Approach the West Entrance Station of Joshua Tree National Park on a spring weekend, and you’ll face a long line of cars waiting to pay the $20 entrance fee and ascend into the high Mojave desert. With spring getting underway and the desert flowers about to bloom, this vast national park, which includes parts of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, is about to see one of its busiest seasons before the harsh temperatures of summer return.
According to Nps.gov, 2016 saw Joshua Tree National Park’s busiest season to date with over 2.5 million visitors entering the park, an increase of half a million annual visitors since 2015.
If you’ve ever visited JTNP, just a 2.5 hour drive east of Los Angeles, you probably understand why the park has become such a popular destination. The anthropomorphic Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) that could have materialized straight out of the mind of Dr. Seuss, the massive boulder fields of granite (perfect for climbers and scrambling enthusiasts), the stark mountains that cradle immense desert basins fifteen miles wide, the many campgrounds, trails and almost infinite backcountry camping options – all of these features make visiting Joshua Tree National Park an extremely rewarding, otherworldly experience. Walk across the desert floor among the Joshua trees and you might think you’re on Mars.
With the park’s ever increasing popularity, JTNP Superintendent David Smith says that “we are challenged by ‘being loved to death.’” Namely, the park is struggling with crowded campgrounds and a shortage of parking, especially in the popular western side of the park, where you will find the Joshua trees and monumental geologic formations.
But if you’re willing to take an extra step or two, you can avoid the masses this spring and enjoy the park in seclusion.
One option is to enter the park via the south entrance off the I-10 and visit the eastern half of JTNP. There, in the massive Pinto Basin, the high Mojave Desert melts into the low Colorado Desert, resulting in a diverse display of flora and fauna. The park infrastructure here is less developed, although you can find a visitor center and campground at Cottonwood Spring. There are some hiking trails as well as dirt roads that span the Pinto Basin if you have a proper 4×4 vehicle.
The other option is to take advantage of the backcountry. Visitors are allowed to go anywhere in the park, which means you don’t have to stick to the roads and trails. The only requirement is that you park and register at one of the 13 backcountry registration boards scattered across the park. If you decide to go off trail, it is important to avoid damaging the fragile, nutrient-rich crust of soil that blankets the desert floor: be sure to walk across rocky surfaces and follow the sandy washes, which form natural trails.
Some of excellent backcountry entrances can be found in the western half of the park at Juniper Flats and Twin Tanks. The former offers a hike to the top of the highest peak in JTNP, Quail Mountain, as well as prime camping among the juniper trees at the foot of the mountain. From Twin Tanks, on the other hand, you can set out across a wide dais on the California Riding and Hiking Trail and enjoy stunning views of the shining Pinto Basin far below to the east. If you’re willing to go off trail, you can head south — bring a compass and a map — and explore massive boulder piles near Malapai Hill at the mouth of Pleasant Valley.
I could go on and on, but you need to visit JTNP for yourself. It’s the best way to stop looking at your phone and get on your feet for a couple days. Remember: sitting kills. Just watch out for the cacti. I accidentally kicked one on my last visit and the barbs went straight through my shoe and into my toes. Perhaps this sounds discouraging to you, but believe me, I felt very alive. In fact, I’m glad I accidentally kicked that cactus.