Last Updated on December 21, 2023

Who would imagine a desert with those spikey, funny looking trees could be so fascinating and fulfilling. Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, and Twentynine Palms are gateway communities surrounded by mountains. They are part of the Mojave Desert filled with wildlife, dark sky, art, music, spirituality, blooms, and maybe even aliens. There’s so much to do around Joshua Tree National Park!

In addition to camping, hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor adventures, there are a multitude of ways to create a memorable desert experience.

Joshua Tree National Park, the cornerstone of these communities, is 1,238 square miles. Ranking 36th out of 378 national parks in the United States in annual attendance, Joshua Tree National Park hosts approximately 3-million visitors per year. The highest elevation in the park is 5,814 feet at the summit of Quail Mountain, and the lowest is 536 feet at the southeastern boundary of the park.

Joshua Tree National Park is one of over 130 certified International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) in the world. This award-winning program, founded in 2001, encourages preservation and protection of dark sites through responsible lighting and public education.

The darkest skies in the Park are along the Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood.

The Joshua tree is related to the yucca palm and is native to the Southwestern United States – specifically, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, as well as northwestern Mexico. These trees are found mostly in the Mojave Desert between 1,300 and 6,000 feet in elevation.

Mormon immigrants making their way west across the Colorado River named these trees after the biblical figure, Joshua. They interpreted the tree limbs as being outstretched in supplication and guiding the pioneers westward.

Here are my recommendations for what to do around Joshua Tree National Park.

Observe the night sky in Joshua Tree National Park

The Campus is always open to exploring for individuals and families at Sky’s the Limit Observatory.

The Night Sky Festival, an annual one-day event held in September, offers activities for all ages. Docents lead tours around a scale model of the solar system and guide walks on a wilderness trail explaining the plants, animals, and geology of the locale.

Trek Through 2-billion-Year-Old Rocks

Big Morongo Canyon, one of the 10 largest willow riparian and cottonwood habitats in California, is a desert oasis in the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the Sand to Snow National Monument. This land has been an important part of Morongo Basin’s natural and cultural history for almost two billion years.

Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, offers numerous trails to hike and walk, including a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk. Popular ecosystem programs and displays educate visitors of all ages.

Play three 6-hole rounds of golf

Every hole is named after local wildlife at Hawks Landing Golf Course. Play six holes on a lunch break or three loops for a complete 18-hole game on this unique desert course. The rolling greens are in stark contrast to the desert landscape. Capturing the natural beauty of the area, the course captures and conserves water, too.

The driving range welcomes you to warm up before a round and The Roost presents food and beverages at the 19th hole.

Experience the Old West in Pioneertown

Pioneertown is home to many film and television productions, commercials, still photography, and music videos. In the late 1940s movie companies started producing Old West films, such as “The Gay Amigo,” “The Cisco Kid,” and the “Gene Autry Show.” The sets are still in use today for music, video, and other projects.

Browse at the mercantile shops or the General Store to get outfitted with a custom saddle or leatherwork; pick up some pottery or check out the artwork on Mane Street. You can get up close and personal with friendly goats and watch their hair being spun into yarn.

Enjoy shootouts on Mane Street or attend the weekly Sunday services at The Church in Pioneertown. The historic Sound Stage hosts live music and other free events.

Stay in Pioneertown at the Pioneertown Motel, camp at Pioneertown Corrals, or just down the road at Rimrock Ranch or Desert Willow Ranch.

The only place to eat right now in Pioneertown is Pappy & Harriet’s. It’s a hangout for many world-famous musicians and a music venue that hosts live shows. BBQ is their signature dish with a giant grill outside in the back yard. Expect standing room only and a long wait to be seated, so get there early.

Murals at the Oasis of Murals in Twentynine Palms

Twentynine Palms is home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and covers more than 998 square miles. This training facility in the high desert is larger than some small countries.

In downtown Twentynine Palms, you can make a game of spotting all 26 murals. The Oasis of Murals was started in 1994 by the local Merchants Committee and shares the vibrant local history. Movers and shakers in the area are depicted along with the flora and fauna indigenous to the desert.

Chuck Caplinger, a world-famous muralist, and his actress wife, Holgie Forrester, maintain the murals and were seen applying paint in the hot mid-day sun on my recent visit.

Look for aliens at Giant Rock

Near Landers, on a sandy, unpaved road just north of the Integratron, lies Giant Rock, a boulder covering 5,800 square feet of ground that is seven stories high. It might even be the largest free-standing boulder in the world.

A room was dug for a residence under the rock by a prospector in the 1930s and early 1940s. A police investigation caused the prospector to die in a self-detonated dynamite explosion in this underground home. There is no evidence of this room today, as witnessed by this writer.

A gathering spot in the 1950s for UFO believers, the land was leased by George Van Tassel, a contactee of flying-sauces and extraterrestrials. UFO conventions were organized in this area.

On March 24, 2000, a portion of Giant Rock broke off and has changed the landscape. This desolate and windy location shares wide-open spaces with the local wildlife. Mountain lion tracks are clearly visible all around the rock.

Whether you believe in aliens or not, seeing this Giant Rock is worth a little excursion into the desert landscape. Be careful and don’t get stuck in the sand.

Take a sound bath at the Integratron

The Integratron, located in Landers, just a few miles north of Joshua Tree, is a cupola structure, similar to a geodesic dome. Built by George Van Tassel, a ufologist, and contactee of alien beings. The structure was built on an intersection of powerful geomagnetic forces in 1954. It is said to concentrate and amplify the earth’s magnetic field.

A sound bath is a multi-wave resonance created by “playing” quartz bowls that take you on a sonic journey. The journey provides intense relaxation for the mind, body, and spirit.

Having experienced a sound bath at the Integratron, I highly recommend it. The acoustics in the building are the perfect sound chamber for your encounter.

Take a tour of the largest orchid nursery in the world

Four generations have loved and grown orchids in the Gubler family. Switzerland, home to the first Gubler, opened Gubler Orchids in 1918. A long history of family involvement, knowledge, and expertise brings the company to be known as one of the top quality orchid growers in the world.

The family-owned and operated business hosts tours that are informative and delightful.

Take the waters in Desert Hot Springs

Desert Hot Springs is a great place to relax and take the waters. Located in one of several places in the world with natural mineral springs, these springs are fed by hot and cold aquifers.

A branch of the San Andreas Fault separates the two aquifers. The hot water aquifer serves the spas and resorts, and the cold water provides fresh water to the city. The Mission Springs Water District won the Best Water in the World award at the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting competition in February 2020.

Only 27 miles from Joshua Tree in the Coachella Valley, many Desert Hot Springs properties offer mineral springs, spa services, dining, and lodging.

My first visit to Joshua Tree National Park was in 2017. From that experience, I was hooked. At least three times a year I plan and execute a solo journey for camping and night photography in the park and I’m always seeking out what to do around Joshua Tree National Park. Each time I expand my knowledge by exploring new places to play and eat.

The unique landscape, quirky art, spirituality, and open sky make this place magical.


  • Julie Diebolt Price

    Julie Diebolt Price is an award-winning professional photographer, educator, author, and travel writer. She writes about two things: photography and travel. Julie educates and mentors aspiring photographers. As a journalist who loves traveling, she creates memorable experiences, and shares of them with words and pictures.