Words by Zanne Merkel
Just a few hours from Los Angeles and Las Vegas sits Joshua Tree, approximately 800,000 acres of desert wilderness hosting about 2.8 million visitors each year. With activities ranging from hiking to rock climbing, and the famous Joshua Tree’s decorating the landscape, it’s no wonder the amazing Joshua Tree National Park is becoming a more popular landscape to visit every year. Below, I’ll detail my tips for planning a trip to Joshua Tree National Park during such a crazy time.
The Feeling of Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree brings a certain atmosphere— energizing. You can almost feel a crackle of joy between the pointy needles of the iconic Joshua Trees or when emerging from the endless, mysterious boulders that dot the landscape. There’s a reason why U2 named an album after this place, and upon arrival, you start to understand all of it. You understand why Dierks Bentley sings about it in “Burning Man,” and why so many artists, musicians, songwriters are drawn to it. It’s like no other place on earth and to know, you have to plan a trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
Amazing Views Across Joshua Tree National Park @Zanne Merkel
Exploring our magical public lands is a necessity to me. I cannot begin to explain how much going on trips like this one means, especially now, just to get out of the house and regain some sense of normalcy (and my sanity). With the very real dangers of Covid-19, however, I always make sure to follow the CDC’s guidelines for traveling safe. From avoiding crowds to wearing a mask (sometimes two if I find myself around a group of people) to washing my hands often, trips to our public lands can be safe with a mix of following the CDC’s guidelines and common sense.
Know Before you Go
When visiting a public land, it's always important to know before you go. Research is key here, and below I've listed a few tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park.
Be sure to marvel at the beauty of Joshua Trees from far away or close up, but know it’s illegal to touch them. Joshua Trees are a protected species that date back 2 million years and have an average life span 150 years. There are even a few in Joshua Tree National Park that are over 500 years old. Not only can they grow older than you or me, but Joshua Trees aren’t even trees! They are actually succulents.
Also, if you attempt to touch much of the vegetation, you’ll soon find just about everything in Joshua Tree pokes back, and not in a fun way. Those cute “teddy bear” cholla cactuses? Get too close and it will launch its needles at you. The cholla cactus garden has a fence and walkways to ensure visitors stay on the meandering path and away from the dangers of these prickly beauties. Also, note the signs that caution about the abundance of bees are there for a reason!
Sunset over Joshua Tree National Park @Zanne Merkel
Be Prepared for your Day
Before you head to the park, check your tires and gas! Make sure you’re ready for a day of driving in this remote wilderness, because there is no cell phone service in the park. That said, research the weather and be prepared for a day in the sun. Pack plenty of water and snacks (the National Park Service recommends at least one gall of water per person per day if simply sight seeing), and at least two if hiking.
This is the desert, which often comes with sun and heat. I always bring extra, environmentally safe sunscreen, as well as sunglasses, a hat, and sun-protective layers.
Stop in the visitor center when you first enter! The park rangers there are full of knowledge, and I always bombard them with questions. Tell them your plan, and get feedback. One of the many reasons they’re there is to help you have a great trip, so don’t be shy!
Washing Hand’s Without a Sink
Joshua Tree is remote, which means not having facilities around you. So, you’ve been exploring the park and need to wash your hands, but can’t find a sink anywhere. What next? One tip for hand washing when there aren’t sinks around: soap sheets. Soap sheets are paper thin sheets of soap there are biodegradable. I wet my hands with bottled water, pull out a sheet of soap, scrub for the length of two “happy birthdays”, rinse, and dry. I hold onto the sheets on a baggie until I find a garbage can. ALWAYS pack out your trash! If you’re like me, you can glob on some hand sanitizer on top of that, because yes, I’m a little hyper-concerned of COVID.
PRO TIP: Aways make sure you’re not doing this in a protected area or somewhere that this could damage the ecosystem.
Rock Climbers in Joshua Tree National Park @NPS/Robb Hannawacker
Find your Activity
Camping: Joshua Tree National Park is what I call a 24 hour park. Camping is allowed by both reservation and first come first serve, which means there is access to the park throughout the day and night.
Hiking: It’s best to hike early in the morning as outside of the winter months, it can become very warm, very quickly. Joshua Tree National Park is one of my favorite spots to catch the sunset-- the silhouettes of the Joshua Trees, the mountain background, the flat landscape giving room to create a beautiful, painting like view.
It's important to find trails that are best for your ability, but a few favorites trails in the park are Ryan Mountain Trail (moderate 3 miles), Baker Dam Nature Trail (easy 1.3 miles), and the Lost Palms Oasis Trail (moderate 7.2 miles). Again, make sure to find trails that best suit your current fitness level, and come prepared with water and snacks.
Milky Way in Joshua Tree National Park @NPS/Lian Law
Half the Park is After Dark: Then the stars come out. Joshua Tree has earned the designation of a dark sky park, where the skies are clear, without light pollution, and the Milky Way can shine. To see the amazing stars, you can simply stay until evening, but I recommend camping in the park!
Set Expectations: Realize what you want to get out of your trip. Rock climbers spend weeks here, but you could spend a few hours driving through the park on a day trip. Whatever you’re looking for, plan ahead and set realistic expectations so you can truly enjoy the park.
All in all, Joshua Tree National Park is an incredible place— it’s no secret why 2.8 million visitors depend upon this desert landscape every year. With planning and safety in mind, your trip to Joshua Tree National Park will be magical.
Stats are from https://www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm
Zanne Merkel is the Creator and Chief Trouble Maker of WhereGalsWander.com, and Co-Host of Wander to the Edge. She likes trees more than people, unless those people want to talk about the National Parks, forests, mountains and travel.