Five years ago, I visited Joshua Tree National Park while on a road trip out west, leaving chilly Michigan behind for the week. Several years later, my husband and I moved out this way to southern California, and now we only live 80 or so minutes away from the park entrance. We've visited 15 or 20 times and have camped, hiked, rock climbed, star gazed, and on several occasions, drove all the way out there just to do a lap in our car at sunset to recharge our hearts.
With my upcoming retreat near the park right around the corner, I've been feeling very tender towards the place, and the following post gushed out of me the other day, so I tried to tidy it up to share my love of this desert wonderland with you, hoping you might just give this funky park a visit.
Four Things I Love About Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP)
1. The trees are just so WEIRD
The first time I ever stood next to a Joshua tree, I promptly hit the dirt and got into the “happy baby” yoga post, screaming TAKE MY PICTURE to my husband, who looked understandably baffled as I rocked back and forth. I still don’t know what happened. I felt such a wild delight in their quirky awkward arms and spiky green ends. I loved them so much that, several years after that first visit, I got a tattoo of a not-very-small Joshua Tree onto my leg last year.
Of the photo evidence of both of these things that exist, I only trust the internet with the following:
As you explore the park, they'll keep growing on you, especially as the colors change throughout the day.
2. The sunset will absolutely break your heart
I can’t even explain it, and photos don’t do it justice. Like, imagine you’re on another planet and the landscape is completely foreign and the colors don’t make sense and the breeze carries the smell of something you can’t name and and and… you want to cry and laugh and fly through the air, it’s so absurdly beautiful.
The apparent desolation of the wide-open landscape combined with the blood oranges and soft pinks and chalky blues don’t make sense. Thankfully, they don’t have to make sense, and you can just spread out your arms as wide as possible and take it in with a fool’s grin on your face and shout things like WOW LOOK! non-stop while unnecessarily pointing to everything.
The half hour after sunset unveils an entirely new world. The silhouettes of the Joshua trees take on a haunting, ethereal quality as you make your way through the park. Every few minutes, the colors change and your phone begs you to stop because you’re running out of space but you just can’t stop taking picture after picture because every moment is different, every tree and their weird little arms are now making a new painting for you with this splash of blue then midnight blue then purple then almost-black then then then...
My advice? After a hike in the busier part of the park in the northern section around Hidden Valley, try to time your drive to arrive before sunset to the less-frequented southern part of the park. Visit the cholla gardens, where the sunset transforms those spiky creatures into something you nearly want to embrace (and don’t worry, if you do, there is a box at the beginning of the trail with pliers in it to remove any unwanted barb spines you may acquire).
Bring a notebook, bring a chair.
Leave your headphones in the car.
Sit in the quiet. Let it fill you up.
Walk, write, explore. Pay attention to the hidden details around you.
Let the park work its magic on you.
...and don't forget your first-aid kit.
3. The stars. The gazing!
The quiet. The darkness. The cold desert air at night that’ll bite your nose. And then- woosh! A shooting star! Moments after my husband took the very flattering photo below (note that it wasn’t even dark yet) with the tree coming out of my head, I looked past his shoulder and saw a bright green flash and then a streak and OH MY GOD WAS THAT SPACE JUNK?! I yelled at him, unhelpfully pointing at where the outer space rock had just burnt up.
Just trust me on this. Stick around after sunset, and you won’t regret it. Bring blankets, a hot drink, and a way to lay flat or back comfortably. Your neck will thank you later.
Find a parking lot that’s recommended for stargazing (there are signs for this and you can ask a park ranger at one of the visitor centers for their advice) and try not to be the asshole who comes after it’s pitch black and blinds those already there with your headlights. Remember that their eyes have already adjusted to the dark.
We once put our crash pad in the back of our truck with a set-up that looked like we were going to sleep in there all night, and we just watched the stars in the inky darkness grow brighter and brighter as the night deepened, satellites drawing their slow lines every few minutes or so.
For our listening pleasure, we had the unsolicited commentary of a man on the opposite side of the parking lot who was with several new lady friends that he dazzled for hours with endless facts about every. single. constellation. ever. Thankfully, the truck bed blocked most of the noise, but if you poked your head up, you’d get a good earful about the history of Orion’s Belt, which he’d point to with his red laser.
If you’re lucky though and get a quiet spot (and I’d argue most of the time, that’s what you’ll find), let yourself just sink right into it all. After an hour or two, you’ll feel a deep sense of wonder and awe, a growing sense of connection to this ever-expanding universe that contains us all.
Stay a little longer, and you might just feel some rough edges in your heart begin to smooth out.
4. The camping, especially at this sorta-secret spot...
I love a good flush toilet. In most national parks, their campgrounds do not feature such luxuries. Normally, an outhouse with a swarm of flies is where you’ll hover your derriere when you need to do business, and lol if you think you’ll get running water to wash your hands.
But that’s not the best part about Black Rock Campground, my favorite place to camp at JTNP. It’s the best because it actually has a completely separate entrance from the main part of the park, but it is still the national park, which means great camping spots, nice amenities, tons of Joshua Trees (more than in some parts of the main park area) and little to no traffic since it’s not a thru-way.
Peeling off from the campground are a couple of hikes, too. We’ve camped there several times and not even visited the main park because this campground just has it all. I’ve hosting a mini writing retreat here, too, and a highlight was when we wrote at the top of the mountain (erm, big hill?) at sunset in the winter.
In my next post, I'll tell you more about my favorite hikes at JTNP and how the park scarred me for life on a climbing route called Sexy Grandma!
And if you want to spend a week in this other-worldly place with me and a small group, consider joining my Joshua Tree writing practice retreat this December 4-9th. There's 1 room left, a semi-private den, and up to 3 participants can secure their own off-campus lodging, including Black Rock campground, which is just 5 minutes from our retreat villa.
No matter what though:
Keep the hand moving!