What Makes Joshua Tree National Park so Unique?

One of the national parks long on my list was Joshua Tree National Park. But I didn’t know too much about it except for its desert setting and the Dr. Suess-like trees that frequently show up in photographs. From what I could tell during preliminary research, the park isn’t known for its sweeping vistas akin to Yosemite, Zion and Grand Canyon. It obviously doesn’t host common national park features like lakes, waterfalls and rivers. I was skeptical.

We decided to see for ourselves during a recent spring break trip. We spent two full days in the park as a stopover between Death Valley and the Channel Islands. Our visit was in April: a little too early for wildflower blooms (boo), a little too early for rattlesnake appearances (yay), late enough for the daytime temps to reach Hot AF! Here are the features that make this park unique and worth your time. Now that I’m in the know.

Joshua Trees

Once you see the number of Joshua trees that grow in the park, you will realize it is aptly  named. Legend has it that Mormon settlers named the tree after the biblical figure of Joshua reaching his hands up to the sky. Here’s an interesting fact for music lovers: U2 named their bestselling album after these trees, following a trip through the Mojave Desert in 1986. Interestingly enough, the iconic tree pictured on their album jacket was actually located in Death Valley and no longer stands. At any rate, you will drive past thousands and thousands of Joshua trees – and you will take just as many pictures . . .

They are addicting in their weirdness. Did you know that the Joshua tree, which is technically neither a tree or a cactus, grows only in the Mojave Desert? They literally grow nowhere else in the world but California, Arizona and Utah. I know, cool!

Wildflowers & Cacti

There are several species of cactus and wildflowers in the park. We were there when the mojave mound cactus was blooming, and they were beautiful! Any burst of color in the muted desert surroundings is fun to see.

Under the right conditions, and if your timing is right, you will get to see one of the park’s most beautiful sights. For a few weeks in the spring, Joshua Tree blooms an array of colors. This does not happen every year; only following winters with adequate rainfall. For more information about wildflowers, peruse the Botanical Trail Guides or the Wildflower Report before your visit.

About 30 miles from the West entrance is the Cholla Cactus Garden, where you can view thousands of densely concentrated cholla cactus – also known as teddy bear cactus for their “fluffy” appearance. Don’t be fooled though! The cholla cactus is notorious for it’s painful and hard to remove spikes which attach easily to those who get too close. The trail is .25 miles long and takes roughly 30 minutes. The garden is a good place to go for sunset or sunrise.

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Giant Rocks

After the Joshua trees, the huge granite rock formations located throughout the park are another visual highlight – and climbing them is a fun activity. These surreal-looking rock piles are clustered in several areas along Park Boulevard from Hidden Valley all the way past the White Tank campground.

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When our kids saw the first rock piles as we entered the park, they yelled at us to pull over so they could explore. Some formations resemble giant piles of dripped wax . . . others are huge smooth outcroppings . . . all are perfect for climbing. Make sure to spend some of your time exploring among them. Take in some amazing views and enjoy the quiet. We did this for hours, in several different spots. A great place to start is the Jumbo Rocks area.

Many large stand-alone rocks have become their own attraction and are aptly named. Most are easy to see by car or a short walk. Some are located via longer hikes. Pictured below is Split Rock, situated at the beginning of the Split Rock Loop Trail.

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Other notables include:

  • Arch Rock and Heart Rock, via a short hike on Arch Rock Trail, from the White Tank campground parking lot.
  • Cap Rock, from a wheelchair accessible loop starting at the Cap Rock parking area (junction of Park Boulevard and Keys View Road).
  • Skull Rock, situated along Park Boulevard before the Jumbo Rock area. This rock is visible from the road and many cars will be lined up to take pictures.

Beautiful Skies

Sunsets in Joshua Tree are absolutely stunning. I thought an amazing sunset had to include an ocean, but I stand corrected. Desert sunsets are the stuff of dreams – especially when you pair them with those darn trees.

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During the day, we would scope out a perfect place to watch the sunset – a rock pile with unobstructed West-facing views. We would return about 45 minutes before dusk, climb to the perfect perch, and just wait for the show (our favorite spot was about 15 minutes from the West entrance station right before the Hidden Valley area).

Every night was better than the previous one. The skies were decorated with hues of yellow, pink and orange – and, with the perfect positioning, a crooked silhouette.

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Due to its high desert elevation and location far from any major cities, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to observe the night sky. There is even a Night Sky Festival in November that features an astrophotography workshop, plus morning and nighttime astronomy sessions. Stargazing is excellent on any clear night, but to get the most out of your experience, do a little pre-planning with these websites below:


Planning Tips

Itinerary. Spending 1-2 days in the park? Read Road Trip: Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Channel Islands National Parks for some ideas on what to do.

Surrounding Area. A comprehensive guide for planning your time outside the park is the Joshua Tree Visitors Guide. It includes information about local restaurants, events, artists and more.

Where to Stay. Camping would be amazing, if you are local and have all the gear. All campsites were marked “full” in early April so it would be wise to reserve a campsite in the park ahead of time, especially over a weekend. We stayed at an AirBnB about 2 miles from the West entrance station so we could come and go without a lot of extra driving time. By the way, many AirBnBs in this area are filled with gorgeous midcentury furniture, desert decor and unique artwork. Take a look.

Timing. Due to the intense dry heat and lack of shade, it was nice to split the day in half. We would drive in around 9 AM and explore for several hours; leave by late afternoon for a smoothie in town and some shade. After an early dinner, we would head back in to find our sunset spot.

Maps. You will not be able to rely on WiFi or cell service for navigation inside the park so plan your stops ahead of time. Make sure to grab trail maps at a a visitor center and ask any questions you might have. National Park Maps is a good planning resource for trail maps inside the park. The map below includes some of the trailheads and highlights mentioned above. The blue icons are the park entrances and visitor centers. Click on the icons for more information about each point.


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3 thoughts on “What Makes Joshua Tree National Park so Unique?

  1. Pingback: 3 Iconic Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park – Vacation Coffee

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