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3 days in Joshua Tree for beginner Backpackers

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Joshua tree is a National park located in South Eastern California, about 130 miles from Los Angeles, and 500 miles from San Francisco.

It is characterized by rugged rock formations, world famous in the climbing world reminiscent of Mars and is also known for its scenic desert landscape. The park is named after the vast layout of Joshua Trees that cover the territory and are native to the region and is characterized by two different kinds of desert : The higher Mojave desert (habitat of the Joshua Tree) and the lower Colorado desert on the eastern side of the park.

Our trip :
Date: the last day of 2015 and the 3 first days of 2016
Temperature : 60-70 F during the day, around 30 at night.


Why is it easy ?

Backpacking in Joshua Tree is super easy: There is no need to reserve a permit ahead of time, just filling out a self registration form at the entrance of each trail will suffice. 85% of the park is managed as wilderness, so you have the freedom to backpack pretty much wherever you want. The rules to backpack are easy: You must set up your camp at least 1 mile (1.6 km) from any road, and 500 feet (150 m) from any trails.

For 3 days we set off to explore the desert - not with the goal of accomplishing hardcore backpacking or climbing, but instead we were determined to find amazing scenery to spend our nights...and we were blown away by what we found. Each night we could wander at our leisure, following the basic rules: find which wilderness route we wanted to explore, fill out a registration form at the backcountry board and walk for about 30 min, until we had found the site we wanted to set up our camp.

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First night : Jumbo Rock Area


First night of backpacking in Joshua Tree

We spent the first night around Jumbo Rock, in the middle section of the park. We registered at the White Tank registering board, and started hiking toward the West, most likely along the California Riding and Hiking trail. Since we started hiking at night (in the dark) with nothing but headlamps to light the trail, finding a good spot to camp was not easy, but eventually we found a great spot nestled among the gigantic rock formations and Joshua Trees... It was December 31st, and a particularly good way to ring in the New Year :)

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Second night : Indian Cove


Second night of backpacking in Joshua Tree

We spent the second night at Indian Cove, towards the north west side of the park. We registered at the entrance of the Boy Scout Trail, and started looking for a Campsite after roughly one mile. We stopped once we hit an interesting rock formation made up of huge boulders of all shapes clustered together, and once the sun went down, we had views of the lights from the small town just north of Joshua tree. This spot was definitely our favorite spot of the trip.

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3rd night : Cottonwood

Third night of backpacking in Joshua Tree

For our last night in the Park, we headed to Cottonwood Spring for a taste of the second type of desert - Colorado desert. Cottonwood Spring is known as one of the most scenic spots in the Park because it’s actually the only part of the desert where you see Palm Trees intermixed among the cacti.

There are 2 famous hikes in the area that can be combined in the same (long) day. Mastodon Peak : a 3 mile loop from the trailhead, which leads to nice view on the southeastern side of Joshua Tree. Lost Palm Oasis : a 7.2 mile that leads to an oasis of Palm Trees in the middle of the desert.

We decided to camp on the way to Lost Palm Oasis. The landscape was completely different from our first two nights and we enjoyed a wonderful (deep red) sunset and early sunrise. Since we had to head back to San Francisco the day after, we didn’t make it to the Oasis, but will definitely put it on our list for next time.

Final Thoughts

After our three days of exploring had come to an end, it was clear that Joshua Tree is a perfect place to explore for beginner backpackers: it’s flat to hike, super easy to register for last minute trips, plus nothing beats scrambling across the insane rock formations after a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s particularly nice to visit during fall, winter and spring (be warned that winter nights in Joshua tree can get super chilly). And the kicker? You don’t have to do a super long hike to find a beautiful campsite.

Some links that worth checking

PDF map of the park


  1. Angelo says:

    Can you give us details on water?

  2. Zoe says:

    Hi! Thanks so much for this post, it has been really helpful as my bf and I plan to backpack in Joshua Tree for three nights this upcoming weekend. Sounds like a great idea for New Years!

    Just two questions for you:

    1. Did you guys stay on trail the whole time or were you navigating with compass and map and off-trail? We’re just trying to gauge how hard/easy it is to navigate with compass off-trail.

    2. Did you hike from Indian Cove to Cottonwood on the second day or drive there? Sorry if that seems like an obvious question, were just trying to gauge the mileage we should try to cover each day.

    Thanks so much!

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