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Where to Explore Joshua Tree National Park’s Lesser-Known Wonders

A Cholla garden.
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Please explore responsibly. While "SoCal Wanderer" continues to uncover the region’s local gems and not-to-miss destinations, public health guidelines and weather conditions are changing constantly. We encourage our readers to check the latest updates for each location. Stay curious and cautious.

Somehow or another, Joshua Tree National Park has hit the radar of throngs of tourists – maybe because of the influx of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival visitors or the exodus of renters who can no longer afford to live in Los Angeles.

And once it did, this desert park stopped being so… deserted.

While the collection of entry fees is good for funding park maintenance and park staff salaries, the excess traffic – both on rubber and on foot – isn’t good for the natural environment that makes Joshua Tree so special.

Would-be visitors don’t need a guide of the most popular places to visit in this high desert national park. And those places don’t need more visitors.

So, in my quest to love Joshua Tree National Park responsibly, I offer the following five under-the-radar destinations for exploring with a more moderate impact.

Here’s where you can escape the crowds, find solitude and peacefully coexist with the plants and animals that call this vast, rocky land home.

1. Cottonwood Springs, South Entrance

Ditch the lines at the Park Boulevard North Entrance to the park and take the 10 Freeway to Exit 168 for Cottonwood Springs Road, which will bring you to the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park and the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Though it’s far more remote than your other options, you can buy your park pass there, speak to a ranger, load up on supplies and empty your bladder. You can even spend the night in the nearby campground.

The Cottonwood Spring area – so named for its grove of cottonwood trees – is also the gateway to many trails that will take you through the Eagle Mountains area of the Colorado Desert to such hiking destinations as the Lost Palms Oasis, Mastodon Peak and Mine (a gold mine that operated from 1919-1932) and Winona Mill.

There's also a dry riverbed, a.k.a. the Pinto Basin, where an early culture of hunters and gatherers called the Pintos lived – the first human civilization thought to have occupied the area, as much as 8,000 years ago. By the 18th century, they’d been succeeded by the Cahuilla tribe, whose territory stretched from the southern part of the park to as far as Palm Springs (and still does).

Joshua Trees in Cottonwood Springs.
Cottonwood Spring area | Sandi Hemmerlein
Remnants of the Winona Mill.
Remnants of the Winona Mill |  Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Cholla Cactus Garden, Pinto Basin Road

Still in the southern end of the park in Pinto Basin – but farther north up Pinto Basin Road – is perhaps the prickliest hike you can take in JTNP. It’s a flat loop that snakes through the 10-acre Cholla Cactus Garden, a dense grove (or “stand”) of teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii).

But don’t try to cuddle any teddy in this garden – because these cacti are also known as “jumping” cholla, meaning their spines will reach out and grab you so that a broken-off piece can hitch a ride with you and propagate elsewhere. Those hitchhiking balls of spines are notoriously difficult to remove from your clothing, skin, and pets’ fur, so enjoy them from afar.

A good time to visit is when the cholla sprout flowers, usually sometime between March and May. That’s also when you’ll see the garden’s other plants in bloom – like the beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris), desert starvine (Brandegea bigelovii), white ratany (Krameria bicolor), Schott's Indigo Bush (Psorothamnus schottii), and more. Follow the paper guide at the entrance to identify what you’re seeing at each numbered stop along the interpretive trail.

A Cholla garden.
Sandi Hemmerlein
Close-up of a Cholla cactus.
Sandi Hemmerlein
A Cholla garden.
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Pine City

Pinto Basin Road ends at a “T” intersection with Park Boulevard a couple of miles north of Arch Rock. Head west from there, making a detour down Desert Queen Mine Road, to reach the trailhead for Pine City. The trail out to this unusual area looks like much of the rest of the park – until you hit a wall of boulders, behind which lies this lost “city” at one of the park’s higher elevations.

There's not much left to the Pine City site except the remarkably dense population of pinyon/piñon pines – which can’t survive at a lower altitude – and a commensurate amount of pinecones strewn about on the ground below them. Otherwise, it’s about as desolate as it gets in Joshua Tree without having to hike too far.

The Pine City trailhead and old mining roads (now backcountry trails) also offer easy access to the Desert Queen Mine (1895-1961), Lucky Boy Vista (and Elton/Elltun Mine of the Lucky Boy Claim) and Queen Mine historic sites. They’re all worth a visit, even if only to get a broader sense of land use throughout history – including gold prospecting and mining, cattle ranching, homesteading and more. Besides, every vista point in Joshua Tree National Park is different. And you can never see the park from too many vantage points.

Boulders in Pine City
Pine City |  Sandi Hemmerlein
Lucky Boy Vista in Joshua Tree National Park
Lucky Boy Vista  |  Sandi Hemmerlein
Desert Queen Mine in Joshua Tree National Park
Desert Queen Mine |  Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Keys Ranch (by appointment only)

Back in the late 19th century, up until about the 1930s, Joshua Tree wasn't the dry (high) desert it is today. It was wet and fertile. Ranchers could raise cattle, grow alfalfa and live off the land. But as the dustbowl hit the Midwest, California, too, dried up. And as the dryness increased, the government encroached on private property, limiting how far the cattle could go, and turning the land into a public monument. At least, that’s how homesteader and rancher William F. Keys saw it.

Bill Keys managed to thrive on his 80-acre ranch long after Joshua Tree’s heyday of ranching, when the grasses rose knee and hip-high – and long after most other homesteaders had failed and fled. Always resourceful, he dug wells for water. He sold equipment to his new neighbors, and then seized it when they abandoned their homesteads. He rented out parts of his property, and built his own schoolhouse. And he managed to survive there until his death in 1969.

On your 90-minute tour, peek inside the ranch house windows to see the lace curtains that still hang and the kitchen table that still serves jugs of milk and water. On occasional sunset tours, you’ll carry a 1930s style flashlight lantern and see the buildings illuminated from the inside. You can tour historic Keys Ranch on most days (except Mondays, Saturdays and some major holidays) with advance reservations – but only from October through May and only accompanied by a park ranger. From Park Boulevard, turn onto Barker Dam Road, go past Hidden Valley Campground, and proceed to the Keys Ranch Road turnoff. Follow signs for “Ranch Tours.” Wait in the parking area outside the gate – and once a ranger unlocks it, you’ll caravan with the other cars to the ranch house.

A truck at Keys Ranch
Sandi Hemmerlein
A truck at Keys Ranch
Sandi Hemmerlein
A windmill at Keys Ranch
Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Warren Peak, Black Rock Canyon

One of the “back doors” into Joshua Tree National Park is Black Rock Canyon. You get there by taking Black Rock Canyon Road from the north, west of the main park entrance on Park Boulevard, where you’ll find the Black Rock Nature Center (open only October through May) and Black Rock Campground. From the backcountry registration board, you can take the Black Rock Canyon Trail south for a 6-mile, moderately strenuous hike to the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Warren Peak.

Passing a water tank at the 0.2-mile mark, you’ll be taking a single-track trail atop black rocks, with no shade given by fallen Joshua trees. Slog up a sandy wash, through Black Rock Spring – where, although there may be no visible water, you may see tons of greenery and hear the deafening flutter of scattering birds. When you get to the top, following signs and trail markers that say “WP,” look down upon the Morongo Basin you’ve left behind. You can also extend your Warren Peak hike by taking the full Panorama Loop.

Black Rock Canyon is also your destination for easier hikes (like Hi-View Nature Trail and the Short Loop), longer but still moderately strenuous hikes (Eureka Peak, Burnt Hill), and the park’s thru-hike, the California Riding & Hiking Trail. Despite all it has to offer, Black Rock is one of the lesser-tread areas of JTNP.