Making the Most of Joshua Tree National Park

In Destinations by Ashley Burnett

Stepping into Joshua Tree National Park is like stepping onto the surface of some distant, totally alien planet. The plants, including the eponymous Joshua Tree, look like Dr. Seuss creations, while the natural rock formations have taken on strange, unnatural shapes like skulls.

For native Angelenos and other Southern California residents, including myself, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect place for a day trip to see something a little different from every day life. The park is known as a haven for hikers and bikers, and for good reason – visitors should be sure to check out the Pine City Trail and Inspiration Peak trail, both relatively easy hikes that nevertheless offer plenty of views. For bikers, the back-country roads are ideal.

But if you’re like me, and prefer not to toil under the California sun, driving can still show you plenty of what the park has to offer. One of my favorite stops was the Cholla Cactus Garden, which showcases the Cholla Cactus, a strange plant that will shoot needles at you if you get too close. Another cool stop is the aforementioned Skull Rock, which looks like, you guessed it, a skull. A few friends and I also hiked the Ryan Mountain trail, which gives you a great view of a huge swath of the park. It’s also a fairly easy hike – several children passed me on the way up to its summit.

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For those making it a day trip, make sure to pack plenty of food. There are a ton of picnic areas around the park, and eating in the shadow of the Jumbo Rocks or by the Barker Dam is an amazing experience. But for those looking to make it a weekend trip instead of a day trip, plan to camp or stay in a nearby Airbnb – hotels around the area are few and far between. If you’re planning on camping or staying near the park, make sure to book well in advance, especially during the summer months and around holiday weekends. Campsites fill up fast and you don’t want to be caught without accommodation.

If it’s your first time at the park, you should also plan a stop at one of Joshua Tree’s many visitor centers. My friends and I had a great time learning about the park at the Oasis Visitor Center, and the rangers are all very friendly.

While putting together your own ideal Joshua Tree itinerary is easy, there are a few good tour operators who operate in the park, like Joshua Tree Excursions, who offer a fully guided tour around highlights of the park like Arch Rock and Hidden Dam.

But ultimately the real treat, especially for native Californians, is when night falls in Joshua Tree National Park. There’s no bad place in the entire park for stargazing. When the sky becomes awash with stars, a rare sight in California, the cities (and stresses of modern life) seem a world away.

Tip: The park’s peak season runs from October to May, so plan your trip accordingly.