9 Fun Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park: Hikes, Sights, & Activities

June 7, 2016

Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park
Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

With its Dr. Seuss-like Joshua trees stretching out across an almost lunar landscape of giant granite boulders and rolling mountains, Joshua Tree National Park is like something out of a children's story book. It's not uncommon to hear people using terms like magical or spiritual to describe how they feel about this park. Visitors come here to walk or hike among the trees, climb the towering rock walls, camp under the stars, capture the beauty in photographs, or simply soak up the tranquility of the desert.

Located where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet, the park has a complex landscape, with profoundly different appearances and vegetation depending on the elevation. Some areas are covered with mature Joshua trees as far as the eye can see, and others are completely devoid of these trees but offer their own unique beauty. Well positioned nature paths, hiking trails, and vehicle pullouts are spread throughout the park, providing easy access to this stunning landscape.

Orientation in the Park

Although the park encompasses some 800,000 acres, most of it is not accessible by road. Two main roads run through the park: Park Boulevard, which runs west to east from Twentynine Palms and the North Entrance to the West Entrance and the town of Joshua Tree; and Pinto Basin Road, which joins up with Park Boulevard and runs south to north from Interstate 10 and the Cottonwood Visitor Center to the North Entrance and the town of Twentynine Palms. Park Boulevard is the main section of the park that is of interest to most visitors, but there are also things to do and see along the north half of Pinto Basin Road.

1 Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Day Use Area

Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Day Use Area
Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Day Use Area | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Hidden Valley area of Joshua is one of the most beautiful and easily accessible areas of the park, and it's perfect if you are looking to do a short hike or simply wander among the trees and rock formations. The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is an enjoyable one-mile loop trail that enters through an opening into what is otherwise a large bowl surrounded by rock walls. It's thought that due to the geography, Hidden Valley was once used by cattle rustlers, who would herd the cattle into this area to conceal them. This is a relatively easy and scenic trail but it is somewhat barren and does not have many Joshua trees. Of note on this trail is the giant monolith known as the Great Burrito, a popular climbing area in the park.

The Hidden Valley picnic area, on the opposite side of the parking lot from the trailhead, is much more scenic, with an abundance of large Joshua trees scattered around huge boulders and rock piles. This is a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic and meander around. From the last picnic area at the west end, a very short rudimentary trail leads out and around to the back side of the stand of boulders, opening up into a wonderland of rocks and trees, perfect for photography.

2 Keys View

It is well worth the drive up to Keys View, a lookout point at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet, with sweeping views extending out over the Coachella Valley. In the distance, you can see the San Andreas fault line, Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, and on a clear day, beyond to Mexico. If the air is clear, the view is spectacular and this is a great way to get oriented with the surrounding geography. As you drive up here, the elevation changes, the temperature is noticeably cooler, and the landscape takes on a whole different character.

3 Barker Dam Nature Trail

Barker Dam Nature Trail
Barker Dam Nature Trail

Another short walking path, Barker Dam is a 1.3-mile loop trail. If you are only looking to do one short trail in Joshua Tree, this is your best bet, with huge Joshua trees, rocks, and an area of water that often attracts birds. The remnants of a water tank left by cattle ranchers who once lived in the area can be seen at the far end of the loop. Many people walk in to this point and turn around, leaving by the same route, but this is a mistake. While this might be slightly shorter, it is well worth continuing on, with much of the best scenery and largest trees on the loop beyond the dam.

4 Ryan Mountain Hike

Ryan Mountain Hike
Ryan Mountain Hike

From Park Boulevard, the hike up Ryan Mountain looks a bit daunting and relatively unspectacular, but this hike is all about the reward from the top, where the views extend 360 degrees out over the park. This is a relatively strenuous, three-mile up-and-down hike, with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The exposed trail offers little to no shade and is less than exciting as it follows a barren hillside up to the top, but from the summit, at 5,457 feet, the view is fantastic, making the effort worthwhile.

5 Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For nature lovers, the Cholla Cactus Garden is arguably one of the most awesome sites in the park, with more than a thousand densely packed chollas stretching out across the desert floor. While chollas are often sprinkled among other vegetation in the desert, here they are the only cactuses in this natural garden. In the early morning light or late afternoon sun, the backlit needles almost glow, and the mountains in the distance provide the perfect backdrop. An easy, level walking trail leads lets you immerse yourself in this magical place.

The Cholla Cactus Garden is on the road to Cottonwood Spring, beyond Belle and White Tank campgrounds. Further along this road, heading towards Cottonwood, is the Ocotillo Patch, but there are only a small number of these plants at this pullout location. If you plan on leaving the park on this road, there is no need to stop here because there are plenty more Ocotillos further on, beyond Cottonwood, on the way to Interstate 10.

6 Skull Rock

Skull Rock

Perhaps nowhere else in the park is the almost comic book landscape more finely illustrated than at Skull Rock. Many people describe seeing faces and images in the rock formations that dominate the park, but at Skull Rock it takes very little imagination to see the skull shape peering out of the boulder-strewn rubble. This is a huge, naturally sculpted rock located right beside the road, and it always draws a crowd.

The whole area around this roadside stop is interesting, with an expanse of rolling rock piles, great for walking or light scrambling. There are some remnants of trails through the area, but many people just wander about, finding high points for lookouts, sunning themselves on the slabs of rock, or simply taking a break. Across the street is a 1.7-mile hiking trail through rocks and shrubby vegetation with a few Joshua trees scattered around.

7 Keys Ranch (Guided Tour)

Keys Ranch (Guided Tour)
Keys Ranch (Guided Tour) | Photo Copyright: Steve Cukrov

In an area that few people would describe as hospitable are the remains of Keys Ranch, the former homestead and ranch of William F. Keys, who settled in this area in the 1910s. The property, which includes the house, schoolhouse, store, and workshop, is a National Historic Register Site and can only be visited on ranger-led guided tours, which are run seasonally throughout the winter and into spring. The tours are very informative and provide insight into Keys, who was quite a character, and the challenges faced by the family and ingenuity required to live out here. See the park website for information on tour dates and times. There is a fee, and reservations are required. Tours are 90 minutes and involve a half-mile of walking.

8 Wildflowers in Spring

Wildflowers in Spring
Wildflowers in Spring | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Spring is an amazing time in the desert, and Joshua Tree National Park is no exception. The Joshua's themselves bloom, but there are many other plants, shrubs, and cactus that bloom in the park as well. The best place to see wildflowers may simply depend on the week you are visiting, but as a general rule, the area of the park near Cottonwood Spring and the road that leads out to Interstate 10 has a fantastic variety of spring wildflowers that bloom in large concentrations. Not far from the Cottonwood Visitor Center, thousands of small Joshua trees dot the landscape, scattered as far as the eye can see in some areas. When they bloom in the spring it is a spectacular site, even more so than the larger Joshua trees because the blooms are lower to the ground and close to eye level, making them easier to see. From Cottonwood Spring to Interstate 10 there can be a kaleidoscope of colors, ranging from yellow, orange, and red, to pink, purple, and blue.

Bloom times vary depending on the elevation and the weather conditions throughout the winter. Lower elevations generally begin blooming in February, and higher elevations can bloom as late as June. March and April are always a safe bet for seeing wildflowers.

9 Rock Climbing and Bouldering

Rock Climbing and Bouldering
Rock Climbing and Bouldering | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Climbing and bouldering are some of the most popular recreational activities in the park, and one look at the landscape will tell you why. Joshua Tree has somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 climbing routes and hundreds of climbing formations. Information pamphlets and maps are available at the visitor centers.

Climbers frequent Joshua Tree National Park, particularly during the winter months when the great climbing destinations further north, like Yosemite, are out of season. There are several areas in the park where climbers tend to congregate, but the Hidden Valley area and other nearby sites at the west end of the park are the main hot spots. As a result, campgrounds at this end of the park tend to be full on a regular basis throughout the winter, particularly in February and March, when climbers and recreational campers are vying for spots.

Other Hikes to Consider

Palms at Cottonwood Springs
Palms at Cottonwood Springs

The Lost Palms Oasis hike departs from Cottonwood Spring, near the Cottonwood Visitor Center, which is quite removed from the busiest sections of the park. This is a 7.2-mile roundtrip hike, with the main attraction being the huge palm trees that rise out of the desert. It is rated moderate by the park and it does have some tricky sections. A shorter trail, 49 Palms Oasis is near the town of Twentynine Palms and can be a good option if you are staying in the town or camping at Indian Cove Campground. This is a three-mile hike with a fair bit of elevation, and again, the highlight is the stand of palms.

Where to Stay at Joshua Tree National Park

The best options for accommodation at Joshua Tree National Park, depending on your preferences, are campgrounds in the park or hotels in the nearby town of Twentynine Palms, just minutes from the North Entrance. The campgrounds are spectacular, and hotels in Twentynine Palms are generally mid-range or budget.

  • Camping: Joshua Tree has nine campgrounds, one of which is for groups only and two of which are outside the entrance gates. For complete details on camping and where to camp in the park, see our complete article on the 6 Best Campgrounds in Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: One of the top picks for hotels in Twentynine Palms is the Fairfield Inn & Suites, with spacious suites. Also of note are the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites and the BEST WESTERN Gardens Hotel. All of these hotels have pools, provide a complimentary breakfast, and are just a few minutes by car from the park.
  • Budget Hotels: Budget hotels can still be relatively pricey during the high season. Some good-value hotels to consider are the motel-style 9 Palms Inn, and the Rodeway Inn & Suites, with an outdoor heated pool and hot tub and a complimentary breakfast. If you are looking for pet-friendly properties, the recently renovated Motel 6 is a good choice, with an outdoor heated pool and hot tub. All of these are well positioned for easy access to the park.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on California