Guide to Joshua Tree

The sad truth? No matter what, weekends are always too short. Here's how to make the most of your time in Joshua Tree
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Mar 24, 2015 | By Kylie Turley

ou could say that nature is in my blood. Growing up in a family of eight, I learned to appreciate nature by spending family time camping and exploring the outdoors. Back in the day, vacation meant that we would stuff the Suburban full of outdoor gear, kids, dogs, and plenty of good food for extended camping trips. To this day, visiting National Parks still makes me giddy as a puppy getting to play outside for the first time. 

Back when I first moved to Los Angeles three years ago, I heard talk of the beloved Joshua Tree National Park and knew I’d have to see it for myself. I made sure it was one of the first camping trips I took, and man, did it live up to the hype — and then some. With a couple short hours of driving behind me, I'd left the smog-filled city air behind and welcomed the relentlessly sunny high desert with high spirits, trusty sunglasses, and a wide brim hat. Make room for a three day weekend, pack up your Subaru, and plan to make the most of your time in Joshua Tree.

It’s without question that when you camp at Joshua Tree, you have to camp tucked up against a pile of gigantic boulders. Not only does it provide your home for the night with some protection from the sun and wind, but there's no better way to spend your morning than by crawling up a wall of rocks to eat your pancakes with an aerial view — all just outside your tent.

Jumbo Rocks is the place to pitch your tent. There’s no better place to wake up, and at just $10 a night (it's first come, first serve), you’re doing nothing but winning. 

There are trails for everyone at Joshua Tree. When you’ve got just one full day of exploring on the docket, you’re going to want to minimize your travel time to cover the most ground and really take advantage of your time in the park without getting heat exhaustion and what I like to call floppy disease, a.k.a. dehydration).

Near Hidden Valley in the heart of Joshua Tree is where most of the action is, so you’ll be right where several happy trails begin. Located in the Wonderland of Rocks area, Barker Dam is a great hike for a group of friends that’s interesting enough to satisfy the hiker enthusiasts as well as the flimsy desert dwellers who aren't sure they can handle the heat.

Barker Dam was built around 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining, and with a 1.5 mile loop trail around it, there’s plenty of exploring to do and boulders to traverse along the way. Sadly, due to years of drought, what once was a reservoir with prime bird-watching is now an empty waterbed. Stains of water levels remain on the jumbo rocks in the reservoir, telling the story of a place affected by climate change.

After you’ve gotten your fill and completed the loop, continue on the second trailhead to the Wall Street Mill for a 1.5 mile round trip hike to an old mining operation from the Great Depression. Right in Joshua Tree National Park, miners extracted precious metals from the ore in their hunt for gold and silver. Don’t forget to stop by the pink house on your way to the Wall Street Mill, just a few hundred meters from the second trailhead. What once was a ranch home is now an interesting side attraction worth a gander and at least some cool Instagram shots.

Don’t be deceived into thinking these seemingly fuzzy cacti are made of the stuff of teddybears. The cholla cactus, aka “jumping cholla,” will literally jump out and attach themselves to whatever or whomever mistakingly brushes up against them.

The cholla cactus garden is a sight to behold, especially into the golden hour as the sun dips below the horizon. Their fuzzy appearing branches will glow in the sunlight, whereupon you’ll want to continually remind yourself they’re not your childhood stuffed animals. 

Get your creep on and wake up in the middle of the night to get some killer star photography at Skull Rock. All you need is your camera, a sturdy tripod and a headlamp and you’re ready to rock.

Located just across from the entrance to Jumbo Rocks Campground, Skull Rock is a favorite stop for visitors during the day but even better in the dead of night in only the moon’s glow. You’ll have the whole place to yourself, and probably forget all about the night critters stalking you.

After a few days in the high desert you’ve earned the right to eat your weight in burgers, fries, and ice cream. What better place to embrace your carb intake and fabulous campfire hair than an old-timey local saloon? There are bound to be biker crews parked out front to give it some extra road trip flair and ensure a good time on the dance floor with live music.

The Joshua Tree Saloon is a lively local hot spot with a full bar, great menu, and free wi-fi to catch up on your #bestweekendever updates. You can even catch a game of pool with your buddies while you knock back a few and forget all about the fact that you haven’t showered in three days. With a weekend this good, there’s no rush back to reality. [H]

Kylie sometimes wonders why she doesn't just live in a tent and make camping her permanent lifestyle and s'mores a main food group. As an adventure and lifestyle photographer who thrives on exploring, she wears a lot of hats, eats a lot of pizza, and takes a lot of photos.
You can check out her website and follow her adventures on Instagram.

All images © Kylie Turley