The short answer is the same as most national parks, which is, not really. We do, however, go here about twice a year with Sierra because it’s conveniently located about 2 hours from Orange County and still makes for a nice weekend get away. As long as you go into the park with the expectation of just hanging out around the campground and relaxing for the weekend, you can make it into a worth while trip for you and your dog.
Unfortunately, all National Parks have the same dog policy, which is dogs must stay on paved trails, and can wonder no more than 100 ft. away from them. In some locations, like Yosemite, there are miles of paved roads and walkways in the valley you can take your dog on so you can still explore the area. Unfortunately, in Joshua Tree, the main road is paved and everything else is, well, desert. So the only real places you can walk your dog, is around the campground, or brave the side of the main road.
If you dogs don’t mind the car, the best place I would say you can go is Keys View lookout. Everything is paved and you and your dog can pack a lunch, drive up to the look out, and admire the view. There are a few benches up there where you can sit and relax, but be warned, Joshua Tree is high desert, so it can get pretty cold up there during the fall-spring months so plan accordingly. Speaking of cold weather, one of the things you need to consider before taking your dog, is the night time temperatures. On our most recent trip, in mid November, it got down to the low 30’s upper 20’s. Sierra had no problem with this because of her breed, if anything, the colder weather made he energy level go up! If, however, you have a short haired dog, plan on bringing blankets, sweaters, and a lot of firewood to help keep everyone warm at night. On the opposite side of the spectrum, make sure you are aware of the day time temperatures as well. Joshua Tree is not someplace I would want to take my dog during the summer, as it can easily get over 100 degrees during the day, which wouldn’t be fun for anyone.
If you are looking for other activities to do while in the park, try driving to the Cholla Cactus Garden. There isn’t much room to walk your dog, but it’s something worth checking out just because of the beauty. There is also an Ocotillo Garden nearby that you can check out at the same time. These are both activities I suggest doing about an hour before sunset if you want to get some nice pictures of the setting sun in the background. Lastly, if you have a 4×4 car, there are a few off road trails you can drive on to explore the less frequented areas of Joshua Tree. One of our favorites is off of Geology Tour Road, it is only a few miles, and is a loop that takes you to the lower elevation part of the park. If you are looking for dead silence, this is the place to go, you won’t be able to hear any type of sound except those from nature, which in a desert, isn’t much.
Other than those few activities, really the only other thing you can do is wander around the campgrounds, or get a good book and relax. While at the campsite, your dog does need to be leashed. We use a metal 30ft tie out and either use a stake or just hook it around a tree or table. I always recommend a metal tie out because they are more sturdy and your dog won’t be able to chew through it. For safety reasons, we also put Sierra on a harness while on the tie out. If you just hook it to a standard collar, and your dog sees something they want to chase, they have up to 60 feet to gain speed before coming to a jerking stop when they get to the end of the tie out. All of that pressure would go directly to the dog’s neck which is extremely unsafe. By using a harness instead, if Sierra decides she wants to chase something, and runs out of room on the tie out, all of the pressure is distributed to her chest, which is a much safer spot.
If you are looking for a good campground, my favorite is Hidden Valley, it’s large enough that you can wander around for a while without just going in circles, and there are plenty of interesting rock formations you can walk to and exploring with your dog.
One last thing about Joshua Tree camping, most of the sites are first come, first serve, so if you are going during a holiday weekend, spring, or early fall, you will most likely want to get there before 3pm on a Friday for the best chance of getting a spot. The last time we went, everything was completely full, and after driving through multiple campgrounds, we were lucky enough to find someone just pulling out of their old spot. For the remainder of the weekend, people were coming into the park and having to turn around to go home because there were no spots left. During a trip we took last year, we were in that same boat, we got there late Friday evening, and after searching for a few hours, we actually had to head back to Yucca Valley and slept in our car with the dog and camping gear in a hotel parking lot for the night. Luckily, the next morning, we were able to go back in and find a spot, but that’s an experience I will be OK with never having again! Overall, if you want to get away from the world and just relax, Joshua Tree is a great place to go, but with places like Big Bear about the same distance away, and much more dog friendly, there are better options available for those that want to hike and explore(at least for most of the year). I will be writing a post about some of those options in the coming weeks, so check back soon if you want more info on some of those.