With his Dr. Seuss-like Joshua trees sprawling across an almost lunar landscape of giant granite boulders and rolling mountains, Joshua Tree National Park is straight out of a children’s book. It’s not uncommon for people to use terms like magical or spiritual to describe how this park makes them feel. Visitors come here to hike or hike among the trees, climb the high cliffs, camp under the stars, capture the beauty in photos, or simply enjoy the serenity of the desert.
Located at the point where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, the park is characterized by a complex landscape with varying appearance and vegetation depending on elevation. Some areas are covered in 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-placed nature trails, hiking trails and vehicle exits are scattered throughout the park, providing easy access to this stunning landscape.
Orientation in the Park
Although the park covers around 800,000 hectares, most of it is not accessible by road. Two main streets run through the park: Park Boulevard, which runs West and East from Twentynine Palms and the North Entrance to the West Entrance and the town of Joshua Tree; and Pinto Basin Road, which connects to Park Boulevard and runs south-north from Interstate 10 and the Cottonwood Visitor Center to the North Entrance and the town of Twentynine Palms. Park Boulevard is the main stretch of park of interest to most visitors, but there are also things to do and see along the northern half of Pinto Basin Road.
1. Hidden Valley Nature Trail and Day Use
Joshua’s Hidden Valley area is one of the most beautiful and accessible areas of the park, and it’s perfect if you want to take a short hike or just wander among the trees and rock formations. The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a pleasant one-kilometer loop trail that leads through an opening into a large bowl otherwise surrounded by rock faces. It is believed that due to its geographical location, Hidden Valley was formerly used by cattle thieves who would drive cattle into this area to hide them. This is a relatively easy and scenic trail, but it’s a little barren and doesn’t have many Joshua trees. Along this trail, the giant monolith known as the Big Burrito is a popular climbing area in the park.
The Hidden Valley picnic area, across the parking lot from the trailhead, is much more scenic, with an abundance of large Joshua trees scattered around giant boulders and cairns. This is a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic and squirm around. From the last picnic area at the west end, a very short, rudimentary path leads to the back of the boulder and opens up into a wonderland of rocks and trees, perfect for photography.
2. Key View
It’s well worth the drive to Keys View, a lookout at over 5,000 feet with sweeping views across 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 Mexico. When the air is clear the views are spectacular and this is a great way to get oriented to the surrounding geography. When you drive up here, the altitude changes, the temperature is noticeably cooler and the landscape takes on a completely different character.
3. Barker Dam Nature Trail
Another short trail, the Barker Dam is a 1.3-mile loop trail. If you just want to do a short trail at Joshua Tree, this is your best bet, with giant Joshua trees, rocks, and an expanse of water that often attracts birds. The remains of a water tank left by ranchers who once lived in the area can be seen at the back of the loop. A lot of people go to this point and turn around and leave the same path, but that’s a mistake. While this might be a bit shorter, it’s worth going further, with lots of the best scenery and largest trees on the loop past the dam.
4. Ryan Mountain Hike
From Park Boulevard, the hike up Ryan Mountain looks a little daunting and relatively unspectacular, but this hike is all about the rewards from the top, where the views stretch 360 degrees across the park. This is a relatively strenuous three-mile up-and-down hike with 1,000 vertical feet. The exposed trail offers little shade and isn’t exactly exciting as it follows a barren slope to the top, but from the summit, 5,457 feet, the view is fantastic, making the effort well worth it.
5. Cholla Cactus Garden
For nature lovers, the Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the most impressive spots in the park, with more than a thousand densely packed chollas sprawling across the desert floor. While chollas are often scattered among other places in the desert, here they are the only cacti 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 trail takes you to this magical place.
The Cholla Cactus Garden is on the road to Cottonwood Spring, beyond the Belle and White Tank Campgrounds. Further along this road towards Cottonwood is the Ocotillo Patch, but there are only a small number of these plants at this habitat. If you’re planning on exiting the park on this road, don’t stop here as there are many more ocotillos further past Cottonwood on the way to Interstate 10.
6. Skull Skirt
Perhaps nowhere else in the park is the almost comic book landscape more delicately portrayed than at Skull Rock. Many people describe faces and images in the rock formations that dominate the park, but at Skull Rock it takes little imagination to see the skull shape peeking out from the boulder-strewn debris. This is a large naturally carved rock just off the road and always draws a crowd.
The whole area around this stop is interesting, with an expanse of rolling cairns ideal for hiking or easy rock climbing. There are some remnants of trails through the area, but many people just wander around, finding high points for viewpoints, sunning on the flagstones, or just taking a break. Across the street is a 1.7 mile hiking trail through rocks and shrubby vegetation with a few Joshua trees scattered throughout.
7. Keys Ranch (Guided Tour)
In an area few would describe as hospitable are the remains of the Keys Ranch, the former homestead and ranch of William F. Keys who settled in the area in the 1910’s. The property, which includes the home, schoolhouse, shop, and workshop, is a National Historic Register and can only be visited on ranger-led tours, which operate seasonally during the winter and spring. The tours are very informative and give an insight into Keys who was a character of sorts and the challenges the family and resourcefulness face of living here. Visit the park’s website for tour dates and times. There is a fee and reservations are required.
8. Wildflowers in Spring
Spring is a fantastic time in the desert, and Joshua Tree National Park is no exception. The Joshua’s themselves flower, but there are many other plants, shrubs, and cacti that also flower in the park. The best place to see wildflowers may simply depend on the week you visit, but generally the area of the park near Cottonwood Spring and the road that leads to Interstate 10 has a fantastic variety of springtime wildflowers , which bloom in large concentrations. Not far from the Cottonwood Visitor Center, thousands of small Joshua trees are scattered as far as the eye can see. When they bloom in spring, it’s a spectacular spot, even more so than the larger Joshua trees because the flowers are lower to the ground and close to eye level, making them easier to see.
Flowering time varies depending on altitude and winter weather conditions. Lower elevations generally begin to flower in February, and higher elevations may flower as late as June. March and April are always a safe bet to see wildflowers.
9. Climbing and Bouldering
Climbing and bouldering are some of the most popular recreational activities at the park, and one look at the landscape will tell you why. Joshua Tree has 8,000 climbing routes and hundreds of climbing formations somewhere in the neighborhood. Information brochures and maps are available at the visitor centers.
Climbers visit Joshua Tree National Park, especially during the winter months when the big climbing destinations farther north, like Yosemite, are out of season. There are several areas in the park where mountaineers hang out, but the Hidden Valley area and other nearby locations at the west end of the park are the main hotspots. As a result, campgrounds at this end of the park are regularly packed throughout the winter, especially in February and March, when climbers and recreational campers compete for spots.
Other Hikes to Consider
The Lost Palms Oasis hike begins at Cottonwood Spring near the Cottonwood Visitor Center, which is removed from the busiest sections of the park. This is a 7.2 mile loop hike, with the main attraction being the giant palm trees rising out of the desert. It’s moderate from the park and it has some difficult sections. A shorter trail, 49 Palms Oasis is near the town of Twentynine Palms and can be a good option if you’re staying in town or camping at Indian Cove Campground. This is a three-mile hike with a nice elevation, and again, the highlight is the stand of palm trees.
Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National Park
The best lodging options in Joshua Tree National Park are campgrounds within 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 tend to be mid-range or budget.
- Camping: Joshua Tree has nine campsites, one of which is for groups only and two of which are outside the front gates. For complete information on camping and camping in the park, check out our full 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 for spacious suites. Also worth mentioning are the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites and the BEST WESTERN Gardens Hotel. All of these hotels have pools, offer free breakfast, and are only a few minutes’ drive from the park.
- Budget Hotels: Budget hotels can still be relatively expensive in peak season. Some budget hotels include the motel-style 9 Palms Inn and Rodeway Inn & Suites, which has a heated outdoor pool and whirlpool and free breakfast. If you’re looking for pet-friendly accommodations, the recently renovated Motel 6 is a great choice, with a heated outdoor pool and hot tub. All of these are well positioned for easy access to the park.