Joshua Tree National Park has a rugged landscape, which isn’t surprising since it includes parts of both the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Notably, the park is also home to most of the world’s Joshua trees, which explains its name.
The park, located just outside Palm Springs, California, is also very popular. In fact, Joshua Tree was the tenth most-visited national park in the U.S. last year — drawing 2.4 million visitors. In 2019, about 2.8 million visitors traveled to Joshua Tree to enjoy activities such as hiking, camping, photography, rock climbing, and simply enjoying the desert scenery — including its spectacular sunsets.
When planning a trip to Joshua Tree, there are two factors that must be considered. The first is those crowds. The larger consideration, however, is the park’s desert wilderness environment.
The staff at the National Park Service (NPS) understand that planning a trip to Joshua Tree can be challenging. To help make planning your trip easier, NPS has released its “Top 10 Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park” as part of its “Plan Like a Park Ranger” series. These tips explain how Joshua Tree’s rangers themselves would plan a trip to the park.
So, let’s get to it. Here are Joshua Tree’s park rangers’ vacation-planning tips.
1. Leave No Trace
Rangers ask visitors to “Take only photos and leave only footprints,” so they can Leave No Trace.
“Pack out all trash and watch out for wind!” the rangers explain. “Joshua Tree is frequently windy, so unsecured, lightweight items on picnic tables, car seats, or even in pockets can easily get swept away by the wind and become unintended trash.”
You can learn about the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace here.
2. Always Leave A Note
Joshua Tree is a desert environment, which sometimes can be dangerous – especially for hikers and campers.
“Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back,” the rangers explain. “It’s also important to make sure you have a solid check-in time with that person and that they know who to call if they cannot reach you. Safety buddies save lives.”
Pro Tip: To report an emergency or a missing person in Joshua Tree, you can call park authorities at (909) 383-5651 or by calling 911.
3. Pack Your Patience
The busiest time of the year at Joshua Tree is from fall to spring because the temperatures are cooler.
If you’re planning a trip then, the rangers have some special advice for you. “The park will be crowded!” they explain. “Be prepared for long lines, limited parking, packed trails, and full campgrounds.”
4. Take The Road Less Traveled
There are many ways to escape the crowds, the rangers explain. One of their favorite trips is to drive down Pinto Basin Road and stop at the roadside pull-outs to explore the transition between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Another suggested trip is to have a picnic at Live Oak Picnic Area, and then walk across the street to hike the Split Rock Trail.
Finally, the rangers suggest exploring the trails near your campground. However, they ask that you not use campgrounds for parking if you aren’t camped there.
5. Bring Your Own Water
“We often take clean, running water for granted, but potable (treated) water is non-existent in most of Joshua Tree,” the rangers point out. “Bring your own water and bring more than you think you need. Extra props if you bring reusable water containers!”
Pro Tip: During the summer, expect high temperatures, intense sunlight, and low humidity due to the arid desert environment. You’ll need to plan on drinking at least one gallon of water per day to prevent dehydration.
6. The Early Visitor Gets The Parking Spot
Like all national parks, Joshua Tree gets busy early, so rangers suggest planning to arrive at your destination before 9 a.m.
“You may need to choose your hike based on where you find parking,” rangers explain. “Never create a parking spot by driving on vegetation, even if the vegetation looks dead. Also, the park may become drive-through only when all of the parking areas fill up.”
Pro Tip: The busiest days at Joshua Tree are weekends and days around holidays. Your best chance to avoid crowds is to visit the park during the middle of the week — although you’ll still want to arrive early.
7. Plan For Your Pet
We all love our pets and like to travel with them. However, rangers point out that when visiting Joshua Tree, you’ll need to either walk leashed pets on roads and in campgrounds or leave them at home.
“The desert is hot and filled with spikey plants and sharp rocks,” rangers explain. “Never bring a pet on a trail, in the backcountry, or in wilderness. Our wildlife will thank you and your pet’s sensitive paws will thank you too.”
Rangers also note that it is never safe to leave pets in a vehicle in the desert — even with the windows cracked.
You can learn more about pet regulations at Joshua Tree here.
8. There Are No Bad Sunset Spots
Everyone wants to know where the “best” spot to watch the sunset is, but the rangers explain that there are hundreds of great spots to watch the sunset in Joshua Tree. What’s more, rangers who have worked at Joshua Tree for 10 years say they are still discovering new favorite spots.
If you don’t know where to start, rangers suggest viewing the sunset from Cap Rock, The Cholla Cactus Garden, Quail Springs, or anywhere along the Ryan Mountain Trail.
Pro Tip: The summit of Ryan Mountain is 1.5 miles and 1,000 feet in elevation away from the parking lot, which means it can be hazardous walking the trail in low light or darkness. Instead, if you hike a few hundred feet up the trail, you’ll see beautiful views of the desert and sunset — and walking back to the parking lot will be safer, rangers advise.
9. Sing The “ABC’s” Of Planning
“Have a ‘Plan A,’ ‘Plan B,’ and ‘Plan C,’” rangers explain, because “many things are out of your control in the desert — including unbearable heat, monsoonal downpours, and lack of campsite and parking availability.”
To really be prepared, rangers urge doing your research and creating an extensive list of things you’d like to see at Joshua Tree. They suggest, for instance, creating a list of both indoor and outdoor activities and locations you’d like to visit.
“That way, if the weather is too hot or too stormy, you’ll already be prepared for indoor activities,” rangers note. “If you are camping, we highly recommend booking your site in advance. Most campers cannot find an open, first-come, first-serve site during the park’s busy season from October through early June.”
10. Download The NPS App
The NPS App provides interactive maps, tours of park places, and on-the-ground accessibility information about more than 400 national parks to make trip planning easier. The free app can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play.
Joshua Tree rangers advise downloading the app before you arrive and downloading offline content in advance as well. Here’s why: There is no cell service in most of the park and you’ll need to have content available on your phone so it’s always accessible.While you’re thinking about the park, be sure to read all the rest of our Joshua Tree National Park coverage. The park is outside Palm Springs, so be sure to check out that coverage and our California coverage as well.