Rangers at Joshua Tree National Park state that visitation to the Park has doubled in the last four years, and that Spring, specifically Spring Break, is peak season. During this time, there are long waits to enter the park by car, day-use parking lots are filled by late morning, and first-come, first-serve campsites are next to impossible to find. Mid-day, rangers direct traffic at the spot in the road between Intersection Rock and Real Hidden Valley.
On the flip side, spring is the most beautiful time of year in the desert, especially when winter rains bring a brilliant desert bloom.
As flowers are blooming, temperatures in the park start to rise. Temperatures can range from 60’s to 90’s, and strong winds are prevalent. There is no water available in the park. It can be as far as a 30 minute drive to town to get water, so be sure to pack enough. All visitor centers have water available, and we have seen spigots at the Joshua Tree Entrance station and the Indian Cove Entrance station.
With some preparation for crowds and weather in March and April, Joshua Tree National Park can still be enjoyed. Here are a few tips on camping, day-use picnic areas, the Visitor Center, Junior Ranger Program, plants. and wildlife.
First Come First Serve sites are most popular because they are located closest to self-guided nature walks, popular rock climbing areas, pit toilets, and day use picnic areas. These sites are in Hidden Valley Campground, Ryan Campground, Belle Campground, and White Tank Campground. The best chance at getting a site in one of these campgrounds is to, slowly, drive the campgrounds during morning hours to spot someone packing up to vacate their site. Each campsite has a post with its number next to the accompanying parking spot. Pay stubs are displayed here and can be checked for ending dates for each site, if no one is around. There is still a fee for these sites. Bring cash or a checkbook and a pen to make this happen.
Alternatively, during peak season, mid-February to mid-May, sites in Jumbo Rocks Campground (in the main park), Cottonwood (near the south entrance), Black Rock Canyon (entrance in the town of Yucca Valley), and Indian Cove (entrance in the town of Twenty Nine Palms), can be reserved online ahead of time.
Private campgrounds and dispersed camping on BLM land is available if all sites in the park are full. Note that BLM land offers no services. There is no water, no toilets, no fire rings, no trashcans, no picnic tables, nothing but a dirt road and wide open desert. The dirt road did not require four wheel drive, but be aware as you pull off the road to park, some sand areas are soft and could cause a problem.
Day Use Picnic Areas
If you find yourself camping outside the park, or just driving through, take advantage of a day-use picnic spot. The park seems to be adding pit toilet bathrooms and picnic tables each year, so keep your eyes peeled for them. The set I know of are deep in the parking lot for Real Hidden Valley. The name Real Hidden Valley must be a climber’s name for the area because I don’t see it listed on the official Park map. This area is across Park Blvd from Hidden Valley Campground/Intersection Rock and a beautiful self-guided nature trail about a mile long leaves from here. Drive through the lot, past the trailhead and take the little spur road at the back and loop around where you will find about six tables spread along the drive, parking spots, a trash bin, and pit toilet bathrooms. These are open dawn to dusk.
In the world of outdoor adventure sports, Joshua Tree National Park is best known as a climbing destination. Climbers have been visiting the area since it was National Monument status, there were no paved roads, no parking lots with curbs, and campgrounds were free. Rock climbing guide books to the area list over 4000 roped climbing routes and boulder problems. It is climbing Mecca. Buy a guide book or visit Nomad Ventures, the local climbing shop in the town of Joshua Tree and only a few doors down from the Visitor Center.
Visitor Center + Junior Ranger Program
The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is located in the town of Joshua Tree on Park Blvd. at the northwest entrance to the park. Inside, rangers are available to answer questions about your visit. In addition, you will find a gift shop, displays about the desert environment, and the last flush toilets you will see until you exit the park.
Junior Ranger workbooks are distributed at the visitor center and at the entrance station. These are written for kids, ages 4-14. Children are asked to observe their surroundings and consider desert animals and their habitats. Once workbooks are completed, bring them to a visitor center and a ranger will check it, and ask a few questions. Finally, the Jr. Ranger will be sworn in by raising a hand and making a pledge to care for national parks. The entire experience is a worthwhile one, in my opinion.
Plants + Wildlife
First, desert plants are sharp, even those small, fuzzy-looking ones they call Teddy Bear Cholla. Desert plants have adapted to protect themselves from animals and the heat with thick spines and prickles. I would not recommend touching any desert plants, and be aware that they fall on the ground, get stuck in shoes and socks, and are painful to extract from skin.
Second, desert plants are unique and beautiful. The glossy, colored park map distributed at the entrance station shows the most common plants and animals found in the park. Joshua Tree National Park includes two desert habitats, depending on the elevation. The Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert are both filled with beautiful and interesting living things, including cactus, trees, flowers, lizards, jackrabbits, snakes, roadrunners, quail, tortoise, and bighorn sheep.
Spend enough time to see the desert life, hear the flapping of birds as they fly above, and feel the crunching of your feet as you walk through the desert sand. It is a unique place, one to be enjoyed and preserved. Hope to see you there.