The Best Spots To Go Stargazing In Joshua Tree National Park
This International Dark Sky Park has some of the best astral views in the country. Here's where to find them.
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Even though most of my Joshua Tree National Park memories are from hiking and rock climbing during the day, my favorite memory there happened in the dark. In November 2021, I ran a night half-marathon through the park. A significant portion of the course was on loose sand, so as the miles passed, the temptation to DNF grew stronger and stronger. The thing that kept my head (and my burning legs) in the race? The meteor shower sparkling above. I made it to the finish line by keeping one eye on the sky and catching the occasional shooting star.
Today, every time I return to the park, I’m really looking forward to what happens after the sun sets. I want as much time with Joshua Tree’s starry skies as I can get—it is an International Dark Sky Park, after all.
Theoretically, you could go stargazing anywhere within the park. It’s at a high enough elevation (the highest point is the summit of Quail Mountain at 5,800 feet) and far enough from major cities that there isn’t a lot of light pollution. There are plenty of roadside pullouts that make spontaneous stargazing convenient if you just want a quick peek, but there are some downsides to its accessibility. Car headlights make it difficult for your eyes to truly adjust to the darkness, and sometimes rowdy crowds are distracting when you’re trying to focus on the constellations above. But plan ahead, and you can find your own perfect—and maybe even private—stargazing spot.
On the Trail
These short, accessible trails are perfect for any toddlers or little ones you have in tow.
- Distance: 1 mile
- Elevation Gain: 46 feet
- Route Type: Loop
This area might be popular for rock climbing during the day, but at night, it’s one of the best spots to gaze at the constellations above. Its yuccas, picturesque rock formations, and wide-open skies make it one of the best short hikes the park has to offer. Take a spin around this 1-mile loop and find a perfect stargazing spot—you won’t have to look too long.
- Distance: 0.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 19 feet
- Route Type: Loop
This spot, close to the park’s Twentynine Palms entrance, has plenty of parking for stargazers. Also, if you’re looking for iconic silhouettes in the foreground of your stunning shot of the Milky Way, there are plenty of Joshua trees around. This short, well-maintained trail is a great place to explore different vantage points of the stars above.
- Distance: 1.7 miles
- Elevation Gain: 139 feet
- Route Type: Loop
You might find swarms of people snapping pictures of this Instagram-famous rock during the day, but once the sun goes down, the crowds thin out. It’s easily accessible for your little ones because it’s right next to the road, with plenty of pullouts nearby to park your car. Want to tack a hike onto this stargazing experience? Try this well-marked loop trail that winds you through a series of rock formations. A note: The back half of this loop goes through Jumbo Rocks Campground. Book a campsite for the night for unlimited stargazing.
In Joshua Tree, hikers are only allowed to camp in specified backcountry areas and in the park’s nine campgrounds.
Book a spot at Cottonwood Campground; it’s the campsite with the darkest skies. You won’t have to pack campsite games and entertainment—just do like our ancestors did and make up stories about the stars. It’s best to stargaze on the eastern side of Joshua Tree because there’s less light pollution. This side of the park is far from Palm Springs and other major cities on the west side of the park, and the next major city to the east is Phoenix, over 200 miles away.
There are only 62 campsites available at Cottonwood, so if that’s all booked, your next best bet is Jumbo Rocks Campground, a central site within the park that has over 120 sites available.
In the Backcountry
Want a more rugged night hike? Head further into the backcountry for a chance to spot truly star-studded skies. There are 15 camping zones within the 800,000-acre park, and most zones don’t have a limit on the amount of permits available. For any zone except the high-use Boy Scout zone, there are three important numbers you have to remember when finding a campsite: You have to be at least 1 mile from any backcountry trailhead, at least 0.5 mile from any road, and at least 200 feet from any trail. For permits and more information, check out recreation.gov.
For all multiday hikes throughout Joshua Tree, be sure to pack enough water or cache some along the trail in advance.
Monument Mountain via Porcupine Wash
- Length: 18.5 mi
- Elevation gain: 1,114 ft
- Route type: Out and back
It’s very unlikely that you’ll pass other hikers on this trail—perfect for stargazers who want the whole sky to themselves. You’ll have to work a bit for this solitude, though: Because the trail can be hard to follow at times, you’ll have to make sure your routefinding skills are up to date. A hint for the hikers: Before you get to the trailhead, look up what Monument Mountain’s summit outline looks like and keep and eye for it on the trail. You can see it for quite some time, and it will help orient you. Watch out for the jumping cholla.
California Riding and Hiking Trail
- Length: 36.2 mi
- Elevation gain: 3,285 ft
- Route type: Point to point
This well-marked trail is on many hikers’ bucket lists for a good reason: It’s one of the best ways to see Joshua Tree. Because it’s also mostly flat, the California Riding and Hiking Trail a great way for beginner backpackers to test out a multi-day trip. You’ll tour through the park, catch glimpses of the surrounding mountains, and scale ridgelines that give you sweeping views of the valleys below. Nothing during the day will match the views you’ll get at night, though. This hike moves from east to west, so the constellations will appear clearer and clearer each night. Don’t want to turn the point-to-point hike into an out-and-back? Give Jonnie The Driver a call—area hikers frequently use this Twentynine Palms-based taxi service for a ride from the trail back to their car. Gaiters and poles recommended: This is a sandy trail.