Six Real Reasons to Visit Joshua Tree National Park


Joshua Tree National Park, is named after the very tree (err…well, tree like yucca) that will one day likely disappear from its landscape. The park is located in Southern California, about 30 miles east of Palm Springs. In the past handful of years park visitation has climbed immensely, and is quickly on the way to becoming one of the southwest’s most popular National Park destinations. But what makes it such an interesting place to visit? If you’ve ever looked at one of those “5 or 10 great reasons to visit Joshua Tree National Park” lists, you are told that it is great for looking at Joshua Trees, the fascinating tale of Bill Keys and his Ranch (Did you know that JTree’s Mickey Mouse (Bill Keys) was a murderer and con man? Look up his history in Death Valley with Death Valley Scotty), camping at Jumbo Rocks, the view from Keys View, the Cholla Garden, blah, blah, blah.

Honestly, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with those things, they are wonderful, and every first time visitor should experience them. To be frank after a visit or two they are boring, and you may be looking for something with a little more excitement. That is what this list is about, it is about opening eyes and ears to parts of Joshua Tree that are not talked about, and in some sense may be forbidden to talk about.


Native American pictographs in Joshua Tree NP.

Native American pictographs in Joshua Tree NP.


Cultural Resources – Cultural Landscapes, Petroglyphs, Pictographs, early inhabitation

This is my favorite subject, and probably the only one that would land in the “forbidden” zone. Ask a ranger the next time you visit the park about cultural resources like pictographs and petroglyphs, more than likely they will tell you about a site along the Barker Dam loop trail. What they will fail to tell you is that they were created by Disney. If you ask about additional places you will probably be told that there aren’t any, despite there being a half-dozen real sites in a half-mile radius, not to mention the hundreds of others throughout the park.

In reality the entire park is a cultural landscape and resource. The earliest people lived in the Pinto Basin over 10,000 years ago, then came the Cahuilla, the Serrano, and the Chemehuevi. There are village sites, ritual sites, and hunting sites in various conditions spread far and wide across the park.

This is by far the number one reason to visit Joshua Tree National Park, the only problem being that nobody is going to point you in the right direction.

I have included a couple of dozen of these sites in my book series, “Hidden Joshua Tree.” So that is a great place to start your research.


Eastern side of the Pinto Basin, looking toward the Coxcomb Mountains.

Eastern side of the Pinto Basin, looking toward the Coxcomb Mountains.


The Pinto Basin

Here is one that is definitely not going to be on any list other than my own.  The Pinto Basin is essentially the mini-Death Valley of Joshua Tree National Park. For whatever reason it is the most ignored part of the park, which is kind of nice because you won’t have to share your space with some hipster or aging hippie that is going on about a vortex that they found hidden between four boulders in the Wonderland.

For the most part the basin is kind of barren, but with many hidden treasures. Along the Pinto Mountains there are dozens of old mines in various states of despair. Along the Eagle Mountains there intact Native American village sites, fossils from miniature horses, and camels, along with dozens of additional mines.

There are only three roads in the Basin, the paved Pinto Basin Road (watch for Law Enforcement, they like to pull people over on this road), and two dirt roads, Old Dale Road, and Black Eagle Road. Really there isn’t much of interest besides the scenery directly along these roads, all the good stuff is going to require your feet and the ability to walk a couple of miles up to a couple of dozen miles (I’m not kidding).


Deep inside of the Coxcomb Range.

Deep inside of the Coxcomb Range.


The Coxcombs

The Coxcombs are the mountain range on the far eastern border of the park. They are far removed from the rest of the park, and with no roads penetrating them. This is a place where few people tread, and it is very likely that you can get to places in the range that no other, or very few people have ever laid foot. This range is the true Wonderland of Rocks.

Recorded history in this range is little. There are a handful of mines scattered through the range, General Patton trained his soldiers along the east side of the mountains, and this is the place where famous UFO hunter George Adamski recorded several of his UFO movies. 

Find out more about The Coxcomb Mountains by reading the following:








Bighorn sheep near Cottonwood in Joshua Tree NP.

Bighorn sheep near Cottonwood in Joshua Tree NP.



Joshua Tree supports a range of wildlife.

Mammals include but are not limited to: Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Lion, Bobcat, Coyote, Badgers, Mule Deer, Ringtail, Gray Fox, Kit Fox, Long-tailed Weasel, Kangaroo Rat, Cottontail Rabbit, and Jackrabbit.

Snakes include but are not limited to: Desert Nightsnake, Glossy Snake, Mojave Rattlesnake, Red Racer, Gopher Snake, California Kingsnake, Striped Whipsnake, Speckled Rattlesnake, and Rosy Boa.

Lizard include but are not limited to: Zebra-Tailed, Mojave Fringe-Toed, Chuckwalla, Western Banded Gecko, Desert Iguana, Long-nosed Leopard, Whiptail, and Desert Horned.

Scorpions include: Arizona Hairy Desert Scorpion, Stripe-Tailed, and the Bark Scorpion.


On top of Queen Mountain

On top of Queen Mountain


Queen Mountain

Queen Mountain sits along the northern border of Joshua Tree National Park, its highest peak is 5,677 feet, making it one of the highest peaks in the park. The mountain is for the most part trailless, the only exception being a faint trail leading up to the peak from the south side of the mountain. The top of Queen Mountain is a vast playground of miles and miles of maze like washes, and granite boulder formations. The possibilities of getting lost are great without good navigational skills. In terms of wilderness and remoteness this is about as wild as it gets in Joshua Tree National Park, with the exception of the Coxcomb Mountains.


Backcountry campsite in Lower Covington.

Backcountry campsite in Lower Covington.


Backcountry Camping / Night sky

For the most part you can backcountry camp just about anywhere in the park, the only exception being day use only areas. Your best bet is to get as far from anywhere of population as possible, allowing the most darkness and least light pollution. Anywhere in the Pinto Basin, the Coxcombs, Covington, Pleasant Valley, and Pine City are all good bets. Expect to see the night sky like you’ve probably never seen it before.

While there are plenty of other reasons to visit Joshua Tree National Park, those are some of my favorites. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the basics of Joshua Tree. Barker Dam, a rock that looks like a skull, fenced in ruins of the Lost Horse Mine, and camping with a couple of hundred assholes at Jumbo Rocks is not all that interesting. Be sure to pick up my guides Hidden Joshua Tree and Hidden Joshua Tree II (combo deal) for planning your next trip to Joshua Tree.


Hidden Joshua Tree Collection

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.