Joshua Tree National Park:
I have been going to Palm Desert almost every year in March to watch the professional tennis event and I always talk about going to Joshua Tree National Park but have yet to do it. This year (2010) was different as I took out the map and decided that driving through the park would be a fun adventure. March is a great time of year to go to Joshua Tree NP as the weather is mild and if the winter was wet, you will see lots of wild flowers. My brother had done rock climbing and bouldering in the national park back in the 1980's and had always told me to visit Joshua Tree when I had the chance. I was looking forward to seeing the actual Joshua Tree up close and walking amongst the rock formations in the park. We approached the park from the south along Hwy 10 and started at the Cottonwood Visitor Center - which was about 45 minutes from Palm Desert. It feels like you are out in the middle of nowhere as you drive into the national park - there is one sign for Joshua Tree, so pay attention as you drive out on Hwy 10. If you have a choice, the northwest entrance has more to offer than the south.
Joshua Tree National Park - Location and Map:
Joshua Tree is located in the southeast section of California about 140 miles east of Los Angeles. You have a few options when you are planning your trip to visit Joshua Tree National Park. There are actually 3 entrances to the park - west, north, and south. Most people are visiting the Palm Springs area when going to the park so any entrance is fine, although we suggest the West Entrance if you don't plan on driving all the way through Joshua Tree. There is an excellent map of Joshua Tree National Park HERE
which shows the West Entrance Station which is right off of Hwy 62 as you head past Yucca Valley and get near the town of Joshua Tree. This entrance is the best as you immediately enter into some of the best scenery the park offers. Hidden Valley (see below) is the perfect spot for a small hike and not too far from there are excellent sections with large amounts of the Joshua tree itself. The rock formations are plentiful as well. If you check out the PDF map we listed above, you will see names of particular areas like Cholla Cactus Garden and Jumbo Rocks. It's worth stopping along the way to get out of your car and take a closer look at these specimens. We spent about 3 hours total inside the park which seemed like enough, unless you want to do more hiking in which case camping at one of the campgrounds is a good idea. A general map of the surrounding area can be seen below.
Hiking and Campgrounds:
Hiking or rock climbing is probably the #1 reason why people venture out to Joshua Tree NP in California. The rock formations like Jumbo Rocks, White Tank, and those found at Hidden Valley are definitely cool to see. There are lots of hiking trails to explore vast reaches of the park, although most day visitors stick close to the road. While hiking in Joshua Tree you may see things like Bighorn sheep, a cactus wren, roadrunners, quail, desert tortoise, and even iguanas. We did see some birds along our hike, but nothing too special. I thought the cactus garden was especially beautiful, but there is not a lot around this area. You'll need to drive in from the south entrance or come further in from the west or north entrances as the garden is smack in the middle of things. Driving along the road was easy and in some parts you can go 45 miles per hour to get through sections that are just empty desert. From the Cottonwood Visitor Center to Belle was about 45 minutes with not much to see. Keys View is supposedly worth the drive (if you have the extra time), it's located at 5000+ feet above sea level and gives you excellent views from the park in almost all directions. In the summer, the weather at Joshua Tree can be extremely hot so take liquids if you are hiking and always have something to drink in your car in case you breakdown. You can drive across the park in less than 2 hours, so it's not exactly dangerous, but in extreme temperatures it's always better safe than sorry. By all means, get out at least once and take a small walk/hike if possible. The Hidden Valley is one of the parks most popular hikes, within a few minutes you are in amongst huge rocks and a different world. The campgrounds at Joshua Tree are pretty barren, no tree cover and I'm sure they can get pretty hot in the summer. Best time to camp would be fall or spring in the desert. We saw plenty of campers at Hidden Valley and White Tank.
Hours and Visitor Centers:
Ok, so you want to visit the park. The good news is that it is open year round, but consider the weather when planning your trip. Although the park barely gets over 4 inches a year of rain (on average), the heat of summer is what keeps visitors away. Fall and springs are the popular months, but it was hardly crowded when I went in the middle of March this year. The Cottonwood Visitor center is open all year from 9AM to 3 PM and it's about 8 miles north of Interstate 10 highway. There you can pay your daily fee and get a pass for your car. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is open from 8AM to 5 PM daily and so is the Oasis Visitor Center at Twentynine Palms. Again, the best part of the park is in the section between Joshua Tree (the town) as you head south into the park and past Hidden Valley and over Sheep Pass out towards Jumbo Rocks and White Tank campground. I did the entire park and saw the Ocotillo Patch and Cholla Cactus Garden, but beyond that going south there is not much to see.