At first glance, Joshua Tree National Park doesn’t seem to be much more than wide open desert with massive, sand-colored boulders, spiky trees, and the occasional cactus. But, as Native Americans and millions of people who have visited Joshua Tree (“J-Tree” to locals) know, the park is a special place.
The park has one of the darkest night skies in Southern California, which lends it its appeal: Joshua Tree feels truly isolated. From world-class climbing and bouldering, to trails with pictographs drawn by the park’s first human inhabitants, there is something here for anyone who loves to spend time outside.
J-Tree is just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, making it easily accessible for a day trip. But trust us, you’ll want to spend as least a weekend here. Everyone knows the perfect weekend camping trip starts with finding the perfect campsite. With nine campgrounds and almost 500 developed campsites, there’s room for everyone at Joshua Tree National Park. Here’s a quick overview of what to expect and what to do at each one.
Hidden Valley Campground
Number of Sites: 44 Cost: $15/nightAmenities: Pit toilets, no water, RVs and trailers allowed with a max. of 25 feet combined
This is the first campground along the main road from the main entrance near the Joshua Tree Visitor Center. There are some great family-friendly trails in the Hidden Valley, such as the one-mile natural trail that winds through the giant boulders. Another popular trail is the 1.5-mile Barker Dam Loop. On the way back on the loop, look for a marked turnoff, where you will find vividly colored pictographs. While the pictographs are authentic and were drawn by the Native Americans that once lived in the area, they were “enhanced” by Disney for a movie in the 1960s.
Black Rock Campground
Number of Sites: 99 Cost: $20/night Amenities/Availability: Water, flush toilets, dump station. Can book up to six months in advance. There are 20 horse sites here ($20/night).
This is one of the most popular campgrounds in the park, partially because it’s one of the only campgrounds that can be reserved during the busy winter season. Sites here are also highly sought because this is where you’ll find the highest concentration of Joshua trees in the park. The surrounding area is home to some of the highest mountains in the park, as well, including 5,516-foot Eureka Peak and 5,103-foot Warren Peak. The 3.7-mile Panorama Loop has some of the most interesting plant life and best views in J-Tree.
Indian Cove Campground
Number of Sites: 101 Cost: $20/night Amenities/Availability: RVs and trailers are allowed at the 13-group sites found here, but restricted to a max. of 25 feet combined. Group site fees range from $35-50 per night. Water is two miles away at the Indian Cove Ranger Station
Indian Cove, the other campground that can be reserved during the busy winter season, is popular with rock climbers because the approaches to the nearly 1,000 climbs in this area are very short. The campsites here are on flat, sandy ground nestled next to the boulders. At the west end of the campground is the Indian Cove Natural Trail, which is only 0.5 miles, but has desert willows and almonds, and you might even spot a desert tortoise in the spring or fall.
Number of sites: 31 Cost: $15/night Amenities/Availability: Pit toilets, 4 horse campsites ($15/night)
Ryan Campground is also along the main park road, and is first-come, first-served, so it can be tough to get a spot on the weekends of busy months. This campsite is near Ryan Mountain and Cap Rock. The Ryan Mountain Trail is three miles round trip to the 5,457-foot peak, and is one of the best viewpoints of the rock formations and Joshua trees that the park is known for. Cap Rock, named for the rock that sits on a group of boulders, is a 0.4-mile trail with plenty of cacti and desert flowers to see.
Sheep Pass Group Campground
Number of Sites: 6 Cost: $35-50/night Amenities/Availability: Tent camping only, sites can be booked up to a year in advance
The sites at this group campground can accommodate 10 to 60 people, so it’s great for big family vacations or if you have a big crew with you. This is the highest campground in the park at 4,500 feet. It gets shady and cool quickly in the afternoon/evening but is also one of the first spots in the park to get morning sunlight. It’s at the base of Ryan Mountain, so take the Sheep Pass Connector Trail from the campground to get to the Ryan Mountain Trail.
Jumbo Rocks Campground
Number of Sites: 124 Cost: $15/night Amenities/Availability: Pit toilets
Jumbo Rocks is the largest campground and has a ton of rocks perfect for exploring and climbing around on, thus one of the best sites for families. It’s very close to Skull Rock, one of the most popular formations in the park. And there is a 1.5-mile loop that actually starts in the campground and goes through washes, rock clusters, a variety of vegetation from Joshua trees, to brush to cacti, and up to Skull Rock.
Number of Sites: 18 Cost: $15/night Amenities/Availability: Pit toilets
This campground is obviously a bit smaller than some of the others at the park, so it’s quieter. There’s not much to do here, but it does make a good homebase if you plan to explore the Pinto Basin or the Sonoran Desert sections of the park. It’s only a few miles from Skull Rock, so it’s an excellent alternative to the busier Jumbo Rocks Campground.
White Tank Campground
Number of Sites: 15 Cost: $15/night Amenities/Availability: Pit toilets, RVs and trailers are allowed but restricted to a max. of 25 feet combined
White Tank is the smallest campground in the park. It’s right next to the Arch Rock Nature Trail, a half-mile trek to Arch Rock. While it’s not the kind of arch that you might see in Utah, it’s still pretty cool. It also makes a great foreground if you are into night sky photography.
Number of sites: 62 Cost: $20/night Amenities/Availability: RVs and habitable trailers prohibited. There are 3 group sites here that can be booked up to a year in advance ($35-50/night).
Cottonwood is in the southern part of the park, near the lesser-used Cottonwood Spring entrance. It sits at 3,000 feet in an area that looks completely different from the rest of the park. This area has palo verde trees instead of Joshua trees, and from March through June the tall ocotillo bloom with bright red blossoms. Near the campground is the 2.3-mile hike to the 3,396-foot Mastadon Peak and the ruins of the Mastadon Mine and the Winona stamp mill.
- Weekends in October through May are the most popular time for camping at Joshua Tree. Try to go during the week during this period.
- In the summer, all campsites are first-come, first-served. Some campgrounds are closed in the summer, so check the website before you go.
- There aren’t many places in the park to get water, so make sure you bring plenty with you. The website recommends individuals drink two gallons per day.
- There are no RV hookups at any campground in Joshua Tree National Park.
- Pets are allowed at the campgrounds so long as they’re leashed, but aren’t allowed on any trails except the Oasis of Mara Trail. NEVER leave your dog in your car in the desert. Temperatures within a vehicle can rise to deadly levels quickly.
- You can camp in the backcountry, as long as you are at least a mile from the road and 500 feet away from any water source. You will also need to register, which is free. For more information, visit the park website.
- Check out the Joshua Tree National Park website for a full list of rules and regulations, like the maximum number of people allowed per campsite, quiet hours, fire safety, etc. Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777.
Originally written by RootsRated for Kelty.
Featured image provided by Mark McKnight