Complete Guide to Free Dispersed Camping near Joshua Tree National Park

Due to its rough and unforgiving climate, Joshua Tree National Park is home to only about 57 mammal species, despite the park’s immense size. Some creatures resilient enough to inhabit this inhospitable place include gophers, rabbits, squirrels, mice, coyotes, and an occasional bobcat.

Free camping in the National Park proper is not allowed, but, thanks to our detailed guide to dispersed camping near Joshua Tree National Park, you won’t miss out on any of the fun.

Also, I will mention some of the park’s excellent RV campgrounds and some must-know considerations before visiting this place.

Overview of Joshua Tree Dispersed Camping

A tent and chairs in a dispersed campground in Joshua Tree National Park

Proudly carrying the name of the Joshua Tree (even though Joshua Tree is not necessarily a tree, but a rather large yucca plant), Joshua Tree is a central National Park in California with a vast territory, three different ecosystems, and some mysterious and unusual outpost houses.

Even though Joshua Tree National Park notably lacks trees, it doesn’t lack plenty of cool spooky caves made out of barren rock and sand.

Unsurprisingly, out of the 57 mammal species living in Joshua Tree, 16 are just different bat kinds.

You can only find the eponymous Joshua tree in the park’s northern sections, which includes the southern boundary of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave is not the only desert that constitutes Joshua Tree National Park.

The southeastern part of the park is almost entirely dominated by the Colorado Desert, a significant body of sand and not much more, that nevertheless provides a home to such curious plants as the ocotillos – large shrubs with long, unbranched spiny stems, as well as the cholla cactus.

As for the west of Joshua Tree, juniper and pinyon pine trees, along with some other evergreen plants, dominate the region. The reason for such a drastic difference between the prickly cacti of the rest of the park and the evergreen junipers of the west is reasonably straightforward – a small part of the San Bernardino Mountains make up the remainder of the western part of Joshua Tree.

The rather complex three-part ecosystem here means plenty of room for quite a few fantastic campgrounds. Whether it’s car camping, RV-ing, or tenting you’re into, Joshua Tree is one of the best dispersed camping destinations in California.

Dispersed Campsites Near Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park's dispersed campsite at night

Regarding Joshua Tree dispersed camping, you have two broad areas to discover and get to know better – regions south and north of the National Park.

Since the BLM oversees both of these two large patches of land, you can engage in dispersed camping wherever around these parts you so desire. As long as you adhere to the general guidelines and rules revolving around camping in the areas that the BLM oversees, you can rest assured that you will find plenty of space to camp.

The general areas north and south of the park are so large that you’d struggle to acquaint yourself with all the fantastic terrains, even if you dedicated your entire life to it.

Both the northern and the southern areas are pretty easily accessible. Still, if you have any questions or you want to inquire about the current conditions in the general area you want to visit, you can do so by contacting the BLM Barstow Field Office.

If you are interested in camping in a bit of a different setting, but want to stay in California, check out our guide to free camping near Kern River and our guide to free camping near Yosemite.

North Joshua Tree Dispersed Camping

Trees and yellow grass at North Joshua Tree dispersed camping spot

A short drive from the western entrance to the park, North Joshua Tree dispersed camping area is a patch of land that stretches roughly from Joshua Tree Village to Twentynine Palms – two oases amidst an otherwise desert terrain, where you can rest and restock your supplies.

The curious thing about this camping area is that it sits on an ancient dried-up lakebed, so do expect parched earth and perhaps an old fossil or two if you accidentally dig into the ground a tad too deep.

This is not a designated campsite, so don’t expect any amenities whatsoever. There’s no potable water either.

You must carry everything you need – food, water, tents, collapsible sun shields, suncream, everything you might need for a desert climate with little to no moisture.

As you can see on the BLM’s official website, the BLM officials recommend adhering to the Leave No Trace camping principles so that the impact of dispersed camping on the environment is minimal.  

South Joshua Tree Dispersed Camping

Flowers around South Joshua Tree National Park entrance sign

A short distance from Cottonwood Springs Road, the region just south of the Joshua Tree National Park represents a massive camping opportunity for anyone interested in dispersed camping in a location that gives you the same vibes as the Joshua Tree National Park itself – but without needing a permit. You can camp wherever you desire.

If you want to switch things around and free camp one part of your camping trip and then enter the park for further exploration, you’re in luck. Joshua Tree dispersed camping is a location close to the southern Cottonwood entrance station of the park, so getting all the info you need about camping or a permit to get into the park will be a piece of cake.

Similar to the areas just north of the park, the situation with amenities here could be better, too, as there is no water, no toilets, or anything here that can make your stay easier.

That said, this self-reliability will give you the best-dispersed camping experience. 

Joshua Tree Car Camping Sites

RV in Joshua Tree National Park

Within the National Park itself, there are nine different car-friendly campgrounds (these are campgrounds you have to pay for, by the way).

As far as Joshua Tree is concerned, I’d say that your car or RV gives you the necessary cover and freedom to leave or fetch supplies whenever you like – and this counts in a region that’s as dry and devoid of life as the deserts and mountains that make this national park.

Belle Campground

A chopper and an RV at the desert-like Belle Campground

With only 18 individual campsites in an otherwise vast territory, Belle campground represents a well-maintained place within the National Park where you can have a quieter camping experience and a bit more privacy compared to some of the other locations.

Setting up a camp in this place has quite a few perks.

First, it has tremendous stargazing potential. The desert landscape provides an excellent backdrop to the open skies above. When the night falls, you can experience the duality of the desert ground beneath you and the endless open dark sky with innumerable stars above. 

On the other hand, another reason why this campground is so popular is the vicinity of the famous California Hiking and Riding Trail – a major trail that hikers and trekkers from all over the US come to tackle. Other than the challenge of the track itself, the immense beauty of the surrounding landscape gives this place a must-visit merit on an entirely different level.

In terms of amenities, you won’t find a source of potable water here, so you must carry enough water with you. This toilet does come with drop toilets, as well as trash and recycling facilities. Fire rings are also present throughout the campground, as well as picnic tables and grills.

Cottonwood Campground

Cars and RVs at Cottonwood Campground

A short drive from the southern entrance station, Cottonwood Campground is a large campground that can accommodate RVs, accepts reservations, and has several amenities, including potable water and dump stations. (No hookups for RVs, though.)

In addition to providing an excellent starter set for having a leisurely camping experience, Cottonwood campground also represents a fantastic option for anyone who wants to visit the nearby Los Palms Oasis – a major attraction in this area. What’s more, the trail that leads to this place starts in the Cottonwood campground itself, so you can’t possibly miss it.

The peak season for this campground is from the end of August to the beginning of June. If you plan on visiting during this period, booking a reservation well in advance is an absolute must.

During the off-season, all the campgrounds except the three group campgrounds operate on the first-come-first-served principle.

One thing that sets this campground apart from most other ones is the versatility of the types of campsites. Other than the car campsites (which make up the majority of the sites here), there are a couple of tent sites and a number of RV sites that can accommodate even large rigs, as long as they’re not over 35 feet in length.

Camping In and Near Joshua Tree National Park

Tents among the trees at Ryan Campground in Joshua Tree National Park

Only a few outdoor experiences can top the night under the vast, starry sky over one of the many barren and desolate patches of the great Joshua Tree National Park.

That said, while the National Park borders showcase precisely where the most valuable natural assets are, the areas just outside the park can sometimes offer the same, if not better, camping conditions.

If you weren’t quick enough to book a campground for yourself in Joshua Park during the peak season, or you want a different experience this time, camping just outside the park can be just as good as camping inside it.

Palm Springs KOA Campground

Campers at the Palm Springs KOA Campground sitting in front of a tent

Officially called Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA, this campground sits north of Palm Springs in Desert Hot Springs, California. KOA campgrounds represent a special, privately-owned group of campgrounds with so many amenities and facilities that camping here borders on ‘glamping’.

Interestingly, this campground’s location is about 50 miles away from both the southern and the western entrance stations, so access is facilitated as you don’t have to go round and round to get to a campground.

Some of the many amenities you can enjoy at this park include a swimming pool, a dog park, a mini golf playground, and a fitness room with all the latest bells and whistles for a great workout.

Palm Springs KOA is super kid-friendly.

If you have kids and want to experience Joshua Tree national park from a place that’s safe enough as a starting point, but from whence you can adequately explore the surrounding area – Palm Springs KOA is where you want to be.

Little Pioneertown RV Campground

Parked RVs in Little Pioneertown Campground

An RV haven, Little Pioneertown campground is a pet-friendly campground just north of the Joshua Tree National Park. In terms of proximity to the park, it would take only about 20 minutes to reach the western entrance station.

Virtually all sites here feature electricity, water, and sewer hookups, so as far as RVs are concerned – rest assured that you’ll get everything you need at Little Pioneertown.

Another thing you can get here would be easy access to Pioneertown itself – a small town full of history, exciting stories from the settlement days, and a famous pantry full of local domestic cuisine that you have to try if you’re a food enthusiast and appreciator.

Regarding the campground, other amenities include a large room with a TV, laundry machines, spacious two-shower stalls, and a propane grill if you feel like organizing a barbeque. Last but not least, outdoors, you can find lounge chairs, outdoor tables, and a fire pit to spice things up in terms of atmosphere.

Where to Next?

A tent in Death Valley National Park's deserted field

If you like desolate terrain, vast expanses of nothing but sand, cacti, and an occasional coyote passing by, Joshua Tree National Park and its surroundings is an excellent dispersed camping destination, but it’s not the only one that fits this description.

For more cool camping spots in the desert, check out our guide to dispersed camping in Death Valley National Park. Or, if you’d like a change of scenery, pitching a tent at a dispersed campsite in Big Sur is also an awesome idea.

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