I first visited Joshua Tree National Park over ten years ago. I was visiting my sister in LA for a few weeks and after watching endless hours of mindless tv, I asked her to take me to Joshua Tree. We left LA around 10am or so and arrived at the park around 2pm (after making the customary stop to grab a Big Mac). We had barely spent 20 minutes in the park- driven a few miles in the park and taken a couple of photos, when we decided to head back to LA. Joshua Tree park, it seemed, did not hold our interest. After all, we had better things to do in LA- like watching mindless tv! Since then, I have always remembered Joshua Tree as this arid, barren park which had not appealed to me.
Fast forward a few years. I moved to LA in the fall of 2006 and the travel bug bit me big time. The problem was that the only national park within a couple of hours driving distance was Joshua Tree. Even though I had not so pleasant memories of my previous trip, I decided to go to the park once again. The rationale being that if I did not like the park, I could always swing by Palm Springs or better still, do some mindless shopping at the outlet malls.
The park has three main entrances- one each from the West, North and South. Since I was driving from LA, taking the 10E, I decided to enter the park from the West entrance. The drive by the way, is really scenic, especially as one meanders between the windmills on the 10 freeway, just before exiting onto CA62 (which leads to the park).
At the entrance I was convinced by a very happy park ranger (I was able to count all of her pearly whites) to get an annual pass which would allow me entry into all the national and some state parks (the pass is called 'America the Beautiful' and is probably one of the best purchases I have made. I strongly believe in supporting the national park service and this pass is a bargain at an $80 value). This time around though, I was struck by the stark beauty of the park. I guess the last time I wasn't really 'looking'.
I think the best way to see this park is to drive from one end of the park to the other. Driving east from the West entrance along Park Boulevard, one can see lots of interesting rock formations and undulating landscapes. After crossing Hidden Valley campground, you can stop by to visit Keys Ranch and Barker Dam. South of Hidden Valley at Cap Rock, the road forks with the south segment leading to the Lost Horse Mine and Keys View, which offers spectacular views of the valley below. I have always obtained great shots from Keys View- whether it be sunrise or sunset. From Keys View one can see the San Jacinto Mountains and Palm Springs. Take it from me- Keys View is a must see and if you can stay on for the sunset or get there for the sunrise, you will be very happy.
Traveling east along Park Boulevard, you can check out Jumbo and Skull rocks. Skull rock is a pretty interesting rock formation that looks like- you guessed it- a skull! A lot of people spend some time here hiking or just chilling out (especially in the afternoons and evenings). Past Skull rock you can either go North towards the entrance or choose to go South towards Cottonwood. As you head South towards Cottonwood, the change in the scenery is quite dramatic, especially past the Cholla Cactus Gardens (which are really beautiful). The landscape starts to get pretty barren and flat especially in the Pinto Basin area. Incidentally, Pinto Basin is a great place to photograph wildflowers in the spring.
While heading towards the park's exit, stop to see Cottonwood Spring and the Lost Palm Oasis. There is also a visitor center at this point with restrooms etc. The park does not have any shops or restaurants, so make sure you come with food supplies and plenty of water (particularly in the summer months).
Since my second visit to Joshua Tree in early 2007, I have been there around six to seven times- the more I visit it, the more I like it. It should definitely be on your must see list should you be in the area (or even LA- it is after all only a three hour drive from LA).
Camping at Joshua Tree
There are nine campgrounds in Joshua Tree. Most of these are on a first-come first-served basis (viz. Belle, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, and White Tank. The Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds are first-come, first-served only during the summer months). I personally really like the Indian Cove campground (the only drawback being that vehicular access is from outside the park). Indian Cove is famous for its rocks and a lot of campers spend time climbing and hiking. Some of the campsites here are HUGE! At under $20 a night for a campsite, it's a great deal.
Booking for Indian Cove and Black Rock campgrounds can be made either via the phone or the internet. These two campgrounds may be reserved from September through the Memorial Day weekend up to six months in advance of the date you want to reserve.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your tent, sleeping bag and camera, and head out to Joshua Tree. Even Bono would approve!