Cover image by Ben Horton.
Calling all Weekend Warriors—fill up your Camelbacks, pack up your tents, and grab some trail mix because it’s time to hit the road, destination: Joshua Tree.
In order to experience all you can in three short days, set up camp close to the park the night before your excursion begins at a glamorous Hipcamp spot called The Star Bed at the Lovelight Ranch. You’ll be there just in time for the most epic stargazing of your life, posted up in a king-sized bed perched high on a rooftop deck.
Photo by Katherine Van Hengel.
If you’re not into sharing a bed with your smelly camp-mate, Lovelight also has tent spots available. You can set up anywhere around the property, and you’re provided access to outdoor bath and kitchen facilities, as well as a shared fire ring.
Set your alarms and head out early in order to fit every adventure possible into your first day exploring this expansive, beautiful park.
As you enter the eastern side of Joshua Tree, turn off at the Cottonwood Visitor Center to fill up on water, pay your park entrance fee, and get a map from the rangers. Directly down the road from the visitors center is the trailhead to the Lost Palms Oasis Hike, a 7.4 mile moderately trafficked out and back trail that makes for a great day hike. After traveling several miles over hard-packed sand marked by cholla cacti and Ocotillo, the shade of the towering fan-palms is a welcomed reprieve. Be sure to venture into the Lost Palms Canyon to see the lush vegetation and crystal clear stream.If you’ve got enough energy on the return trip, cut off the trail to Mastodon Peak, a short scramble up to the top of a rock tower overlooking the valley.
Cholla Cactus Garden by Matt MacDonald.
Once you’re back on the road, be sure to pull over for a stroll through the Cholla Cactus Garden. The short nature trail winds through a picturesque cluster of “jumping” cholla, named for the tendency of its spines to break off and cling to those passing by.As you continue to drive deeper into the park, you’ll begin to notice subtle differences in the desert landscape. The eastern side of the park is encompassed by the Colorado Desert, which joins and slowly succumbs to the Mojave Desert on the western side. This is where you will begin to spot the symbolic wild-armed Joshua Tree. Though the name is somewhat deceiving, they are not actually trees but a species of Yucca. Looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, they can grow to over 40 feet tall at the leisurely rate of an inch per year.
Make your way to Hipcamp-approved Jumbo Rocks Campground, the largest in the park surrounded by massive boulders, complete with picnic tables, fire rings, and pit toilets. The spots fill up fast so be sure to have a backup in mind, and bring your own water as well!
Photo of Jumbo Rocks Campground by Kylie Turley
While chowing down on your campfire breakfast, be on the lookout for rock climbers scaling the massive slabs and cracks. J Tree is one of America’s most accessible yet challenging rock-climbing areas, drawing adventurers from around the world.
Climbing Headstone Rock by Emily White.
The momentous stacks of boulders are almost as iconic to Joshua Tree as the trees. The White Tank campground, just down the road from Jumbo Rocks, is a great place to pull over and play around on the boulders. A short hike down the Arch Rock Nature Trail located at the campground will bring you to an awesome natural arch.
Photo by Emily White.
On the way back from White Tank, watch for signs for Skull Rock and jump out for a quick picture inside the skeletal boulder. If your stomach is rumbling by this point, stop for lunch at Hidden Valley Pinic Area, and if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of the coyotes who frequent this spot. To work off those PB&Js, hike the short 1.25 mile Hidden Valley Loop Trail which winds through a stony maze to a “hidden” bowl where, according to local legend, thieves once hid with their stolen cattle.
About a half hour before sunset, take the 6-mile scenic drive up to Keys View, a premier vantage point offering fantastic views of surrounding Coachella Valley farmlands, Salton Sea, and Sonoran Desert Mountains
Once the sleeping bags are rolled up and the camp chairs have been packed away, head west to the Barker Dam Trail. This 1.3 mile loop takes you past an out-of-place pond built by cattle hearders and into a more secluded “hidden valley” where you can even track down some petroglyphs.
Photo of Barker Dam by Tara Schatz.
Make your exit from the park out of the west entrance, and be sure to stop at Coyote Corner for the best selection of Joshua Tree souvenirs. If you’re still up for one last adventure, head towards Twentynine Palms to the Indian Cove area to explore Rattlesnake Canyon. With huge rounded boulders, sandy ravines, and river-carved rock, this hike offers a glimpse into some of the most unusual landscape in Joshua Tree.
End your trip on a high note and stop in Pie for the People, a delicious local pizza place located in the heart of Joshua Tree proper. If it’s a nice day, sit on their comfortable patio and soak up your final desert rays. They have great daily specials and it’s BYOB, so eat and drink your fill (responsibly) before returning to reality.
Emily White is a writer, climber, hiker, and all-around adventurer living life out of a camper wherever the road may take her. Follow her journey on Instagram @emilyelizwhite.