How to Enjoy a Joshua Tree Camping Experience Without the Park Crowds
Joshua Tree National Park welcomed the 10th-most visitors of any U.S. park in 2020 despite closures during popular spring months.
Camping enthusiasm exploded in the wake of 2020’s pandemic-related shutdowns, as millions of households ventured into the outdoors for overnight respites from the cramped confines and electric hypnosis of living rooms and televisions.
In all, a staggering 48.2 million United States households camped at least once in 2020. And last year, more than 10 million households went out for a night under the stars for the first time, a surge that placed national parks across the country atop scores of rapidly-evolving bucket lists. Joshua Tree proved to be a fixture on those lists, drawing the 10th-highest attendance numbers of any park in the U.S. in 2020 despite a host of closures in March, April, and May, a season which traditionally elicits swarms of tourists.
Visitor numbers in 2021, meanwhile, surged to the point of prompting Park Service officials to recommend online reservation systems for entering the park or staying overnight. In Joshua Tree, park personnel even went as far as noting that “the park may become drive-through only as the parking lots reach maximum capacity during times of extreme visitation.”
“Joshua Tree used to be a secret gem for climbers, but in recent years, it has become an idyllic escape from the hustle of the surrounding Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties,” says Breanne Acio, co-founder of Sēkr, a crowdsourcing camping app that saw a 492% increase in users and a 1,530% increase in user sessions last May compared to the previous year.
“Due to the rise in popularity, [camping] reservations at the park can be hard to come by,” Acio adds. “But there are a ton of alternative options right outside of the park … far away from people and light pollution.”
Recent camping data from Kampgrounds of America backs up Acio’s insight: Today, nearly one-third of campers opt for non-designated campsites on public or private land, and few destinations are more equipped to accommodate close-proximity alternatives than the desert haven for hikers, rock climbers, and mountain bikers that is Joshua Tree National Park.
“A special element of this area is that the parks and towns surrounding [Joshua Tree] rival the national park itself in both beauty and things to do,” says Nina Rossi, Sēkr’s community manager. “Hiking, biking, art, music, and more—there is no shortage of activities to try or interesting people to meet. Looking for a nomad adventure in the desert? This is your place.”
We asked the folks at Sēkr about a few of their favorite campsites and activities in the vicinity, and, ever the reliable source, they offered up no shortage of substance.
- North Joshua Tree is Bureau of Land Management property that offers dispersed camping on a “wide open, dry lakebed, where you can escape the crowds of the national park and really appreciate the night sky,” Acio says. “Whether you’re car camping or have a fifth-wheel camper, you can camp for free for up to 14 nights.”
- If services such as hot showers, toilets, or shared kitchens are more your speed, the Van Life Campground—also known as Van Life J Tree—sits just 15 minutes from the park’s entrance and offers a community hang-out patio, fire pits, group activities like movie nights, frisbee golf, and cornhole, mobile service for the remote worker, and even a temporary mailing address. Rates start at just $20 per night and can be booked on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
- The remote, dispersed campsite at Giant Rock in Landers has “plenty of space to set up camp along the dirt road,” Acio says, but “there are no amenities so pack it in and pack it out.”
- Mojave National Preserve, which sits approximately 90 miles from Joshua Tree, comes replete with the renowned Joshua trees and isolated desert areas sans the swarming crowds of the park. Traditional campsites, dispersed camping, and backpacking options are all available, as are hiking and four-wheeling adventures.
- While it lies within park borders, the 99-site Black Rock Campground and its proximity to one of the most dense concentration of Joshua tree forests is too good not to mention. Hiking trails are plentiful, with many yielding vantage points of the surrounding peaks and low desert expanse. Wildlife viewing is also abundant. The site features both flush toilets and drinking water.
“No matter your camping style, this area offers an assortment of stays at every budget,” Rossi says. “From free campsites on Sēkr to resorts in Palm Springs, there is somewhere for everyone.”
- The 25,500-acre Pioneertown Mountains Preserve links the space between Joshua Tree National Park, the San Bernardino National Forest, and the Big Horn Wilderness. Hiking and biking trails are ripe for conquering, while volcanic mesas, alien-like rock formations, and the Sawtooth Mountains offer more than enough occasion for sightseeing.
- Indian Canyons in Palm Springs comprises Palm, Andreas, and Murray canyons, each of which make for great exploration. Select sections feature lush palm tree canopies perfect for beating the heat, California style.
- The halfway point between Barstow and Needles is marked by Amboy Crater, a 250-feet-high, 1,500-feet-wide ash and cinder code that calls one of the nation’s youngest volcanic fields home. A 24-square-mile area on the crater’s western side reveals the otherwordly scars of a lava pour—lava lakes and spatter cones are aplenty.
- “Elevate your trip, literally, with the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway,” Acio says. The 10-minute, 2.5-mile ride begins at the Valley Station—at just over 2,500 feet elevation—and concludes—after reaching 8,516 feet—at the Mountain Station, where restaurants, observation decks, 50 miles of hiking trails, and a natural history museum await.
- Discover local artists at the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum or Shari Elf’s Art Queen complex, where visitors can enjoy the World Famous Crochet Museum.
“Joshua Tree is nestled in between towns that all have their own unique personality and are worth exploring,” Acio says. “Pioneertown, for example, is a former filming location-turned-community where horses have the right of way, Palm Springs is an LBGTQ+-friendly luxury oasis of culture and nightlife, Twentynine Palms is home to the main park entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, and Yucca Valley is full of outdoor public art.”
- Sign up for the Joshua Tree Photography and Art Workshop, Feb. 17-20.
- Join the American Hiking Society for its Volunteer Vacation at Joshua Tree National Park, March 20-26.
- Catch an impressive lineup of musicians at Pappy and Harriet’s. View the venue’s calendar here.
- Running now through the end of January is Darkness Sounding 2022, a quintessential desert art and sound experience.