Joshua Tree National Park lies deep the Southern California desert, and is about the size of Rhode Island. Scampering lizards, giant boulders, and trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book dominate the landscape. This park has an unmistakable character.
Sarah and I got to Joshua Tree on May 31, which is a bit late in the season to be visiting. Summer temperatures frequently reach the 100s, so it is no wonder that visitation begins to fall off during this time of year. With a black van staying cool is going to be a particularly difficult task, so we decided to set up camp in the cooler northern section of the park.
The northern half of Joshua Tree NP sits in the Mojave Desert, nearly a mile high on the Colorado Plateau. This area contains immense rock formations and forests of Joshua Trees that lend their name to this park. Several campgrounds are located here and it seems to be the more popular area with visitors. Elevation affects not only temperature, but also the landscape. It takes just an hour to drive across Joshua Tree NP, but in that time the scenery can change unbelievably quickly.
Sarah and I set up camp at Ryan Campground. Ryan is one of a handful of established campgrounds in Joshua Tree NP that cost $15-20 per night to stay. They have a few facilities including outhouses, fire pits, and parking areas for cars and RVs. Still, they are fairly primitive. There was no running water, so we had to bring everything we would need for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. Lack of water is the most difficult part of spending time in the desert. Just couple of days in the desert heat left me ready to kill for a cool bath!
Driving the Park
Joshua Tree is one of the most well-managed parks I have visited. There is plenty to do and see regardless of how much time you have to spend. The park is bisected from North-South by a 2-lane highway with frequent pull-outs at points of interest. While driving in we stopped at several historic markers, information panels, and nature gardens along the roadside. These paint a collective picture of the history, wildlife, and geology that have shaped Joshua Tree National Park. Hitting a few of these stops is a great way to get the accelerated Joshua Tree experience.
Hiking & Sightseeing
To experience all that Joshua Tree has to offer, you need to get out into the park. Fortunately there are dozens of maintained trails that branch out from the road and into the desert. Some are just scenic hikes, but many lead to mountaintops, archeological sites, and abandoned mines. Mining was common in the Joshua Tree NP area before it received federal protection, and ruins still litter the desert for visitors to observe. Whether you have a few hours or a few days, a trip into Joshua Tree National Park is always a great experience.