Hi there travelers! Welcome to my article on the best things to do at Joshua Tree National Park, California. My name is Samantha Stamps and I was born and raised in Tampa, Florida. I later relocated to New York City, Chicago and Miami after college to pursue a career in the fashion industry.
In early 2020 I was laid off and decided I was going to fulfill my dreams of long-term travel before I found another full-time job. In March 2021 I left for a six month car camping US road trip with one major goal: to see as many American national parks as I could. Out of the 63 US national parks, I have now been to 31 parks with plans to visit another 10 by the end of the year.
I love travel and did a lot of domestic travel with my family growing up. Seeing new places, eating different foods and experiencing new cultures sparks internal joy for me. That coupled with my love of photography led me to create my blog Seeing Sam. I wanted a place to share my memories and document my travels not only for myself but for my family and friends who always asked me to share what it’s like traveling solo.
As a female solo traveler, I hope other females will follow me on my adventures and gain more confidence in their ability to travel solo as well. There is nothing worse than waiting around for someone to travel with. I always say, “Why wait? Just go”. My goal is to inspire solo travel confidence.
My Experiences at Joshua Tree National Park
My first visit to Joshua Tree was in April of 2021 and boy it was packed! I did some research before I went but was still surprised by the enormous boulders that were really fun to hike around. I expected to see Joshua Trees everywhere but they really were concentrated in one area (west side of the park) while the other areas were more desert and boulders.
I am a huge fan of sunrises and think it’s the best time of day not just because you will automatically beat the crowds but because it feels like the earth is waking up – temperatures are cooler and no matter where you are the atmosphere feels peaceful. The Cholla Cactus Garden at sunrise was the best experience for me at Joshua Tree for all of those reasons.
The sky transformed into a painting full of pastel hues which made the experience even more magical. The Cholla Cactus Garden is the perfect location to watch the sunrise above the horizon and the perfect time to enjoy the park without the scorching desert heat and hoards of tourists.
Other than sunrise at the Cholla Cactus Garden, one thing that made me excited was finding the Hall of Horrors essentially by accident. Through research, I knew this area was going to be challenging to find and unfortunately I forgot to download an offline map with its GPS coordinates.
When I attempted to find it, the first area I went to was packed. I assumed that was because the park was busy. Since I knew how popular the place was and didn’t feel like braving the crowds, I kept walking. I decided to head into another cool looking cave and after scrambling over boulders I looked up and found myself in what most certainly was the real Hall of Horrors (basically a narrow passage between two rock formations).
The cherry on top was the fact that I was alone. To be alone in one of the most sought after landmarks in one of the most popular US national parks, in the height of peak season – well I was thrilled! That experience was definitely my best memory from my visit to Joshua Tree National Park.
Best Things To Do at Joshua Tree National Park
- Watch the Sunrise at the Park: Sunrise is the perfect time at Joshua Tree National Park because there are no crowds, the temperatures are cooler and it’s the best way to enjoy scenic views. I highly recommend going to the Cholla Cactus Garden for your sunrise experience.
- Hike to the Unique Heart Rock: This rock formation is found by taking an unmarked trail, which makes it fun to search for (like going on a scavenger hunt). Heart Rock is a perfectly shaped heart just hanging out in the middle of the desert in Joshua Tree. How cool is that?!
- Check out Skull Rock: Located right off the road, Skull Rock doesn’t require too much effort in terms of hiking and it looks exactly like a skull. It’s another wow moment brought to you by mother nature.
- Admire the Views at Keys View Overlook: A viewpoint worth stopping at to see Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea and the Santa Rosa Mountains. This is the highest point in the national park.
- Find the Hidden Hall of Horrors: This is my favorite area to explore in Joshua Tree National Park. The hall can be tricky to find but it’s worth the effort. There are lots of fun nooks and hidden caves in this area.
- Go Rock Climbing in the Park: I didn’t do this particular activity but wish I had. Joshua Tree National Park is a great place to learn how to climb. Climbers of all skill levels can choose from over 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems and hundreds of natural gaps.
- Take a Photo with a Joshua Tree: You can’t leave this destination without getting up close to a Joshua Tree (even though they are actually a bush)! They are amazing looking and are totally unique.
Where to Stay at Joshua Tree National Park
Everyone loves the glamping setups found in Joshua Tree but if these are out of your budget why not camp? The campgrounds were filled when I arrived so I car camped on BLM land right outside of the Cottonwood entrance which is a great alternative if you can’t snag a spot in the park.
If camping isn’t your thing and you have the budget, I suggest booking a cozy desert cabin. I have a friend who rents a cabin called Chickasaw Homestead. Unfortunately, it was booked before I knew I was arriving but if you are lucky enough to snag a place like this I highly recommend it!
Other Points of Interest in the Area
I was crunched for time so didn’t spend additional time around the park, but the city of Joshua Tree has a number of museums and art displays that are worth a visit. The World-Famous Crochet House, Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum and The Joshua Tree Art Gallery to name a few.
Pioneertown, a wild west movie set is 25 minutes away from the park entrance. It’s free to get in and there are shops, and a few snack stands but the experience was a little underwhelming for me. Also, the world’s largest dinosaurs are only an hour away. I attempted the Dinosaur Park but ultimately skipped it because it was very crowded. Had I been with a few friends during a weekday it seems like it would be a fun park to explore.
Need to Know Before you Go
Start your adventures by 7am in the peak season (March-May). The park gets packed fast, most parking lots fill up before 10am and temperatures are scorching. The best idea for enjoying yourself is to start early, leave during the hottest and busiest time of day (around 12-4) to cool off at your hotel or a restaurant in town, and re-enter late afternoon to enjoy the park with less crowds, more comfortable temperatures and to catch a sunset!