Located about 130 miles east of Los Angeles where the Mojave and Sonoran deserts meet, the town of Joshua Tree and the surrounding area has long been a magnet for those seeking quiet respite, adventure, and perhaps a dash of New Age philosophy in a desolate, but peaceful landscape.
You’ll probably notice you’re getting close to Joshua Tree before your GPS does. Just keep an eye out for those spindly armed plants that look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book—they’re the namesake of the town and park. Joshua trees aren’t actually trees; they are a member of the agave family and are classified as succulents. They’re vital to the ecosystem of the Mojave: Joshua trees provide shelter and are a source of food and water for reptiles, small mammals, and birds. Before European colonization, the local Cahuilla people, who referred to the plant as hunuvat chiy’a, used the sturdy, broad leaves to weave baskets and footwear and also consumed the plant’s seeds and flowers.
But the surreal succulents aren’t the only reason to visit Joshua Tree. In addition to a massive, eponymous national park that spans almost 800,000 acres, Joshua Tree also boasts a lively community of artists and musicians who’ve been drawn to the remote wilderness over the decades. And if you’re looking for peace and quiet after escaping the city, there’s no shortage of meditation and spiritual retreats in the area that can help reset your mind.
There’s more to this little high desert town than meets the eye—consider this your go-to guide to Joshua Tree.
Things to do in Joshua Tree
Visit Joshua Tree National Park
No trip to Joshua Tree is complete without a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. This iconic park was initially designated a national monument by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and received national park status in 1994. (National monuments are protected by the federal government because of a site’s cultural, historical, and scientific interests, whereas national parks are valued for their inspirational, scenic, and educational qualities.) But prior to becoming a park, the land that now encompasses Joshua Tree had been inhabited by Native peoples for over 5,000 years.
There is certainly no shortage of things to do within Joshua Tree National Park, but one of the most popular activities is hiking. Though half- and full-day hikes are available—like the Lost Palms Oasis trail (7.5 miles round trip)—many of the jaunts in Joshua Tree are short and sweet. The Cholla Cactus Garden trail is just .25 miles, and the beloved Arch Rock trail, which leads to one of the park’s famous rock formations, is a little under 1.5 miles long.
These quick walks allow visitors to sample each landscape in the area, including rugged mountains, sparse valleys, and desert oases lined with palms. It can get very hot in Joshua Tree in the summer—temperatures in July and August regularly hit north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Not surprisingly, some of the best and most popular times to visit the park are in the spring and fall. Regardless of when you decide to visit, be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat no matter how short your hike is.
Thanks to the park’s abundance of cliff faces and large rock formations, climbing and bouldering are also favorite activities, and you’ll see plenty of visitors scrambling over the otherworldly piles of giant rocks during your visit.
However, if you prefer to enjoy the landscape in a more leisurely fashion, pack a good pair of binoculars for birding. Joshua Tree National Park serves as an important stop for migratory birds traveling inland along the Pacific Flyway (a major north-south migration corridor) and is also a vital habitat for desert-dwelling feathered friends—keep an eye out for roadrunners, cactus wrens, and hooded orioles. Joshua trees themselves also serve as important shelter for species like the ladder-backed woodpecker, which digs holes in the succulent to make homes for itself.
Browse the World Famous Crochet Museum
What would a road trip be without a good roadside attraction? The World Famous Crochet Museum, located off of Highway 62, is perhaps one of the cutest and cuddliest.
Housed inside an old photo-processing booth that’s painted an eye-popping shade of lime green, the museum was founded by local artist Shari Elf in the early 1990s and features crocheted creatures and objects that she’s collected over the years. Her collection is a fantastic representation of her eccentric taste in tchotchkes as much as it is a testament to the skill of the various crafters who crocheted the creations. The museum is open for free 24/7, and free parking is also available.
Shop the Joshua Tree Certified Farmers’ Market
On Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., travelers can find the Joshua Tree Certified Farmers’ Market off Highway 62 in a parking lot near Boo’s Organic Oven, a small-batch bakery that uses non-GMO ingredients. Vendors sell locally grown or created items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, jam, and baked goods like rugelach. The Farmers’ Market is a great place to stock up on provisions before hitting the trail, but if you arrive in Joshua Tree on another day of the week, delis like Roadrunner Grab+Go and DEZ Fine Food also serve sandwiches, packaged gourmet snacks, and charcuterie options.
Where to eat and drink in Joshua Tree
Pappy and Harriet’s
It’s hard to think of a more colorful bar/restaurant in the Joshua Tree area. Named after husband-and-wife founders Harriet and Claude “Pappy” Allen, who opened the Joshua Tree establishment in 1982, Pappy and Harriet’s is a former biker bar turned music venue restaurant. The popular haunt offers typical Californian fare like burgers, quesadillas, and nachos, but the restaurant also specializes in Santa Maria–style barbecue (which involves grilling beef sirloin or tri-tip over a bed of red oak and serving the meat with salsa). Don’t miss out on the tri-tip or ribs! For a taste of everything, order the Cowboy Combo, which comes with tri-tip, a half rack of ribs, and chicken. But the food isn’t the only reason to visit Pappy and Harriet’s; the venue is a legend in the music biz and regularly books world-class acts: Paul McCartney, the Arctic Monkeys, and Lizzo have graced its stage.
This restaurant, a favorite among artsy folks in the local Joshua Tree community, is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. At La Copine, diners can find upscale New American fare like chicken sandwiches and tender steak, plus desserts like coconut rice pudding. La Copine (which means “girlfriend” in French) opened in 2015 by partners in love and business Nikki Hill and Claire Wadsworth and operates out of a revamped trailer in the Yucca Valley suburb of Flamingo Heights. Snagging a seat at La Copine can be competitive, and some people make the three-hour drive out from Los Angeles just to eat lunch there—to secure your seat, make reservations in advance.
Natural Sisters Cafe
Calling all veggie heads—this one’s for you. Natural Sisters Cafe’s menu is full of plant-based fare and offers a variety of vegan and vegetarian smoothies, sandwiches, wraps, salads, and baked goods. It’s also conveniently located near the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. While you’re waiting for your meal, take a peek at the local art hanging on the walls before heading out and hitting the trails.
Where to stay in Joshua Tree
The Bungalows by HomesteadModern
You’ll find a new addition to the local hotel scene in Joshua Tree, the Bungalows by Homestead Modern, at the Institute of Mentalphysics, a New Age spiritual center dedicated to improving people’s physical and emotional well-being. The recently revamped motel gives visitors a stylish, midcentury-modern home base with full kitchenettes, entrancing floor-to-ceiling windows, and the original post-and-beam ceilings. Guests of the Bungalows are also welcome to participate in the center’s yoga or meditation classes.
Autocamp Joshua Tree
Located just outside of the national park, Autocamp Joshua Tree offers 47 glamorously renovated Airstreams and eight suites spread across 25 acres of desert peppered with otherworldly cacti and oddly shaped boulders. All of the units are outfitted with air-conditioning, queen-size beds, locally designed furniture, and kitchenettes, and most have private bathrooms. The midcentury-modern inspired clubhouse has a café and bar with organic comfort food and local California beer and wine, firepits (perfect for those cold desert nights), and a plunge pool.
The Pioneertown Motel is located near Pappy and Harriet’s in Morongo Basin’s famous Pioneertown, an old western movie set that was later converted into a small community filled with shops and restaurants. This historic motel was originally built by cowboy singer and actor Roy Rogers in 1946 as a place for Golden Age movie stars to rest after filming—Gene Autry is said to have played poker until sunrise one night in Room 9. The property was later purchased by hotelier brother duo Matt and Mike French, who gussied up the motel.
Getting to Joshua Tree
There’s absolutely no doubt that you will need a car to visit Joshua Tree or Joshua Tree National Park. Most visitors to the region live in Southern California, but out-of-state travelers can fly into Los Angeles International Airport (a 142-mile, three-hour drive) or Palm Springs International Airport (a 40-mile, 45-minute drive) and then rent a car to explore the region.
Try to leave the Los Angeles area in the wee hours of the morning before rush hour starts to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Be sure to pick a comfortable vehicle, as you’ll likely be spending lots of time in it. When I visited Joshua Tree in October 2022, I drove a Lexus NX 2022, which is outfitted with soundproofing, wireless Bluetooth (and phone charging), and comfortable seats—all the modern bells and whistles made the long drive a pleasure.