If, like me, you’re from the East Coast, the words “Joshua Tree” probably summon up the U2 album of the (almost) same name. But it’s also the name of a hugely popular National Park about two and a half hours from Los Angeles.
My wife and I spent a week visiting the park in early April, happy to escape the cold and rainy Northeast. We were looking for arid heat to renew and cheer us and we got that in spades. We didn’t come back spiritually refreshed, or anything like that, but we did return with elevated moods.
Here’s an overview of the park, in case you ever want to visit:
The Park Itself
Joshua Tree National Park is a huge expanse of wilderness that includes both the Mojave and Colorado deserts. It lacks many of the jaw-dropping features of the more famous parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, or Big Bend, but it has a unique grandeur of its own.
The landscape consists of flat deserts populated with cacti, the Seuss-like Joshua Trees that give the park its name and bizarre mounds of boulders. It was my continual frustration not to be able to take really great photos. The color palate in pretty monotonous, consisting of variations of brown (ranging from khaki tan to milk chocolate) leavened occasionally by tarragon green, which made it hard to capture the depth or height of the objects.
And it’s hot. Even in April the park can be hot. Yes, it’s a “dry heat,” but the sun can be baking and by early afternoon we were always too hot to continue hiking. And to be honest, you’d be crazy to be hiking all afternoon if you’re staying at a place with a swimming pool.
Joshua Tree is probably closer to a major metropolitan area than any other National Park, which makes it an easy day trip from Los Angeles or Palm Springs. This means its vast expanses can sometimes get a little crowded. It’s also surprisingly popular as a camping destination. There were campgrounds everywhere, nestled in between dunes, pinion pines and rock heaps.
A typical rock heap
I’m a little surprised at the popularity of the campsites because the park itself is very unsparing. No food or potable water is offered anywhere inside the park and there are no showers, ranger stations, lodges, or concession stands. The only sign of civilization are the frequent toilets scattered throughout the campgrounds and at each trail head. These bathrooms don’t have running water, though, so don’t expect to wash your hands. The bottom line if you’re camping is that you need to bring in every ounce of food, water or fuel you expect to consume.
A Word About The Joshua Tree
As noted, the park is named after the Joshua Tree, a tall yucca plant with a twisted trunk and three to six branches reaching straight up that are crowned with spiky leaves. The tree (or “tree” depending on how you define a tree because this is not really a woody plant) was named by the Mormons after the prophet Joshua, who reached out his arms to God in prayer.
The park is aptly named after these trees because they are everywhere. There are so many of them in the middle of the park that it begins to look like the vineyards in Napa Valley, or more sinister, like an army of zombies.
This always reminded me of “The Night Of The Living Dead”
I had always thought that the U2 album was named after the park, but in reality, the album is named “The Joshua Tree,” in other words, it’s dedicated to a specific tree, which is supposed to symbolize the hardiness of the American spirit or some such BS. Further, the photo on the album cover was shot pretty far away from the park (and by the way, that particular tree has since fallen down, which hasn’t stopped fans from going to great lengths to track it down.)
Attractions — Mostly Hiking
You could spend the better part of a day driving around the park looking at the sites from the car and you’d probably get a good sense of how remarkable the landscape is, but I’d certainly recommend getting out of the vehicle and walking around a little to get the full effect. The park offers many different hiking trails of various levels of difficulty. We took some pretty aggressive hikes, but didn’t kill ourselves. Here are the highlights:
This probably the most popular spot in the park. It’s located about half an hour from each of the park’s northern gates so really accessible. The parking lot to the entrance is slightly misnamed — the sign identifies it as the Hidden Valley picnic area.
The site is a huge ring of stone piles and rock walls with a relatively flat surface in the middle. To get inside you squeeze through a narrow entrance and once there you feel like you’re in a Disney attraction. Boulders are strewn everywhere , providing a foreground for the rocky cliffs in back of them. There’s a one-mile trail around the inner circle of the bowl that takes about an hour to complete. Perfect for kids and geezers.
The story they tell is that in the 1800’s cattle rustlers used to hide their contraband inside the hidden valley, which was once covered with grass. It might even be true, but the real attraction is the weird landscape and the awe it evokes.
Lost Horse Mine Loop
This is a six mile loop up and around a mountain that’s considered a “strenuous” hike. You can cut that in half if you just go up to the abandoned mine and back, which is what we did. Total elevation is about 600 feet, which doesn’t sound like much but when you’re my ago you can climb a long way and huff and puff a lot only to discover that you’re only up 100 feet.
But the trek to the discarded mine is worth the effort. The views are spectacular especially once you reach the mine itself and hike a little bit higher to the summit, which provides a full 360 degree view of Lost Horse Valley. (By the way, this is another trail with signage issues — there’s no sign on the spur path leading up to the mine.)
Skull Rock Trail
Easily accessible from the 29 Palms park entrance, this is a mile and a half loop trail that begins at skull rock itself — a giant bolder with hollows where the eyes and mouth would be on a human skull. The skull is very photogenic, with people posing for photos all day long in the “eye holes.” The trail itself is not too arduous and very scenic — again, if rocks and cacti are your idea of scenery.
The only downside is that the trail is bisected by the main road and for long stretches you can see or hear cars buzzing by, which undercuts the illusion that you are off on a solitary wilderness exploration. Also, about halfway through the trail you enter the Skull Rock campsite and there are no signs to tell you that you need to walk down the road, among the campers before you pick up the trail again.
49 Palms Oasis
This hike is technically in the park but it’s not accessible through the main entrances. You drive down a road in the town of 29 Palms to a parking lot where the trail head begins and just start hiking. In other words, there is no entrance fee. You walk up the side of a 300 foot hill and down the other side to reach a lovely oasis that may or may not have 49 Palms. It’s a great place to rest before the walk back. It’s about a mile and a half each way so a nice morning’s hike.
Two crazy stories about the hike.
First, as we were returning we came across a large tortoise in the middle of the path and an Asian woman who pleaded with us to move the animal far away from the path because if the “Chinese people” came across it, they would take it. My wife forbade me to touch the thing and fortunately it crawled away on its own. Later I mused on the improbability of anyone from any nationality carrying this very heavy tortoise out of the park in a backpack. Was the woman looking for help herself Chinese? Couldn’t tell.
Then, we walked about a quarter of a mile further and I spied a rattlesnake on a rock next to the path. He didn’t look too happy and was curled up and ready to spring, which I’m sure he would have done if I’d continued another five feet. I stepped back and we had a face-off until he eventually slithered off and settled into a completely camouflaged coil under a rock. Never reach under a rock in the desert!!!
Cholla Cactus Garden
This is not really a hike — it’s more of a half-mile stroll through a mass of cholla cacti, which are short cute (but potentially painful) plants that seem to glow in the sun. I wouldn’t make this a priority but if you are driving from the Park’s north entrance to the south entrance at Cottonwood, it’s definitely worth a stop.
Lost Palms Oasis
I am told this is a great hike. It’s a “strenuous” seven miles down and back to a canyon with an oasis. Unfortunately it’s over an hour drive from where we were staying at the southern exit of the park and we could only check it out on the day we left the park for good. We walked about a half mile in and out and it’s a very nice hike — the geography is slightly different because this is part of the Colorado desert, so there are no Joshua Trees. But still plenty of rocks.
Also, not really a hike. This is a scenic overlook about 45 minutes from the northern park entrances. You can get out and walk along the overlook, which provides a pretty spectacular view of Palm Springs and the mountains behind them. The quality of the view depends entirely on the quality of the air. The day we went was windy so their air was dusty and opaque.
Hall of Horrors
About five minutes down the road from Hidden Valley is a parking lot for “Hidden Horrors,” which is rarely mentioned in the guidebooks as a destination, but it’s a nice little diversion. It’s essentially an unmarked half-mile ramble between two ranges of rock heaps. This place is apparently popular with amateur rock climbers who like to leap from rock to rock. Better make sure your sneakers have a good grip because a slip could be painful.
Accommodations and Eating
We stayed at the 29 Palms Inn, having learned about from this glowing piece in The New York Times. This is not really an inn like we’d think of in New England, it’s actually a collection of adobe cottages clustered around an oasis. It’s a pretty dreamy spot. We never put on our air conditioning because the thick walls kept the room cool during the day and at night open windows would let in the desert breezes (we’d wake up to temperatures in the 40’s after having been in 90’s heat during the day).
Crucially, the inn had a nice swimming pool, where we’d retire mid-afternoon to cool off in the water, read our books and sip free Arnold Palmers. There were four or five families with small children staying at the hotel, many of them from the UK or Germany, and it was fun to watch the kids slowly get to know each other and play together in the water. Eventually we’d learn all their names and reminisce about the days when our own house was full of a gaggle of exuberant toddlers or tweens.
The inn also has the best restaurant in town, featuring interesting California-American cuisine. Every night we were there the restaurant had set aside a table for a dozen different senior Marine officers, who were either stationed at or visiting the neighboring Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. Great guys — serious and respectful. Other than that, it’s first come first serve for tables. (And people eat early here. It gets full at 5:00 p.m.)
We also ate at the famous Pappy and Harriet’s, which is a sprawling western theme park of a place up in the mountains. The place is located in Pioneertown, a former movie set that is now mostly a backdrop for selfies. The restaurant is always packed (you should call for reservations weeks in advance) and the southwestern food is heaping.
Live music starts at 7: a few years ago some lucky patrons were surprised by a short set by Paul McCartney. But Lucinda Williams and other famous roots musicians have performed there. The walls are covered with posters, photos, license plates, and stuffed animals and there’s definitely a happy friendly vibe.
Another great place to hangout is the Joshua Tree Saloon, which has many of the same elements as Pappy and Harriett’s, including cool decor, live music, and huge piles of food but is more relaxed because it’s not the destination that Pappy and Harriett’s is.
I loved spending four nights at the 29 Palms Inn, hiking in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, taking naps and generally chilling out. If you live in Los Angeles and have never been to Joshua Tree you’re crazy. This would be a fun day trip and a terrific weekend getaway.
If you’re from the East Coast and have never been to a national park, this would not be the place to start. Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are must-sees before Joshua Tree. Yet for really getting away from it all and slowing down, there’s nothing quite like the desert. By all means put this park high on your list.