If you love stargazing, there are a few great places in the world that are surely on your must-travel-someday list. The Grand Canyon is surely on that list, as well as every Dark Sky Reserve. If you’re in the U.S., you probably have Joshua Tree on your list too. This National Park is known for its amazing vegetation, stunning rock formations, and pristine dark skies. The park was even honored with Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark-Sky Association, and ranks among the best national parks for stargazing.
That said, it’s hard to find great resources on exactly how to plan a trip to go stargazing in Joshua Tree. Feeling that frustration, we set out on a trip in April 2018. Our goal was to go stargazing and shoot some night sky photos in the national park, then create the guide so other space enthusiasts could do the same.
Now, here’s everything you need to know about taking a stargazing trip to Joshua Tree National Park.
Note: Due to the novel coronavirus, National Parks vary in opening hours and access. Be sure to check if the park you want to visit is open before planning a trip.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted in May 2018, and updated in May 2019 for the coming stargazing season.
How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park
If you plan to visit Joshua Tree, the closest major airport is Los Angeles International (LAX). It’s a 2.5-hour drive from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park on I-110, I-610, and I-10, with no traffic; in the likely event there is traffic, you can expect the drive to take up to four hours. Base yourself to explore the national park from the towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, or Twentynine Palms.
If you don’t want to drive, another option is to hop a flight to Palm Springs International Airport. From here, it’s a 45-minute drive to the Cottonwood Springs entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, or a 55-minute drive to the West Entrance. In this case, you may choose to base yourself in Palm Springs; this guide doesn’t offer additional information about attractions in Palm Springs, so we recommend booking accommodation in Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, or Twentynine Palms as mentioned above.
In either case, you’ll definitely need a car to get to and explore the national park. Both airports have all major car rental companies; another option is to rent a car through Turo which can be more budget-friendly.
How to Go Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
Once you arrive in the national park at night, you’ll see that the whole park is one gigantic stargazing spot. The National Park Service has three general guidelines for stargazing in Joshua Tree:
- If you are not staying overnight in Joshua Tree, you can use any of the roadside pullouts to safely move your car off the road and stargaze from these areas. Do not move more than 20 feet from your car, as you’ll have limited visibility and the terrain can be uneven.
- While camping in Joshua Tree, most campgrounds have good stargazing right in the area. If you explore the area, be sure to bring lights and water and be aware that terrain may change suddenly beyond the camping area.
- If you are exploring the backcountry in Joshua Tree, you will need to register for a backcountry permit from the National Park Service and note your intended route and destination. Backcountry areas are not open after dark unless you have a permit.
Most visitors to Joshua Tree fall into the first two categories, so you shouldn’t need to roam far from your car or campsite to have an amazing view of the night sky.
Where to Go Stargazing in Joshua Tree
While you can see the night sky from basically everywhere in Joshua Tree National Park, there are some spots that provide a little more interesting view.
The Most Popular Joshua Tree Stargazing Spots
- Skull Rock: This famous rock formation is right near the road, and there are good roadside pullouts available to park your car in.
- Cap Rock: There’s plenty of parking and a short, well-maintained trail to the rock formations at Cap Rock, as well as Joshua Trees all around – making for perfect foreground silhouettes in your astrophotos. Additionally, it is close to the most popular entrance to the park.
- The Ocotillo Patch: Located on Pinto Basin Road within the park, this is one of the darker areas for stargazing. There is no trail or seating, so if you plan to stay for a while, be sure to bring your own camp chairs.
- Arch Rock: Near the White Tank Campground, this rock formation provides a great ‘gateway’ through which you can admire the night sky. (Note: Arch Rock is only accessible by night if you are staying in White Tank Campground. Parking and walking in is not permitted and you will likely be ticketed by the Park Service.)
- Roadside Pullouts: It might seem uninspired to simply pull off the road for stargazing. With one of the darkest skies in California, there’s no need to get fancy in Joshua Tree. Throughout the park, roadside pullouts will give you a stunning view of the sky without needing to walk or camp in the park.
No matter where you choose to stargaze, seeing Joshua Tree at night is the kind of stargazing experience you won’t likely forget. For many travelers, it’s your first chance to see the Milky Way in all her glory (and you know how we feel about that…).
Stargazing Spots near Joshua Tree National Park
While inside the national park is by far the best place to get away from light pollution, you can certainly see the night sky from the surrounding region.
Just outside the Twentynine Palms entrance, the Sky’s the Limit Observatory (pictured above) is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights. You can come and admire the stars with your eyes, or peer through local telescopes to see certain astrological features in greater detail. (skysthelimit29.org)
Astrophotography Tips While Visiting Joshua Tree
If you want to photograph the night sky in Joshua Tree National Park, here are some tips:
- Use only red lights. Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you won’t want to turn on other lights which impede your ability to see the stars.
- Bring a tripod and remote to set up your camera. You’ll need the extra stability to ensure you get a clear shot.
- Bring extra batteries. Nightly temperatures in Joshua Tree are colder than elsewhere in the region, and your batteries may drain more quickly than you anticipate.
- Set up your camera correctly in manual mode. In this post full of astrophotography tips, we detail how to set up your camera properly for a great night sky photo.
- Use the Joshua Trees as a contrast for your night sky. The Joshua Trees are fascinating to look at, and they provide a great contrast to the stars and night sky, as evidenced by the photo above. (Editor’s Note: the above photo was shot by an amateur on our scouting trip in April 2018 – you can do the same with the right gear!)
In the end, don’t forget that you’re there to experience the wonder of the night sky with your own eyes. While your camera is shooting, be sure to admire the view for yourself.
Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree
If you’re staying in the three towns north of Joshua Tree National Park – Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, or Twentynine Palms – there are lots of accommodation options to choose from.
National Chain Hotels in Joshua Tree
From Motel 6 or America’s Best Value Inn to Holiday Inn or Best Western, you have your choice of hotels in towns like Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. Most hotels fall in the $75-$100 per night range.
Almost all hotels in this area are in the 2-star and 3-star range. If you’re looking for luxury accommodations, you’ll be better served by staying in Palm Springs south of the national park.
Independent Hotels in Joshua Tree
Prefer to stay local? There are choices:
- 9 Palms Inn is a funky, colorful roadside motel right along Highway 62. Rooms start from $69 per night. Click here to book on Hotels.com.
- Harmony Motel is located closer to ‘downtown’ Twentynine Palms and has surprisingly comfy rooms with homey touches. Rooms start from $95 per night. Click here to book on Hotels.com.
- 29 Palms Inn is slightly off the beaten path but mostly on the way to the Twentynine Palms park entrance. The property feels like a true oasis in the desert. Rooms start from $105 per night for cabins, $125 for adobe bungalows, and $150 for guest rooms. Click here to book on 29palmsinn.com.
Airbnb & Vacation Rentals in Joshua Tree
You’ll be shocked at the amazing range of choices on Airbnb and other vacation rental sites in the Joshua Tree area. You can stay in a 1970s airstream (from $92 per night), a colorfully decorated adobe (from $88 per night), or this stargazing cabin that’s a splurge (from $375 per night) but worth it for the wide-open starry skies you can admire from the bed or outdoor tub.
We had such a hard time choosing what to recommend that we put together an entire wishlist of Joshua Tree Airbnb properties we love. If you’ve never booked on Airbnb before, you can also receive $40 in travel credit by clicking this link before you book.
What to Do During the Day in Joshua Tree
The best part about taking a stargazing trip to Joshua Tree is that you’ll have the daylight hours to enjoy all the park has to offer. Obviously visiting the national park is at the top of the list for ways to spend time between stargazing sessions. Joshua Tree National Park can be accessed by three entrances: the Cottonwood Springs entrance in the south, the West Entrance near Yucca Valley, and the Twentynine Palms entrance. On your first entry, you’ll need to pay $25 for a seven-day access pass to the national park. After that, you’ll be able to drive in and out of the park as often as you like.
Outside Joshua Tree National Park, one of the main sights is Pioneertown. This town may look historic, but it was actually built in the mid-20th Century for filming movies. Now, visitors can wander the streets and on alternating Saturdays, you can watch a wild west show performed by local volunteer actors. The Joshua Tree Saloon has a similar vibe, is popular with the locals, and hosts karaoke a few nights a week.
What to See in Joshua Tree National Park
One of the most popular sights in Joshua Tree National Park is Cholla Cactus Garden. This is a beautiful garden full of cholla cactus (pictured above), which look dramatically different than other cacti throughout the national park. Photographers will love to visit at sunrise to watch the sunbeams light up the semi-translucent needles.
Rock formations, including popular stargazing spots like Skull Rock and Arch Rock, are also popular during the daytime. You’ll get a better sense of how beautiful these unusual formations are. Other great rock formations to check out include Hidden Valley, where a one-mile trail wanders through a beautiful series of rocks; Split Rock, which is a massive rock that looks exactly as the name suggests; and Jumbo Rocks, one of the campgrounds ringed by massive boulders.
At several campgrounds throughout the park – Jumbo Rocks, Indian Cove, and Cottonwood –, you can also enjoy sunset and evening talks by national park rangers. On great nights for stargazing, rangers teach visitors about the constellations and other sights in the night sky.
Prep for Stargazing During Daylight Hours
One last tip for the daylight hours: purchase a stellarscope and use it to get a sense of the night sky view you’ll have once the sun goes down. These handy tools allow you to set up the scope with your hemisphere, the latitude, month, and time you plan to go stargazing – then you can peer through the scope and see a map of the night sky exactly as you’ll see later in the night. Grab one for yourself on Amazon for $39.95.
While driving through the park, it’s also a great time to keep your eye out for roadside pullouts or rock formations where you’ll want to come stargazing later. In short, the daytime is a great time to plan for your stargazing excursion!
Other FAQ About Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
When is the best time to go stargazing in Joshua Tree?
You can go stargazing year round in Joshua Tree; each month, the best time is to go during the days surrounding the new moon. Curious what the moon will be during your trip? Check this handy lunar phase site.
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Joshua Tree? What time of year?
Yes! Joshua Tree is an amazing place to see the Milky Way. It’s easiest to see the Milky Way in Joshua Tree National Park in the summer.
When is the national park open?
Joshua Tree National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. You can visit at any time. During daytime hours, expect to pay the $25 access fee for a seven-day pass to enter the park.
Are there guided night tours in Joshua Tree?
At the time of publication, we were not able to find any tour providers that offer night tours in the national park.
When is the Night Sky Festival in 2019?
The 2019 Night Sky Festival will be held on September 21, 2019. You can learn more on the Joshua Tree National Park website.
What constellations can you see while stargazing in Joshua Tree?
That depends on the time of year. In the winter, look for Orion (the hunter), Gemini (the twins), and Taurus (the bull). In the Spring, look for Leo (the lion). During the summer, the Milky Way is at its most brilliant, and you can see the Perseids meteor shower each August. In the autumn, you can see the Great Square of Pegasus and on especially clear nights, the Andromeda galaxy is visible to the naked eye.
Other Joshua Tree Stargazing questions? Let us know in the comments.
Featured photo by Lian Law for the National Park Service via Flickr