Located in the heart of the Mojave desert. Two hours from the Los Angeles area just outside of Palm Springs, three hours from both Phoenix and Las Vegas, it’s still a world away. Those spikey, alien looking trees that pop up on terrain paints something that looks closer to a Martian landscape painted by Frank Frazetta than anything you’ve seen on Earth. Being so close to millions of people makes this a pretty popular park. Deserts are lands of temperature extremes, usually known to be dangerously hot. A barren landscape, hot sun, and windswept monumental boulders. Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park in sunny California.
But right now it’s winter. It’s cold, right?
January is actually one of the best times to travel. Between New Years and Martin Luther King Day you may have a few extra days off, most people aren’t traveling after spending all their time and money on the holidays the month before. Joshua Tree in January usually sees an average high of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit and an average low of about 37 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot warmer than most places in the US in the middle of winter. 60 in full sun is nice weather. However, November, December, and February are also nice times of year to visit.
You will find smaller crowds, mild to cool weather, evergreen plants, and recreational activities (bouldering, rock climbing, hiking, nature and wildlife viewing, camping, etc) that are the same year-round. Winter is a great time to visit Joshua Tree National Park, especially because most of your other National Parks are covered with snow. (Snow is fun too though). Here’s how to do Joshua Tree National Park in winter time.Camping/ Lodging in and around Joshua Tree
Fancy: There are several hotels and motels in California around the towns of Joshua Tree (West entrance of park), 29 Palms (North entrance), or Indio or other towns further west in the Coachella Valley, which includes Palm Springs, (South entrance). You will find the most hotels in the Coachella Valley due to the proximity to I-10 but these towns are the farthest drives from the main features of the park; you will also find the largest range of prices here. The town of Joshua Tree boasts the best proximity to the park but only has pricier resorts and a couple dumpy motels (not as much selection). But these places have heat and hot showers.
Fun: Joshua Tree National Park has 8 campgrounds with about 500 developed camp sites inside the park so you can wake and walk to your hiking adventure. These require reservations during the busy season (Oct- May) and are either $15 or $20 per site per night depending on if they supply potable water on site. Many contain attractions themselves, Jumbo Rocks Campground is a good example of this.
Free: The National Park Service recommends two “overflow” camping areas that are on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land that anyone can use for free at any time. They are both a little tricky to find in the dark so I’d recommend scoping it out before the sunset. We stayed at the North Joshua Tree BLM which is located on a dry lake bed. It got WAY colder than the town or park due to the lack of vegetation and natural cover. We camped there on January 12, 2016 and our water bottles froze solid and the interior of our tent as well as everything that was left outside got a thick layer of frost on it. I’d recommend camping inside your vehicle and/or be prepared to be very cold, make sure you have a zero degree sleeping bag or at the very least, an Emergency Foil Blanket. For Google maps or your GPS, these pages list the coordinates of these campsites: North BLM and South BLM. FYI the park pass costs $20 per vehicle and lasts for 7 days.
What to do at the park
Hiking: several small loops often with interpretive signs (e.g. Hidden Valley Trail), a couple longer trails (e.g. the Boyscout Trail), and a cross-park trail that is several miles long and could easily be a backpacking adventure called California Riding and Hiking Trail.
Driving Tour: Drive through the park and stop at roadside “exhibits”- usually a interpretive sign about a feature in view. Geology Tour road brings you on a driving tour of the land formations. You may also drive up to Keys View, a scenic mountain outlook at 5,185 feet.
Bouldering: Even novices can have fun amongst the boulders here. Climbers experienced in bouldering may take on established routes, but there are plenty of easy ways to play around on the rocks. Joshua Tree is a jungle gym for adults and youth alike.
Rock Climbing: Serious to beginner rock climbers can bring their gear and follow defined routes which usually have posted difficulty levels. Many routes have bolts for climbers to use, the Hall of Horrors is a popular climbing area. Signs and maps will guide you to the right route for your climbing level.
Nature viewing: Check out the Cholla Garden, where a trail runs through miles of jumping cholla cacti. It is best in late afternoon when the sunlight illuminates the cacti spines. The desert is host to interesting wildlife adapted to its harsh climate. Try Barker Dam, where open water entices many different animals to quench their thirst. Pay close attention the the Joshua trees, which are a life source and habitat to many creatures. The Joshua trees only grow an inch per year and can grow up to 40 feet tall. These ancient plants alone are amazing feats of nature.
Horseback riding: Joshua Tree National Park provides 253 miles of equestrian trails so that you can really feel like a cowboy in the old west.
Bike riding: Only allowed on vehicle roads, but still a great way to cover a lot of land while not being separated from nature in a steel and glass cocoon.
Stargazing: The desert, with its often clear skies, is the perfect place to see stars. You can see the milky way even when the moon is up. Rangers often lead star gazing programs and will point out constellations and sometimes provide Native American tales about the stars.
What Essentials to Bring
Aside from gear particular to the activities you want to do (binoculars, ropes, your horse, etc) you need some certain essentials for hanging out in the desert in winter. Be prepared for crazy temperature swings from day to night. We can’t stress this enough, the desert gets COLD at night.
WATER: Even though it’s winter, it is still the desert. Always bring way more water then you think you’ll need. It can be used for cooking, cleaning, or saving someone’s life who wasn’t as awesomely prepared as you. The National Park Service recommends 1 gallon of water per person per day in Joshua Tree and if you are doing rigorous athletic activity such as hiking or biking bring 2 gallons per person per day.
Layers: It may be warm enough to wear shorts in the midday sun, but you better have several other layers to put over those shorts as night creeps in. Consider multi functional items, such as windproof thermals. Check out our earlier post on Fall Hiking Essentials under the “Layers” section for more details.
Those are the top essentials for doing Joshua Tree National Park in January or winter time. If you would like more details, check back in for our upcoming post: Desert Hiking Essentials.
I highly recommend an outdoor trip of some kind during January. The most depressing day of the year is supposedly Blue Monday and falls on the third Monday of January. It’s a well known fact that the outdoors and physical activity can release dopamine and generally make people happier. Most of our country is very cold this time of year and those who haven’t fallen in love with winter sports yet may be waiting until spring to venture outside. Joshua Tree may be the perfect place to reignite your happiness, creativity, and energy this winter. If not Joshua Tree, I hope its somewhere else. Now get out there!