Joshua Tree is one of America’s favorite desert destinations. From its Dr. Seuss-like namesake trees and reliably spectacular sunsets to an area named (without exaggeration) Wonderland of Rocks, it’s no secret why “J Tree” has become Instagram famous. Two and a half hours east of Los Angeles (depending on traffic, of course), Joshua Tree contains two distinct ecosystems of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. And FYI, those Joshua trees (aka Yucca brevifolia) are not trees at all; they are members of the agave plant family.
Joshua Tree National Park is, in a word, vast. The park is 800,000 acres, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. Elevation ranges from 536 feet at its low point to the 5,814-foot peak of Quail Mountain. There are 270 miles of hiking trails within the park, and J Tree is home to more than 6,000 established rock climbing routes. Come for the outdoor adventure or simply the spectacular scenery. You won’t be alone: #joshuatree has literally millions of posts on Instagram. A little careful planning, however, will allow you to peacefully experience all that this national park has to offer.
Geology and Ecology
Joshua Tree is a geologically fascinating park, from the unusual rock formations within the park to the San Andreas Fault, which you can see from Keys View. Evidence shows that the rounded monzogranite domes were initially created by volcanic eruptions 100 million years ago, then softer rock weathered away to reveal the contemporary landscape. As for the ecosystems in the park, the northern Mojave Desert part of the park is the classic Joshua Tree you expect to see: Joshua trees and granite domes. The Colorado Desert takes up the southeastern portion of the park, where you will see cholla cactus (best viewed backlit at sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden). The westernmost part of the park is in the Little San Bernardino Mountains ecosystem, found in the Black Rock area, where you will find junipers and pinyon pines.
People have inhabited this desert for 5,000 years. The Indigenous inhabitants were the Pinto, Serrano, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla peoples. Park archaeologists have determined that Joshua Tree is home to more than 100 plants they used for food, medicine and raw material. Their descendants are the Native American people who still live in the area today, including nine bands of the Cahuilla people, each with tribal governments and reservations.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, ranchers, miners and homesteaders moved in. Some artifacts from this history are still visible in Joshua Tree, like the Lost Horse Mine site, reachable by a 4-mile round-trip hike from Keys View Road. In large part due to the advocacy of Pasadena socialite, gardener and desert lover Minerva Hoyt, Joshua Tree was designated a national monument in 1936. In 1994, Congress upgraded its status to national park, adding more acreage and bringing it up to its current size.
Summer. Unlike most national parks, summer is not the season to visit J Tree. In fact, with daytime temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees, June, July and August are months to avoid. It’s not that you can’t visit the park then, but searching out nighttime activities and high elevations will be necessary.
Spring and fall. March, April, October and November are the ideal times to visit Joshua Tree. Joshua trees bloom in these spring months. Daytime temperatures can reach into the 80s, but with super low humidity, this is comfortable weather. Lows are still above freezing, and days are reasonably long. The only downside is that visitation is highest in the spring and fall. Try visiting on a weekday or searching out more remote trailheads away from Hidden Valley.
Winter. This is still a nice time to visit J Tree. Daytime temperatures often break 60 degrees, and the sun keeps things comfortable, though the wind can be cold. Temperatures are higher at lower elevations, like in Indian Cove, which is home to plenty of trails and climbing routes. Nighttime temperatures are (often literally) freezing. And considering how short the days are, be sure to have a plan for the evenings with proper clothing and firewood if you camp.