The BEST Joshua Tree National Park Dispersed Camping

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Joshua Tree National Park is home to beautiful and otherworldly desert landscapes in Southern California. The park includes sections of both the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, each of which boasts its own unique and vibrant ecosystem. Dramatic rock formations, spectacular sunsets and amazing fauna and flora (including the park’s namesake tree) make this a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers.

Camping near Joshua Tree is one of the best ways to make the most of your experience. The desert climate makes this a great option for winter camping and the stargazing in this International Dark Sky Park is some of the best in the world. Dispersed camping near Joshua Tree National Park is a great option if you’re looking to have a bit more flexibility in your travel plans, get away from the crowds, and camp for free. There are plenty of beautiful areas for dispersed camping near both the northern and southern entrances to the park.

Keep reading to plan your perfect dispersed camping trip near Joshua Tree National Park.

Looking for developed campgrounds? Be sure to check out The Complete Guide to Camping in Joshua Tree National Park for developed campgrounds, RV parks, and more!

In This Post…

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Entrance sign for Joshua Tree National park

The Basics

The following sections contain all the basic information you’ll want to familiarize yourself with before setting out to dispersed camp near Joshua Tree National Park.

With the exception of one private site, all of the dispersed camping locations in the Joshua Tree area are on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land that is adjacent to the park to the north and south. The area north of Joshua Tree National Park is managed by the Barstow Field Office, and the BLM land to the south is managed by the Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office.

 You can find more general information about dispersed camping on BLM land here.

This map provides a good overview of the BLM districts in California. Click here for an interactive map.

Map of California BLM Districts
California BLM districts and field offices, courtesy of blm.gov (click to enlarge)

What to Bring

Preparation is key for a successful dispersed camping outing. You won’t have access to the amenities of a developed campground, so it is important to come prepared to be self-sufficient.

While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tentsleeping bags, and camp chairs,  below are some of our favorite items specifically for dispersed camping:

  • Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
  • Portable Water Container – Water is scarce in Joshua Tree’s desert environment, so bringing all that you need in a portable water container like this one is essential.
  • Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping, especially in the hot desert sun. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
  • Map – We prefer downloadable GPS maps via the Gaia GPS app. You can get 20% off your annual membership here.
  • Portable Toilet – This may be a new concept for some campers, but it’s a great way to ensure you leave no trace in the back country.
  • Pop-up Canopy – The sun in Joshua Tree can get intense! You won’t find much shade in this landscape, so we recommend bringing a portable shade structure to create your own!
Dispersed Camping Checklist

Our dispersed camping checklist has everything you need.

Want to know the essentials for your next camping trip?

Our dispersed camping checklist has all the camping essentials plus specific items for dispersed camping.

Permits & Fees

Permits are not required to camp in any of the locations included in this guide. Additionally, all of the dispersed camping areas described below are completely free.

That being said, permits may be required for campfires and other special recreational activities. Information about campfire permits is located in the following section.

Campfires

Most of the dispersed camping areas in this guide are located on BLM land and managed by the Barstow Field Office or the Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office. The risk of wildfire is quite high in the sensitive desert ecosystems near Joshua Tree, and therefore the BLM frequently implements regulations and restrictions to protect the environment. Before setting out, be sure to do the following:

  • Check for seasonal fire restrictions in the area. This BLM webpage provides up-to-date information on regional fire restrictions in California.
  • If campfires are permitted, you will need to obtain a campfire permit before your trip. Permits are free and the online application takes just a few minutes to complete.
  • Learn about fire safety protocols to ensure you’re doing your part to minimize wildfire risk. Given the devastation of wildfires in recent years, we can’t stress enough the importance of being responsible and prepared when dispersed camping!

Leave No Trace Dispersed Camping

One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:

  • Plan Ahead & Prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
  • Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
  • Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
  • Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
  • Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
  • Respect Wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
  • Be considerate of Other Visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.

You can read more about the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping here.

Tent under starry skies north Joshua Tree BLM

Joshua Tree National Park Dispersed Camping

The map below provides an overview of all of the camping areas described in this post. Keep reading for details and descriptions of each dispersed camping area. We’ve organized them by proximity to the north and south entrances for easy planning.

North Joshua Tree

North Joshua Tree BLM

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Located just twenty minutes from the north entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, this dispersed camping area makes a great base camp for exploring the park and other nearby attractions. The area is set in a dry lake bed, which provides plenty of level places to pitch a tent or park a vehicle. Although it is a popular dispersed camping destination, there is plenty of room for everyone and those seeking solitude can certainly find it. There are wide open views in every direction and the sunsets and sunrises are incredible.

Although the road can be pretty rough in places, it is typically accessible for all vehicles. Keep in mind that there is no water in the area, so it is essential to pack in everything you need. Additionally, be sure to take a close look at the Interactive BLM map (or see below), as to avoid accidentally camping on private property.

Map of Joshua Tree North BLM Dispersed Camping
Camping in permitted in any of the yellow areas on this map (click to enlarge).

Mohave Trails National Monument

Restrooms: Vault toilets located at developed campgrounds and trailheads.
Water: No
Crowds:
 Low
Map

If you’re willing to venture a bit further from Joshua Tree National Park, it’s worth considering dispersed camping in Mohave Trails National Monument. This BLM-managed area encompasses 350,000 acres of designated wilderness and features canyons, mountains. and sand dunes. Additionally, history buffs will be excited to visit the remains of the WWII Desert Training Area or go even further back in time to hunt for fossils.

Dispersed camping is permitted throughout the Monument, except in the Afton Canyon area and at the main Amboy parking lot. You must camp at least 1/4 mile from any water source. To minimize environmental impacts, you’re strongly encouraged to set up camp in established sites. Check with the Needles or Barstow field offices to learn more about camping options.

Click here to learn more about dispersed camping at Mojave Trails National Monument.

Sunset at Mojave Trails National Monument
Mojave Trails National Monument. Photo courtesy of BLM, Bob Wick.

South Joshua Tree

Cottonwood Springs Road BLM

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

This is an excellent free camping area just minutes from the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. There are many great places to set up camp just off Cottonwood Road about a mile north of the I-10 highway. Although it is a very popular spot, there is plenty of space for campers to spread out. The desert scenery is magnificent, and it definitely feels like an extension of the park. Those looking for an escape will appreciate the fact that there is no cell service until you head into town.

Come prepared with all of the water you’ll need. Additionally, the road in can get sandy at times, so 2WD vehicles should be extra careful.

Chiriaco Summit

Restrooms: Available at the gas station nearby.
Water: Available at the gas station nearby.
Crowds:
 Busy
Map

Although not technically dispersed camping, this privately-run campground is great for those seeking some modern amenities while still camping for free. The dry camping area consists of several sites located behind the General Patton Memorial Museum, just off the I-10 (expect to hear some road noise). You’ll need to check in with the host upon arrival, and campers are welcome to stay for up to 7 nights. The campground can accommodate most RVs.

There are no services at the campground, but you can find food, water, and restrooms at the nearby gas station and restaurant. The campground is conveniently located just ten minutes from the south entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.

Painted Canyon

Restrooms: Vault toilet 1 mile from the trailhead on Painted Canyon Road.
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

Dispersed camping in Painted Canyon is a truly memorable experience. This area is part of the BLM-managed Mecca Hills Wilderness, and is located about 40 minutes from the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. To get there, take Painted Canyon Road towards the Ladder Trailhead. As you get closer to the trailhead, you’ll start to see established sites. Painted Canyon gets its name from the beautiful array of colors on its narrow rock corridors. Camping here is a wonderful way to appreciate the way the different hues change as the light shifts throughout the day and evening. Adventurous hikers will also enjoy exploring the nearby trails, which require the use of ladders to traverse the landscape.

The Painted Canyon dispersed camping area is only recommended for 4WD vehicles and smaller rigs, as the road can be quite sandy and rugged. If you’re nervous about getting stuck, plan to camp near the start of the road, as it gets rougher the further in you go. Additionally, be sure to check ahead of time for seasonal closures and do not enter the area if there is a risk of flash flooding.

Ladder in Painted Canyon Mecca Hills
The hikes in Painted Canyon require the use of ladders to traverse the steep rock walls.

Box Canyon Road

Restrooms: No
Water: No
Crowds:
 Moderate
Map

This is another beautiful place for dispersed camping in the Mecca Hills Wilderness. Campers with 4WD vehicles can set up anywhere along Box Canyon Road. The road itself has been recently repaved, but be prepared for deep sand as soon as you venture off the pavement. The dramatic rock formations make this an atmospheric place to spend the night, and the stars are incredible. Although the Box Canyon dispersed camping area is just twenty minutes from the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, it feels very peaceful and remote.

It’s important to be prepared if you plan to dispersed camp in this area, as there is no water or cell phone service. Don’t enter the area if there is a risk of flash flooding. As always, practice Leave No Trace principals and do your part to protect this special place.

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Have a great trip!

That’s it! We hope we’ve provided all of the information you need to plan a great dispersed camping trip.

Be sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any questions and be sure to tell us about your trip!

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