From spiky plants to car-sized boulders to spectacular sunsets, California’s High Desert has a lot going for it. Inside Joshua Tree National Park, a wonderland sculpted by strong winds and occasional bouts of rain, not only will you see lots of scarecrow-esque Joshua trees, you’ll also find plenty of wildlife, including 3-foot-long lizards called chuckwallas and dreamy views of snowy summits (if you climb the rocks, that is). It’s an otherworldly mishmash of beauty in all directions. If you are looking for an excuse to visit, now’s the time: On October 31, the park celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Photograph the Joshua trees and the wildlife
You can’t go home without documenting the weird and wonderful Joshua trees, right? Good news is, you’ll see them in nearly every direction at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet. Pro tip: the Black Rock Canyon area and Queen Valley have some of the best stands. Bonus points if you are able to also capture red-tailed hawks and bunnies on camera.
By day, you may spot American kestrels, zebra-tailed lizards and chipmunks. Come evening, Kangaroo rats, kit fox and black-tailed jack rabbits make a cameo. Same for coyotes, rattle snakes (six types of them make their home in the desert) and tarantulas. Bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and bobcat are also around, but it’s pretty rare to spot them.
Go rock climbing
Joshua Tree National Park, about 2 and a half hours east of Los Angeles by car, is 800,000 acres worth of desert terrain perfect for rock climbing. So, why not channel your inner Spiderman and scale the monzogranite with Mojave Guides? The volcanic granite rock here is perfect for steep-face ascents and crack climbing. With 8,000 killer routes and 2,000 bouldering problems, it’s impossible to be bored.
As a climbing destination it ranks right up there with Yosemite, Red Rocks and Devil's Tower. For newbies, Indian Cove and Quail Springs are ideal. For more advanced? Thin Wall, Hemingway Buttress and the Echo Rock Area are solid choices. With Mojave Guides you can choose from a half-day (4 hours) or full-day (8 hours). End the day on top of Cap Rock, where you can sit on a ledge under an overhang to catch glimpses of Quail Mountain, Queen Mountain and the Wonderland of Rocks. But that’s not all: The views are even more dramatic when you rappel over the edge 100 feet to get back down.
Get a view of the Milky Way
Joshua Tree is certified as an International Dark Sky Park, which means it’s well worth sticking around after sunset. Night time is pretty spectacular inside the park, especially the east side of the park, thanks to several factors: the weather is clear and dry and there is very little light pollution. To stargaze with the pros, sign up for a Sky is the Limit tour. To bump up your nighttime photography cred sign up for Joshua Tree Workshops where you can master time lapses, shoot the Milky Way or even spend the night in the park to practice dark-sky-camera techniques. Another option is to take a full-moon hike with a park ranger on weekends before each full moon.
Watch the highliners
Between the craggy rock faces inside Joshua Tree, you can occasionally spot people walking across rigged lines in an extreme sport called highlining, which involves walking across an inch-wide nylon line several hundred feet up. Highliners are attached by a tether, but the nylon line is prone to swaying. Very tricky, indeed.
Ryan Robinson, a professional highliner, says Hall of Horrors – a particularly rough patch of the desert – is one of his favorites. The tall boulders, in an otherwise relatively flat landscape, make it perfect for highlining. Risk-takers need be sure to keep the rules in mind: Slacklines and highlines cannot be anchored to vegetation, are not allowed in campgrounds and may not be left fixed or unattended.
Find your zen
Get your downward dog on at Instant Karma Yoga in the town of Joshua Tree. They’ve got everything from yin yoga to meditation. Afterward, consider stopping by the Integratron to take part in a sound bath (reservations required). The 60-minute sonic healing session is meant to rejuvenate your mind, body and soul. And if your muscles are feeling fatigued from rock climbing, a deep-tissue massage at Naturalives Day Spa is an excellent remedy.
Visit Arch Rock
The trail to Arch Rock is easy on the tootsies (it’s only .5 miles) and oh-so rewarding. You can easily knock this one out in 20 minutes, but plan for longer so you can scramble around on the rocks until your heart’s content. Speaking of scrambling, Wonderland of Rocks is another great spot to do just that only if you are with a guide. This area of the park is known for the haphazardly stacked boulders creating a fun labyrinth of a hike. There are short trails that lead to it and also some serious backcountry routes for the ultra adventurous.
Rest and recover
After some grand adventures inside the park, spend some well deserved down time at the Pioneertown Motel, which is expertly fashioned after the Wild West era. It’s been welcoming travelers since 1946. More than 50 films and TV shows were filmed in this secluded spot in the 1940s and 50s. So it comes as no surprise the motel has hosted movie greats like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who famously played poker until sunrise in room #9. Nearby you can play king of the cowboys on Mane Street thanks to movie-set relics. A stone’s throw away is Pappy and Harriet’s where live music reigns supreme and the chili and bison burgers are hard to beat.
Don’t forget to bring water along and remember to book early. Activities, camping and hotels fill up quickly. The west entrance in the community of Joshua Tree often has a long line of traffic. Consider going in the north entrance in the city of Twentynine Palms and driving the loop around. Always remember to never drive off road and never climb Joshua Trees.
Although you can visit all year long, the most ideal months weather-wise are September through May.