Living in Southern California, you get used to seeing the desert. So, Joshua Tree National Park was never really on my list of top places to visit. However, one thing that is on my list, is seeing all the California National Parks. It’s difficult to spend a lot of time in each park when you’re trying to see them all. Check out my post about how we did Yosemite National Park in a weekend! So my bright idea was to invite some of my family to join B and I on a trip: weekend camping in Joshua Tree National Park!
Of course, everyone was up for it. My brother and sister-in-law are trying to visit every National Park! And my brother-in-law and his girlfriend are always up for a camping adventure. So allow me to share with you our weekend itinerary and how we saw amazing things during our weekend camping in Joshua Tree National Park.
GETTING TO JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Driving from the Inland Empire was super easy. It was actually a very quick trip. We drove 6 miles past the turn-off from the I-10 because I thought for sure it was further! Oops! The best way to come in to the park is through the West entrance. The West Visitor’s Center is in the town of Joshua Tree, but not inside the National Park. By entering this way, we were able to stop by the Visitor’s Center a couple of miles before actually paying and entering the park. There are 3 visitor centers right outside the park depending on what side you are coming in from.
Getting into the park is easy. If you have a National Park Interagency Pass, which retails for $80, you can get into any national park for an entire year. To enter the park for 7 days, you pay $25. This does not include whatever you pay to camp inside the park. Camping inside the park ranges from $10-$20 a night.
Reminder: there is no cell phone service after this point. Once you pass the entry booth into the park, we did not get any cell phone reception. It’s extremely nice when you’re trying to get away and relax! Somewhat annoying when you need to call people in your party! Haha.
WEEKEND CAMPING IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY
Once inside the park, it’s pretty much a straight shot to any of the campgrounds, except for Cottonwood Spring campground. There is one major road that goes through the middle of the whole park. We arrived at around 2pm on a Friday. Now, I thought since we were camping in the middle of December, the campgrounds would be empty. This was not the case! When we arrived, a ranger in the Visitor’s Center told us to get our campsite first! At the entrance gate, the ranger told us that all of the closest campsites had only one or two spots open, and Jumbo Rocks campsite had only 60. We were already planning on staying in Jumbo Rocks, so we went straight there to find a site.
Just FIY, some campgrounds are located inside the National Park but do not have roads that lead into the park. For example, Indian Cove campground is a part of Joshua Tree National Park, but you have to drive outside of the campground and back through the entrance of the park to get to any of the other sights. The same goes for Black Rock Campground. See this national park map to find where you want to camp.
CAMP SET UP
We ended up finding two awesome campsites right next to each other for our group. A lot of the campsites were very small, so finding two big sites away from other people was fantastic! We set up camp and it only took about 15 minutes! NO JOKE! The thing that took the longest was walking everything from the car to the site.
Also, we have the best tent. It’s a Coleman 5 person tent and is perfect and roomy for 2 people. Click here to check it out! It sets up in less than 5 minutes. No joke. We bought one for my brother and his wife for Christmas. This was the first time they were using it and they set it up in 5 minutes. Look at how cute our tents are together!
B and I had to drive back to cell phone service land to let his brother know what campsites we found since they were arriving late that night. So while we drove back, my brother and his wife headed out to the Cholla Cactus Gardens. I had heard it was a very cool place to take a short walk and see awesome types of cacti and flowers. What I failed to realized, is that there are no flowers in winter. They only appear during spring time. So unfortunately, it wasn’t so pretty to visit the Cactus Garden in the winter. It was 25 minutes away from our campsite, and once they showed us pictures, we figured it wasn’t worth it. So instead, we drove through the park and explored what we would like to do the next day.
SUNSETS, STARS CAMPFIRES
Once we got back to camp from exploring and getting the layout of the park, we climbed up some big rocks right next to our campground and watched the sunset. It was fabulous! Of course, we had to take pictures because the lighting was so good! Because it was winter, the sunset was around 4:30. This gave us a bunch of time to cook dinner in the dark and spend a lot of time around the campfire! It was definitely cold enough to stay close to the fire.
One of the best things to do in Joshua Tree if you are staying overnight is to star-gaze. Jumbo Rocks is pretty far from the light pollution in Riverside and the surrounding cities. We were able to see hundreds of stars despite the light glow from the city to the Southwest. Unfortunately for us, the only time you are unable to see the Milky Way in the park is from December to February. So we will have to go back in the summer time to see this natural wonder.
In the middle of December, the weather was amazing during the day. However, once it got dark, it got very cold. Make sure you’re prepared with lots of blankets and a good tent and sleeping bag. These self-inflating sleeping pads were fantastic to keep you off the cold ground. The weather was only supposed to get down to 45 degrees at night. However, we didn’t factor in the wind chill! I’m sure the first night, it felt like 35 degrees. We were pretty cold even with our tents and blankets!
HIKE UP RYAN MOUNTAIN
After breakfast and dressing in warm clothes, we drove a little ways up the road to Ryan Mountain. This hike is the most popular hike in the park. However, it is also classified as strenuous! I had no idea it was strenuous because Pinterest didn’t tell me that. FAIL. So I probably shouldn’t have done it with an injured knee. However, it looked amazing, so we headed off.
It’s not hard to see why this hike is so popular. From the top of the mountain, at over 5,500 ft., you can see all the way to the Salton Sea. Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio are also visible from the 360 degree view! However, this hike is strenuous. Especially for me since I am still recovering from a torn muscle in my leg. The hike is an incline of over 1000 ft in just 1.5 miles. There are many parts that include steps/stairs to continue. Also, there are many parts that require stepping up and over huge rocks. For someone with a slightly injured knee, it wasn’t possible to make it to the top. So be aware before you attempt this hike.
On the way up, there were beautiful views of the desert. The trail goes around the west side of the mountain and cuts through the middle. Once you get close to the top, you have views of the east side. About half way up, it started to sprinkle on us. Once we were pretty close to the top, it rained. And our group who made it to the top said it snowed/hailed on them! It was crazy because back at our campsite everything was dry! I doubt it even sprinkled. So be prepared for any type of weather at the top since you are climbing up pretty quickly in elevation.
After hiking to Ryan Mountain, part of our group went on another 4 mile, round-trip hike. The rest of us needed lunch and a little rest. Then we took off to walk to Skull Rock. Now there are two ways to see Skull Rock that we found. One way is to drive up and park on the side of the road, then walk a little ways to see the rock. I would suggest this way. It will allow you to have more time to see other things. It is a cool rock shaped like a skull, but we were not that impressed.
The second way to see this was to walk about 1.8 miles round-trip starting from the Jumbo Rocks Campground. Since we thought this was the only way to see Skull Rock, we went this way. We simply walked down the street a little ways from our campsite and started on the trail.
It was pretty cool to walk through huge groups of rocks and marvel at how they got that way. Skull Rock is a popular place for people to take pictures, so it was crowded when we got there. Once we took a few pictures, we took off back to camp. Once back, we quickly drive to our next destination for the sunset: Keys View!
By the time we finished our Skull Rock walk, it was getting close to sunset time. So we loaded up the car with blankets and drove a little further up the road to Keys View. I had no idea what to expect from this place and was pleasantly surprised. Props to my hubby for finding it on the map!
In order to get to Keys View, you have to drive up the mountain to 5,000 ft. elevation. It is not a difficult drive, just a good incline. There is limited parking at the top, so luckily we got there about 25 minutes before the sun set. It does get crowded, so I would suggest getting there a little early. Because we got there before a lot of people, we were able to take a group picture without being in anyone’s way. Just step out onto the rocks and soak in the gorgeous views!
From this view, you are also able to see the Salton Sea, Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio. The pictures we got of the sunset and the view were just fabulous.
After watching such a great sunset, we headed back to camp to get warm! It was a chilly weekend for us out in the desert. Making dinner over an open fire is so fun! B and I love the new utensil set we bought just before heading out! You can check it out here. It made eating steak a breeze! How did we cook our steak? We used this BBQ! It works so well! And of course you have to eat s’mores when you’re camping!
CHECK OUT DAY
Since we were only staying two nights, we tried to do as much as possible. However, because it was soooo freezing when we woke up on check out day, we decided to just go home. Pro tip: Make sure you’re prepared for the cold in the winter if that’s when you’re camping! We thought we were prepared. But apparently not. Haha. The wind-chill factor made 40 degrees in the morning feel like 30!
There would still be plenty of time to drive to some short hikes or see some interesting things on check out day. You could definitely spend some time in the Visitor’s Center checking things out. We collect magnets from all the crazy places we go, so we had to buy a magnet! Also, if you get a park map, it will show you how strenuous and long the hikes are so you can adequately plan this last day! However, we were cold and my knee was not doing so hot, so we ate breakfast, packed up and drove home. (We also wanted to beat the Vegas traffic that would be coming back!)
TIPS FOR JOSHUA TREE
Here are the tips and tricks we found out on our trip!
- The $25 cost to get into the park lasts for 7 days and does not cover the camping fee.
- The camping fee is honor-system based and you stick your money in an envelope and keep the stub to save your spot.
- The best time to get a camping spot is Friday morning. Joshua Tree is getting more and more popular every year, so that means more and more crowded.
- BRING YOUR OWN WATER. AND LOTS OF IT! You seriously need to bring a ton of water. There is no store to buy it in the park
- Get a park map and find out what hikes are easy, moderate or strenuous before you set out on a hike.
- There are 6 people, 3 tents and 2 cars allowed on each camping spot.
- No pets are allowed on any trails in the park
- If you do need somewhere to go for lunch or dinner, you have to drive more than 30 minutes to get to town and find a restaurant.
Have you ever been tent/car camping in Joshua Tree National Park? Leave us your tips and tricks in the comment section for the next time we go out there!