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Although I grew up in Southern California, I’ve never made it to Joshua Tree, despite the fact that it’s just a few hours away from where I live. Ironically, it’s not from lack of trying. In fact, I’ve planned a couple of unsuccessful trips to Joshua Tree – one was derailed by a government shutdown in 2019 that affected all national parks and the other by the current shelter-in-place order. Womp, womp.
But the reality is, besides these couple of attempts, I’d never planned a trip to Joshua Tree. Why? Because I’d assumed there weren’t things to do in Joshua tree besides hike. And although I do enjoy hiking, I’m not one to plan an entire trip around hiking (except for that one time I did The Inca Trail). But good news – I’ve learned that there’s actually quite a lot to do and see in Joshua Tree besides hike, thanks to this guest post from Mimi from The Atlas Heart, a California native and fellow travel blogger!
So without further ado, I’m passing on the reins to Mimi!
A trip to Joshua Tree has a way of showing you just how beautiful the desert can be. It’s where you’ll find various types of cacti, other-worldly landscapes, expansive views that go on for miles, and bright sunny days.
And the harsh desert environment only adds to the park’s magical appeal and natural beauty. Who knew that so many impressive sights could be found in a place where temperatures vary from freezing cold to extreme heat in one day?
Besides the park’s funky looking Joshua Trees, Joshua Tree National Park is most well known for its various hiking opportunities. And although hiking in Joshua Tree can be a fun way to spend a weekend, there’s a lot more to this national park than just hiking through the desert.
Located in both the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, Joshua Tree is a diverse park with a lot to offer any visitor. From stargazing to rock climbing, desert art, and luxe Airbnb stays, there is plenty to keep you busy in the park even when you’re not on the trail.
For those of you who aren’t that into hiking or who are looking for a few different things to do in Joshua Tree besides hiking, these are the best non-hiking activities the park has to offer.
Table of Contents
Things To Know Before Visiting Joshua Tree
How to Get to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles
Joshua Tree is located in both the Mohave Desert and the Colorado Desert and is approximately 3 hours from Los Angeles by car. Of course, this varies slightly depending on which part of Los Angeles you live in.
To get to to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles, visitors should take the 10 E freeway until North Palm Springs, then switch to the 62 E / 29 Palms Hwy to Park Boulevard in Joshua Tree. Check out this map courtesy of the National Park Service for more specifics.
Entrance Fee to Joshua Tree National Park
At the time of writing this post, the entrance fee to Joshua Tree National Park is $30 per vehicle or $25 per motorcycle. The annual park pass costs $55. Alternatively, you can get an annual national park pass and access ALL the national parks!
Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree for Good Weather
Joshua Tree is a desert and summer temperatures can easily reach a scalding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (or higher). So if there’s anytime of the year NOT to visit Joshua Tree, it’s summer.
Peak season is October-May, so there’s really no optimal time to visit and avoid other visitors. October-May is when the weather is mild, ranging from 60s F – 80s F. However, the best month of the year to visit is in March. The weather is warmer (low 70s) without being unbearable.
No matter when you visit Joshua Tree, it’s important to remember to pack layers because the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is significant.
Best Things to do in Joshua Tree Besides Hike
Take in the Panoramic Scenery from Keys View
Head over to the highest point in Joshua Tree to take in the best view from the park. Keys View gives you panoramic views over the Coachella Valley, Salton Sea, Santa Rosa Mountains, and even Mexico (on really clear days).
About a 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard on Keys View Road, Keys View is a slight detour but well worth the journey if you’re a fan of good views from high up.
Keys View is easily accessible from the parking lot with only a 0.2-mile path to the viewpoint and back. This is an especially good place to watch the sunrise or sunset in the park. Just make sure to pack warm clothes because it can be windy from the lookout point.
Go on a Tour of Keys Ranch
Ever wanted to tour a homestead in the middle of the desert? At Joshua Tree National Park you have the chance to do just that at Keys Ranch.
Keys Ranch, also known as “Desert Queen Ranch,” was the homestead of William F. Keys for 60 years. Once a stuntman and miner, Bill Keys settled down in the Joshua Tree area in 1917 and lived and worked on the homestead with his family until his death in 1969.
He and his wife Frances built a ranch house, schoolhouse, workshop, and store on the homestead for themselves and their five kids. They also grew a fruit orchard, vegetable garden, and raised numerous animals throughout the homestead’s operation.
Keys Ranch is an impressive example of a sustainable 20th-century homestead located in one of the harshest environments in California.
If you want to learn more about the history of the Keys family and see the well-maintained homestead for yourself, 90-minute ranger-led tours are available.
Tours are $10 per person and they usually only run from October to May because it gets too hot in the summer. You can purchase tickets ahead of time on the Recreation.gov website. It’s one of the coolest things to do in Joshua Tree besides hiking!
Camp Overnight and Stargaze
If you want to experience Joshua Tree stargazing at its finest, grab your favorite overnight bag and plan for a 1-2 night trip in the desert.
Camp at one of the many campsites around the park for easy access to the night skies devoid of light pollution once the sun goes down.
A few popular campsites at Joshua Tree include Hidden Valley Campground, Jumbo Rocks Campground, Belle Campground, White Tank Campground, and Ryan Campground. You can find additional information about camping in Joshua Tree National Park here.
For the best stargazing experience, use red lights instead of white flashlights or cell phones since it takes 20-30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark. Also, make sure to layer up because the desert gets very cold at night.
Lastly, it’s worth it to check the moon’s phase ahead of time. The brighter the moon, the fewer stars you’ll be able to see so try and time your trip when it’s closest to a new moon.
Check out the Cool Rock Formations
The unique Joshua Tree landscape was formed over 100 million years ago from volcanic activity and the collision of two tectonic plates – the North American Plate and the Farallon Plate.
The geological activity in the area has caused tons of natural rock formations to pop up around the Joshua Tree area. Some of the oldest rocks even date back to 1.4 to 1.7 billion years.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree besides hiking is to drive around and find as many impressive and quirky rock formations as possible.
There are a lot of interesting rock formations around Joshua Tree that you don’t have to hike to. If you drive along the main park road, you’ll be able to see quite a few from your car, as well as the park’s many pullouts, parking lots, and camping areas.
One of the most popular rock formations in the park is Skull Rock. Named after its resemblance to a skull, Skull Rock can be found on the main east-west park road and there’s a parking lot right across from it.
Other rock formations to check out that require only a short walk include Arch Rock, Heart Rock, Penguin Rock, and Cap Rock.
Go on a Rock Climbing Tour
If you’re looking for a more adventurous way to explore the park’s dramatic rocks, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places in California to test out your rock climbing skills.
Even if you’re a beginner rock climber or you’ve never rock climbed before in your life, there are numerous half-day rock climbing tours that are a good intro to the park’s best rock climbing spots.
In total, Joshua Tree offers 8,000 climbing routes and a good variety of rock climbing options for all skill levels. So if you’ve been wanting to try out rock climbing, Joshua Tree is a good place to start.
Explore the Cholla Cactus Garden
Have you ever been surrounded by 10 acres of cacti? If not, head over to the Cholla Cactus Garden. This is one of the most scenic spots in the park that features the Cholla Cactus in its natural habitat.
The Cholla Cactus, also called the “teddybear cholla”, is a fuzzy-looking cactus that has a funky appearance and arms that look like a teddy bear.
However, you definitely don’t want to hug this cactus, or even get too close to it. The spines of the Cholla Cactus are extremely jumpy if you get too close and very sharp.
This is also why you should wear closed-toed shoes when walking through the garden – you don’t want to get the sharp cholla spines in your foot.
Photograph the Alien-Like Landscape
There’s no denying that Joshua Tree has one of the most other-worldly landscapes of all the California national parks.
It might be due to the harsh desert environment or the millions of years of volcanic activity, or maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the reason, it’s not hard to imagine you’re on another planet when you visit Joshua Tree.
And its alien-like nature makes it a very photogenic place to capture through the lens of a camera – whether you’re a professional photographer or you’re just looking for some good shots for Instagram.
Even photography novices will enjoy photographing the natural desert beauty to be found around the park. It’s hard to go more than a few miles without wanting to pull over and take in the scenery around you.
Take your time driving through the park and see how many things you can photograph – prickly cacti, oddly-shaped rock formations, the park’s famous Joshua Trees, and the bright stars that come out at night (and even the Milky Way sometimes).
Grab a Coffee from Joshua Tree Coffee Co.
One of Joshua Tree’s best kept secrets is the coffee from Joshua Tree Coffee Co. Located along Twentynine Palms Highway just before you get to the West Entrance, Joshua Tree Coffee Co. is known as having some of the best coffee in all of California.
In addition to amazing coffee, the cafe also boasts delicious snacks and baked goods and a super-friendly staff. It’s the perfect stopover either on your way to or from the park. Don’t be surprised if there’s a line out the door when you arrive, but the wait is more than worth it.
If you’re a coffee enthusiast, or you simply want to get a glimpse into the local Joshua Tree community, don’t miss out on a visit to Joshua Tree Coffee Co.
Discover the Funky Art at Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum
If you’re looking for a bit of culture out in the desert, Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum is a must-see. Located only a 20-min drive outside of Joshua Tree’s West Entrance, this is a good spot to stop at on your way to the park.
The open-air museum was started and added to by Noah Purifoy from 1989 to 2004. Although Purifoy passed away in 2004, his foundation still runs the museum that mostly features junk art and assemblage sculptures that were created on-site.
The sculptures are made from various materials – mainly metal, wood, and tires – and decorated with “junk” in the form of broken glass, computers, and more.
Most of the artwork has a political or moral angle to it and all the pieces are in a perpetual state of decay. This was Purifoy’s goal in creating the museum, to allow the pieces to naturally decay in the desert to show how harsh of an environment it is.
Fun fact: If you contact the Noah Purifoy Foundation ahead of time, you can actually take a free docent-led tour. It’s an excellent way to learn more about Noah Purifoy and the history and vision behind the museum.
Enjoy a Luxury Stay at a Joshua Tree Airbnb
There are plenty of places to stay in Joshua Tree, but if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind luxury experience in the middle of the desert, stay at one of the Airbnbs near the park that oozes desert chic.
A few of the best stylish Airbnbs near Joshua Tree include:
- Dome in the Desert – This bohemian dome has been featured in numerous magazines and is one of the most popular stays in Joshua Tree – so make sure to book ahead! If you’re looking for a more unique accommodation in Joshua Tree, this place is a good option. The dome features handcrafted items, a wood-burning stove, and a natural design and cozy interior that makes you feel at home in the desert. This place is only about a 10-minute drive from the main entrance of the park.
- Cabin Cabin Cabin – Hosted by the same people who host the Dome in the Desert Airbnb, Cabin Cabin Cabin has become such a popular luxe option in Joshua Tree Village that the accommodation has its own Instagram account (@cabincabincabin). The cabin is meant to represent a traditional homestead cabin in Joshua Tree with all the modern amenities to give you a comfortable stay. This place is only a five-minute drive from the main entrance.
- The Joshua Tree House – And lastly, there’s the Joshua Tree House that has been around since 1949. This hacienda is all about relaxation and enjoying a slower pace of life. A few of the best features of the house include a record player, hot tub, 100 or so Joshua Trees on the property, and the fact that it’s only a 10-minute drive from the main entrance.
Check out this interactive map of all the cool things to do in Joshua Tree below!
What to Pack for Joshua Tree
This is by no means a complete list but just a few items that you should definitely be packing for a visit to Joshua Tree!
- Sunscreen: Joshua Tree is a desert, so sunscreen is a must-pack when visiting, even if it isn’t too hot. Gotta protect your skin! I’m personally a fan of this Neutrogena sunscreen because it doesn’t leave your skin feeling gross and sticky.
- Sun Hat: I’m all about protecting my skin from the sun, and you should do the same, especially if you’re prone to burning. Plus, you’ll have a cute accessory for photos. Check out your options here.
- Sunglasses: No explanation necessary.
- Water and a water bottle: Surprisingly, drinking water in the park itself is actually pretty hard to come by so be sure to keep several gallons in your car while exploring the park. Also, please don’t bring a bunch of small, single-use plastic bottles, either. It’s so bad for the planet. Instead, pack a reusable water bottle and fill it up. I like the CamelBak Insulated Water Bottle because it holds 20 oz and keeps water cold but any bottle will do.
- Snacks: There are no food services in the park itself, so if you plan on spending some time exploring, be sure to bring some stuff along with you like granola bars, unsalted nuts, energy gels, and chocolate. Just don’t bring anything too salty that will make you thirsty.
- Comfortable shoes: The terrain in Joshua Tree National Park is pretty flat so you don’t need to pack full-on hiking shoes. Just a pair of solid sneakers with good traction will do. I’m personally obsessed with my Allbirds wool sneakers because they don’t make your feet sweat and regulate temperature, but any pair of sneakers will do.
- Daypack: I’m a big fan of this daypack: it’s durable, comfortable, AND comes with a water bladder, making drinking water extra accessible. Plus, it’s roomy enough to store snacks, layers, and sunscreen if you do decide to hike in the park.
- Layers: The difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is significant, so no matter when you’re planning to visit, always bring layers! I often bring this packable down jacket because it’s warm but doesn’t take up much room in your suitcase.
- Power bank: I don’t know about you, but my phone battery doesn’t last all day as it is, and is especially bad when I’m using it to take photos and videos (which I imagine you’ll be doing in Joshua Tree). If you’re like me, you’ll definitely want to bring a power bank with you. I always carry my Anker PowerCore while traveling. It’s light, holds multiple charges, and charges phones quickly. Win!
As you can see, there are plenty of amazing things to do in Joshua Tree besides hike. Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline-inducing adventure or simply want to explore a unique landscape in nature, Joshua Tree has something for everyone.
Meet the author: Mimi McFadden is a travel blogger, avid yogi, and paneer enthusiast. Originally from California, she has been slow traveling the world since 2013. After living abroad for five years in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Greece, and Portugal she has finally found a home in San Francisco, California. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog, The Atlas Heart.
More California ResourcesPlanning a trip to California soon? Check out ALL my posts on California below:
- Off the Beaten Path San Francisco: 14 Hidden Gems to Add to Your Itinerary
- The Best Things to do in Monterey, California for First-Time Visitors
- Best Things to Do In Costa Mesa: the Low-Key Artsy City in the OC
- The Best Things to do in Joshua Tree Besides Hike
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