Joshua Tree National Park might be one of the most starkly beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Despite living in Southern California my entire life, it was only last year—when artist Ellie Pritts’ surreal color-saturated images of the area first caught my attention—that I really got interested in exploring the park. Although my first trip was a bit of a disaster, this desert playground is definitely worth a visit. The trick is to arrive prepared.
Joshua Tree Mythology: Iconic Trees, Strange Rock Formations, and More
Joshua Tree didn’t receive its national park status until 1994, but it quickly became one of the most popular sites in the NPS system, thanks in part to its iconic yucca plants that look like Dr. Suess drawings (yup, those would be the Joshua trees). All kinds of people have been drawn to its otherworldly landscapes over the years. The Eagles, U2, and even aliens (or so the rumors go), have taken inspiration from Joshua Tree—and Gram Parsons loved it so much his ashes were scattered on the grounds.
Trees aside, Joshua Tree’s popularity also stems from its many opportunities for recreation. It’s like a Swiss army knife of trip experiences. On any given day, you’re likely to spot photographers, artists, rock climbers, and families all sharing one of the scenic turn-offs. (Just look for the signs announcing “Exhibit,” which pop up frequently as you drive through the park.) Located 130 miles from Los Angeles and 187 miles from Las Vegas, the park is a doable weekend trip for many—and you won’t have to take time off in order to have something to brag about on Monday morning.
Be Prepared for Wilderness
But the first time I visited, I paid dearly for thinking that the park’s relative accessibility meant I could roll in unprepared. Unlike NPS sites like Yosemite or Muir Woods, Joshua Tree had no snack bar where I could grab a bite, meaning I had to make do with the mini cereal boxes, stale popcorn, and half-empty bottle of warm water I had stashed in my trunk. But I pushed on, and despite arriving after midday, still managed to have a great time hiking and climbing around a small sliver of the park before sunset.
The next morning, I regretted my decision when, thanks to the lack of food, water, and common sense the day before, altitude sickness kicked in. It was a good reminder that like any wilderness adventure, you need to be prepared before you head into Joshua Tree.
The good news: It only takes a little bit of prep to have an enjoyable visit. Below, I’ve compiled a few key suggestions for safely getting the most out of your time in this magical national park.