When it comes to stargazing, Joshua Tree National Park is a astro-monger’s paradise! With its wide-open skies, Joshua Tree offers some of the best places for stargazing in the United States. But when is the best time to go?
Joshua Tree National Park, one the world’s renown International Dark Sky Parks, envelops a vast 800,000 acres in Southern California, occupying both the high Mojave and low Colorado Deserts. Not only does it safeguard the habitat of endemic species, but hundreds of archaeological and historic sites are also protected within its boundaries.
- When is the Best Time to Stargaze in Joshua Tree National Park?
- Which Part of Joshua Tree is Best for Stargazing?
- 6 Tips for Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
- Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park: Is It Worth It?
- Here's to Dark Skies and Brilliant Stars
Nestled between the bustling “Inland Empire” of 4 million people to the west and the last remaining natural darkness in Southern California, this special location provides a virtually unparalleled opportunity to observe dark skies from its eastern boundary.
In this blog post, we’ll look into when exactly is the best time to go to Joshua Tree for stargazing!
Grab some blankets and chairs and a telescope if you’ve got one – let’s get spaced out!
When is the Best Time to Stargaze in Joshua Tree National Park?
Provided that the entire park is one gigantic stargazing spot, you’re virtually guaranteed a good show any time of the year.
However, to go from just “good” to “great” or even, (dare I say it) … stellar, there are a few things to consider when scheduling your visit.
The Winter Months: December – February
Due to its location in California’s High Desert, Joshua Tree gets to experience a subtropical desert climate characterized by mild winters.
Specifically, that means you can expect daytime temperatures in the 60s with nighttime temperatures in the 30s in the dead of winter which, for most, is quite pleasant.
Plus, the shorter days and longer nights provide more stargazing opportunities, especially in December when the sun sets as early as 4:30 pm.
The downside of planning a stargazing trip during the winter months is the increase in cloud cover, particularly from early November to late April. February is the month with the most frequently overcast skies.
The Spring Months: March – Early May
When it comes to mild days and crisp nights, this is the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park for virtually any activity you could possibly imagine doing in the high desert.
With highs in the 80s and lows in the 40s, it is the most comfortable time to enjoy the park.
For stargazing in particular, the night skies offer a tremendously stellar display of planets, stars, and other astronomical phenomena.
Unfortunately, this is also the park’s peak season, meaning the popular spots will become crowded.
And more people means more headlights, lanterns, flashlights, and headlamps, all of which can diminish your stargazing experience.
The Summer Months: June – September
My first experience in Joshua Tree National Park was in late June of 2013. We were halfway through a road trip from South Texas to Yosemite in California, and, passing through Joshua Tree, decided to camp for the night.
When we arrived at 3:00 pm, the ranger station marquee read 115°F.
Not only did we not encounter a single person the entire time we drove through the park, but even the rangers had also called it quits and gone home.
This is the Mojave Desert after all, and I expected hot summer months … but this was a whole new level of hot!
And I’m from South Texas!
In an average summer, daytime high temperatures reach 103°F and nighttime temperatures drop to a balmy 71°F during the hottest month, July.
BUT, this is also the time of year when you can score the clearest skies.
On a moonless summer night, the core of the Milky Way Galaxy is visible to the naked eye, and can be seen in all its glory through a telescope, particularly in June and July!
And, if you want a true astronomical treat, plan a trip to Joshua Tree from mid-July to late August.
During this time, the Earth’s orbit takes us right through the ice and rock debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle Comet.
The result is the spectacular Perseid Meteor Shower!
For exact projected dates for the meteor shower, visit the American Meteor Society.
The Autumn Months: October – November
Aside from March to May, the months of October and November are the busiest and most crowded in Joshua Tree National Park.
In Autumn, Saturn and Jupiter are in opposition (opposite the sun and closest to Earth) making them more visible than any other time of year.
Also, summer constellations like Scorpio and Sagittarius are super bright and easy to locate as well as the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.
Still, as with March, April, and May, the mild weather brings the heaviest traffic to Joshua Tree, so be prepared to deal with crowds at popular locations and make your camping reservations early.
Which Part of Joshua Tree is Best for Stargazing?
Simply put, the whole park is one ginormous stargazing hotspot! However, the further east you venture, the further you’ll be from light pollution in the west, and the better the stargazing opportunities you’ll find.
That said, after our time visiting Joshua Tree, we recommend some specific locations to enjoy the night skies in the park.
I’ll be the first to say that this doesn’t sound like the most adventurous option. But the truth is, some of our favorite stargazing spots are along the roadside pullouts and trailhead parking lots in Joshua Tree National Park!
And if you have a family with small children, it’s ideal!
The interplay between the silhouettes of its signature boulders and Joshua Trees against the stars makes for a dramatic backdrop. And if you plan accordingly, you can be sure to arrive in time for sunset to get the full effect!
Plus, the gates to Joshua Tree National park are wide open 24/7 even if the park entrance stations are closed. Stargazers are welcome to enjoy the park at night provided they follow best practices for safety and respect for others.
Pack a load of snacks, grab the chairs and blankets, and gas up.
Safety Tip: When stargazing alongside pullouts, stay awake and alert within 20 feet of your vehicle. Camping overnight along the roadside is prohibited.
Head along CA-62 for the park’s north entrance near Twenty-Nine Palms or the west entrance near the town of Joshua Tree. Both towns serve as entrances and exits to the Park Boulevard loop.
The 35.5-mile journey along Park Boulevard winds past spectacular rock formations and groves of iconic Joshua Trees, short hikes, as well as popular attractions like:
- Quail Springs
- Cap Rock (turn on Keys View Road)
- Skull Rock
- Hidden Valley
- Twin Tanks Trailhead
Each of these provides an intriguing landscape with picnic tables and restrooms.
Virtually any location along this route provides unfettered, panoramic views of the Joshua Tree night sky. Find a safe place to pull off, set up some chairs, and enjoy the show!
Unfortunately, the skies in this area of the park are not completely dark due to the relatively close proximity to surrounding communities. That said, if Park Boulevard isn’t dark or remote enough for you …
Pinto Basin Road
Chase even more brilliant stars by turning southeast off of Park Boulevard onto Pinto Basin Road. This 49-mile stretch of blacktop extends through the heart of Joshua National Park to Interstate 10 in the South.
Helpful Tip: For those coming from the southern states, I-10 West will serve as your approach to the Park’s South entrance. From I-10, turn north onto Cottonwood Springs Road. This will become Pinto Basin Road once you pass the Cottonwood Visitor Center.
Pinto Basin Road will not only provide its share of pullouts; but, it will also bring you to other popular stargazing spots such as:
- Cholla Cactus Garden
- Ocotillo Patch
- Arch Rock Trail (a favorite among photographers)
And if you plan on tent or RV camping, the campgrounds along Pinto Basin are the furthest east away from the light pollution of towns.
Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center
Located along Utah Trail (which becomes Park Boulevard as it approaches the park from the Twentynine Palms entrance), you’ll pass this popular spot less than a mile from the park’s north entrance.
Sky’s The Limit is a non-profit organization that aims to provide the people of Joshua Tree Gateway Communities and its visitors with education through interactive learning experiences.
The campus is open 24 hours every day and is a great place to stake a spot on paved ground to set up some chairs, a telescope, and a camera.
The campus is always open to exploring; however, the telescopes, domes, and facilities (including restrooms) are only available to the public during scheduled events. There is no running water on campus.
Of particular note is the annual Night Sky Festival hosted at the campus and sponsored in partnership with Joshua Tree National Park and Joshua Tree Residential Educational Experience.
This 2-day event in September caters to all ages and provides a packed schedule of interactive tours, events, and outdoor activities during the morning, afternoon, and, of course, after sunset.
Tickets are limited. Visit skysthelimit29.org for more info.
Front Country Campgrounds
Joshua Tree National Park maintains 9 different campgrounds containing 500 campsites, all of which provide plenty of room under varying degrees of dark skies for stargazing.
The best campgrounds for stargazing will be the ones furthest east, away from the light pollution of surrounding communities.
For campsites with the darkest skies, make your reservations (if applicable) for one of the campgrounds along Pinto Basin Road, such as:
Joshua Tree National Park Backcountry
The darkest skies in Joshua Tree National Park can only be found in its far east backcountry away from roads and campgrounds. Here, you will find some of the most remote locations in the park that are not accessible by vehicle.
- Provides valuable wilderness tips and Leave No Trace guidelines, along with updated trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds and much more
- Printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material with a plastic coating that offers the durability needed for outdoor use
- Includes selected waypoints in both lat./lon. and UTM coordinate systems as well as GPS-compatible UTM grid lines for easy navigation
- Measures 9.25 x 4.25 in. folded and 37.75 x 25.5 in. fully opened; scale of 1:80,000
These spots require a bit more planning and preparation, but the payoff is well worth it! For an informative overview of some of the best backpacking trails, check out this article.
Be safe and respect your environment when exploring the backcountry in Joshua Tree National Park. Always practice Leave No Trace principles, stay on established trails, and come prepared with enough supplies to last you through the night!
6 Tips for Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park
Sure, you could do it the old-fashioned way – show up, pick a spot, lay on your back, and prop your peepers open.
However, if you plan ahead, there are a few things you can do to maximize your stargazing experience:
1. Go East, Young Man!
While the star lust of many is slaked by easily accessible locations around the northern and western entrances, these are still close to local communities resulting in some light pollution and sky glow.
Drive further. More east = more dark!
Stock the car with food, water, and a roadside emergency kit (always a good idea). Make your way to a designated backcountry registration board and hike away from your car to view the night sky.
- 48-Piece First Aid Kit
- Copper-Clad Aluminum Jumper Cables (10 ft, 8-gauge, 300-amp)
- Air Compressor (12V, 250 PSI)
- Tow Rope (11.8 ft, 10,000 lb)
- Tire Pressure Gauge and Tire Repair Kit
- Window Breaker and Multi-Tool
- Reflective Warning Triangle
- LED Headlamp Flashlight
- Electrical Tape
- Bungee Cords and Cable Ties
- Work Gloves
- And much more!
Safety Tip: Never venture into the wilderness without educating yourself and being prepared. Always plan for the worst and have a way to call for help (like a satellite phone) in case you get stranded.
2. Moonless Nights are the Darkest:
While the full moon is brilliant to behold in Joshua Tree, it is also a show-stealer. If even a sliver of it is visible, it will wash out the stars and deep sky objects that can be seen with a telescope or the naked eye.
Make sure to plan around a moonless night (new moon) to ensure the darkest skies possible. A moon phase calculator like this one is helpful.
Stellar Tip: Don’t knock the moon. Truth is, some of the most brilliant color palettes that the desert gods can conjure appear during a full moonrise. This lasts for three nights during the full moon phase. It’s worth basking in.
3. Ditch the Bright White Flashlights
Did you know that we humans have our own version of night vision? Our eyes take about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, making stars and planets brighter. To maintain this night vision, you will want to avoid bright white light sources.
One flash and your eyes require another 20-30 minutes to recalibrate.
Invest in a red LED headlamp or flashlight instead. Red lights help preserve your dark-adapted vision while still providing enough light to set up gear, take photos, and prevent tripping over your 6-year-old.
- Dual-fuel design allows you to power the headlamp with 3 AAA alkaline batteries (included) or the rechargeable BD 1500 lithium-ion battery and charger (not included)
- Settings include dimming, strobe, red night-vision and lock mode
- White LED emits up to 350 lumens on max setting, 175 lumens on medium and 6 lumens on low
- Red LED night vision has dimming and strobe modes, and is quickly activated with the dual-button interface
- Multifaceted optical lens design
- Integrated battery meter display shows the percentage of power remaining so you know when to replace the batteries
- Digital lockout feature prevents accidental use when stored in a pack or pocket as a backup
- IPX8 waterproof protection rated to operate at least 1.1 meters underwater for 30 minutes—perfect should you be caught in a downpour
- If headlamp is submerged, water may enter the battery compartment, but it will still operate; it should be completely dried out after use in wet conditions
And, it prevents you from inadvertently blinding your stargazing neighbors. Nobody wants to be that guy.
4. Face Away From Roadways
While the pullouts in Joshua Tree National Park make for convenient stargazing spots, they are also close to roads.
And where there are roads, there are blinding headlights that will kill your night vision.
While park safety protocol requires you to stay within 20 feet of your car, if you must park near roads, face away from them to avoid getting your night vision knocked out by passing headlights.
5. Settle in for A Late Night
In the words of Thomas Fuller, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
The night sky brings out its most dazzling show after about 10pm and on into the wee hours of the early morning.
- Powder-coated steel and aluminum frame
- Carry bag
- Molded armrests
- Ventilated mesh panels
- Cup holder
- 250-pound limit
- 12.8 lb. carry weight
- Limited Lifetime Warranty
- Hard, unpadded armrests
So, plan accordingly and enjoy a late-night stargazing session. You’ll thank yourself later.
This is why we recommend nabbing a camping reservation or staking a spot in the backcountry. Then, the drive back to civilization won’t cut your night short.
6. Invest in a Lightweight Telescope
Once upon a time, I said to myself, ” I don’t need no stinkin’ telescope to enjoy the stars.”
Then, a friend of mine let me use his Celestron.
Now, I want an awesome telescope.
Seriously, once you see the gritty details of a distant planet’s surface, rolling dust storms on Mars, or the individual bands on Jupiter in eye-bulging detail, you’ll never stargaze the same.
Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park: Is It Worth It?
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) proudly acknowledges Joshua Tree National Park as a Silver Tier level International Dark Sky Park.
What does this mean, you ask? It means that Joshua Tree’s pristine, inky night skies are some of the darkest you’ll find anywhere in the world!
It means the Milky Way Galaxy itself is visible in summer and winter with minor interference from “artificial skyglow.”
Stellar Fact: As of 2023, only 201 official Dark Sky Places are recognized around the world. Of those, there are only 60 in the United States. Out of our 63 National Parks, only 21 are certified by the IDA!
Awarded this designation in 2017, the park has since become a mecca for stargazers and astrophotographers alike!
Furthermore, through collaborations with neighboring communities in the Morongo Basin and Coachella Valley to reduce light pollution even more, they could quite possibly achieve Gold Level designation in the future!
So, yeah … it’s worth it!
Here’s to Dark Skies and Brilliant Stars
The night skies of Joshua Tree National Park are a special treat indeed.
From the brilliant hues of an early evening desert sunset, to the preternatural starlight above, it’s an experience like no other.
Pack your camera and some snacks, grab a red LED headlamp or flashlight, and enjoy one of nature’s greatest celestial shows.
It’s sure to be a night you’ll never forget!
Now, get out there!