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One of the most extraordinary national reserves in the US, Joshua Tree National Park finds itself in sunny Southern California, set between the California coast and the Arizona border. Being comprised of both the Mojave and the Colorado Deserts, the entire area is a gargantuan ancient desert expanding over 790,000 square acres - a total size bigger than the whole state of Rhode Island.

Two very different landscapes abound in this vast, dry region, where Colorado and the Mojave Desert meet and mingle, carving out their own unique representations in distinct parts of the park. In the park's western sections, the Mojave Desert's influence runs wild, represented by the namesake Joshua Tree and a tirade of giant boulders and impressive rock formations to climb on. In the eastern areas of the park, the Colorado desert takes over, where its terrain is noticeably flatter and funky cacti stand tall, such as the intriguing Cholla cactus - also known as the 'teddy bear cactus' thanks to its soft, fuzzy appearance.

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Despite two characterful desert personalities at work and even clashing in some parts, Joshua Tree National Park hosts amazing expanses of Joshua Trees, unusual desert vegetation, otherworldly rock formations, almost 300 miles of trails, rock climbing adventures, starry night skies, and photo ops of stunning desert views at seemingly every turn.

Of course, this park is breathtaking, enchanting, magical, and even downright freakish at times - but visitors mustn't let its awe distract them from the truth that it is indeed a desert, one that can be hostile, hazardous, and dangerous to the unprepared. Still, with ample prior research and preparation beforehand, desert-bound adventurists can maximize safety and get the most enjoyment out of their trip - and here to help with exactly that comes this guide of dos and don'ts, along with locally sourced insider information detailing what park-goers need to know before packing up the car and heading to explore this vast desert park.

Don't Come Unprepared

Joshua Tree National Park is a hot, dry desert; visitors must come prepared for the extreme climate and severe lack of resources and amenities. Throughout the majority of the park, there's no water, no electricity, no hotels or accommodation, no food services or eateries, no cell phone reception, and certainly no streetlights - it is a desert in every sense of the word thus, visitors need to stock up on goods and bring their own.

Although there's not much in the way of accommodation bar a few AirBnB rentals here and there, over 300 campsites call the place home, allowing park explorers to lay their heads under the stars if they intend to stay the night. There are toilets in some parts, too - but they are 'basic' and not the flushing type.

Don't Forget To Bring Plenty Of Water

Leading on from the mention of 'water', drinking water is extremely difficult to come by in Joshua Tree National Park, and park rangers always recommend visitors bring all the water they'll need - and more. Ideally, each person should drink at least one gallon of water a day at a minimum, with even more being necessary to glug down if particularly strenuous exercise is on the day's itinerary.

Whether staying for a few hours or a few days camping, park-goers should bring plenty of water bottles (ideally, reusable ones in order to prevent plastic waste), and consider keeping a water cooler handy in their vehicle. A useful choice would be to bring multiple gallon water containers and fill them up before entering the park and keep them in the vehicle out of the sun; that way, there'll be plenty of H2O on hand - hopefully, more than what's needed.

Those who get caught short might be able to find potable water at the following locations, although they are dotted on the park's edge near the entrances/exits, not deep in the park when water would likely be needed most:

  • The West Entrance station
  • The Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms
  • Indian Cove Ranger Station
  • Black Rock Campground
  • Cottonwood Campground

Related: Mojave National Preserve Is Home To Joshua Trees (& More Adventures)

Don't Ignore Safety Signs

Signage peppered in and around the park will warn visitors to execute care while exploring, displaying friendly reminders to ensure safety and minimize the risk of heat stroke and dehydration, which include the following important tips:

  • Keep trails short and stop for rests in the shade regularly - it gets very hot, very quickly
  • Avoid hiking between 11 am and 6 pm - especially in the baking summer months
  • Drink at least a liter of water per hour, and consume salty snacks throughout the day
  • Wear sunscreen, a wide brim hat, light, breathable clothing, and sunglasses
  • Hikers should always hike with a buddy and tell an external friend or family member where within the park they're going

Should it become too hot and sunny, the solution is simple: drive the park instead. There's so much to see from the comfort of a vehicle, with lots of pullouts perfect for picture-taking and plenty of incredible sites to stop at along the trails. Explorers on wheels can even see tons of extraordinary sights without ever having to leave the car (or they can at least leave it just long to get a closer look) - simply look out for the marked 'exhibit head' signs, which indicate there's something worth stopping and parking up for.

Don't Rely On Phone Reception For Maps

Remember, cell phone service and data reception are sketchy and sporadic at best all over the park, as well as outside its confines; therefore, visitors cannot expect to rely on their smartphones for safety, emergencies, or directions. Instead, they'll have to do it the old-fashioned way; a paper map of the area will serve wannabe Indiana Joneses well, though downloading the park and its trails on Google Maps beforehand is also a viable option should good ol' paper maps be too much of a hassle. Still, for safety, a backup paper map kept on one's person is always wise in case of any technological mishaps with phones and similar devices used for navigation. Plus, a portable charger, car charger, and a power bank wouldn't go amiss to help prevent the chaos of a dead phone battery.

Related: Great Basin Desert: Why See America's High & Cold Desert

Don't Forget To Get Gas Before Entering The Park

Most national parks don't have gas stations, and Joshua Tree National Park is no exception. Depending on where visitors plan on going within the park, they could be driving several hours without any fill up points in sight. Because of the lack of fuel stations, grabbing a full tank of gas before venturing off to explore on wheels is of paramount importance - and there's no harm in carrying a spare tank or two, just in case. Wherever drivers intend to go and for however many miles, filling up either in Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, or Yucca Valley before entering the park's boundaries is a smart (and safe) move.

Don't Forget To Get An Annual Pass

Upon arrival at the park's entrance, the torturous question appears: Day Pass, or the Annual Inter-Agency Pass? Of course, the day pass is fine for those only visiting a national park for one day in the subsequent 365. However, the more expensive annual pass grants entry into every national park free of charge for the whole year from the date of purchase. This access means it's a done deal for folks who love national parks and intend to explore them more than once within the twelve months that follow.

Related: Colorado's Best National Parks, Ranked By Popularity

Don't Forget To Choose The Right Entrance

The main entrance to the national park is situated in the town of Joshua Tree - but don't be fooled, for this is the most popular gateway with long waiting lines in peak season, on weekends, and on public holidays. Unless visitors have the patience to wait in line, it's advised to use other entrances instead, such as the West Entrance (Highway 62) in Joshua Tree. This alternative entrance is a good choice during busier times, plus it's also the Iast chance to fill up any water containers - so don't forget to stock up before going through the park boundaries.

On the other hand, visitors coming from San Diego, Los Angeles, or Palm Springs may be better heading to the North Entrance (Highway 62) in Twentynine Palms, which typically sees much shorter lines on weekends. Not forgetting those coming from New Mexico, Indio, and Phoenix, folks from these parts, can enjoy more convenient access to the park at the South Entrance off Highway 10. In any case, no matter which entrance park-goers choose, they should always ask for a map and the latest newsletter when going through the gates - these items are sure to be handy during the trip.

Additionally, it's also worth noting that those arriving after the park's entrance stations are unmanned can still enter - and they can grab a free park map in one of the brown boxes at the stations. While after-hours visitors won't have to pay when they enter since park personnel won't be there, they will still be asked to show their receipt as proof of payment upon exit, which means those without a said receipt will have to pay when they leave.

If possible, park-goers should try to avoid arriving at noon on a Saturday. During this almighty rush hour, there have been reports of anything from 30 to 100 cars and RVs in line, which, when paired with the scorching sun, is the recipe for a crisp, toasted hell. However, those with the aforementioned Annual Pass sometimes get to skip the queue - sometimes, not always (hence it's so tempting to buy!)

Other Things To Know About Joshua Tree National Park Before Going

Aside from the dos and don'ts, there is a myriad of other useful things to know before visiting Joshua Tree National Park. From the ideal time to visit and wildlife encounters to activities, tours, and bringing four-legged friends along, next up is everything else park-bound travelers should take into account before jet-setting off to this sensational expanse of the desert world that's hard to believe is actually part of the earth.

When Is The Best Time To Visit Joshua Tree National Park?

Undeniably, one of the key pieces of information is the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park, which is said to be in the spring and fall. March until May and October through November are the most popular months and the most appealing time to explore the park, boasting comfortable temperatures that make for great hiking, camping, and driving escapades - but what about the rest of the year? Well, summertime is out of the question for those unversed in the ways of the desert; it gets hot - and that means hot.

Temperatures can skyrocket to more than 100° F in the height of summer, made even more unbearable by the water-sucking dry desert heat and scarcity of shade in which to seek solace. Conversely, the winter months aren't so ideal either, with temperatures lingering in the 50s and 60s° F - although it can plummet to freezing and below come nightfall, much to unseasoned campers' discomfort.

An even more compelling reason to visit Joshua Tree National Park in spring is the fact it's the wildflower season - as long as the winter rains are enough, however. Catching the landscapes' wild flora is all about timing it right; California's wildflower populations begin flourishing at lower elevations in Death Valley first, gradually making their way up to the High Desert of Joshua Tree. Under the right conditions, seasonal wildflowers bloom and decorate Joshua Tree's desert expanses from February to May, with April right in the middle being the best floral month - generally speaking.

Related: 10 Best U.S. National Parks For Those With Kids

Watch Out For Wildlife

Joshua Tree plays host to a surprising amount of wildlife, given it's mostly a dry, inhabitable desert for many lifeforms. Visitors should always keep in mind they're guests in an unknown realm, a place that many a critter call home - so respecting them and leaving them be is crucial, not just for their safety but also for humans, too. As a rule, people should watch where they put their feet, especially when boulder-climbing and avoid putting hands and legs into any woodpiles, bushes, or under any rocks without checking them first. It's not worth any bites or stings, not to mention hurting any non-human park-dwellers by standing on them or destroying their abodes.

None of these warnings and precautions mean wildlife-watching can't be enjoyed, though; visitors should take care to do so from a distance, that's all. Amazingly, a wide array of creatures thrives in the park, including lots of birds, lizards, jackrabbits, foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, snakes (in fact, there are at least six snake species living in the park), and even tortoises - who sometimes cross the road in search of water, so watch out for these little fellas when driving. In any instance, looking out for wildlife and giving it a wide birth is essential for safety and ensuring the preservation of the landscape's biodiversity.

Enjoy Local-Led Tours And Experiences

Those not confident in their ability to navigate Joshua Tree National Park or simply prefer someone with experience and expertise to lead the way can rest assured there are many tour guides and activity organizers operating within its boundaries. A stacked roster of activities and adventures can be had in the park, with many of them led by knowledgeable locals of Joshua Tree.

From rock climbing trips and guided hikes to action-packed Jeep tours and tranquil guided meditation and sound baths experiences, it'll be difficult to choose among the numerous excursions in the park and its surrounding parts - another reason to get that Annual Pass and come back multiple times for new adventures, or at least stay for a day or two at any of the few hundred camping grounds.

Related: Top 10 Best National Parks Around The World In 2022

Explore Nearby Towns And Cities

Sure, Joshua Tree National Park is the definition of 'the middle of nowhere,' and its closest major city is around two hours away. Be that as it may, directly outside the park are three lovely small towns prime for sampling: Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley, along with several other even smaller towns dotted across the map as well. What's more, despite being a remote desert, the place is well-connected to the rest of the country moreover the world; five international airports are found within a two or three-hour drive, offering visitors from far and wide reasonably convenient access.

The airports near Joshua Tree National Park are:

  • Anaheim Los Angeles Airport
  • John Wayne Airport
  • Hollywood Burbank Airport
  • San Diego Airport
  • Las Vegas Nevada Airport

Related: If Joshua Tree National Park Is On Your Bucket List, Then These Cabins Are The Perfect Way To Spend The Night

Are Dogs Allowed In Joshua Tree National Park?

Much like the rest of the country's national parks, dogs are permitted in the park on leash; however, only in designated areas. Furry pals are allowed at all the picnic sites and campgrounds, as well as the paved trails of Keys View Trail and Oasis of Mara - just be careful of hot pavements and sidewalks when traversing paved parts; they heat up fast under the sweltering sun and can burn pets' paws (try to walk these sections during the cooler hours instead).

Also, remember, never leave a pet inside the vehicle; the heat of a hot car can kill an animal in mere minutes, as can leaving them tied up or unattended - which is against the law.

In addition to the paved trails, certain unpaved roads aren't actually off-limits to pets - details on these exact roads, along with other pet regulations, can be found on the Joshua Tree National Park gov website's pet information page (check it out before planning that trip with Fido).

Furthermore, visitors who'd like to bring their pet but fear it may be unsuitable to do so can make use of the pet boarding facilities located in the local communities, such as Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree, and Yucca Valley. Some pet boarding services might also be available in nearby Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and other nearby areas.

Related: Tips For Stargazing That Will Change The Way You See The Sky

Stargazing

Last but not least, Joshua Tree is one of the USA's (actually, the globe's) best stargazing hotspots, providing the ultimate excuse to camp for the night. As a certified International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree National Park boasts a truly ethereal starry sky, all thanks to its location in the High Desert at 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level and far away from the light pollution of cities.

For the best stargazing opportunities with bright night skies, the east side of the park is unbeatable since there's minimal light interference from major metropolises. From here, the nearest urban sprawl is Phoenix, around 300 miles in the distance, so light pollution is almost zero in these eastern parts.

Finally, one more top tip to take away entails the ever-changing seasons of stars and moon. For the most dazzling stargazing vistas across the black abyss up above, visitors should plan their trip when the moon isn't in the night sky (use Google to check the moon phase and its rising and setting times during any given month at Joshua Tree National Park). After all, the moon is a light source, the sun's rays bouncing off its back and shining on planet earth at night, so it's best to stargaze when it's making merely a fleeting appearance, or ideally, not at all.