If you’ve ever visited Joshua Tree National Park, you understand its majesty and beauty.
You can experience it simply by driving through the park. Right away, you’ll start to appreciate the large piles of rock formations—boulders that appear to be meticulously placed in perfect structures, for miles and miles. As the drive continues, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of majestic Joshua trees, in various shapes and sizes. The way the light shines through can be totally mesmerizing, depending on the time of day. In fact, some people experience a spiritual enlightenment—and some even mention finding vortices.
My friends and I have spent countless hours and days in Joshua Tree National Park, hiking, rock scrambling, camping and riding motorcycles. For years, a group of us would go Thanksgiving holiday camping—mostly at Jumbo Rocks Campground, one of our absolute favorites. It was at Jumbo Rocks where we had some of our most memorable adventures, scrambling and hiking in the midst of the endless giant boulders. One of my favorite short and easy trails in the area is Skull Rock Trail—a not-quite-2-mile loop that starts near the entrance of Jumbo Rocks Campground and goes to Skull Rock and back. This is a great trail, surrounded by beautiful foliage and wildflowers, as well as boulders you can climb if you so choose—a nice variety for a hike that is best from October until April.
I wanted to get a different perspective on JTNP, so I asked Leslie Olguin Follette and Diana Follette. I don’t know any people who have spent more time in Joshua Tree National Park than these two longtime friends of mine. I asked them what makes Joshua Tree National Park so majestic.
“How do you describe paradise?” Leslie replied. “Let me try: From the moment you enter Joshua Tree National Park, you feel something. This place is special! To truly understand, you must go again and again.”
Leslie pointed out that every adventure will be unlike the last—in part, because there are very few signs and arrows to follow, so one must rely on instincts. This is very true—and one of the main reasons one should always bring extra water when hiking in Joshua Tree National Park (or anywhere in the desert, for that matter). You should also always tell someone where you’re going, never go alone, and never go during the highest heat of the day in July and August.
I asked Leslie and Diana to tell me about some of their best discoveries. “We found a labyrinth, my wife and I,” said Leslie. “We took all of our friends, walking in silence, around and around. We all placed our special rocks there. There are no signs, but it’s there.” I can verify this—because I was there!
Leslie said they also found a cave in which some areas can only be accessed by crawling under rocks (where one must hope the rock formations are indeed solid), as well as an old mining camp that still has relics from the past.
“I found it with instructions I had obtained by overhearing a conversation at a local restaurant,” Leslie said. “That’s how it’s done sometimes. But it’s there. We found it.”
The Follettes also mentioned the magic they felt while celebrating the blue moon, as they camped out in the open under its magnificent glow. As it rose in the sky, dozens of campers emerged and climbed boulders to howl at the moon. Leslie said that she will never forget the laughter and friendship they felt that night.
My friends and I have gone moon-chasing through JTNP many times. Whether it’s the night of a full moon or a prime stargazing night in between full moons, Joshua Tree National Park after dark is truly magical.
Then there’s the motorcycle riding. “I’ve traveled the roads and the back roads, climbing on my dirt bike where miners used to have mules, and you can find things out there, like maybe a car,” Leslie said. “I’ve rode my 1100 Honda through Box Canyon and beyond. You will not ever find its match in beauty.” I agree: My biker buddies and I enjoy rides through the park every chance we get. It’s never enough.
Of course, this is a hiking column—and hiking in Joshua Tree National Park always offers new adventures. “You can find any level of difficulty there, from stepping out of your car and climbing (nearby) to having days of gear and water, ‘just in case,’” Leslie said. “For many times, a ‘small hike’ becomes so much more.”
This reminds me of my experiences in attempting to find the giant Heart Rock in JTNP. It took a few tries, but I found it, and when I did, I took the Follettes so they could experience the special beauty it holds.
Leslie, however, saved the best for last: Keys View! The view is spectacular; you may feel like you are at the Grand Canyon. “Keys View holds a very special place in our hearts, because on a day in 2013, we gathered there with our family and friends and … married there. So feel our energy—we left some there.”
October and November are among the best months to hike and camp in Joshua Tree National Park. The weather is usually perfect, with highs from the low 70s to low 80s, and lows from mid-40s to mid-50s. In December and January, overnight temperatures can drop below freezing. (My friends and I camped at Jumbo Rocks over New Year’s once, and we all nearly froze out.)
JTNP is only 30 to 40 miles from the Coachella Valley, depending on the entrance you choose, and it’s one of more than 100 park sites that offers free admission to everyone six days per year. The next “entrance-fee free” day is Nov. 11, Veterans Day. Find a complete listing of all participating parks here.
Plan your trip to JTNP accordingly. Get directions; learn of alerts and conditions in advance, such as fire restrictions; check the COVID-19 mask requirements; and learn more here.