Plan Like a Park Ranger: Top 10 Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

A park ranger jumps through the air in the desert.
A park ranger enjoying a cloudy day in Joshua Tree National Park.

NPS / Kelsey Graczyk

1. Leave No Trace

Take only photos and leave only footprints. Pack out all trash and watch out for wind! Joshua Tree National Park is frequently windy! Unsecured, lightweight items on picnic tables, on car seats, or even in pockets can easily get swept away by the wind and become unintended trash.

2. Always Leave a Note

Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Make sure you have a solid check-in time with that person and that they know who to call if they cannot reach you. For an emergency or to report a missing person in Joshua Tree National Park, please call 909-383-5651 or 911. Safety buddies save lives.

Get more desert safety tips here!

3. Pack Your Patience

Are you visiting Joshua Tree during the busy fall, winter, or spring season? The park will be crowded! Be prepared for long lines, limited parking, packed trails, and full campgrounds.

4. When Two Roads Diverge, Take the Road Less Traveled

There are many ways to escape the crowds. Here are a few of our favorite:

  • Drive down Pinto Basin Road and explore the pull-outs along the road to explore the transition between the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
  • Have a picnic at Live Oak Picnic Area, and then walk across the street to explore the Split Rock Trail after lunch.
  • Take advantage of hiking opportunities near your campground, but do not use campgrounds for parking if you are not camped there. Walk from your campground to hike!

5. BYOW—Bring Your Own Water

We often take clean, running water for granted. But potable water is non-existent in most of Joshua Tree National Park. Bring your own and bring more than you think you need. Extra props if you bring reusable water containers!

6. The Early Visitor Gets the Parking Spot

Get to your priority destinations early in the morning, before 9 am. You may need to choose your hike based on where you find parking. Never create a parking spot by driving on vegetation, even if the vegetation looks dead. The park may become drive-through only when all of the parking areas fill up. Another way to avoid crowds is to plan your visit during the middle of the week and avoid weeks around holidays.

7. Plan for Your Pet

Walk pets on roads or in campgrounds or leave them at home. The desert is hot and filled with spikey plants and sharp rocks. Never bring a pet on a trail, in the backcountry, or in wilderness. Our wildlife will thank you and your pet’s sensitive paws will thank you too. Never leave pets in a vehicle in the desert, even with the windows cracked.

Learn more about pets in Joshua Tree National Park!

8. There’s no Bad Sunset Spot in the Desert

There’s hundreds of “best” sunset spots in Joshua Tree National Park. Rangers who have worked in the park for a decade are still discovering new favorites. If you don’t know where to start, try Cap Rock, The Cholla Cactus Garden, Quail Springs, or anywhere along the Ryan Mountain Trail.*

9. Sing the ABCs of Planning

Have a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C. Many things are out of your control in the desert, including unbearable heat, monsoonal downpours, and campsite and parking availability—or lack thereof—to name a few. Research ahead of time and create an extensive list of things you’d like to see in the desert. Include variety! For example, list locations and activities that you’d like to visit that are both indoors** and outdoors. That way, if the weather is too hot or too stormy, you’ll already be prepared for indoor activities. If you are camping, we highly recommend booking your site in advance. Most campers cannot find an open, first-come, first-serve site during the park’s busy season from October through early June.

10. Download the New Free National Park App

Download the national park app before you arrive and follow prompts for downloading offline content. There is no cell service in most of the park and you'll want to have content available on your phone so it's accessible anywhere in the park.

Visiting other national parks this summer? Find more tips to #PlanLikeAParkRanger

*The summit of Ryan Mountain is 1.5 miles and 1,000 feet in elevation away from the parking lot. This may not be a safe spot for you to watch the sunset and return down the trail in low light or darkness. But even a few hundred feet into the trail holds beautiful views of the desert and of the sunset.
**Other than the visitor centers, there are not many indoor opportunities in Joshua Tree National Park. Look to the nearby desert communities for fun indoor activities.

Joshua Tree National Park

Last updated: February 9, 2022