10 Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park

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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.

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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.

RELATED – One Day in Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Honorable Mentions: 

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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Looking to discover the unique beauty of Joshua Tree? Find out the top 10 things you shouldn't miss on your first visit to Joshua Tree National Park. #JoshuaTree #JoshuaTreeNPS #JoshuaTreeNationalPark #NationalParks #NationalPark #findyourpark #nationalparkgeek #nationalparkobsessed

Looking to discover the unique beauty of Joshua Tree?  Find out the top 10 things you shouldn\'t miss on your first visit to Joshua Tree National Park. 

#JoshuaTree #JoshuaTreeNPS #JoshuaTreeNationalPark 

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Chelsea Burge

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!

Chelsea Burge has 2 posts and counting. See all posts by Chelsea Burge

18 thoughts on “10 Things Not to Miss on Your First Visit to Joshua Tree National Park

  • 14 Jul 2018 at 1:43 am

    What a great, detailed list! I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t made it to Joshua Tree yet, partly because I didn’t know what was really there. After seeing this breakdown of the paths – both how long they are and what’s there – I realize that the trails are not so intimidating and very diverse!

    • 14 Jul 2018 at 3:45 pm

      You’ve got to go! It’s really fun for everyone, regardless of hiking skill level. 🙂

    • 14 Jul 2018 at 3:48 pm

      It’s really such a special place! I’d definitely recommend it, especially if you’re close to SoCal.

  • 14 Jul 2018 at 7:21 pm

    Love the photographs. We haven’t had the chance to visit the Joshua Tree National Park yet but listened to their relaxing radio information (it sounded like it was from the 1930’s) when we were driving from San Diego to Las Vegas. Skull rock really does look like a skull. Hope to return to that area of the US in 2019.

  • 15 Jul 2018 at 12:44 am

    Wonderful tips to see Joshua national park. I especially like the recommendation of staying overnight and gazing at the stars, doing a day trip would be losing out on such wonderful memories.

    • 15 Jul 2018 at 1:41 am

      It’s really such a different experience! Seeing the Stars out in the desert is amazing ❤️

  • 15 Jul 2018 at 1:32 am

    I have not been to Joshua Tree yet but it looks gorgeous. The hikes you mentioned sound great and the formation of the skull rock looks really interesting. I would love to visit.

  • 15 Jul 2018 at 3:57 am

    Joshua Tree looks amazing. I’ve had a load of friends visit there in the past few years, but I’ve never had a chance. The landscape looks stunning and love the shorter trail options too so you can do multiple trails in a day. Good tip on bringing in supplies too, as I had no idea that there were zero options within the park itself.

  • 15 Jul 2018 at 3:48 pm

    That cafe feels like an awesome way to start the day Chelsea. Nothing like beginning a busy day of hiking with a nutritious meal. The park itself looks brilliant and brings back memories of bible study during my childhood years. Super post.


  • 16 Jul 2018 at 11:06 am

    I’ve been to Joshua Tree NP many times and love it! Your tips and tricks were right on. It is such an easy park to enjoy, but I don’t think a lot of people realize the whole food/drink situation!

  • 16 Jul 2018 at 9:56 pm

    Wow this park definitely has a lot to see, so many different landscapes and sights, from arches to boulders and even good old cactus desert, I didn’t know there were so many different aspects to the park. Great capture of the Milky way too, bet it was spectacular Also love your tshirts!

  • 17 Jul 2018 at 1:59 am

    Fantastic photos and a very inclusive list of fun activities! We went to Joshua Tree this past Spring to see the wildflower bloom – so amazing! I think Spring is one of the best times to go because of all the flowers, and it’s not as hot. We took a telescope and joined a bunch of other astronomy buffs at the little observatory right outside the park for a star show. So much fun!

  • 17 Jul 2018 at 8:39 am

    How this makes me want to visit the National Park! Joshua tree is amazing in pic I wonder how mind blowing it must be in real. Thanks for the info on trail options and supplies.

  • 17 Jul 2018 at 8:42 am

    Would love to see skull rock and hike to arch rock. You caught a gorgeous sunset at Keys View. All the rocks in Joshua Tree remind me a lot of Alabama Hills

  • 17 Jul 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Stunning photos. It looked as if I was reading a NG article . Seriously. We are planning an extended vacation in the US but not sure how the itinerary would pan out. If I had time only for one national park Which one would you choose?

    • 18 Jul 2018 at 11:16 am

      If you can only choose one, I would go with Yellowstone! It’s the world’s first national park and it’s also the largest area of geothermal activity in the world. Most of the park is in a caldera of a volcano which erupted ages ago. If you’re from out of the country, this is one of the most unique and cool options to see!

      I also really love Zion in Utah. Utah holds five really great national parks so you may be able to see a few dependent on your itinerary and how long you’re here 🙂

  • 17 Jul 2018 at 5:37 pm

    Joshua Tree National Park is breathtaking! I have heard about it from my mom before, but I had no idea there was a lot to do there! Your photo of the stars is awesome! What camera did you use? =)


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