For lasting memories of your time in the park, here are the very best things to do, from rock climbing to stargazing
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Bold on the boulders
The coarse texture and endless cracks and edges in Joshua Tree’s monzogranite boulders create righteous conditions for rock climbing. With 400 formations offering 8,000 different routes, you’re bound to spot climbers inching their way up rock faces throughout the park. Ready to defy gravity yourself? Learn the basics from such local experts as Cliffhanger Guides (cliffhangerguides.com; 209/743-8363), Vertical Adventures (vertical-adventures.com; 800/514-8785), and the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School (joshuatreerockclimbing.com; 800/890-4745). Or between 8-10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from mid-October through April, bring your mug for Climbers Coffee at Hidden Valley Campground to get the inside scoop from the park’s climbing ranger. nps.gov/jotr; 760/367-5500.
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Drive into the past
Pick up an interpretive guide and head out on the 18-mile Geology Tour Road, where the 16 stops along the way will introduce you to different aspects of park geology, including the formation of monzogranite rock and earthquake faults. Two-wheel-drive vehicles can go as far as Stop 9 at Squaw Tank but you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle past that point because of soft sand. www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/geology-motor-tour.htm or 760/367-5500.
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Bike the backroads
While Joshua Tree’s hiking trails aren’t open to mountain bikes, the park’s backcountry roads will keep the fat-tire crowd plenty busy. Try the 3.8-mile route from Covington Flat picnic area to Eureka Peak for a ride through Joshua tree forests and a steep climb to a view that reaches all the way to Palm Springs. Many of the park’s backcountry roads are also open for four-wheel-drive vehicles. www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/backcountry-roads.htm or 760/367-5500.
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Climb every mountain (or a couple)
With sections of six different mountain ranges, Joshua Tree has no shortage of peak experiences. In the far southern end of the park, the moderate 3-mile loop hike to Mastodon Peak climbs almost 450 feet to a summit with views of the Salton Sea. You’ll have to do a short stretch of rock scrambling to reach the actual summit but it’s worth the effort. Or in the heart of the park, a moderately strenuous 3-mile roundtrip on a beautifully constructed trail leads to the top of Ryan Mountain, the park’s second tallest peak. The nearly 1,100-foot ascent means you’ll do some huffing and puffing along the way. www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/hiking.htm or 760/367-5500.
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Hike to fan palm oases
At five locations in the park, California fan palms grow where water reaches the surface along fault lines. Near the northern end of the park, a moderate 3-mile round-trip hike leads to 49 Palms Oasis (pictured), a good destination for spotting desert bighorn sheep. The more pristine Lost Palms Oasis in the park’s southern end is accessible via a moderate 7.2-mile round-trip hike across open desert to the park’s largest stand of palm trees. www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/hiking.htm or 760/367-5500.
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Tour a historic ranch
Not everyone can eke out a living in the desert, but for 60 years Bill and Frances Keys gave it a go and even raised five children at Joshua Tree’s remote Desert Queen Ranch. To visit this unique property, make reservations at 760/367-5522 for 90-minute ranger-led walking tours ($10) that explore the ranch. Tours are offered from February into May on Sundays at 10 a.m. and Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 2 p.m. www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/ranchtour.htm or 760/367-5500.
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See the night sky
Free of urban light pollution and with clear, dry weather, Joshua Tree offers a phenomenal view of the night sky. Join rangers for monthly 90-minute, 1-mile Full Moon Hikes, which take place on weekends before each full moon. Reservations (760/367-5522) open two weeks before the free hikes. Or come out to the park for such annual astronomical events as August’s Perseid meteor shower and November’s Leonid meteor shower. nps.gov/jotr or 760/367-5500.
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Search for wildflowers
It doesn’t happen every year. But when the right conditions converge, the normally tawny terrain of Joshua Tree comes alive with color: golden Joshua tree poppies, red chuparosa, and purple Arizona lupine. The short Bajada Nature Trail at the southern end of the park is one of the earliest and most dependable spots. Joshua trees bloom later than many of the park’s plants, with prime displays sometimes lasting from mid-March well into April. Check with the park throughout the wildflower season for frequent updates. www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/blooms.htm or 760/367-5500.