Planning a memorable trip to Joshua Tree? Looking for exciting things to do within Joshua Tree National Park? The park is famous for its whimsical Joshua trees (technically, tree-sized yucca) and its wonderland of boulder-sized rocks. A perfect blend between the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, “JTree” is a rock climber’s paradise. Gorgeous desert vistas, spring wildflowers, and bighorn sheep are enough to please visitors of all walks of life. The magical landscapes and life forms were the inspiration of U2’s 1987 album, Joshua Tree, and continue to inspire hikers and sightseers daily. With a gallon of water, hat, and sunscreen in hand, here are my top 10 Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park.
Things to Know before you go
- Plan on carrying extra on drinking water. Access in the park is limited. If hiking, keep an extra gallon or two of water in your car while exploring the park.
- The best times to visit are between October – May. Temperatures in the park can scale up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime. Even during October to May, temperatures can be high – so do all your hiking early.
- The park isn’t equipped with any shops to purchase food or water – be sure to enter the park prepared! The only food and gas available are in the nearby towns of Joshua Tree, Indio or Twentynine Palms.
- Almost all of the 9 Joshua Tree Campgrounds are first-come, first-served.
- Visit one of the Joshua Tree National Park Visitors Centers for the latest park information.
10 Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
Start your day off right at The Natural Sisters Café
Right outside of the West Entrance into the park, The Natural Sisters Café is the perfect spot for your morning fuel. The interior is snug and inviting, offering a nutritious, all-organic fare of fresh smoothies and wraps. Although vegetarian options draw in crowds, menu items such as their black bean burger, killer bee smoothie, and vegan carrot cake are suitable for anyone who’s hungry!
Climb around the Wonderland of Rocks
From beginner and advanced climbing to bouldering, high lining, and slacklining, Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect place for adrenaline junkies of all skill levels. Climbers come from around the world to climb in Joshua Tree. Hundreds of climbers can be found in the park each weekend between October and May.
Please practice Leave No Trace Principles and good climbing practices. Be sure to obtain any necessary permits before climbing, and consider hiring a National Park Service permitted climbing guide.
Afraid of heights? Take a seat on a welcoming boulder and soak in all of the sites.
Hike to Baker Dam Historic Reservoir
Hidden in the Wonderland of Rocks is a short 1.5-mile loop which leads to Baker Dam historic reservoir. The trail leads through the tall boulders, and at its finish emerges at a small pond teeming with wildlife. The dam was constructed by early cattlemen in 1900 and continues to serve as a hub for wild birds and bighorn sheep.
Along the loop, Native American petroglyphs can be seen on several spur trails. Hike this trail early in the morning for a shot at seeing wildlife and to marvel at the site of water in a desert!
Take the Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Hidden Valley Trail is a simple 1-mile loop trail is a great way to sample the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. The trail’s intricate rock formations and towering Joshua trees will feel like a time warp back to the Paleolithic period. This trail is level and short, making it accessible to nearly all visitors.
It is rumored that the area was once used by cattle rustlers as a hideout. The trail has signs to help visitors to learn to identify the plants of Joshua Tree and a bit of the geological history that created these unique rock formations.
Visit Skull Rock.
A quick visit to this historical landmark will give display to a desert rock phenomenon – A cranial shaped granite rock with 2 eye sockets, which have been formed by erosion.
You can opt to follow the 1.7-mile Skull Rock Nature Trail nearby, although I personally tend to get lost while taking it. The hike is not required to the Skull Rock. The Skull is seen from the road.
Hike out to the massive Arch Rock.
Take the Arch Rock Nature Trail. This nature trail scopes out the 30-ft granite Arch Rock, along with a medley of other rock formations and potential wildflowers in the springtime. The hike may be a brief half mile, but the views here are some of the best in the park.
Have a blast climbing around the famed Arch Rock, which rivals the arches of nearby Utah. You are welcome to climb (boulder) up to the base of the arch. The views of the surrounding areas are exceptional.
Photo credit: Ian D. Keating
Experience both the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert.
Take a drive across the entire park to truly experience its vast diversity. The higher and cooler Mojave Desert is home to the numerous Joshua trees that give the park its name, along with the Wonderland of Rocks and other interesting geologic formations.
The Colorado Desert begins at the park’s midsection where the Joshua trees end and provides a more sparse and forbidding landscape. The smaller Yucca plant and the Cholla Cactus live here.
Walk through the Cholla Cactus Garden
I consider this to be a hidden gem of Joshua Tree National Park. The cactus grove is the perfect setting for photographs, and for observing the unique cholla cactus plants. These small, “teddy-bear” cholla cactus appear soft and fuzzy from their outside appearance, but of course, hosts sharp spines. Don’t give into the cuteness and hug one. Seriously, be very cautious to only observe these little guys, and not touch them! The cholla cacti have an infinite number of very sharp cactus needles which are extemely painful to get stuck by (and then removed).
This nature trail is a 0.25-mile loop that has no elevation gain. Do not let your children run around here.
Take in a sunset at Keys View.
Joshua Tree’s highest viewpoint and my favorite destination within the park is Keys View. From the top, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and even Mexico. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset (preferably with a packed picnic in hand) to wind down and watch the sun hideaway beyond the mountains.
Book a campground and watch the stars at night!
After an exciting day of hiking and rock-climbing, there’s nothing more relaxing than pitching a tent and sharing laughs and roasted marshmallows with friends. The best part? Joshua Tree National Park hosts some of the darkest nights in Southern California, making it perfect for stargazing and viewing The Milky Way. Regarding campsites, I think that camping at Jumbo Rocks Campground (it’s massive and fun) or Cottonwood Springs Campground (it has actual flushing toilets) are good bets! Wherever you decide to go, be sure to book your campground early, bring your best camera, and check out the park’s Night Sky Program.
The Lost Horse Mine produced over 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver. The mine’s history involves cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and a gun-slinging cowboy. It is a four-mile round-trip hike to visit one of the most successful mines in California.
Wall Street Mill and Wonderland Ranch is three miles out and back hike to a well preserved gold mill site. This site was an important local business before Joshua Tree became a National Park.
Keys Desert Queen Ranch is a historic ranch in the area. The ranch can only be visited as part of a ranger lead tour. Reservations are recommended.
Ryan Mountain is a tough 3-mile hike. The first 1.5 miles is all uphill until you reach the second highest peak in Joshua Tree. Ryan Mountain is a great sunset hike.
Cottonwood Spring Nature Trail is a 1-mile hike near the Cottonwood Visitor Center. The trail leads to the Cottonwood Spring Oasis. This small spring showcases a range of trees that have grown due to the steady supply of water in the area.
What do you want to do in Joshua Tree? Did I miss anything that should be on the things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park list?
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Chelsea Burge is a 24 year old educational specialist based in San Diego, California. Chelsea loves attending live music shows, going to the beach, reading, journaling, and testing out cool food spots. She loves integrating adventure of all shapes and sizes into her life, from sampling local coffee shops to trekking foreign countries. Since moving to California, Chelsea has particularly taken an interest in traveling to national parks. As an educator, Chelsea likes to take trips during school breaks. This past year, she ventured to Yosemite, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. She even went to Iguazu National park in Brazil and Argentina. To say the least, Chelsea Burge is #nationalparkobsessed!