Exploring California’s Joshua Tree National Park

Exploring California’s Joshua Tree National Park

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Aug. 11 2021, Published 12:37 p.m. ET

Writer Paula Franklin journeyed through the Joshua Tree National Park with her family. She outlines the best spots for pictures, safety tips, and restaurant recommendations so that you can plan a perfect park trip. 

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Photography by Jacki Drexler

One of California’s most famous and Instagram-able parks, Joshua Tree National Park, spans approximately 800,000 acres where the higher Mojave Desert meets lower Colorado. Just a few hours outside of Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, about 2.8 million visitors come to the park each year to enjoy activities such as hiking, camping, photography, rock climbing, and taking sharable sunset and landscape photos. 

According to a recent National Park Service survey, Joshua Tree’s visitors remain overwhelmingly white, with just over 23 percent being people of color. In National Parks as a whole, Black Americans are consistently the most underrepresented. In 2018, only 6 percent of visitors identified as Black, a slight decline from the previous year. Representation is vital in all areas of our nation and her wild spaces belong to us all, so we asked contributor Paula Franklin to spend a day in the park with her family and report back. 

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The basics 

Your phone won’t work, so be sure to download all your maps and music before entering. There aren’t any services in the park, so you will need to stock up on food and water before entering. It can get very hot, especially in the summer, so have a few gallons of water per person to be safe. The park requires three gallons per person. 

Start from the bottom

Enter at the park’s south entrance and enjoy a few hours, mostly to yourself in the low desert. Enter from I-10 to Cottonwood Gate and Visitor’s Center, where you follow the road up to the West Station Entrance. While driving, you will start in the lower Colorado Desert, which offers spanning views of the landscape and mountains beyond. Markers along the way will tell you more about the Pinto people who called this area home 10,000 years ago and the evidence they left behind. 

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As you approach the “transition zone” in the middle of the park, you will start to see more visitors at the Cholla Cactus Garden, which looks like something straight out of the Dr. Seuss universe. Elevated wood paths will keep you a safe distance from the fuzzy-looking cacti known as teddy bear cholla, which are known for “jumping” onto people and animals that come too close. This is a quick loop path that circles through the primary forest of cacti. 

Just a few miles past the Cholla Garden, you will see the first iconic boulders of Joshua Tree on the horizon. You won’t find many people in this park area, making it an excellent location for pictures.

Arch Rock is one of the most photographed attractions in the park, and if you are planning to camp for the night, this is the best campsite option. The Arch Rock trail is about a mile trail from the parking and back in full sunlight for day-trippers. The trailhead is marked with signs reminding you “not to die today,” which serves as a tangible reminder to bring water with you. The path winds through large boulders and rock formations, so this is also prime climbing territory. 

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The Barker Dam Trail is the most popular in the park and the1.1-mile loop hiking trail is worth the crowds as it offers the perfect combinations of Joshua Trees, boulders, and views. The course begins as a narrow path between a massive rock formation that leads to a small artificial lake framed by the “Wonderland of Rocks” before looping to the “Disney Petroglyph” site where in the 1950s, a movie crew retraced the ancient rock carvings to make them more visible to the camera, defacing them forever. Suppose you check out the cliffs along the remainder of the trail. In that case, you’re likely to find some painted and untouched drawings depicting animals, humans, and other aspects of desert life as interpreted by long-ago civilizations. 

The drive to the exit is filled with boulder formations and Joshua Trees, so this is the best time to get all the pictures you missed before leaving the park. Just a few miles past the gate, make a quick stop in Pioneertown, particularly the Pioneertown Pantry, to load up on goodies like local honey and biscuit mix. If you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to La Palapa Mexican Restaurant to load up on Mexican classics. 

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Where to Stay

Hicksville Trailer Palace

3254 Yucca Mesa Rd

Yucca Valley, CA 92284

(442) 999-7273 | Website

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Mojave Sands

62121 29 Palms Hwy

Joshua Tree, CA 92252 

(760) 550-8063 | Website

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Pioneertown Motel

5240 Curtis Rd

Pioneertown, CA 92268

(760) 365-7001 | Website 

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Where to Eat

Pappy + Harriets

53688 Pioneertown Road

Pioneertown, CA 92268

(760) 365-5956 | Website 

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Natural Sisters

61695 Twentynine Palms Hwy

Joshua Tree, CA 92252

(760) 366-3600 | Website 

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Pie for the People

58960 Twentynine Palms Highway

Yucca Valley, CA 92284

(760) 366-0400 | Website 

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