the park, it’s worth seeking out Giant Rock, an enormous free-standing boulder that has… maybe the most bizarre backstory of any giant boulder you will ever meet in your entire life. It involves Hopi shamans, an espionage conspiracy, and a UFO convention. You know, desert things. 

Around sunrise or sunset, wander over to Keys View, the highest lookout point in Joshua Tree. You can look out across the Coachella Valley and see as far as the Salton Sea and Palm Springs on clear days. And for those entering from the north, Combs also recommends stopping to check out the towering rock formations in Indian Cove (in her opinion, “the best in the park”).

saraporn/Shutterstock
saraporn/Shutterstock
saraporn/Shutterstock

Scope out the unparalleled plant and animal life 

We assume you know the park’s tall and spiky namesake: the Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the “Joshua Tree.” In Spanish, the tree is known as izote de desierto, or desert dagger, which is arguably more badass.) It’s important to remember that since these trees are endemic to this 1,235-square mile expanse of desert, they’re strictly protected-aka, no touchy!

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden (at sunset, if you can swing it) to walk amongst hundreds of beautiful cholla; swaying in the desert breeze, they almost resemble coral (and, much like coral, should be left alone). You’ll also probably spot the ocotillo plant, which is technically a succulent but is most closely related to blueberries and tea.

Joshua Tree National Park is more known for its flora than fauna, but there’s also plenty of wildlife in and around the park. Birding is especially popular, with native species like roadrunners, raptors, and tons of migratory flocks as well. Predators like bobcats, coyotes, and snakes also roam these parts, and-lest we forget-keep an eye out for our good (and adorable) friend, the desert tortoise!

Unsplash/Jeremy Bishop
Unsplash/Jeremy Bishop
Unsplash/Jeremy Bishop

Find out why Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise

Whether you’re brand new to climbing or navigate cliffs like a baby mountain goat, the Joshua Tree’s 9,000+ climbing routes means that everyone’s welcome to give it a go. (We also feel the need to note that most of the routes have truly supreme names; take, for example, Yabba Dabba Don’t, Breakfast of Champions, Room to Shroom, Dangling Woo Li Master, Possessed By Elvis, and so on. Too good.) 

For a route best suited to beginner and moderate climbers, head over to the Quail Springs area, home to the ever-charming Trashcan Rock. One of the most popular climbing spots due to its relative ease (and the cool shade that covers it during the afternoon), expect to wait in line for your go. Intersection Rock also makes a great spot for novices, and The Eye ends with a tunnel that opens up onto excellent views across the desert.

If you want a challenge-seriously, these climbs will bust your ass-push your skills to the limit with Big Moe, a classic climb known to challenge even more experienced climbers; Lost Horse Wall for some of the longest routes in the park; or a 1,500-foot-steep scramble up Saddle Rock for great multi-pitch climbing.

Gear up at Joshua Tree Outfitters (their storefront is currently closed due to COVID-19, but equipment rentals are still available) or Nomad Ventures. If you think you’ll need a little guidance, consider hiring a guide from Cliffhanger Guides. They’ll get you out on the rocks no matter your level of skill or experience.

Look up at the stars

Joshua Tree National Park is a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park, which means nighttime can be pretty extraordinary. Even with its overall remote location, the western part of the park gets a fair amount of light pollution from nearby Palm Springs. West recommends sticking to the central part of the park, “especially along Pinto Basin Road… [it’s] perfect for seeing the Big Dipper, full moons, Milky Way, and shooting stars.”

Harrison Weinberg/Shutterstock
Harrison Weinberg/Shutterstock
Harrison Weinberg/Shutterstock

Where to lay your weary head at night

Of the 520 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park, about half are first-come, first-serve. The other half take reservations through Recreation.gov. West warns that it’s notoriously difficult to score weekend spots, so during peak times look for reserve-only campsites. West recommends the Cottonwood campground for stargazing, or White Tank Campground, which boasts some awe-inspiring rock formations that are millennia in the making.

And if you’re more of an indoorsy type, Joshua Tree is famous for its hip Airbnbs. So if you’d prefer to stay in, say, a giant UFO or a converted 1950s Spartan trailer, there are plenty of options available for you.

What to bring and other essential tips for visitors

Sunscreen and water are must-haves year-round. The National Park Service stresses that there are no water sources inside the park, so again, pack a lot of water… and then pack even more. Binoculars, sturdy hiking shoes, snacks, a flashlight, and hats are also recommended. If you find yourself in need of supplies, Coyote Corner, a combination gift shop and general store, sits just outside the park. They sell everything from camping supplies to locally-made goods.

To avoid being one of the approximately 60 search-and-rescue operations Joshua Tree sees every year, Smith recommends exploring the park with a buddy and always letting people know where you’re going. Cell phones don’t work in most of the park, so if communication is crucial, bring a satellite phone and a printed map to get around.

Over 80% of Joshua Tree is officially designated wilderness-emphasis on wild. Be respectful of wildlife to avoid tangling with an angry critter. And if you remember one thing about your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, it should be “leave no trace.” Be sure to leave the park as pristine as you found it to help preserve its natural beauty for generations to come.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Beth Demmon is a contributor for Thrillist.

Tiana Attride is the Associate Travel Editor at Thrillist. 

Travel

8 Suburbs Near Phoenix You Should Absolutely Visit

You could use a little space.

Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ

Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.

Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism

Tempe

Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho

Scottsdale

Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.

Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert

Gilbert

Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.

Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography

Cave Creek

A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.

Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr

Mesa

Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.

Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills

At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.

Camelback Ranch - Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale

Glendale

Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.

Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery

Chandler 

Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.

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