K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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While it’s just a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park feels like an entirely different planet, filled with bizarrely-shaped plants indigenous to the region, like the Joshua tree, as well as ginormous boulders that rise hundreds of feet into the sky. The landscape truly has the appearance of a scene from a sci-fi movie and draws numerous nature lovers, photographers, hikers and rock climbers, who come from across the globe to climb the soaring, unique rock formations, over 4,500 established rock climbing routes. After dark, it becomes a stargazer’s paradise, with the brilliantly dark night skies a perfect backdrop. If you plan on visiting, be sure to put some of these top things to do on your list.
There are miles of hikes throughout Joshua Tree National Park, some that meander through the desert lined with colorful wildflowers, surrounded by all sorts of interesting desert plants and Joshua trees, ending at a lush oasis with towering stands of fan palms that create a canopy over tranquil pools of water. For a more strenuous hike, take the 3-mile round trip hike up Ryan Mountain, with the trail ascending 1,075 feet in just 1.5 miles, culminating at an elevation of 5,457 feet. Here you’ll be rewarded with spectacular panoramic views of jumbled rock formations and Joshua Tree forests surrounding the peak through the Queen, Lost Horse and Pleasant Valleys.
This park attracts rock climbers from around the world as the best place to climb in the state, though visitors of all types, including kids and the kid-at-heart, love to simply scramble up and down the massive boulders. Just down the road from the Hidden Valley Campground is the area known to climbers as “Real” Hidden Valley. Its most-visited site is Sports Challenge Rock, with a wide range of top-rope climbs, as well as some great places to practice leading. Leave it to Beaver, a 5.12a, is considered its centerpiece. Wonderland of Rocks is an with more routes than any other part of the park, including everything from easy bouldering to challenging lead climbs, while Hall of Horrors may sound terrifying but it’s actually great for all types of climbers from beginners to the most experienced.
History buffs will find lots to love in Joshua Tree too, like Barker Dam. Barker Dam is accessed by the 1.3-mile loop Barker Dam trail and constructed by early cattlemen, including C.O. Barker in 1900, and raised in 1949 by rancher and Joshua Tree legend Bill Key. If you’re looking for history and wildlife, come here just after sunrise during the spring or summer as Desert Bighorn Sheep and many species of birds often gather here for a refreshing drink.
The Wall Street Mill can be reached by following the Barker Dam road past the Barker Dam parking area to the Queen Valley Road parking lot. An easy three-quarter-mile trail will bring you to this gold mining mill, built by Bill Keys and used to process ore in the early 1900s. It’s considered to be one of the best-preserved mills in the park and is on the National Register of Historic Sites. There are many other sites to explore like Desert Queen Mine, Lost Horse Mine and Keys Ranch too.
Step into the Old West by visiting Pioneertown, a real-life town built in the 1940s as a film and television set as well as to house the starring actors. Today, the unincorporated village provides visitors with western entertainment and is the home of the famous Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a must-experience restaurant/bar/live music venue.
Joshua Tree National Park is home to all sorts of fascinating life, and the Teddy Bear cactus, along with the Joshua trees, are also a favorite here. Head to Cholla Cactus Garden east of the Jumbo Rocks campground and you’ll discover this impressive garden. The short but very sweet one-quarter-mile nature trail meanders through one of the park’s most endearing oddities. Take a stroll to get an up close and personal (but not too close) look at the hundreds of cacti of varying sizes, shapes, colors and even flowers.
Beware – the cholla cactus, or Teddy Bear cactus, may look cuddly but it’s anything but. The hollow spines allow them to easily attach to whatever they touch, like skin. The tips of their spines curve once they’ve made contact, making them difficult to remove.
Joshua Tree National Park is known as the ultimate playground for stargazers. It offers the best opportunity for Southern Californians to find the darkest skies with clear nights nearly every day of the year due to the low desert humidity and absence of light pollution. Visitors are often astounded when getting a glimpse of the night sky in such an unpolluted state, something that’s been recognized by the National Park Service for many years, with special stargazing gatherings offered throughout the year with the “My Night Sky” events allowing visitors to understand what they observe.
The desert is filled with a wide array of wildlife, although not all of it is readily visible. Sometimes it takes a closer look to actually see. Most people easily spot the many ground squirrels, lizards and birds that are found throughout the region, but by visiting near dawn or at dusk, you’ll have a better chance of viewing the many nocturnal animals who live here like the coyotes, kangaroo rats, black-tailed jack rabbits and even bobcats. There are also roughly 250 desert bighorn sheep that live in this park, and approximately 13,000 that live in the surrounding dry, desert mountain regions of southern Utah, northwestern Arizona, eastern California and throughout Nevada.
There are over 250 species of birds that have been recorded in the park, including the fascinating roadrunner which is unable to fly more than a few dozen yards but can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour when running. Gambel’s quail can be found throughout the year, with its tufts of feathers that sprout dramatically out of the top of the head, making them easy to spot. Other year-round bird residents include the mockingbird, verdin, Le Conte’s thrasher, mourning dove, rock wren and the cactus wren, which builds its nest in thorny desert plants like the cholla cactus.
Joshua Tree even boasts lots of interesting places to shop like JT Trailer Trash, an open-air mini-village with refurbished recreational vehicles and wooden sheds turned into small shops. Each trailer has a different theme with a variety of cool vintage items including clothing, cameras, record players, musical instruments, and collectibles. Wind Walkers is also worth a visit, specializing in local weavers and sculptors as well as pottery and crafts from Native American pueblos and reservations.