Camping: Joshua Tree National Park
A little over two hours east of Los Angeles, you’ll find Joshua Tree National Park and some of the most incredible desert landscape in Southern California. The park runs 60 miles west to east and 30 miles north to south. Within its boundaries, there are two separate and distinct deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado. In the northeast Mojave desert section, you’ll see whimsical Joshua trees and large boulder formations that look like they belong on Mars. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful section of the park. In the southwest Colorado desert area, you’ll find a much more vast landscape that makes you feel like you are the only person on earth.
The best time to visit the park is from October to May because temperatures are cooler, but this is also the busiest time of year in the park. If you’re planning on camping at one of Joshua Tree’s five reservation campgrounds, I would highly recommend that you secure your reservation six months in advance at recreation.gov. There are also three first-come, first-serve campgrounds, but these fill up fast in the winter/spring.
Jumbo Rocks Campground
We were fairly lucky and got our reservation for the first weekend in December at Jumbo Rocks Campground a couple of months in advance. This campground has 124 sites and will run you $20/night. Each site has a picnic table, firepit, BBQ, and there are several pit toilets throughout the campground. We absolutely loved staying here and will definitely be back. There are some amazing rock formations and Joshua trees that make it one of the most beautiful desert campgrounds I have ever visited.
We were at campsite 107, which was more exposed. Although it wasn’t bad, I would definitely try for a campsite that is up against one of the cool rock formations next time. Some of the sites that looked the best were: 2-5, 10, 11, 80, 81, 88, 89, 113, and 115. The more exposed sites, including ours, seemed a little stacked on top of each other (cue hearing your neighbors’ snores and other bodily functions). Because we were there during COVID-19, there were no other campers in the three sites surrounding ours, and I am glad there weren’t. It would have made for a much different, and far less private, experience.
One bonus of this campground is that there is a trailhead for a short 1.5 mile roundtrip hike to fascinating Skull Rock. The trail is beautiful and there are signposts along the way that callout different plant species and list other fun information about the area. Skull Rock is a very popular attraction during the day (for good reason, it is really cool!), so having this kind of proximity to the rock means that you can visit during the early morning or late in the day when there will be less people stopping that are driving through the park. I highly recommend being there for golden hour right before the sun sets. The lighting on the rocks is beautiful.
Places to Explore
For other places to explore during your stay, below are a few things we did, but there is also so much more!
- Geology Tour Road – This is a 4-wheel drive 18-mile roundtrip road that passes through some beautiful rock formations and Joshua trees. Where the road ends and circles back around, there is an option to continue further on Berdoo Canyon Road. When we were looking at the map, we figured that we could continue on this road and make it all the way to Dillon Road and onto Palm Springs for the day. Unfortunately, we were wrong and had to turn around after a few white knuckle moments and coming to a section that had a large boulder and drop to navigate. We probably could have made it all the way in the Jeep, but in our Toyota Rav4, we were not willing to risk it. Or should I say, Brian knew better than scratching up (and maybe doing worse) to my brand new shiny car. Smart husband.
- Cap Rock Nature Trail – A little quieter than some of the other nature trails, this .4 mile trail leads around some impressive rock formations. I would definitely suggest stopping here and taking time to meander through the rocks and Joshua trees. There are some awesome photo ops.
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail – This is one of the more popular places to stop for great rock formations and Joshua trees. We parked a ways away on the main road and walked toward the 1 mile nature trail but decided to turn around because I left my mask in the car and it looked fairly busy (#COVIDproblems). We still managed to get some great pictures along the way though.
- Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail (pronounced choy-ya) – If you are this far south in the park, make a point to stop at this quick .25 mile trail that weaves through thousands of cholla cactus. Although the Teddy Bear Cholla look soft and fuzzy (yes that is their real name), absolutely do NOT touch them unless you want to be pulling out their barbs with one of the needle nose pliers that were so thoughtfully placed at the trail entrance.
- Split Rock – Honestly, this was a little underwhelming compared to the other places to see in the park. If you’re just looking for things to kill time, then I’d say go ahead and drive on the short dirt road to see this. But, if you’re trying to choose between other things to do, I would choose other things.
- 49 Palms Oasis Hike – Read my separate blog post about this fun hike here.
If you have time, I would suggest driving all the way through the park to experience the change in scenery that comes with the transition from the Mojave to the Colorado desert. If you are more limited on time, a really nice little 25 mile tour would be entering through the north entrance (it is less busy than the west entrance), and following Park Boulevard all the way through and exiting the west entrance. You’ll pass by Skull Rock, Cap Rock, and Hidden Valley, all referenced above. This is also where you will see the most Joshua trees and impressive rock formations throughout the entire park.
Although this was our first time to Joshua Tree, I can’t wait to go back and add to the list above. Let me know if you’ve been to Joshua Tree and have any suggestions for places to explore.