Just an hour outside of Palm Springs, California is one of the most unique and beloved landscape, Joshua Tree National Park. With two unique desert ecosystems, The Mojave and Colorado, and some of the weirdest rock and plant life you will see in the United States.
While visiting Palm Springs in November we decided to visit the park for our second time having a perfect November day in Joshua Tree National Park. Our first visit to the park was quite memorable as we really botched it up. Not realizing our phone map would do us wrong, we mapped to “Joshua Tree National Park” as opposed to directing the map to a specific entrance. We found our way into the backcountry in a rental sedan with half a bottle of water between us. Really dumb.
Tip: Don’t expect your phone to work in the park. If you want to use a map on your phone plan your visit and download the map to be used offline. I also would add a little mark next to the destinations you want to stop to help you remember.
Without planning, we didn’t see all the unique rock formations and features of the park I have seen all over Instagram and other photo sites. So, learn from our mistakes and be sure to map yourself to an entrance station. We recommend the Western Entrance which gave us a great start to our second visit to the park and led us to all of the obligatory Joshua Tree National Park features.
We started our day a little late so we squeezed in the things that we had an interest in stopping at. We planned some visits and just winged it with others. I recommend having a good idea where you want to go before you get to the park.
What Is A Joshua Tree?
A Joshua Tree isn’t a tree at all but a member of the Agave family. It’s spikey leaves and unusual shapes have made it a beloved desert attraction for many. You will find them in western Arizona, South Eastern California, Southern Nevada, and South Western Utah but the most popular destination to see this unique tree-like plant is in the National Park with their namesake, Joshua Tree National Park. Learn more about Joshua Trees on their Wikipedia page here or on Joshua Tree National Parks website.
Tip: Let someone who cares know you will be exploring the park as a safety precaution. Check in on Facebook before you get to the park (little to no internet), text someone, or give a quick call. Especially if you’re visiting the park alone. The weather and terrain are extreme and letting someone know your whereabouts could save your life if something bad happens.
Quail Springs Picnic Area
Tip: Watch your step! Lots of small critters live in the park, especially in the rocky areas. You never know when you will come across a coiled-up snake, lizard, snake, scorpion and more. They usually avoid people but sometimes you can find one.
Billion-year-old Metamorphic Rocks
We entered the park through the West Entrance Station, if you want to follow along I suggest starting there. When using your map or GPS enter a specific entrance, otherwise, you may end up in the backcountry. This is what happened to us on our first trip to Joshua Tree a few years earlier when we found ourselves in the Covington Flats area.
Once we paid the entrance fee and entered the park we had roughly four hours before sunset. Optimizing our time, we tried to only stop when the views felt unique. If you are short on time this was a good method of getting the most out of your trip. I also recommend downloading your map for offline use adding points at stops you want to visit.
Our first destination was about 20 minutes from the entrance station called the Quail Springs picnic area. Quail Springs is centered around a giant rock formation with parking areas surrounding the rock. If you don’t see parking driving by, pull in any way as there are more spots behind the rock.
Surrounded by billion-year-old metamorphic rock, fields of Joshua Trees and Quail Mountain, Quail Springs made a great first stop. We even saw our first wildlife of the trip, a folded up snake between the rocks, small critters, and birds. The views were endless but we only spent about 15 minutes taking it in before continuing on our journey.
Hidden Valley & Intersection Rock
Ten minutes’ drive from Quail Springs took us to our next stop, Hidden Valley and Intersection Rock. We didn’t feel this stop was worth too much of our limited time so we took photos and moved on. The area was very beautiful, we just had a very short time before sunset so we had to keep going.
Petroglyphs Along Baker Dam Trail
Ancient art and a detour you'll be glad you took
A short drive from Intersection Rock is the trail to Barker Dam. We debated taking the loop trail and the recommendation from a hiker convinced us to go for it. As it turns out, this was one of the most beautiful hikes of our day. The trail starts off as a pathed trail where you eventually are surrounded by and have to climb rocks. I’d say this is a moderate trail as there were no major rock climbing and mostly flat, sandy land.
Soon you are in the open desert. We noticed some arrows pointing a direction the other hikers seemed to ignore. Since we’re always curious we took that path and we were rewarded with some incredible petroglyphs! I’ve never seen any so close before outside of being in a museum. They were incredible.
Unfortunately, some people vandalized the petroglyphs by “enhancing” them with paint so we didn’t experience them in their actual state. They were still a spectacular thing to experience seeing the art and language of some of the earliest people.
Barker Dam Nature Trail
A dam in the desert?
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Barker Dam is a unique and interesting destination in Joshua Tree. Constructed by cattlemen in 1900, the Key family raised it in 1949 giving it the name Big Horn Dam. Now home to many species of desert wildlife and a beautiful hiking destination.
Heading back to the trail we continued our hike through a beautiful open desert landscape. Along the way were many informal signs which helped you understand what you were looking at, a great trail addition. I always take photographs of these signs so I can read them later when remembering the trip.
We soon arrived at some tall rocks which lead us to a view of Barker Dam filled with water! From reviews we read, we expected the dam to be dried out in November but were pleasantly surprised. There were some heavy, flooding rainstorms a few weeks prior which may explain why it was so full.
The water makes for such a beautiful, reflective scene and makes a great scene to photograph. Because the loop trail was partially closed, we had to return the way we came.
As we returned to our car, we realized how little time we had left. We still wanted to visit the Cholla Cactus Gardens and several other rock structures along the way. This is the downside of getting a late start visiting such a vast park system. We hopped in the car and continued our drive.
Faces in places
The drive to the Cholla Cactus garden was full of ooh’s and ahhs. On our way there we saw Skull Rock, a popular rock formation that looks a little bit like a skull. Personally, I think the view from the right gives it the most skull-like looks. This rock formation was pretty close to the street which had some areas to pull over and park. If you have limited time to break, this is definitely one of the cooler rock formations to stop and see. There’s parking on the street right near the rock formation and a trail.
The drive to the Cholla Cactus Garden was twists and turns through rocky desert land. It was interesting to see the change between the desert ecosystems as we left the Mojave Desert and merged into the lower laying Colorado Desert. The landscape was constantly changing with the sun as it set giving us spectacular views the entire drive.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Tip: You’ll want to keep your distance from these cool cactus plants as they’ve been known to “jump” onto anything that gets close and I’ve heard it’s quite painful to pull the prickers out of your skin.
After checking out Skull Rock we got in the car and started the drive to the Cholla Cactus Garden. The Cholla Cactus Garden is located at the merger of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, two unique ecosystems. Ample parking is provided and there’s a quarter-mile loop trail giving you access to some alien-looking cacti along the way.
This was one of our favorite stops on this trip to Joshua Tree and I wish we had a little more time to explore as the sun was rapidly setting. You’ll want to be cautious as you navigate through the gardens as the Cholla Cactus are known for “jumping” onto anyone unfortunate enough to get too close digging its prickly barbs into your skin and being extremely painful to remove. We did not have issues with this but I did catch myself a few times forgetting and getting a little too close.
The benefit of a late start in the park means you’ll definitely get to see a Joshua Tree sunset. Just about everywhere in the park offers some kind of spectacular looking views. Drive careful and enjoy the views!
Tip: Leave the park better than you found it. Take your trash back out with you. Don’t climb the Joshua Trees, don’t remove pieces of nature or rocks from the park.
Some people try to find a specific stopping point to wait for the sun to set, however, we were still trying to beat the sun and get near the Hidden Valley which we weren’t successful at. We still got amazing views where we pulled over to stop and enjoy a couple of times along the way.
We found November to be a perfect time to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The heat was a bearable 75-80 degrees and the evening wasn’t too cold. The views are absolutely out of this world and something every nature lover should get to experience
Know Before You Go
Joshua Tree National Park
There is an entrance fee ranging from $30 for cars to $15 for bikes or on foot.
There are several parking lots available throughout the park and some areas where you can park on the side of the street.
Dress in layers and wear a sturdy shoe that you can navigate rocky terrain. The day can be unbearably hot while the evening can get really cold.
Bring plenty of water for the time you plan to visit the park. Wear sunscreen and hats if possible as the sun will be brutal.
Let someone know your plans just in case of an emergency. If you get lost or injured you have a much better chance of survival if someone knows where and when you were hiking and wanting to return.
Always leave the parks better than you found them. Remove your trash, don’t vandalize, and please don’t climb the Joshua Trees! Respect nature and it will provide for years to come.