While most National Parks have their few hidden gems here and there, scattered throughout the park, Joshua Tree National Park seems to made entirely of hidden gems. It is, in my opinion, the quirkiest and most eccentric park in the system (what else would you expect from a place so close to retro/hippie paradise Palm Springs?) and it's well worth the visit... even when Coachella isn't going on! Get ready to do a ton of exploring, because we've rounded up the coolest of the park's best-kept secrets.
Some tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park:
-The desert is a less-populated landscape. Cell reception, gas stations and restaurants can be few and far between, so top off your tank whenever possible, let people know where you're going and when you plan to be back, and bring loads of extra water and snacks!
-Also, California is often in a state of drought. Don't expect long showers or anything like that, and try to waste as little water as possible.
-Plan hikes early in the morning or as the sun is setting... it's less hot, less crowded, and all-around more enjoyable.
-You're about an hour from the resort town of Palm Springs, and you're even closer to Twentynine Palms. In fact, Los Angeles is only a few hours away... in case the hot springs in the area don't cut it, a trip to the beach isn't unreasonable.
-The gnarled Joshua trees for which the park is named aren't actually trees... they're giant yuccas. Mormon pioneers fantasized that their branches were pointing the way to the promised land like the Biblical Joshua.
There are nine (count 'em-- nine!) campgrounds inside the park. They're all super stunning, because many sites are tucked among the rocks and trees, giving the campgrounds a really isolated desert feeling. Plus, the stargazing is out-of-this-world. If you're going the tent route, try booking a site at Indian Cove. If you're looking for something with running water, Black Rock Campground and Cottonwood Spring are the two in the park with that amenity. You're definitely going to need to stay hydrated.
See you at the crossroads, crossroads, crossroads... Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony references aside, this is another local gem near JT. With vegan and non-vegan options, including messy roadhouse-style specials, plus tacos, burgers, beer, free Wifi, and more, you might find yourself coming back here more than once to indulge in a meal and hang with the locals.
Find a reason to visit Palm Springs, even if only for a bit. Great Shakes is one very excellent reason to make the drive. It embodies the colorful, mid-century aesthetic of Palm Springs, and even though it serves up shakes and not much else, you won't leave hungry. They come in flavors like cake batter, salted caramel, white chocolate lavender, and date-walnut (a local favorite), and are served with a mound of whipped cream and a mini donut on top. Heaven.
If you'd rather stay somewhere a little less... rustic than a campsite or trailer, check into the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel. The 1960's-style hotel has all the modern amenities you could ever need, plus there are 8 hot spring pools onsite that are open 24 hours. Soaking in warm mineral water under the stars after a long day of bouldering? Yes please! Pro tip: buy a day pass to use the pools if you want to just take a dip.
Pappy and Harriet's place looks like is was ripped from the film of a classic Hollywood Western... probably because it's an old movie set. It's been turned into a honky tonk-style drinkery with a great crowd, live music, a menu of Tex Mex and BBQ dishes (and, since this is California, you can find kale salads offered as well) for lunch and dinner, and loads of Wild West personality. Shoot some pool, dance to the music, and enjoy yourself!
Remember the B-52's and their hit single "Love Shack"? The artists who designed the kitsch-tastic house from the video own two hotels, one of which is right outside Joshua Tree. Kate's Lazy Desert features restored Airstreams decked out in retro-tastic awesomeness. It's more like camping than staying in a hotel, but imagine laying in the hammock as the sun sets while you cook up something on the BBQ!
Hicksville Trailer Palace & Artist Retreat is an oasis of awesome on the Joshua Tree skyline. With 8 amazing themed trailers to rent, the palace was created in 2010 to be a retreat for artists to come together and collaborate on projects.
Each trailer at Hicksville is decked out with its own individual theme. Stay in the "Sideshow" if you're a fan of vintage circus imagery, or the "Pioneer" if you want a cozy western homestead experience. There's even a trailer named after Lux Interior, the dearly departed frontman of The Cramps. Think cheetah print carpet, a TV that plays nothing but classic horror movies, and skeletal flamingos on the front lawn. In other words, it's awesome.
At the center of the small, gated resort is a heated salt-water pool and roof-top hot tub. At night, guests crowd around the teepee covered campfire, so it's customary to bring enough beer for everyone... don't worry, there's a beer vending machine at the Tiki bar. Oh yeah, they also have complementary BB guns and archery supplies that guests are welcome to use… so long as they don't shoot each other, of course.
Hicksville Trailer Palace & Artist Retreat even comes equipped with its own editing suit in the "New World" trailer. So if you're a filmmaker looking for a quiet place to find inspiration, this is the place for you. Most of the suites, plus all the amenities — pingpong, books, movies, music, crossbows, pools, hot tubs, and more, will run you anywhere between $75 a night, to $275 for the more elaborate suites.
Gold-mining and cattle-ranching were two popular trades in the area during the early days, when settlers first started coming to California. Bill Keys was a leading rancher/sheriff in the area, and you can visit his old estate, the Desert Queen Ranch, which he built between 1910 and his death in 1969.
Check out the old ranching and mining equipment here, tour the old barns, cottages, and other buildings, and learn what life was like on the ranch. Park rangers offer guided tours of the property October through May!
Bill Keys was also involved in mining in the area. He built the Wall Street Mill, a gold ore crushing mill. There's still a ton of equipment left behind, even though most of it is in pretty run-down shape. One of the creepiest things here, though? A stone commemorating the fact that Keys shot and killed a man named Worth Bagley over access to the land. It reads "Here is where Worth Bagley bit the dust at the hand of W. F. Keys, May 11, 1943."
Want more offbeat history? Head a few miles south to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area to see the ghost town that was once a resort paradise frequented by celebs. The landlocked Salton Sea was a lake that was a popular spot to vacation in the 1960s, until chemicals and pesticides began to poison the water and kill off the fish. Today, it smells pretty rank, but it's one heck of an interesting ghost town. Stop by the visitor center to get the lowdown before you explore.
Inside the park, there is tons of awesome rock climbing, scrambling, and bouldering-- and perhaps the coolest geological formation you can climb is Skull Rock. It looks like something straight out of The Goonies! Whether you're a beginner or a pro, there's definitely something for you to climb at Joshua Tree.
Hop in the car, crank up the A/C and set off on a scenic drive to Keys View. Turn off Park Boulevard and onto Keys View Road for a 20-minute cruise that will take you to a sweeping overlook. Sure, the views are kind of smoggy these days, but the views of the valley and the San Andreas Fault can't be beat. Pro tip: come here to watch the sun set!
In the 1980's, famed folk artist Noah Purifoy left Watts for the Mojave Desert-- quite a change of scenery! Over the course of about 15 years, he filled 10 acres of land with over 100 sculptures and other art installations made from found objects-- stuff most people would consider trash has found a second life here. Purifoy died in 2004, but his sculptures in the desert live on at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, which preserves his works. It's like a wonderland filled with provoking, yet peculiar sculptures. While some might see piles of junk (Purifoy was especially fascinated with the way his work decayed and was affected by the environment), others might find it whimsical and enchanting-- but either way, it's designed to make you think.
Spring brings waves of colorful wildflowers, and summer has, far and away, the best stargazing. Of course, winter means more manageable temperatures, and more things are open and available in the cooler spring, fall, and winter months, but if you come prepared, summer isn't a terrible time to visit if you're concerned with avoiding crowds and getting good deals on rates and rooms.