Making our way from California to the Grand Canyon, we planned a one-night stop-over in the Joshua Tree.. and loved this quirky national park so much that we ended up staying for three nights! Coming from snow and cooler weather through Sequoia and Yosemite, we were pleasantly greeted with lots of sunshine and warm weather upon our arrival in Joshua Tree.
Before entering the park, we stopped in at the visitors information centre and were shocked to be advised that every single campground (which are all walk-ins, so first in-first serve) in the park were currently full for the weekend - little did we know that we had arrived on the first Saturday of spring break and Joshua Tree was the place to be for camping getaways with family and friends! The friendly rangers gave us some information about where we could camp just outside the park on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, an over-flow area that they have available for free use, however it has no water or facilities - but this was perfect for us!
We stocked up on water and ice, and made our way into the park to start exploring! We thought we would try our luck with the campsites anyway, and checked a few different ones out. It looked like everyone was pretty well setup for the weekend! But we came across a group in the Hidden Valley Campsite who were kind enough to let us know that they would be leaving the next morning, and were more than happy to save their spot for us the next day - awesome! After an initial drive-around the main part of the park (entering via the West Entrance), we decided that we would love to spend a couple of days in Joshua Tree, soaking up the sun and exploring the many trails on offer. Here are our top recommendations to help plan your very own weekend away in JT!
Keys View Lookout - this was our first and most favourite sunset spot in the park. Just a quick drive from our campground, we parked our car in the lookout carpark and walked up the short path which instantly provided us with gorgeous views of the valleys and mountains below. We found a few large rocks to climb and perch ourselves upon (which is never difficult when in Joshua Tree!) and sat and relaxed as the sun began to set, an orange glow lighting up the sky. On a clear night you can see as far as Mexico, and once night-falls, you have views of the city lights afar. Make sure you get to this lookout early to find a carpark spot, and pack yourselves some beer and snacks! We arrived a little over an hour before sunset and were lucky enough to snag what we think was the best seat in the house.. check-out Kirk in the photo below, arms up and pretty stoked to be here!
Ryan Mountain - labelled on the trail-map as a strenuous and challenging hike, we decided to wake up early and climb Ryan Mountain before the sun was too high in the sky! Being only 2 miles / 5 km’s up and back, this was a short but moderately steep hike, gaining 1000ft in elevation along the way. But honestly do not let the “challenging” coding of this trail put you off, with plenty of switch-backs and zig-zagging along the track, we didn’t find this hike anywhere near as difficult as it was made out to be! Once we arrived at the top we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views of what felt like the entire Joshua Tree national park.. the large scattered rock formations which looked oh-so-tiny from all the way up here, and even snow capped mountains in the distance - not something you would expect when in the middle of a desert! A must-do hike!
Barker Dam - another spot that was only down the road from our campground, Barker Dam is an easy 1.8mile / 3 km loop walk that takes you around and down to the Barker Dam - an old historic Dam that was once previously utilised as a water source, but now currently only serves as a tourist attraction and water source for the animals. Big-horned sheep are reportedly commonly spotted on this trail, but unfortunately even though we were constantly on the lookout for these large animals, we didn’t see a single one. There are three tribes of big-horned sheep living in the park, with a total population of around 400! So if you are keen to spot one, we would recommend visiting this trail at a quieter time (early in the morning or as the sun is setting) as they aim to avoid humans and the heat!
Hidden Valley Nature Loop - this loop trail is accessible from the Hidden Valley picnic area, and is called hidden valley for exactly that reason - it is a hidden valley! From the commencement of the trailhead, you would have no idea that you are entering a valley of crazy rock formations and joshua trees. We did this easy 1.8 m / 3km trail late in the afternoon, and loved all the fun facts about the vegetation and animals of Joshua Tree NP that were posted along the way. As the title of this blog post states, this national park truly is a climbers desert oasis - with hundreds of vertical rocks to climb scattered all throughout the park, the Hidden Valley nature loop being no exception! Situated in the middle of the loop is the famous “sports-climb” rock, where we sat and watched as the climbers made their way up this crazy vertical rock-wall to the top. There are some seriously talented people getting around here! As the sun began to set through the valley, illuminating everything around us, we made our way back to our campsite.
Chola Cactus Garden - with images in mind of large crazy-shaped tall cacti that would tower above us, Mish was a little surprised when we arrived to the Chola Cactus garden car-park. “But where are all the cacti!?” she exclaimed! Chola cacti are a small species of cacti, beautiful and impressive all the same, but just not what Mish had her excited hopes up for. The cactus garden is around a 1 hour drive from the Joshua Tree west-side entrance, we would recommend making a stop here if you had extra time, and for plant and flower-enthusiasts, this is a uniquely dense area to see the Chola Cactus. Be sure to wear enclosed shoes or you will end up like us, prickly thorns in the feet!
Hidden Valley Campground - before settling into our home in the hidden valley campground, we checked out the other campgrounds around the park (there are actually 7 of them in total! So lots of choice!), however this one was our favourite for a number of reasons! Being the cheaper of the campgrounds (their prices range from $15 - $20), for $15 per night which can accomodate up to 2 vehicles and 6 people, our campsite was setup with our own picnic table, bbq, and fire pit. We loved hidden valley campground over the others also for it’s prime location. Most of the must-see stops are within a 15 minute drive, or otherwise walking distance. Another huge advantage that it had over a few other campsites that we checked out was it’s privacy - there are 44 sites here, however each site is generally separated by large bouldering rocks or trees - meaning that you only hear or see your fellow neighbours if you decide to pop-over and say hello. And last but not least, the thousands of rock formations all around the campsites meant that you have a playground right in your own backyard! We spent hours exploring and climbing over the mass of rocks where you could reach some pretty epic heights and amazing view spots!
Star Gazing Heaven - if you’re a lover of the galaxy, Joshua Tree national park is the place to soak the stars up! As huge astro-photography lovers ourselves, we didn’t exactly time our trip too well for this with a full moon in the sky meaning that we weren’t able to capture the impressive milky way at its fullest. But this didn’t mean that we couldn’t still enjoy the moonlight, brightening up the night sky that we didn’t even need to use our headlamps after dark!
Unlike all of the other national parks that we have visited in California, Joshua Tree is a desert, and therefore water supply here is scarce and not available within the park - so remember to bring more than you think you will need with you. The days are long and hot, and we found ourselves sweating out every drop that we put into our bodies pretty quickly!
With lots of hidden wildlife in the park, take a moment to sit quietly and let the animals come to you. If you are still enough, you will be lucky to see the rabbits, hares, squirrels, lizards, birds (including owls!) and maybe even coyotes and big-horned sheep in their natural environment.
Joshua Tree was definitely a park that we did not expect to find so enjoyable and diverse. Even if you are visiting for just the day, there are many picnic areas and pullover spots to enjoy some lunch with gorgeous views and photo opportunities. A park that we definitely haven’t heard a whole lot about prior to visiting, but a hidden gem in our eyes!