The BEST guide to California’s Joshua Tree + National Park

There is no other landscape quite like Joshua Tree. Huge rock formations look as though they’ve simply been sprinkled from the sky, the twisted, spiny branches of the Joshua Trees reach up to the sky and snow-capped mountains loom on the horizon. As another warm, sunshine-filled day comes to an end, the sky turns shades of dusty pink and blue then suddenly comes alive with stars. There are no words that can properly describe the magic in the air but I think U2’s Joshua Tree Album does a pretty good job of bringing the area to life through sound. Joshua Tree had been on our travel bucket list for as long as I can remember and after finally getting the chance, we wanted to share all our top travel tips! These are the things we learned while planning and after visiting. Hopefully, they help you plan your very own amazing adventure to this beautiful part of the world.

Where is Joshua Tree?

You’ll find Joshua Tree located in southern California within driving distance from major cities Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Diego. The National Park straddles the Colorado and Mojave deserts offering an abundance of rugged landscapes and stunning vistas to explore. To the north of the National Park, you’ll find a string of little towns offering food, accommodation and park access. Joshua Tree (the town) is located right where you see the red marker on the map below, allowing easy access to the National Park via the West Entrance Station, a short drive from the Visitor Centre. Just as a point of reference, J Tree is close to Palm Springs and Coachella, names you may have heard before.

How do I get to Joshua Tree?

We decided to visit Joshua Tree on the back of a work trip to San Diego. It’s a place we had always dreamed of seeing and I figured if we didn’t do it while we were in San Diego, we may not get another chance for a while! We hired a car and drove the 164 miles from San Diego to Joshua Tree on a Friday afternoon. Google Maps suggested it would take around 2 hours 43 minutes to get there but I’d say it took closer to 4 hours. The traffic around the Los Angeles area, even just on the outskirt highways, was quite heavy and slowed us down quite a lot. I would recommend allowing more time than you think you need, just to be on the safe side.

While we drove from San Diego, you could also drive from other major cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and even Tucson. The closest airports to Joshua Tree are Palm Springs International, around 45 minutes drive from Joshua Tree and Ontario International Airport, located just outside LA as well, of course, as LAX. I’d be surprised if anyone were flying to the states just to visit Joshua Tree. It’s more than likely your visit would form part of a greater trip, like ours did! Either way, you’ll definitely need to hire a car in order to get around Joshua Tree and access the National Park properly. The only exception I can see to this would be if you were doing a cycling trip of some sort. We hired our car in San Diego and opted for an SUV, just to be on the safe side. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t necessary but if I had to do it again, I’d still go with the bigger car just for comfort during the long drives.

On the way back to San Diego we decided to drive the long way, making a quick lunch stop along the Salton Sea and then onward to Salvation Mountain and Slab City. As big fans of the movie, ‘Into The Wild,’ both are places we’ve always wanted to visit. Again, it felt like if we didn’t visit on this trip, we probably wouldn’t get the chance for a long time. If you’ve ever wanted to go and have the time/resources to do so, I recommend! We really enjoyed it.

Salvation Mountain
How long should I spend in Joshua Tree?

When I was planning our trip my first instinct was to make it a quick jaunt out and back. In the end, I decided if we were going all that way we shouldn’t rush it and I’m really glad I arrived at that decision. We stayed in Joshua Tree for three nights, arriving on Friday evening and leaving late Monday morning. We found this gave us a great amount of time to try different restaurants and cafes, see Joshua Tree and surrounding areas as well as get into the National Park at different times of the day to see and do all that we wanted.

As part of a larger trip, I think three nights is a good amount of time for most people. If you were keen to do some of the longer hikes within the park or make it your primary holiday destination, I’m sure you could stay for a week or so but, for me, that would’ve felt like too long. We made sure to drive back to San Diego the day prior to our flight so we knew, even if there was a major problem with the car or some other disaster, that we would make our flight the following evening, no matter what! I wouldn’t have felt comfortable driving from Joshua Tree back to San Diego the same day as our flight.

Where is the best place to stay in Joshua Tree?

If you jump on a hotel booking website, you won’t find too many inspiring accommodation options. As I discovered, after a very depressing hotel search, Airbnb is your best bet! There are Airbnb options to suit every budget but, honestly, you get what you pay for. I saw some spots for as little as $50 per night (even less!) but they aren’t the kind of place I’d feel comfortable staying. I also saw some stunning places for around $500 per night but they were way outside our budget. In the end, we found a happy medium, opting to pay slightly more than we wanted to so we could get a place we would actually enjoy. When we arrived, I was really glad we had because we had a fantastic stay!

We stayed at an Airbnb named ‘Avenue Polaris,’ for a little over AU$500 for three nights. Our host, Ethan, was amazing! We’re very picky and choosy when it comes to Airbnb and really only use it when it’s the best option and we find a place we love. Avenue Polaris was beautifully set up with absolutely everything we needed for our stay. Ethan gave us all the help we needed, even when it came to ordering pizza late one night! The accommodation was private, very quiet, comfortable, well-sized and the perfect base for our adventures.

When you’re looking for a place to stay, figuring out the best spot can be overwhelming. This is especially true if you haven’t visit before and have no concept of where everything is! We stayed in Joshua Tree, with our Airbnb located off Sunburst Avenue. We loved this location as it was close to everything, especially great food spots and the National Park entry. I probably wouldn’t recommend staying in Pioneer Town, the Yucca Valley or Twentynine Palms as they’re a bit further out from the heart of Joshua Tree and, personally, the extra drive time would have bothered me.

As we drove through the National Park we got the chance to see some of the camping sites and they actually looked fantastic! Set among the park’s stunning rock formations, they’d be the perfect backdrop for a wild adventure. The sites appeared to have nearby amenities and small fire/cooking pits to use. For those with the appropriate kit, they’d be a great spot to stay. During our visit, they appeared to be fully booked out so I’d say competition is fierce!

What are the best places to eat in Joshua Tree?

If you’re staying at an Airbnb you can make the most of having your own cooking facilities by stopping in at somewhere like Walmart. Grab a few bottles of wine, snacks and ingredients to make your favourite meal, then spend your night sitting out under the stars. We made sure our Airbnb had an outdoor fire pit so we could just that and really enjoyed it. Otherwise, there are a few different spots to eat around Joshua Tree (as listed below). I’ve only included those we were lucky enough to try but there are many more in addition to these. One thing to bear in mind is that the popular spots are always so busy so be prepared to wait and arrive earlier than you plan on eating, so you don’t wind up super hungry and having a food-related meltdown (me!)

  • We got pizza from Pie for the People on our first night in JTree and really enjoyed it – they have a great range of pizzas to choose from and are able to deliver if needed
  • Be sure to grab breakfast from the Crossroads Cafe as the food and coffee here are fantastic, as well as the service.
  • We also really enjoyed eating at Natural Sisters, a spot that serves up truly delicious (and filling) wraps, salads and more (we ate there twice we loved it so much!)
  • For great burgers and cold beers head directly to the Joshua Tree Saloon, which we found to be really well priced and the perfect spot for a chilled-out dinner
  • For a fast food fix, there are plenty of easy spots in the Yucca Valley, including Del Taco, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr, McDonald’s, Arby’s and so on
  • We tried to visit Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown after repeatedly seeing it on must-try lists but decided to leave after feeling put off by the service we received upon arriving. If you do decide to visit just be aware there’s a minimum 2-hour wait (usually 3 hours) for food and possibly a cover charge to get in.
What are the best things to do in Joshua Tree?

The number one drawcard to the area is, undoubtedly, Joshua Tree National Park. There are, however, a few other things you can see and do in the area as well:

  • Immerse yourself in the vibrant local arts scene by joining the Joshua Tree Art Walk, held on the second Saturday of each month
  • Check out the Joshua Tree Farmers Markets where you can buy goods from artisans or pick up some fresh produce
  • Join a local photography tour to help you capture the very best spots at the very best times!
  • Take a visit to the World Famous Crochet Museum (it’s actually really cute!)
  • Get your heart pumping with a spot of rock climbing by joining a climbing guide or taking a climbing class
  • Catch a flick at Smith’s Ranch Drive-In Movie Theatre and get your vintage vibes on!
  • Visit Pioneertown and spend a half hour or so checking out the old Western-style buildings
  • I know this is going to sound weird but… if you’re not from North America, you might like to go have a creep around the Walmart at Yucca Valley. I don’t know why, I just find it fascinating and love going into one to creep on all the interesting food, beauty products and even clothes they have in there! Not for everyone, I know, but something I always find fascinating.
What do I need to know about visiting Joshua Tree National Park?

Your first port of call, before entering the National Park, will be to one of the Visitor Centres. We visited the Joshua Tree Visitor Centre located on Park Road, the same road you will follow to gain access to the park via the West Entrance Station. Here, we spoke to the staff about our visit, asking any questions we had and getting some great local insight. We also pre-purchased our Parks Pass at a cost of US$30 which gave us 7 days access for all the occupants of our car (meaning it’s per vehicle, not per person). You can check current Fees & Passes information here.  You could purchase your Parks Pass at the entrance to the park but it holds up traffic/access so I think the polite thing to do is go to the Visitor Centre and get it sorted before entering the park.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua Tree National Park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. That said, there are different opening hours kept by visitor centres and, if you’re camping, certain times you’ll need to be aware of as well. You can check opening and closing times and important camping times here.  While at the Visitor Centre, we picked up a map and used it to find all the spots we wanted to visit over the two days we had. We circled them, headed into the park and decided to start by visiting the spot furthest away. Then we made our way back toward the West Entrance, stopping off at different spots as we went. We opted to do short walks and didn’t get stuck into any of the multi-day or long treks or rock climbing experiences. For us, it was more of a sightseeing trip rather than an adventure activity trip.

Before setting off into the National Park it’s important you’re stocked up on water, food and any emergency medical supplies you may need. It is a desert area so expect it to be quite dry and sapping, you’ll need to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. There are some great spots to sit and enjoy your lunch so I would recommend packing a picnic or snacks so you can just sit, soak in the fresh air and take it all in. Be sure to bring a hat, sunscreen and anything else you need to stop from getting sunburnt. Just be sure to take everything you brought into the park back out with you (this includes rubbish and food waste). For bonus points, pick up any litter you see discarded by others!

Skull Rock

It’s also very important you don’t touch anything, especially the Joshua Trees. Firstly, Federal Law prohibits taking or damaging National Park wildlife and plants. Not only that but Joshua Trees are also a protected species under state law. That means you can’t touch them, break off a piece to take home, climb, swing, lean against, hang a hammock from or do anything other than gaze at them lovingly! And, really, that’s the best way to experience them anyway. Joshua Trees form an important part of the local eco-system and they’re incredibly slow growing, add to that the impacts of global warming and you’ve got a precarious situation where any additional human-caused disturbance could have terrible ripple effects on the area.

Wildflowers

With our trusty map in hand, we found it very easy to find our way around Joshua Tree National Park. You shouldn’t need a GPS, just follow the map and stop off where the signs indicate! It’s really that simple. Here are all the spots we visited, though we did pull over and stop at many other points around the National Park when something beautiful grabbed our interest:

  • Cholla Cactus Garden
  • Arch Rock
  • Skull Rock
  • Hidden Valley
  • Barker Dam
  • Intersection Rock
  • Jumbo Rocks

I would also recommend visiting the park at different times so you get to see it in different types of light. We visited in the middle of the day and also during the late afternoon so we could experience it in golden hour. The sunsets in J Tree are stunning, so make sure you get to catch at least one as the sky becomes all beautiful shades of dusty blue and pink.

Useful travel resources for your trip to the United States

As always, our guides and content are completely free. If you found this post (or anything we do) useful, we’d be grateful if you considered using the affiliate links below. We’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Rest assured, these are the services we love and use ourselves. Thank you in advance for your support! Phoebe and Matt.

Agoda – one of our go-to sites for booking hotels
Skyscanner – our go-to for booking flights
RentalCars.com – a great search engine for renting a car
Booking.com – another of our go-to sites for booking hotels
TourRadar – a great search engine for booking tours
Uber – our go-to ground transport option

Little Grey Box

I'm a writer and presenter and my husband Matt is a videographer. Together, we run Little Grey Box; an award-winning travel blog and YouTube channel.

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