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If you’re not familiar with the area, let me give some context. Joshua Tree National Park is located about an hour east of Palm Springs or two hours east of Los Angeles. The small town of Joshua Tree borders a portion of the park. The park includes two deserts--the Mojave and Colorado--and is named for the spiky Joshua trees which are abundant in the park.
With a national park that encompasses over 1,200 square miles, you will definitely not see everything in one day. However, after three visits, here’s my recommendation for the best things to do in Joshua Tree.
Hiking In Joshua Tree
I recommend starting your day in Joshua Tree National Park and then working your way west to the other sights recommended. Get an early start in the park to avoid crowds. And if you’re visiting in summer or early fall, arriving early allows you to avoid the heat as well.
Head to the North Entrance of the park which is located in the town of Twentynine Palms. If this is your first visit, be sure to stop at the Visitors Center before entering the park. They have some nice exhibits about the plant and wildlife in the area and rangers available to answer your questions. This is also a nice bathroom stop if you prefer flush toilets instead of outhouses. It’s important to note that there are no services in the park. Bring all the water and food you’ll need for the length of your stay.
Since you’ll be spending just a few hours in the park, you’ll need to select a short hike. There are two nature trails I enjoy; Barker’s Dam and Hidden Valley. Each is a one-mile loop and relatively flat. The first trail features a dam built in 1900 by CO Barker and Native American petroglyphs. Hidden Valley is supposedly the place where cattle rustlers hid their illicit herds. Along both routes you’ll see plenty of signage describing the flora and fauna.
If you have more time in the park, or just want a longer hike, I recommend the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail. To me, this is among the best hikes in Joshua Tree. However, it is also one of the more difficult hikes, so only do this if you're in good shape and the weather is not too hot. Over the course of 1.5 miles, you’ll trek up and over a rocky ridge and into a cool, secluded valley of palm trees fed by an underwater spring. Take some time to rest and appreciate the scenery and then hike back out while enjoying the views of Joshua Tree and surrounding cities.
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum
The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum is the most unusual museum I’ve ever seen. It’s the work of assemblage artist, Noah Purifoy, who spent the last fifteen years of his life creating over 100 pieces of sculpture on ten acres of desert land. Some artworks have a political message, while others just evoke humor.
All the sculptures were created with castoff items like toilets, chairs, tires, railroad ties, clothing, computers etc. There is no signage offering any information, so visitors are free to add their own interpretation. It can get really hot here if you’re visiting in the summer, so come early in the day. There is no admission fee and the hours are sunrise to sunset. The last road leading to the museum is all dirt, so be prepared for a short, bumpy ride.
Joshua Tree Shopping
The small area outside of the national park, known as Joshua Tree, is an unincorporated part of San Bernardino County with about 7,400 people calling it home. If you just drive through on the way to the park, and don’t look closely, you may assume this is a boring little stretch of road with nothing to offer. That’s what I did the first time. However, during my second and third trips I spent time exploring the small shops, restaurants, and cafes. Everything is locally owned, and in many cases, locally made, and now I won’t visit Joshua Tree without shopping.
The best known store in town is probably The Station, and is easily recognized by Big Josh, the giant cowboy statue out front. During the pandemic, Big Josh has been dutifully wearing a mask. This former gas station has been converted into a boutique selling vintage items, t-shirts, candles, and clay pots. Definitely make a stop here and spend time browsing--it will be entertaining!
Up the street from The Station is a fun and funky group of boutiques including Art Queen, The World Famous Crochet Museum, and Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a quirky collection of shops. Art Queen is an indoor/outdoor gallery displaying a variety of art and sculptures and selling an odd assortment of items. Within the same space is the crochet museum, housed in an old fotomat and chock-full of knit creations. Both places are the creation of singer-songwriter, Shari Elf. The Beauty Bubble is both a salon and a collection of hair-aphernalia founded by stylist, Jeff Hafler. It’s also a fabulous location for instagram pics.
My newest discovery--within walking distance of the above shops--is Crystal’s Handwork Addiction selling hand-crafted jewelry and prints. The owner, Crystal Matthews, is passionate about her art and loves to discuss the semi-precious stones selected for each piece as well as where she has taken each picture.
My brother is a coffee-aholic, so we had to stop at Joshua Tree Coffee Company. This place is a bit hard to find, but totally worth the visit. They roast their own coffee in small batches and only use certified organic beans. If you are looking for a gift for that coffee lover in your life, take home a bag of beans from this place. We only ordered coffee, but food is available here as well.
I know there are many more shops to explore in Joshua Tree, and I will continually update this post as I discover them!
About 20-25 minutes west of Joshua Tree is the former Western movie set of Pioneertown. In 1946 a group of investors that included actors Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came together to purchase and build a “living, breathing, movie set.” It was intended as a 1880’s themed set, but also a vacation destination. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, more than 200 productions of movies, television shows, and commercials took place here. Today it’s a fun attraction that includes a selection of shops, a motel, a restaurant and live music venue, and an outdoor theater.
Among the best things to do in Pioneertown is shop. We spent an hour exploring the shops of Mane Street, a wide dirt road bordered by a boardwalk and rustic, wooden buildings. Some of the shops are quite small, but there are many hidden gems to be discovered. The Soap Goats Shop is easy to spot because the owner, JoAnne, is likely spinning wool on the front porch. Nearby is a pen with exceptionally friendly Pygora goats. Inside the shop you’ll find woolen goods and soap. Further along the road is Pioneertown Saddlery Shop selling custom saddles and leatherwork. Along Mane Street you’ll also find plenty of great photo opportunities.
If you get hungry when visiting Pioneertown head to Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. They specialize in BBQ, but the menu also offers a nice selection of tacos, burgers, and sandwiches. We washed it all down with a few cold beers, which were perfect on a hot day. This is also a music venue, so check the website for the schedule.
We did not spend the night here, but Pioneertown Motel is highly rated and a great destination if you’re looking for a really quiet and secluded destination.
Best Times To Visit Joshua Tree
Being located in the high desert, finding the best time to visit Joshua Tree is a bit tricky. Summer and early fall can get really hot. If you’re visiting during these times, start your day as early as possible and be sure to drink plenty of water. Winter can get very cold here and it may even snow. My husband, Jason, and I visited last November. Temperatures were in the 40’s early in the morning, so we waited to hike until later in the day.
Late fall and spring are optimal times to visit. Wildflower season can begin as early as February and continue into early June, but can vary from year to year. Check the park’s website for an up to date status on wildflowers.
Hopefully you'll enjoy a day trip to Joshua Tree as much as we did! And if you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments below.