A short guide to visiting Joshua Tree National Park, home of the Joshua Tree, in the winter! Joshua Tree is located in Southern California, just a couple hours from Los Angeles. It’s a popular destination in the winter there’s something in store for everyone from solo travelers to families and even avid rock climbers.
I just came back from a quick 5 day trip to Joshua Tree towards the end of January (sort of the tail end of winter there). The easiest way to get there would be to fly into Los Angeles (LAX) and then make the drive over, though you can also fly to Palm Springs if you want to find a closer airport.
Best time to visit
Joshua Tree is best visited in fall/winter/spring. Summer is the least popular time to visit the park as temperatures can soar to way over 100F and is not suitable for any sort of outdoor activity. Winter months occasionally see snowfall which make for interesting sights.
It was very comfortable during my stay in January. Days were mid 60s and 70s while nights were a cool 40s. Perfect weather for camping (with a warm sleeping bag)!
If you’re interested in doing milky way stuff then I would recommend planning for late spring or early fall (April/May/September/October).
Where to stay?
It’s quite rare to hear this but accommodation is not an issue here! The park is 15 minutes away from two towns, Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms. There are also plenty of campgrounds within the park.
Most of the campgrounds are first-come-first-serve but the following are available for reservation:
- Indian Cove
- Black Rock Campground
- Cottonwood Campground
- Jumbo Rocks Campground (recommended)
What to see?
Most of the attractions at Joshua Tree are pretty close to the main road. Even the “hikes” are quite short, although there are a few more difficult hikes if you want. The park is mostly flat and a desert so it’s not ideal for hiking. It’s more suited for exploring the different rock formations and checking out cool Joshua trees (and more rocks).
The only place in the park where you can find water (sometimes). Barker Dam was created in the 1900s as a watering hole for cattle and remains today as a good spot to find wildlife (birds, big horn sheep) as well as enjoy a sunset or sunrise.
The dam is surrounded by rocks and greener scenery than other parts of the park. The water is typically pretty still so it’s a good place to do a long exposure or reflection during golden hours.
The loop takes you through pretty large boulders that kind of form “canyons” around the trail, as well as many Joshua trees. These spots can make for interesting photo locations as well.
One of my favorite places of the park. Hidden Valley is a short 1~ mile loop that takes you into a valley surrounded by boulders. History says that this ‘hidden’ valley used to serve as a cattle rustlers’ hideout. The valley is great for both sunset and sunrise. There are tons of different features, from a wide variety of plants to many unique variations of boulders and rock formations.
Skull Rock and surrounding area
One of the most popular parts of the park, Skull rock is a formation that resembles a human skull! It’s visible from the road and access is quite easy. Skull rock itself isn’t really positioned for sunset or sunrise but the surrounding area has many different unique rock formations and compositions.
Tip: Come during sunrise if you want to have time here alone without people getting in the way of your shot!
Skull rock is also a popular night photography location because of how easy it is to access. It’s within walking distance of Jumbo Rocks campground.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Located between the north and south parts of the park, the Cholla Cactus garden is home to… cholla cactus! Lots of cactus! This area is best visited during sunrise or sunset when the light of soft. The cactus have many small details to them that really light up during golden hour. Be careful of their spines though! They are extremely hard to get out. I had a few stuck to my boots and bag and they were a pain in the a** to remove, don’t even want to think about getting any stuck to your skin!
It’s a trap! I repeat, it’s a trap! So many guides and websites tout this as THE SUNSET spot but I have to disagree. It’s a decent lookout that looks over the Coachella Valley and has views of the San Jacinto mountains but in my opinion your time is better spent elsewhere in the park.
Sunset from here won’t be anything crazy as the views are quite bland. If there’s an epic burner that night you’re better off enjoying it in the rest of the park where the real features of Joshua Tree lie.
That’s my opinion anyway, but let me know if you find otherwise! Would love to see epic shots from here.
Overall I had a good winter time at Joshua Tree National Park. It was quite a comfortable stay in January and pretty relaxing. There’s not as much to see as in some of the other national parks but definitely worth a couple days. I would recommend you stay 2 nights. A longer stay is also fine and gives you an opportunity to visit locations multiples to get the perfect shot.
Hope this quick run down was helpful! Have any questions or thoughts? Leave them in the comments below!
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