Joshua Tree has been on my list of parks to visit for a very long time, but deciding where to see it from can be a little confusing. The main part of the park isn’t really that large, but the entire span is big and there are three separate visitor centers/entrances. Ultimately we decided to stay in 29 Palms (more about that later) and we initially entered through the West Entrance Station. I was surprised that the entrances only had one paying gate, but thankfully there was a ranger who saw our National Parks pass and waved us through. It was Thanksgiving holiday week when we visited but I was a bit surprised by the traffic at the entrances.
Despite the $30 day fee (covered by our annual National Parks Pass) this park is extremely limited in the services it provides. Water is available in only a few areas in the park and there are no restaurants or Gift Shops inside. Instead the Visitors centers are located outside the park and can actually be a little hard to find. The only restrooms are vault/pit toilets and although we saw them we never saw more than one in any location. They were also universally ill cared for on all three days we visited with one (at Key View a popular spot) having a broken door that wouldn’t stay closed. Don’t get me wrong I loved the park but the bathrooms were a real issue and I truly expect more from a National Park with this many visitors.
The first day we went in we left Jack at home because we had read that none of the trails allowed dogs. As we often do when first visiting a park we drive the main roads, getting the lay of the land. One thing that is really interesting about the desert is from the road it often looks incredibly boring, but once you get out and walk a little (and there are tons of paths and trails) it’s really quite beautiful. Joshua Tree certainly did not disappoint in the beautiful surroundings category.
Joshua Tree is known for rock climbing and we saw people climbing all three days. We also did some scrambling ourselves and Jack even got into the action the second day when we came back to drive the secondary roads. Those were marked in grey and well graded but we took the rangers advice and stayed off the 4×4 roads. Those had deep sand and our truck would not have done well. If you want to bring your dog I absolutely recommend going on the secondary roads, because there are lots of quiet spaces on them where they can get out and run. As long as the dog stays within 100 feet of the road you are fine and frankly I wouldn’t wander farther than that anyway unless on a very well marked trail. It’s easy to turn a corner in the rocks and lose sight of your vehicle which is why bringing water is key even if you are going on a quick walk. There is also very little cell coverage in park and we used our map extensively.
One of the big draws of the park is the Joshua Trees but to be honest for me they weren’t as impressive as I thought they would be. They are actually two types of Giant Yucca plants named Joshua Trees by the Mormon settlers. Don’t get me wrong a few were pretty special but the rock formations were amazing! There were several campgrounds tucked into the rocks as well. The winter is their season and everything is booked well in advance but for us there were just a few sites we would have fit into anyway. Almost all the sites were for tent campers or super small truck campers and they were mainly taken by young climbers. Even if you find a site that might work remember there is no cell and the roads getting to the site itself are NOT big rig friendly. Hate to say your better off camping outside the park and to get the in the rocks experience go to City of Rocks or Goblin Valley instead.
Overall the weather was fantastic and only got hot when we went out on a couple of hikes (more on them in the next post). We ended up driving all of the accessible roads, many are dead ends but totally worth going down and back. The views are very different depending on which way you are traveling on the same road so its worth going on everything twice! Key View is definitely an area you don’t want to skip because it gives you views of the valley and the mountains off in the distance.
We even went all the way down to Cottonwood Visitor Center which was a bit of a bust (they were only taking cash and we didn’t have any) and then we drove around the park and back to 29 Palms. This was a long and sometimes boring drive but we always like to see all areas of a park accessible by car. Shortly after leaving the south entrance we also got to see the large BLM boondocking area which is between Joshua Tree and Highway 10. This is a large and well maintained area and we saw lots of people staying there. Best of all there were two bars of ATT so its definitely a place we could stay if we ever came back again. Lots of huge spots available.
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