The Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park

Two desert ecosystems combine for an otherworldly experience in California’s Joshua Tree National Park

I speak for the trees.

— Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Several small motorhomes jockey for parking spots along the cul-de-sac at the Keys View overlook in Joshua Tree National Park. Its 10 minutes to sunset and the vista over the Coachella Valley with the lights of Palm Springs winking in the distance takes my breath away. Where else with two feet planted on solid ground can you get a bird’s-eye view of the daunting San Andreas Fault? That crack sketched into the surface of the Earth is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the landscape. The menacing fault line marks one of the world’s most active tectonic boundaries; geological faults crisscross the entire park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to a National Park. By simply dipping your toe into the waters of the great outdoors your world is touched by greater health, improved mood, increased knowledge, all the while you are offering support to the preservation of one of the world’s finest treasures… and, national parks are a perfect place to go play.

Joshua Tree is one of my favorites in a long list of spectacular national parks in both Canada and the United States. It is arid, untamed, and remote. The super-sized boulders and wild-armed vegetation look like something from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. The night sky is dark and splashed with stars. When the wind blows, it really howls. The boulders are the size of large vehicles and the landscape is ablaze with cacti and hardy desert vegetation.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the Joshua tree forests lies a world of adventure that appeals to three important factors that compel people to enjoy it: accessibility, the draw of adventure, and inspiration.

The sprawling national park of almost 800,000 acres is the spot in southeastern California where the high Mojave and the low Colorado deserts converge. This transition zone of two distinct desert ecosystems is noteworthy creating a blended area of significant biological diversity. In desert ecosystems, elevation determines everything as desert plants and critters are extremely sensitive to the slightest change.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is home to bighorn sheep, cactus wrens, roadrunners, and desert iguanas. The threatened desert tortoise occasionally meanders across roadways. As in many desert settings, snakes often curl up below the rocks for shade.

On the adventure front, climbers find here a world-class climbing and repelling playground. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. It’s a true wilderness playground.  

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there is inspiration. Famous artists and musicians have taken from Joshua Tree ideas that have manifested into creative works that we all know and love… anybody out there a fan of Dr. Seuss? How about U2, Selena, John Lennon, Victoria Williams, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons, and Jim Morrison?

And then, there are the Joshua trees. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each is one of a kind. Every slight change of angle in your view produces what seems like an entirely different tree to look at.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving from the park’s northern entrance at Twentynine Palms to the southern entrance just off Interstate 10, you’ll dip from the higher elevation of the Mojave Desert section with some spots topping 5,000 feet to the lower elevation of the Colorado Desert. The higher elevations are home to the park’s namesake, the iconic Joshua trees. The lower, more arid lands are covered with the long, thin branches of the spindly ocotillo, prickly “jumping” cholla cacti, and green-barked palo verde shrubs. In springtime, it’s a blast of colorful wildflowers. Year-round, it’s a landscape with a lot of thorny vegetation encircled by rugged mountain ranges.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you come properly prepared (water, wide-brimmed hat, sturdy footwear, paper map), the trails and rocks of Joshua Tree are a dream for hiking and world-class bouldering. Pets are not allowed on the trails or in the backcountry so plan accordingly for their comfort and safety.

We explored the main roadways and stopped to hike at spots such as the nature trails through the boulders and the luxuriant Cholla Cactus Garden. Staff at the visitors centers can help you pick a suitable trail from among the almost 30 in the park which range from easy to challenging.

The park lends itself to exploring by short road trips or via a walk from one of the trailheads.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Hidden Valley, a popular one-mile loop winds through a rock-enclosed valley that at one time created secluded hideouts for cattle and horse rustlers. It’s was a nice way to get up close to the imposing stones. Farther down the park’s main road to the south, the Cholla Cactus Garden is a quarter-mile, flat pathway meandering through dense “gardens” of the “jumping” teddy bear cholla, a very prickly cacti known for attaching itself to unwary passersby.

The Mojave Desert part of the park is marked by jumbles of massive boulders interspersed with pinyon pines, junipers, prickly pear cacti, and yuccas. Thousands of established routes make the park a favorite destination for rock climbers.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The huge, ball-shaped masses of rock are granite that formed when molten fluid within the Earth’s crust was pushed to the surface about 250 million years ago. Over millennia of erosion, these granite boulders were left on the surface, many looking like piles of enormous marbles stacked and abandoned.

You can camp among these truck-size boulders at Jumbo Rocks, one of the park’s eight campgrounds. Only two campgrounds (Black Rock and Cottonwood) have water, flush toilets, and dump stations. Cottonwood is especially popular with RVers. At the Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds, RVs are limited to a maximum combined length of 25 feet (RV and a towed or towing vehicle); in the other campgrounds, the limit is 35 feet, space permitting.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rustic campgrounds offer a true desert experience. Most sites are at higher elevations, so nighttime can be chilly. Joshua Tree is remote wilderness and cell phone coverage is unreliable at best. Many campsites fill during the peak season of October to May—most can be reserved at

Many people come to contemplate and photograph the otherworldly Joshua trees that pepper the rolling desert of the park’s Mojave section. Growing at an unhurried rate of ½-inch to 3 inches per year, it is not a tree at all but a species of agave that can grow more than 40 feet tall. The clusters of waxy, spiny leaves provide homes for owls, woodpeckers, hawks, and many other birds. The “trees” are incredibly photogenic and one of the main reasons that people visit the park.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Despite the park’s remote setting and its dryer-than-dry ecosystem, I find that Joshua Tree draws me back again and again. It’s one of those indulgent destinations—one of the few spots to find the spiny trees, to feel tiny next to enormous round rocks, and to look upward into some of the darkest night skies in Southern California. It’s a camper’s dream.

Temperatures and weather can vary depending largely on elevation. In the winter months, prepare for chilly camping. When hiking, always carry water and warm clothing to layer. In remote areas, keep your fuel tank topped off. Be prepared for hot weather, too, as Joshua Tree is in the desert and can be sunny with very limited shade available.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware that rocks, plants, animals, and historic objects are protected in all national parks. Best practice is to enjoy but to leave them in their place.

Joshua Tree is operated by the National Park Service. If you have plans to visit several parks over the year investigate the America the Beautiful Pass which is valid for one full year from the month of purchase ($80). The pass covers entry to parks and many other government-operated sites but not camping or tour fees.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 792,623 acres; 591,624 of that is designated wilderness

Date established: October 31, 1994 (National Monument in 1936)

Location: Southeast California

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Park Elevation: 1,000 feet to 5,500 

Park entrance fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

Camping fee: $20-$25

Recreational visits (2021): 3,064,400

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: According to the National Park Service and legend of old, Joshua Tree was given its name by Mormon pioneers traveling west in the 19th century who thought that the branches looked like the biblical figure Joshua, reaching up to the heavens in prayer. 

Iconic site in the park: There are many iconic sites in this park but none more so than spots from where the Joshua Tree grows. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition. Their silhouette leaning against the desert sky sings songs of the Mojave Desert, the only place this “tree” (actually a yucca plant) naturally grows. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Accessible adventure: The Jumbo Rock campground is a doorway to some of the best features of the park and it seems that there is not one bad place to camp. Each has its own unique natural feature and some level of privacy. Drive in and choose your camping spot (first come, first served), pay the fee, and set up camp. Try to arrive early in the morning so you can nab a good spot—this place is popular and therefore busy all year long. 

Big adventure: Rock climbing! Joshua Tree is regarded as one of the best climbing destinations in the world offering enthusiasts from around the world thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Rock climbing is not for the faint of heart—proper equipment and training is mandatory. If you aren’t a technical climber, bouldering the tacky monzogranite rock faces offer another, really fun way to rise from the desert and catch panoramic views of this beautiful place. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado desert ecosystems come together (the Colorado desert is a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert).

According to the National Park Service website there are 93 miles of paved roads, 106 miles of unpaved roads; nine campgrounds with 523 campsites, two horse camps, 10 picnic areas; and 32 trailheads reaching out to 191 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. That’s a lot of access to Joshua Tree parkland! 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cover art of the first Eagles album (released in 1972) was captured in the Cholla Garden—one of my favorite places in the park. 

The boulders that Joshua Tree National Park is comprised of is a result of billions of years of heating and cooling of the Earth’s crust, and the effects of wind, sun, and erosion. 

Worth Pondering…

I love it there, it’s magical … Joshua Tree is one of those special places where you feel so close to everything.”

—Rita Coolidge

The 5 Most Spectacular Deserts in the US and Canada

This article takes a look at the four major deserts of the southwestern US and one in Western Canada

People may often think of deserts as hot places; however, some deserts can be quite cold. We have put together a list of some of the most incredible deserts in the US and Canada proving that they can be diverse places.

The Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert is in the southwestern United States primarily within southeastern California and southern Nevada and occupies 47,877 square miles. Small areas also extend into southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona. The Mojave receives less than 2 inches of precipitation every year which makes this desert the driest in North America. The hottest temperature recorded here is 134 degrees.

The Mojave Desert in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Across its wide expanse, the Mojave Desert experiences a significant change in elevation. The highest point located here is the Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet above sea level. In contrast, the lowest point is Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level. One of the most famous features of this desert is the Joshua Tree which is native to the Mojave. The Mojave is also home to the stunning Joshua Tree National Park and Valley of Fire State Park plus many unique towns and museums.

The Mojave Desert at Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View.

The Sonoran Desert in Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sonoran Desert

The Sonoran Desert covers large parts of the southwestern United States in Arizona and California and northwestern Mexico. It covers an area of around 100,000 square miles bordering the Mojave Desert, the Peninsular Ranges, and the Colorado Plateau. The lowest point in the Sonoran Desert is the Salton Sea which is 226 feet below sea level and has a higher salinity level than the Pacific Ocean. Other sources of water for this desert include the Colorado and Gila Rivers.

The Sonoran Desert in Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful landscape brimming with endemic fauna and flora including the Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti. The Saguaro can reach over 60 feet in height and grows branches from its main trunk resembling human arms. Its flowers are pollinated by bats, bees, and white-winged doves. Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Their fruit, like a saguaro, mature in July and have red pulp and small seeds.

The Sonoran Desert in Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area is also rich in culture with many Native American tribes calling the area home plus cities such as Phoenix and Tucson. Attractions include national parks such as Saguaro and Organ Pipe, state parks including Anza-Borrego and Lost Dutchman, and wildlife refuges such as the Kofa and Cabeza Prieta.

Saguaro National Park protects and preserves a giant saguaro cactus forest that stretches across the valley floor and mountains.  Saguaro is actually two parks separated by the city of Tucson: the Tucson Mountain District and the Rincon Mountain District.

The Sonoran Desert in Anza-Borrego State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake. This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ—you can almost hear them serenading the desert.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chihuahuan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert runs between the US and Mexico and is comprised of an area of 139,769 square miles. The majority of this desert is located in Mexico. On the US side, it can be found in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Chihuahuan Desert has a unique and ever-changing landscape. Its highest point is measured at 12,139 feet above sea level while its lowest point is at 1,969 feet above sea level but the vast majority of this desert lies at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000 feet. Although an arid desert, it is home to numerous plant and animal species including prickly pear cactus, agave, creosote bush, and yucca. Approximately 800,000 acres of this desert are protected by the Big Bend National Park. The Rio Grande River crosses the Chihuahuan Desert providing a much-needed source of water before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Located in southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

The Chihuahuan Desert in White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is in the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an “internally drained valley” called the Tularosa Basin. Given its arid climate, the temperatures at White Sands vary greatly both throughout the seasons and within a single day. The most comfortable time to visit weather-wise is autumn when daytime temperatures reach the 80s with light winds and cooler evening temperatures in the 50s. 

The Great Basin along the Fish Lake Scenic Byway in Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Basin Desert

The Great Basin Desert covers an area of around 190,000 square miles making it the largest of the major US deserts. It is considered a temperate desert that experiences hot and dry summers with cold and snowy winters. This effect is in part due to its higher-than-average elevations encompassing Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho. During most of the year, the Great Basin Desert is dry because of the Sierra Nevadas block moisture from the Pacific Ocean. This desert is home to the oldest known living organism in the world, the Bristlecone Pine tree. Some of these trees are estimated to be over 5,000 years old.

The Okanagan Desert near Oliver © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okanagan Desert

The Okanagan Desert is the common name for the semi-arid shrubland located in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia and Washington. It is centered around the city of Osoyoos and is the only semi-arid shrubland in Canada. Part of this ecosystem is referred to as the Nk’mip Desert by the Osoyoos Indian Band though it is identical to the shrublands elsewhere in the region. To the northwest of this area lies arid shrubland near Kamloops.

Skaha Lake in the Okanagan Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The countryside is stunning. A ribbon of lakes with sandy beaches threaded between slopes of ponderosa pines, granite cliffs, and vine-covered benchland. The Okanagan Valley is unusual in having been a tourist destination before it was a wine region rather than the other way round.

The Okanagan Valley is the heart of British Columbia’s grape-growing region and boasts more than 130 licensed wineries. An ever-changing panorama, the valley stretches over 150 miles, across distinct sub-regions, each with different soil and climate conditions suited to a range of varietals. 

Spotted Lake in the Okanagan Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The natural world has many wonders. One of the most remarkable is that of Spotted Lake near Osoyoos. It is a polka-dotted body-of-water that looks so bizarre you could be forgiven for thinking you were on an alien planet. During the summer the lake undergoes a remarkable transformation becoming spotted with different colors and waters that resemble a polka-dot design. This lake is also an important spiritual site for the local First Nation Peoples.

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known—as most men have not—either mountain or the desert, is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

Joshua Tree National Park: An Iconic Landscape That Rocks

Two major deserts, the Mojave and the Sonoran, come together in Joshua Tree National Park

A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases.

Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches.

Keys Point, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. This outstanding scenic point overlooks a breathtaking expanse of valley, mountain, and desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few roads pass through Joshua Tree, but entrances at both north and south ends of the park connect in a cross-park scenic drive, with spur roads to specific attractions.

Entering the park at the south entrance off I-10, our first stop was the Cottonwood Visitor Center where we picked up a map and park newspaper listing a number of ranger-led activities and hiking trails.

Cottonwood Springs Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Half a mile down the road we took a short walk to Cottonwood Springs Oasis, filled with thick California fan palms and large cottonwoods, all planted in the early 1900s by miners and pioneers who used this spring as their source of water. Grinding holes in nearby rocks tell the story of an even more ancient use of the oasis by Native Americans centuries ago. Cottonwood Spring is noted for its bird life. 

We continued north along Pinto Basin Road past Smoke Tree Wash and Porcupine Wash through Fried Liver Wash and Ocotillo Patch.

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cholla Cactus Garden, a few miles beyond, glowed in shades of soft, silver green. We hiked the ¼-mile loop nature walk with caution as this cactus isn’t referred to as “jumping cholla” for no reason. Just the slightest brush and a piece will imbed itself painfully into your skin. Remove carefully with a comb.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we continued north, the look of the desert changed and the temperature grew cooler. A roadside exhibit describes the merging of the Sonoran Desert we were leaving with the Mojave Desert beyond. The road snakes through enormous piles of monstrous boulders. Soon we were among the Joshua trees, whimsical looking plants with arms twisted in all directions.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua, pointing westward to the “promised land”.

Here in the Mojave, winters are harsher and more precipitation falls than in the Sonoran Desert which is lower in elevation and generally hotter.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fascinating geologic landscape of Joshua Tree has long fascinated visitors to this desert region. Smooth granite monoliths and rugged canyons testify to the tectonic and erosion forces that shaped this land. Washes, playas, alluvial fans, bajadas, desert varnish, igneous and metamorphic rocks interact to form a pattern of stark desert beauty.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

With 8 different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987