This article is published in partnership with Hotels.com who asked if we would share our recommendations for what to do in Joshua Tree, California, following a recent visit.
There is something about deserts that fascinates people. Whether it is the vast, alien landscapes or the sheer challenge of surviving in an extreme environment, these extreme places seem to spark the imagination and attract the curious. Joshua Tree, California, is one of these destinations, a small desert town that has attracted movie stars and musicians, hippies and artists, adventurers and conservationists. And despite its small size, visitors who come here soon discover that the options for what to do in Joshua Tree are as unique and varied as the twisted trees after which the town is named.
It All Starts with the Joshua Trees
Joshua Trees are not like any other ‘tree’ you might encounter in the U.S., and are one of the main reasons why people come to this part of California: Joshua Tree National Park has the largest concentration of this unusual species with more than two million of them in the 1240- square-mile park.
If you are a fan of Dr. Seuss and his fanciful creations, one look at a Joshua tree and you’ll understand immediately why they are so often compared to Seuss’ mythical ‘Truffula’ trees from his book The Lorax.
Fitting more into the Agave cactus and Yucca family of plants than true ‘trees’, Joshua Trees can differ a lot from one to the next. Some Joshua Trees grow straight up and armless, whereas others are bendy and twisted like a circus contortionist with spiky puffs on the ends of their tubular branches.
The variety in size and shape depends on several factors, including the amount of rain that falls, whether or not the temperature drops below freezing (cold can halt their growth which causes them to bloom and sprout ‘arms’), and a symbiotic relationship with a specific moth that helps to pollinate the trees. All of these factors must work in a delicate balance in order for Joshua Trees to thrive, which is why they are a protected species.
But putting all that biology aside, Joshua Trees are simply really cool to see! And many others must agree with me, because Joshua Tree National Park had almost 3 million visitors in 2019.
#1 Thing to Do in Joshua Tree: Visit the National Park
It’s not just its quirky namesake trees that makes Joshua Tree National Park so popular. Along with these photogenic trees, the Park has another unusual feature: huge piles of sculpted boulders and rocks that appear throughout the Park.
These rocks and how they were formed has fascinated geologists for years. The explanation goes back hundreds of millions of years to when magma from deep in the earth was forced upwards to just below the surface where it cooled and formed granite rock known as monzogranite. This material cracked and split into large masses, and once the surface soil began to erode over time, these giant boulders were exposed, appearing as if they were ‘piled’ on the desert surface.
Capture Joshua Tree National Park’s Beauty
The juxtaposition of these rock piles and the twisty Joshua Trees that grow near them make Joshua Tree National Park a photographer’s dream in any season. And if conditions are perfect in February and March following an abundance of winter rain, shutterbugs may be rewarded with a ‘super bloom’ like the one in the spring of 2019, when the desert came to life with an explosion of colourful wildflowers. Even the Joshua trees produced large white blossoms and seed pods, a rare occurrence in this desert environment.
Hike Joshua Tree National Park’s Trails
Hikers will love Joshua Tree National Park too, as there are more than 300 miles of trails to explore, from easy routes that take about 30 minutes to complete to challenging multi-day hikes (I say an emphatic ‘no’ to those and stick to something more moderate.) Casual or novice hikers can also take advantage of free guided walks offered by Park Rangers, who offer a wealth of information about the Park as well.
Go Rock Climbing
Climbing on Joshua Tree National Park’s sculptural monzogranite rocks isn’t just permitted, it’s encouraged – so rock climbers and ‘boulderers’ (yes there is such a thing) flock to the park to test their skills at scaling these formations. I’m no rock climber, and certainly not a boulderer, but it’s hard to resist climbing around these rocks (the ‘because-it-is-there’ motivation quoted by mountain climbers, I suppose!)
TIP: Whether you are hiking, climbing, or just visiting Joshua Tree National Park for any reason, be aware that there are no facilities available in the Park, not even water, so come prepared. There is also no cell service, either, so those photos will have to wait until you get back to town. (Fortunately, there are pit toilets at campgrounds, though).
Drive to Keys View Overlook
If you are visiting Joshua Tree National Park in the hotter months, or prefer to let your vehicle do the hiking and climbing for you, there’s a road that takes you through the park and up to Keys View, which offers a spectacular panorama overlooking the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault and the peaks of San Jacinto near Palm Springs.
TIP: During high-season weekends (September to May), holidays like Thanksgiving, and Spring Break, Joshua Tree National Park is extremely busy with campers and visitors. So maybe time your visit to avoid those peak periods or use other entrances into the Park other than the Joshua Tree one. Instead try the North Entrance in 29 Palms or the South Entrance off Hwy 10.
Stargaze at Night
You can’t talk about Joshua Tree National Park without mentioning the fact that this Park offers some of the darkest skies in southern California, and as such has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park, one of only 10 in the United States Park system. So if the beauty of the Park and its Joshua Trees and monzogranite boulders isn’t beautiful enough by day, imagine them silhouetted against the brilliant arch of the Milky Way.
But there’s another great place only a short drive from Joshua Tree where visitors can view the heavens as well: at Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Centre just outside nearby 29 Palms, California.
Go Stargazing at Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Centre
Sky’s the Limit Observatory offers free public star parties on Saturdays (when there is no full moon to hamper visibility). These are hosted by volunteers who operate the telescope in the domed observatory. It’s a great opportunity for visitors to gaze through a 14-inch-diameter Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and see astronomical objects like the rings of Saturn, the bands of Jupiter, nebulae and more. Volunteers also offer ‘laser tours’ of the night sky, using laser pointers to identify constellations and other objects visible with the naked eye.
TIP: Stargazing parties begin about an hour after sunset. To enjoy the star show more comfortably, bring a chair and a blanket (as nights can cool off quickly in the desert).
Eat, Drink and Dance at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
If your idea of a great evening includes no-nonsense comfort food, unpretentious drinks and great music, you’re going to love Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. It doesn’t get more characteristic than this super-popular desert hotspot, which looks like a cross between a wild-west saloon and an open-air barn.
Pappy and Harriet’s began life as an outlaw biker burrito bar that was gradually transformed into a more mainstream restaurant and local music venue by a couple named Claude “Pappy” Allen and his wife Harriet . When Pappy died, the bar was eventually bought by two women from New York who wanted to establish P&H as THE indie rock venue of the desert. And they’ve succeeded, based on the popularity of the place and how packed it is every night they’re open.
There’s a reason why if you don’t get to Pappy and Harriet’s early, you might not get in at all. Actually there are 3 reasons: first off, the Tex-Mex food is big and tasty and you can’t go wrong whether you order the chili, the ribs, the steaks or the burgers (and don’t miss the mac and cheese). Secondly, the vibe is a little gritty, a little rock and roll, and a little cowboy, but totally authentic – and there is always music here, often with no cover charge.
And lastly, the musicians who come here may surprise you: they’ve had everyone play here from Robert Plant to Vampire Weekend, and even a drop-in visit from Sir Paul McCartney.
Visit the Set of Pioneertown
Pappy and Harriet’s was originally part of Pioneertown, located just a few steps away from the restaurant, and it’s worth a visit to check out this quirky ‘living movie set’ that was built here in 1946. Funded by Hollywood investors who built it to look like a wild west town of the 1870s, Pioneertown was used as a filming location for popular westerns, and even more recently for music videos.
Today a group of volunteers performs a ‘Main Street Stampede Wild West Show’, which is about as campy and kid-friendly as you’d expect, so I’d skip that and instead just have a look around the town. Many of these facades may look like old Western saloons and such, but behind them are actual homes where people live (hence the ‘living’ movie set).
It may seem like a strange place to live, but then again, things are different out here in the desert.
Shop on the Wild Side
Downtown Joshua Tree has a few “Wild West” buildings of its own, including one that houses an eclectic gift shop called Coyote Corner and another that is home to the popular local coffee shop, the Joshua Tree Coffee Co.
And there actually IS a saloon inside the Joshua Tree Saloon right on Twentynine Palms Highway (and by ‘saloon’ I mean restaurant, bar and live music venue), that is well worth visiting if not for the food, at least for the funky photo ops of its Mad Max style yard art.
Poke into the other stores and art galleries in town, too, where you can find everything from hand made body lotions to vintage clothing to artwork and crafts made by local artists.
Joshua Tree, California: Unusual, Unique and U2, too!
Joshua Tree’s creative, free-spirited attitude might be why high-profile artists come here, too. One of the most famous of these was the rock group U2, who found inspiration here for their Joshua Tree album when they took a road trip out here in the 80s. (And we all know how well that worked out for them!)
DID YOU KNOW? The famous ‘Joshua Tree’ photographed for U2’s album cover was actually shot in Death Valley, not Joshua Tree National Park, as many people think. But the band did stay at the Harmony Motel when they were here.
This is one of the most interesting things about Joshua Tree: that it attracts all kinds of people, from adventure-loving nature enthusiasts to entrepreneurs to creative types who like to do things a little differently. This is reflected in everything in the town, from the unique types of accommodations you’ll find here to the characteristic restaurants and boutiques or the quirky out-of-the-way music venues.
So whether it is the desert and its famous trees or the character of the town itself, Joshua Tree, California is well worth the road trip to discover, because it’s the kind of place that you just won’t find anywhere else.