The Cholla Cactus Garden is the perfect stop for families traveling to the park. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Joshua Tree National Park was originally a national monument. // © 2016 iStock
Joshua Tree National Park was originally created as a national monument in 1936, finally becoming a national park in 1994. The park is the visual representation of the point at which the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, creating a unique ecosystem with beautiful and sometimes bizarre flora, like a Dr. Seuss book come to life.
With some 5,000 years of history and nearly 800,000 acres, Joshua Tree is the perfect choice for the active client interested in biking, hiking and climbing, as well as those looking to relax as they’re led around the park.
Located about an hour’s drive from Palm Springs and two hours from Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is ideal as either a day trip or a destination all its own. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Tour Operator Options
Joshua Tree Excursions, which specializes in small-group tours and customizable family journeys, offers several options for the more adventure-minded client and can help set up campsites in the park. The operator’s most frequently requested itinerary is its signature guided tour through Joshua Tree, which lasts six to seven hours, includes lunch and takes clients to off-trail locations that the average visitor doesn’t see. Joshua Tree Excursions can also put together multiday packages that include backpacking, camping, night-sky presentations and rock climbing.
Meanwhile, for those looking to combine luxury with adventure, Backroads’ Palm Springs & Joshua Tree tours combines luxury hotel stays in Palm Springs with multisport activities. Backroads’ biking trip explores Joshua Tree and outer Palm Springs for three days with routes designed to sidestep traffic, while its walking tour lets clients spend four days hiking Joshua Tree and surrounding areas.
What to See
While many visitors stay for a single day, it’s impossible to see everything in the park in 24 hours. Many of the most interesting places within Joshua Tree require hiking to reach or require driving long distances.
Some of the most popular sites, according to Kelly Crawford, founder and CEO of Joshua Tree Excursions, include Ryan Ranch, Arch Rock and Hidden Valley. Backroads’ itineraries highlight the Jumbo Rocks, in addition to the Whitewater Preserve and a portion of the famous Pacific Crest Trail.
For those with children, I recommend some of the more accessible sites, such as the Cholla Cactus Garden, which exhibits the interesting (and slightly bizarre) flora of Joshua Tree without any climbing or long walks.
Another must-see are the park’s visitor centers and Desert Institute, run by the Joshua Tree National Park Association, the official nonprofit partner of the park. About 475,000 travelers visit the centers each year.
“The Desert Institute offers approximately 70 classes per year, hosts free and low-cost lectures and offers specialized programs, including customized hikes and step-on guides for bus tours,” said Meg Foley, executive director of the Joshua Tree National Park Association.
In addition to the visitor centers, Foley listed Keys’ View, Skull Rock and Barker Dam as other Joshua Tree must-sees and advised clients to stay until nightfall. Joshua Tree is a popular destination for astronomy enthusiasts due to the lack of light pollution and has an unparalleled view of the stars in Southern California.
What Travel Agents Should Know
Even during spring, temperatures can climb to heights that might make some clients uncomfortable. During my trip in April, most of my fellow visitors chose to forgo hiking and climbing in lieu of driving around the park.
“Any travel agent should be advised that peak season runs from October through May,” Crawford said.
Crawford also noted that weekends can be extremely busy, as local Californians flood the park, and that those in want of a campsite instead of a hotel need to book well in advance. Foley concurred that the approximately 500 campsites found at the park are usually full every weekend.
Meanwhile, Liz Einbinder, a public relations consultant for Backroads, stressed the importance of seeing the park in light of the state’s historic drought.
“With ongoing droughts, the Joshua tree is threatened as a species,” Einbinder said. “They only exist in this part of the world. Now is the time to see them.”
Where to Stay
Camping in the park itself is the most popular choice for visitors, but many prefer to stay in hotels in nearby areas. On Backroads’ itinerary, clients can stay at the Waldorf Astoria La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, Parker Palm Springs in Palm Springs or The Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage in Rancho Mirage for what Einbinder calls a “diversity of experiences.”
But whether you’re in the heart of the park itself or staying in a surrounding city, Joshua Tree is worth the trek.
“One thing is certain, Joshua Tree is like no other place on earth,” Crawford said.