Known for its spectacular setting of colorful cactus fields, remarkable massive rock formations and of course the distinctive landscape of whimsical Joshua Trees, Joshua Tree National Park has become the SoCal hotspot for travelers. The nearly 800,000 acres of scenic natural beauty has long been visited by artists who use the area’s relaxed vibe, cool energy and magical essence for inspiration. But in the last 15 years, it’s grown into a premier desert getaway.
Located two hours south of Los Angeles, the small community of around 8,000 in the Mojave Desert, is an eclectic mixture of yoga, music, artwork, shopping, nature and restaurants/bars. Although I’m a SoCal native, I only just went to Joshua Tree for my first time and completely fell in love with its diversity, uniqueness and tranquility.
While you can easily explore on your own, to fully understand its charm take a tour, which is what I did. I signed up with Joshua Tree Excursions and opted to see the highlights of the park. I not only saw the most beautiful sights, but learned about the area from my guide Kelly Crawford.
Fun Facts and Tips
Joshua Tree isn’t a city or a town. It’s an unincorporated community in San Bernardino County. All the services like law enforcement and fire departments are provided by the county.
“The best way to describe Joshua Tree is an up and coming Sedona area. 15 years ago, Joshua Tree was just a dent in the road. Nobody really came. It’s undergoing a renaissance largely driven by the LA art, music and outdoor recreation community. Especially with the draw to National Tree Park, Joshua Tree is one of the most desirable locations in the Southern California deserts to visit,” Crawford explained.
Visitors to the park have increased 20 percent for the last six years. In 2018, it’s estimated that three million tourists will visit the park.
It’s a very spiritual area and there’s a lot of Native American history.
Dogs are allowed to be in the park on leash, but not on the trails.
You can do hiking, rock climbing, camping and yoga retreats in the park.
There’s only three entrances to the park–Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms and Cottonwood. 70 percent of people enter at the Joshua Tree entrance and there’s usually a long line to get in. You can wait over an hour, so instead drive an extra 20 minutes to the Twentynine Palms entrance. There’s no wait. Or try the Cottonwood entrance where there’s no wait time as well.
There are restrooms throughout the park.
Joshua Tree became a national park in 1994 when President Clinton signed the Desert Protection Act.
Joshua trees only grow in the Mojave Desert and grow very slowly, which is why they’re protected. On average they grow between a half to three quarters of an inch every year. It’s illegal to cut them down and you can’t hang anything on them. They’re very fragile and have a delicate root system, so you can only transplant them. Their average lifespan is 400 years, but there’s one in the park that’s at least 1,000 years old.
Places to Eat
Twentynine Palms inn is a great place to eat, which is near the Twentynine Palms park entrance. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith used to hang out there, so it must be cool! Pie for the People–NY style pizza, Sam’s Indian Food & Pizza, Castnañeda’s Mexica Food, Crossroads Cafe & Tavern, Joshua Tree Salon and for vegetarians like myself, Natural Sister Cafe is fantastic. It’s next door to the health food store, which is a good spot to pick up snacks.
Places to Stay
Joshua Tree Inn. I stayed here and loved it. It’s a funky bohemian style motel that is well-kept, fun and has great customer service. I rented the Rocky Vista cabin, which is more like a three bedroom house, and it’s down the street from the inn. So it’s a separate property, but you have access to the courtyard.
There are some lower end motels you can stay at, or do Airbnb. However, if you go this route, please be extremely considerate. Apparently there are now more airbnb rentals than anything else in Joshua Tree, so new random strangers are there every couple of days. The locals are welcoming and friendly, but feel like they will get burnt out on this soon. So be nice!
What to see in the Park
Here’s a few of the highlights:
Keys Viewpoint is where you should go to see the sunset.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail, Ryan Mountain, Cap Rock and Cholla Cactus Garden are also must sees.
A day tour with Joshua Tree Excursions is normally about six hours or so. If you just want to drive around to take photos and see the sights, you should be able to do most of them. However, you can customize any tour with the company to hike, camp, rock climb, do yoga retreats and much more. It’s totally worth doing a tour because you’ll see so much more than you would on your own and you’ll walk away with insightful knowledge of the park. Not to mention, Kelly and his team of guides, are personable and know the best spots to take amazing photos.
Downtown Joshua Tree
The downtown area is about four blocks long, but packed with fun and interesting things to do. There are art galleries, museums, and a local swap meet. In addition, you can do drum medicine journeys, which is similar to a guided transcendental meditation. It is a shamanic practice that brings inner peace and wellness, learn to get hands on with wolves at the at the Wolf Mountain Sanctuary and do falconry.
Pioneertown is a 15 minute drive from downtown Joshua Tree and it was built in 1946. It was originally designed for actors like Gene Autry to film their movies and Western TV shows, but now it’s a cool place for travelers to check out.
There is one motel called the Pioneertown Motel and there is airbnb. Pioneertown is dog friendly, but check with your accommodations to make sure pets are welcomed.
Pappy & Harriet’s is the only restaurant there, but it’s also the one of the most popular music venues for live acts to play. And it’s attracting big names like Paul McCartney, who performed there last year. They’re open for lunch and dinner and while you can walk in, it’s highly recommended to make a dinner reservation at least one month in advance. I went for lunch and had no problems getting a table, however.
There are a few retail shops tucked away inside of the wooden buildings and you can find some cute things like pottery, which I’m a sucker for, art work and crafts. Some of the stores don’t open until later in the day so be patient.
While there’s not much to the town, it’s absolutely worth going to hang out at Pappy and Harriet’s and to see all of the amazing randomness.