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The luck of the Irish was with us during spring in Joshua Tree. Not only did we witness a rare Joshua Tree bloom, but we got to stay where U2 did while filming for their 1988 hit album, Joshua Tree.

U2’s album is inexplicably linked to Joshua Tree National Park, in the minds of many. But did you know that the black and white photo of Bono and his Irish rock band looking out over a desolate horizon, is actually photographed at Zabriskie Point in neighboring Death Valley?

A lucky change of plans

With our original plans having changed, it was with the lyrics from the Joshua Tree album, “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for” pumping through the car stereo, as I scrolled for last minute accommodation close the Joshua Tree, that I found the Harmony Hotel in 29 Palms. The Harmony Hotel is where U2 stayed while filming their 1988 Joshua Tree album video. And we had stumbled into a cancellation for the coveted Jack Kerouac Cabin, the original owner’s residence – where Bono had slept. Is that wrong to think? How ironic to have U2s lyrics playing as I snatched the booking! (See photos of the Harmony Motel, and links at bottom of this article)

Luck strikes twice with a Joshua Tree spring bloom

But the luck of the Irish, inspired by U2, would strike twice. Spring in Joshua Tree meant we had also arrived at the perfect time to witness the tree in a rare bloom.

Spring in Joshua Tree

The desert spring bloom is just one of the compelling reasons to visit Joshua Tree early season. A California spring typically glows in colors that paint the desert landscape with sweet smelling wildflower blooms. But the bloom, as mother nature has taught us, is dependent on winter rains, which haven’t  always been the norm recently during California droughts.

Until spring 2023 of course, now on record as the coolest, dampest spring ever. With every storm cloud, and there were many in March 2023, comes a once in a 5-10 year event, a super bloom.

The Joshua Tree in bloom

Catching the Joshua Tree in bloom is a rare event. The parks namesake grows prolifically there but is scarcely seen outside the deserts of the American Southwest. Joshua trees don’t bloom every year. But when they do, they all seem to at once, helping them pollinate each other, to secure a sustained future. Visiting the park during a Joshua Tree bloom will make you one of the few people on earth to experience it.

Our plan in March 2023 had been to celebrate a milestone birthday while riding Harley Davidson motorbikes out of San Diego up the old coastal highway, but heavy rain had necessitated a delay, and in an effort to outrun foul weather, we retreated inland from the coast, and bumped up the timing to visit Joshua Tree National Park.

That serendipitous decision allowed us to experience spring in Joshua Tree, and this remarkable event – the brief period of time during March when the Joshua Tree, a rough, pokey, yucca type plant, blooms large white flowers at the tips of its branches.

Joshua Tree origins

The Joshua Tree grows in adverse conditions and was seen by U2 as a symbol of faith and hope. Joshua trees were named by the Mormon settlers, who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid 1800’s, because they were thought to look like the Old Testament prophet Joshua, raising his arms to pray. But the Joshua Tree is actually not a tree at all. It’s a plant, belonging to the Yucca family, but it resembles the size and growth pattern of a tree.

Joshua Tree National Park is a popular destination for hiking and bouldering, offering unique rocking climbing experiences over the massive smooth rocks found in the park. There are a wide variety of hikes, ranging from easy to challenging. And the park is also well known for its nighttime sky and excellent star gazing, being far removed from light pollution.

Spring in Joshua Tree is a short lived regenerative phase in this part of the US, before higher temperatures turn landscapes into sun baked scorched earth during the summer season. But mother nature can also deliver cool, damp weather and wind to the park during the spring. So the key to a spring bloom visit is to be prepared for the possibility of unsettled conditions.

Here’s a sampling of our two-day itinerary in the park, with some notes on things to do if more time allows.

Hidden Valley hike

The Hidden Valley hike in from the Minerva Hoyt parking lot is a great place to see a high concentration of Joshua Trees. The walk is flat and relatively easy, with the 1-mile loop trail meandering between dramatic rock clusters to a hidden valley where cattle rustlers once hid their heard. Taking time to climb the piles of smoothly rounded rock offers a different perspective and solitude. The trailhead is just south of Park Boulevard, near the Hidden Valley picnic area.

Ryan Mountain

The Ryan Mountain hike leads to a spectacular park look out. It’s a short but strenuous climb up over a 1,000ft elevation gain, covering a distance of 3 miles return. There are vistas and views at every turn looking out over the iconic wonderland of rock formations, the Ryan Ranch ruins and an alien desert landscape. Pack your sunscreen, stamina, plenty of water, and a rain jacket if the weather is threatening, as it was towards the end of the day when we visited. Winds can be strong and the temperatures brisk in spring, during this largely exposed hike, so dressing in layers is also recommended. The trailhead is at Park Boulevard, 2 miles east of Keys View Road.

Arch Rock and Heart Rock

This hike offers the quintessential Joshua Tree photo-op. The trail is relatively flat and easy, and leads to a 30ft-wide arch behind the White Tank Campground. While the concentration of Joshua Trees is towards the Hidden Valley region of the park, curious rock formations play the leading role on this hike. In addition to the arch, there are other hidden gems in the area, such as “Heart Rock” a curiously balanced rock in the shape of a heart. Perfect for that lovers pose on Instagram! The distance in and out is 1.2 miles and will take you about an hour, but count on clamoring over rocks to explore further once you arrive. The trailhead is at the Twin Tanks Parking area.

Cholla Cactus Garden & lookout

Although more a lookout than a hike, the Cholla Cactus Garden in the park’s southern reaches, is definitely worth a stop. A welcome break from the foreboding harshness of the Colorado Desert, the ¼ mile loop trail threads through the patch. Be careful to not touch the cactus and wear closed toe footwear, since their spines seem to literally attack fresh in close proximity.

Skull Rock

With eye sockets hollowed out by rainwater over time, the much photographed Skull Rock stares out over Park Boulevard. You can’t miss it, since the skull is visible from the road, and even on rainy days, cars will have stopped or parked for a look. The 1.7 mile loop trail starts at the roadside attraction, and meanders through other rock formations. Access by Park Boulevard, opposite Split Rock and Live Oak picnic areas.

Keys View

The 20 minute drive up to Keys View at 5,185ft offers a panoramic view of the entire Coachella Valley, as far as the Saltan Sea. Best viewed at sunrise or sunset.

Additional hikes to consider

Of course spring in Joshua Tree is a perfect time to hike, since cooler temperatures are more pleasant for exhurtion. While we didn’t have time during our visit for these two hikes, they’re on the list for a return visit.

Forty-nine Palms

This well maintained moderate hike is a 3 mile round-trip loop which leads to a fan-palm oasis, scenically cradled by a canyon. The trail goes up and down with a few sections that will get your heart pumping. The trailhead is at the end of Canyon Road off 30 Palms Highway/Highway 62, just east of the Indian Cove turn off. When we were in Joshua Tree, the trail was closed Monday-Thursday, so be sure the check with park rangers for closures.

Lost Palm Oasis Trail

This strenuous 7.5 mile hike is an all-day affair. The round-trip journey leads to a hidden desert-fan palm oasis from Cottonwood Spring, near the park’s southern edge. The path is initially moderate, weaving through various washes, and then descends steeply into a canyon to an overlook down into the oasis. Trailhead is at the Cottonwood Springs Campground

Joshua Tree National Park covers 794,000 acres, so if you’re short on time, drive along Park Boulevard through the northern half, which will take you past most of the attractions, and guarantee the densest viewing of Joshua Trees concentrated in the Hidden Valley region.

Additional sites outside the park

There is more than enough to keep you busy within the park. But if wet weather strikes during spring in Joshua Tree, the system is more likely to stick within the park at rocky elevation, than out on the lower flat regions beyond the park. So if you’re staying in the 29 Palms area, and looking for activities while you wait out the weather, here are two additional sites worthy of a visit: Pioneer Town, and the quirky Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Both are within easy driving distance of 29 Palms.

Pioneer Town

Pioneer Town was built in 1946 as a Hollywood movie set. More than 50 movies were filmed there in the 1940s and 50s. These days you can stroll down the main street, pop into little shops, buy a pair of used cowboy boots on the cheap, or watch a mock gun fight at 2:30pm on alternate Saturdays October to June. Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneer Town Palace is legendary for local color, BBQ & beer, honky-tonk, and live music, often bringing out amazing local and national talent. Up in hills from 29 Palms, this old western town is a fun place to visit.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum of Assemblage Sculpture

Noah Purifoy was an African American artist, and creator of sculptures offering political statements, social criticism, and just pure whimsy. The “Junk Dada” rose to fame in 1966 when he took 66 neon signs from the 1965 Watts Rebellion and made them into art. Noah’s art is collected by the world’s finest museums. But you can see the coolest work for free in his former outdoor studio about 6 miles north of Joshua Tree.  Noah Purifoy died in 2004, so the studio is no longer active, but you can view 30 sculptures made from toilets, bikes, tires, chairs, mattresses, computer monitors and other eclectic cast offs. Pick up a pamphlet on site for a self-guided tour and visit www.noahpurifoy.com

Getting there, Entrances, maps & permits

The southern entrance to Joshua Tree, is just off I-10 from the Coachella Valley, reached via the spectacular Box Canyon Road from Palm Springs. Drive time from Palm Springs to Cottonwood Visitors Center is 1 hour.

The northern entrance is accessible from Highway 62 in Yucca Valley and 29 Palms. Drive time from San Diego to Joshua Tree Visitors Centre in 29 Palms is 2.5 hours. Alternatively, the park is 140 miles east of Los Angeles.

Entry permits are $30 per vehicle and valid for 7 days, and come with a map and seasonally updated Joshua Tree newspaper. Check out www.joshuatree.guide for an online version. Visitor centers are located at:

  • Joshua Tree Visitors Centre, 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree. 8am-5pm
  • Oasis Visitors Center, 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms. 8:30am-5pm
  • Black Rock Nature Center, 9800 Black Rock Canyon Road, Yucca Valley. 8am-4pm Sat-Thur, to 8pm Fri Oct-May
  • Cottonwood Visitor Center, Cottonwood Springs Road. 8:30am-4pm
  • Twentynine Palms Visitor Center, 74484 29 Palms Hwy/Hwy 62, Twenynine Palms. 10am-4pm

Since there is no cell service in the park, it is critical to get up to date information about weather and road warnings when you stop at the visitor’s center, as well as a paper map as a guide. Park rangers are very informative about what is happening in the park, plus the educational exhibits are very informative.

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Where to stay

Inside the park there are numerous camping options with picnic areas, fire rings and toilets. You can reserve sites at www.recreation.gov Designated areas include Belle Campground, White Tank Campground, Jumbo Rocks Campground, Cottonwood Campground, Hidden Valley Campground, Black Rock Campground, Ryan Campground, and Indian Cove Campground.

Campgrounds do not have water, so you must bring ample supply yourself. The Bureau of Land Management dispersed camping is available south of the park.

There are several motels in Twentynine Palms, along the 29 Palms Hwy/Hwy 62. You can also find AirBnb homes and cabins listed. Check out the map below, or Expedia, and be sure to book in advance!

We of course LOVED our stay at the Harmony Motel, but it does book up quickly, so you are best to reserve in advance. (Don’t count on the luck of the Irish always being available!)

Harmony Motel, 71161 Twentynine Palms Hwy (Hwy 62), Twentynine Palms CA

Units are available along an inside courtyard

Outdoor pool and hot tup

Or book the separate unit called the Jack Kerouac Cabin, where Bono stayed. It was the original owner’s residence.

The cabin features a complete kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and sitting area, plus a private outdoor space.

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