Nestled in southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is a strange but beautiful desert world with peculiar-looking rock formations and namesake trees that look like they jumped off the page of a Dr. Seuss book. We will provide essential information about the fascinating trees, the park, and twenty-five awesome things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Essential Information About Joshua Trees
It is only fitting to take a minute to shine the spotlight on the park’s main attraction.
What is a Joshua Tree?
The Joshua tree is a succulent rather than a tree. It belongs to the Agave family and goes by the scientific name of Yucca brevifolia.
Joshua trees typically grow three to nine feet before branching. Their branches have clusters of spiky leaves and yield white, rounded flowers. Joshua trees regularly reach 15 to 40 feet in height, with some occasionally exceeding this range.
Their trunks typically have a diameter of 1 to 3 feet but lack growth rings, making it difficult to determine their age. Some researchers think the average life expectancy of a Joshua tree is 150 years, while other scientists believe they can live much longer.
How Did the Joshua Tree Get Its Name?
Legends say pioneers named the plant after the biblical figure, Joshua, due to its outstretched limbs pointing their way westward. There is little evidence to support this belief. Some refer to the plant as a yucca palm, tree yucca, or palm tree yucca.
Why Are Joshua Trees Special?
California’s national parks highlight unique trees. Redwood National Park contains the world’s tallest trees, while Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks harbor the world’s most giant trees by volume.
Joshua trees may have a different level of distinction; however, the iconic plants grow almost exclusively in the Mojave Desert at elevations of about 1,500 to 6,000 feet. They play a critical role in the Mojave Desert ecosystem, providing food and shelter for various mammals, birds, insects, and lizards. To many people, the Joshua tree’s resilience symbolizes that life, love, hope, and beauty can survive anything.
Essential Information about Joshua Tree National Park
Before diving into things to do, let’s cover important information about the park to aid your planning.
Tale of Two Deserts
Although less tasty than two desserts, Joshua Tree National Park tells a tale of two deserts. The twisted bristled trees, and rugged rock formations sit in the convergence of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, a collision of two distinct ecosystems.
Joshua Tree National Park’s eastern half lies below 3,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Desert. Its landscape, a sunbaked bowl, is covered in creosote, with sparse patches of spidery ocotillo, green-barked palo verde, and teddy bear cholla.
The park’s western half is in the Mojave Desert, at elevations above 3,000 feet, where Joshua trees thrive in the cooler climate and higher altitude. Amid boulder stacks, you may also find pinyon pines, Mojave yuccas, Mojave prickly pear cacti, scrub oaks, and junipers.
Joshua Tree National Park’s address is 74485 National Park Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277.
It is near a few major metropolitan areas, located:
- 140 miles east of Los Angeles
- 175 miles northeast of San Diego
- 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas
- 222 miles west of Phoenix
Joshua Tree National Park has three entrances:
- West Entrance: 5 miles south of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard junction at Joshua Tree Village
- North Entrance: 3 miles south of Highway 62 and Utah Trail connection in Twentynine Palms
- South Entrance: near Cottonwood Spring along Interstate 10, about 25 miles east of Indio
To access the West and North Entrances, take I-10 to exit 117 for CA Hwy 62 toward 29 Palms/Yucca Valley. For the South Entrance, take exit 168 off I-10.
Since Joshua Tree National Park spans nearly 800,000 acres, the best way to navigate the park is by car. The good news is that two main roads take you to all the major attractions.
Park Boulevard runs through the park’s heart, connecting the North and West Entrances. Both access points sit toward the park’s northern reaches, with the North Entrance in Twentynine Palms directly east of the West Entrance in Joshua Tree.
Pinto Basin Road starts at the South Entrance in Cottonwood and takes you north until it connects with Park Boulevard.
Park Boulevard houses most of the park’s highlights, with a few along Pinto Basin Road.
Operating Hours and Seasons
Joshua Tree National Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round.
The cost to enter the park is $30 per car, $25 per motorcycle, and $15 for those who enter on foot or bicycle, which covers you for seven consecutive days.
Consider an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80, accepted at all United States national parks.
Most days in the park are clear with less than 25% humidity. Spring and fall bring an average high of about 85 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 50.
Winter days see an average high of 60 degrees, whereas nights often dip below freezing. Snow occasionally falls in the higher elevations.
Summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees in the day and dip into the mid-70s at night.
Best Time to Visit
Although the park is open year-round, the best time to visit is spring and fall. Summers are hot, and winters can get cold. Spring and fall provide the most comfortable temperatures and smaller crowds than summer. Wildflowers and cacti can bloom anywhere from late February to May, making March and April excellent times to visit.
Winter is a great time to visit if you do not mind chilly nights. Crowds will be smaller, and you may see some light snowfall in the higher elevations, adding a lovely touch to an already beautiful landscape.
The park has four visitor centers.
- Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center is in downtown Twentynine Palms, near the North Entrance at 6533 Freedom Way, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277.
- Cottonwood Visitor Center sits near the South Entrance on Pinto Basin Road.
- Joshua Tree Visitor Center is downtown Joshua Tree at 6554 Park Boulevard, Joshua Tree, CA 92252.
- Black Rock Nature Center rests in Black Rock Campground at 9800 Black Rock Canyon Road, Yucca Valley, CA 92284.
Internet and WiFi
WiFi is available at Joshua Tree Visitor Center in Joshua Tree. There is no cell service throughout the park. Please plan accordingly.
You can bring leashed pets to campgrounds, picnic areas, and within 100 feet of the roads. However, you cannot take your furry friends on hiking trails, in park buildings, or in the backcountry.
Top Things To Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Now let’s explore the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park so you can create your itinerary.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Near Barker Dam on Park Boulevard, Hidden Valley Nature Trail is one of Joshua Tree’s most picturesque areas. It sits in a “bowl,” surrounded by stacked boulders. Legends say cattle rustlers hid stolen livestock here.
The path takes you around the perimeter just inside the rock walls. As such, the scenic trail is an easy 1.0-mile loop with a minor elevation gain of 100 feet, making it the perfect family hike.
You will discover plenty of desert plants and Joshua trees to admire within the “hidden valley.” Many visitors spend a half-hour to an hour here.
A relaxing picnic area with lovely views sits across the parking area from the Hidden Valley trailhead. It is a fantastic opportunity to savor the vistas while hydrating and having lunch or a snack.
Barker Dam Nature Trail
Barker Dam Road branches off from Park Boulevard near Hidden Valley. It is a short drive that dead-ends into a parking lot, where you will find a trailhead.
The Barker Dam Nature Trail is an easy, level 1.1-mile loop with many exciting things, including giant boulders, fascinating rock formations, petroglyphs, lots of Joshua trees, and a fantastic view of San Gorgonio Mountain. Trail surfaces vary from sandy washes to compact dirt and granite boulders.
Although the park has limited water sources, Barker Dam is one such spot. Unfortunately, periods of drought can cause the water to dry up. If you visit shortly after rainfall, the area is even more beautiful and offers better chances of spotting wildlife. Visitors regularly spot birds and reptiles here and occasionally bighorn sheep.
Throughout the park, many of the mountains on the horizon appear as dusty, brown mounds. While hiking Barker Dam Nature Trail, a gorgeous white, snow-capped mountain strikes your attention. It feels like a picture-perfect painting with Joshua trees and rock mounds in the foreground.
As you continue along the trail, you will encounter rock art, where Native Americans carved images on the rocks, preserving their history. The hike offers a little bit of everything.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Although the Joshua trees and unique rock formations garner the headlines, check out the Cholla Cactus Garden. It sits about 12 miles south of the North Entrance on Pinto Basin Road.
The “garden” contains vast clusters of soft and fluffy cacti. Accordingly, they have been dubbed teddy bear cholla. Do not be fooled. They are not cuddly.
Their tiny barbs are sharp and quickly latch onto anything that barely brushes against them. Because the barbs can spring from the plant at the slightest touch, teddy bear cholla are also known as “jumping cholla.”
The area provides a 0.25-mile nature trail to get a close view of the cacti. Be careful not to get too close.
After issuing a warning, why do we suggest you visit the Cholla Cactus Garden? In a word, it is beautiful.
Try to visit at sunrise or sunset. The cacti glow as the sun rises or sets on the horizon. Although the park offers incredible sunrise and sunset views, this one is unique. The yellow glowing cholla cacti steal the spotlight from the Joshua trees for a bit and warm your heart.
Drive to Keys View
Driving Park Boulevard, you will find a fork near Cap Rock. At the junction, take Keys View Road to its end, about 5.5 miles. Keys View delivers rewarding panoramic views of Coachella Valley, through which runs the San Andreas Fault. The Santa Rosa Mountains, San Jacinto Peak, and Palm Springs are on the horizon. It is breathtaking.
Easily one of the most photographed spots in the entire park, Skull Rock is a surreal granite formation resembling a giant skull. The area offers an easy to moderate 1.7-mile loop trail for those who want to hike. You will discover many massive boulders along the journey.
The trailhead at Skull Rock provides paths to:
- Skull Rock / Jumbo Rocks Trail
- Discovery Trail
- Split Rock Loop
If you enjoy rock scrambling, the area adjacent to Skull Rock is a natural playground. With unique rock formations, Joshua trees, and blue skies, the place begs you to explore. You will enjoy the spectacular scenery even if you do not like rock scrambling.
Skull Rock is visible from Park Boulevard, making the hike unnecessary if you are short on time or want to save energy for other park sections. You may find a few parking spots on the side of the road near the attraction.
Due to Skull Rock’s popularity, we suggest going early to capture a few photos before the crowds arrive.
Arch Rock Nature Trail
A vast boulder field rests near the White Tank Campground along Pinto Basin Road. Note that you can only park here if you have a campsite. However, there is another lot providing access to Arch Rock Nature Trail. The Twin Tanks parking lot is visible from the road.
The Arch Rock Trailhead is located just off the lot. At first glance, you may get tempted to hike in the wrong direction. Look for the signs to point the correct way.
Arch Rock Trail resembles a lollipop, a 0.6-mile straight path capped by a 0.2-mile loop. It is an easy 1.4-mile hike with unique and iconic rock formations.
About halfway through the hike, you will see a splendid rock shaped like an arch. A bit of rock scrambling is required to reach it. If you are still getting familiar with rock scrambling, do not fret. It is an easy and fun climb.
As you can imagine, Arch Rock is a popular photo spot. Bring your camera so you can capture the moment.
The area houses many other fascinating rock formations. It is a peaceful hike with lovely vistas the entire way.
Arch Rock Nature Trail has another photo opportunity for you. While hiking the path, you will encounter a small brown trail sign pointing to Heart Rock. It is a short, easy detour that is well worth your time.
You cannot help but smile at the sight of Heart Rock, perfectly shaped as if it floated down from the clouds and landed in the desert. No rock scrambling is required to hug this heart.
Cap Rock Nature Trail
The Cap Rock Nature Trail offers fantastic views of big piles of monzogranite boulders, Joshua trees, and junipers along its 0.4-mile loop. It is an easy hike where you can learn more about the Mojave Desert ecosystem by reading informational signs along the path. You will find parking at the junction of Park Boulevard and Keys View Road.
If you stretch your imagination, the massive boulder pile resembles a human head wearing a cap. It is an excellent area for a peaceful and educational hike. Cap Rock is also a popular area for rock climbers. Due to a fear of heights, that is not my cup of tea. However, I see the appeal for those who enjoy rock climbing.
A group of students worked with park rangers to design a kid-friendly hike. Discovery Trail, the result of that project, is the perfect hike for kids.
It is an easy 0.7-mile loop that treks through boulder piles and sandy washes. Families can learn more about the park’s geological formations by reading informational signs along the trail.
You will encounter a couple of slot canyons along the journey. These are relatively narrow slot canyons, but the hike is fun nonetheless.
The trail connects with Skull Rock and Split Rock Loop trails at Face Rock. To access the path, use the Skull Rock parking area just east of Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Split Rock Loop Trail
If you prefer to escape the crowds, you can accomplish that on Split Rock Loop Trail and still enjoy views of fascinating boulders. The trail is rated easy by some and moderate by others. It is about 2.5 miles long with an elevation gain of 150 feet.
Split Rock may not be as thrilling as Arch Rock or Heart Rock, but it is a rewarding hike with plenty of exciting boulders and rock formations to admire, including Face Rock.
Due to the area’s elevation, you may occasionally see a little snow in winter. During spring, you may discover pretty wildflowers growing between some boulders.
You will see signs for Split Rock on Park Boulevard, near Skull Rock. Split Rock also has a small picnic area where you can relax.
Hall of Horrors
With a name like this, you have to check it out. The Hall of Horrors sits along Park Boulevard, about halfway between Ryan Campground and Sheep Pass Group Campground, well-marked with signs and a parking area.
It harbors beautiful Joshua trees, clusters of massive boulder piles, and mountain vistas. You can treat this as a hike around the boulder piles, a rock scrambling playground, or a combination of both.
The hike is an easy to moderate 0.8-mile loop around the boulder stacks. Feel free to take a detour by scrambling up the boulders. With some luck, you may find the skinny slot canyons that are challenging to locate and squeeze through. The natural playground is an absolute blast to explore.
If you desire a different activity, tour Keys Ranch, named for the family that lived here in the early to mid-1900s. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The ranch sits in a remote, rocky canyon within the park.
Ranger-led tours of Keys Ranch are typically held from October to May, allowing you to learn about the farm’s cultural history. You can visit interesting sites, including their home, school, and mining equipment.
Tours cost $10 per person and last about 90 minutes. Visit the park’s ranch tour page for more information.
If you love challenging hikes with rewarding views, tackle Ryan Mountain Trail. It is rated strenuous due to 1,050 feet of elevation change each way on the 3-mile out and back course.
Start early and bring plenty of drinking water. The trail provides little shade, taking most visitors 1.5 to 3 hours to complete.
It is one of the best hiking trails in the park, with panoramic vistas across its heart. Pack a lunch or snack to rest at the summit and savor the view.
You can find the trailhead and parking area between Ryan Campground and Sheep Pass.
Lost Horse Mine
Joshua Tree is steeped in history surrounding the mining industry and westward expansion. Mining in the area began in the 1870s, peaking in the 1920s and 1930s due to “gold fever.” The National Park Service (NPS) estimates that Joshua Tree contains around 300 abandoned mine sites.
Lost Horse Mine produced over 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver from 1894 to 1931. It is one of the best-preserved mines of the era in a national park. You can see the mine by hiking the moderate 4.0-mile Lost Horse Mine Trail. The trail offers a strenuous hike option, the 6.5-mile Lost Horse Loop.
Although you get a close look at one of the most successful gold mines in the park, it is fenced in. The Lost Horse Mine trailhead is located just off Keys View Road.
Geology Tour Road
Are you ready for a challenging four-wheel-drive (4WD) road? Joshua Tree National Park offers a rugged driving adventure on Geology Tour Road, an 18-mile loop through desert landscapes with fewer Joshua trees and rock formations. It is likely the most remote, secluded experience in Joshua Tree.
Most standard passenger cars can access the first few miles. A sign marks the point beyond which only 4WD vehicles should proceed at Squaw Tank. After this point, the road is littered with sandy segments and deep ruts, unsuitable for most cars.
The journey offers scenic pullouts, climbing access routes, and hiking trails. Each stop includes educational signs about the park’s geology and landscapes. Plan on two hours to complete the fascinating loop.
Wall Street Mill
If you enjoy history, hike the easy 2.2-mile round-trip Wall Street Mill Trail across gently rolling terrain and desert washes. At the trail’s end, you will discover an old gold processing mill, a homestead, and some rusty cars. The mill is well-preserved, and the area practically transports you to the Old West. You can access the trailhead from the same parking lot used for the famous Barker Dam.
Cottonwood Spring Oasis
Perhaps the best-kept secret in Joshua Tree, Cottonwood Spring nestles near the park’s South Entrance. The spring emerged after earthquake activity many years ago and was a critical water stop for prospectors and miners. Since water is necessary for gold processing, miners built many mills in the area.
A desert water source featuring fan palms, Cottonwood Spring Oasis is an excellent birding location. Visitors occasionally spot bighorn sheep in the mornings. You can access several hiking trails from the area as well.
Oasis of Mara
After stopping at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center near the park’s North Entrance in Twentynine Palms, check out the Oasis of Mara. Nestled behind the visitor center, a 0.5-mile paved path circles the desert oasis. Surrounded by tall palms, it is easy to find.
Desert water sources are scarce; this is an excellent example of a desert oasis. Admittedly, the scenery is a step down from areas further into the park’s interior. However, it is a perfect opportunity to see a desert oasis without a lengthy hike.
Fortynine Palms Oasis
The park holds a few oases. Many visitors consider Fortynine Palms Oasis to be the most beautiful. The oasis is accessible by a moderate to strenuous hike on Fortynine Palms Trail. Your journey is a 3.0-mile out-and-back trek with a 300-foot elevation change.
A rocky canyon below a barrel cactus-dotted ridge obscures the oasis. As you approach the canyon, the unmistakable palms reveal the watering hole.
Please note Fortynine Palms Oasis is closed in summer to allow bighorn sheep to access surface water safely. The Fortynine Palms parking area and trailhead are near the park’s North Entrance, accessed from Highway 62.
Indian Cove Nature Trail
If you love plants, hike the easy 0.6-mile loop, Indian Cove Nature Trail. You get close views of Joshua trees and many other desert flora. The path contains signs about the desert plants and their traditional uses by Native Americans who previously inhabited the area.
Housing various vegetation, Indian Cove is a popular birding area. Visitors occasionally spot bighorn sheep and desert tortoises here as well. The trailhead rests at the west end of the Indian Cove Campground.
Joshua Tree proudly boasts its recognition as an International Dark Sky Park. It is one of America’s best national parks to observe the Milky Way in the night sky.
Most anywhere in the park yields an excellent opportunity to see the heavenly black canvas splattered with sparkling white lights. However, the park’s southern region along Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood typically has the least people and the darkest skies.
Consider Cholla Cactus Garden for your stargazing spot. You can observe the delightful yellow glowing teddy bear cholla at sunset and then stick around for the stars to spark in the dark sky. It is the perfect way to close out a fantastic day at the park.
Try to avoid visiting during a full moon. Although a brilliant full moon over the desert is beautiful, the additional light challenges your ability to see the Milky Way.
Joshua Tree is an excellent park for birding. Year-round inhabitants include the greater roadrunner, mockingbird, verdin, cactus and rock wrens, mourning dove, Le Conte’s thrasher, and Gambel’s quail. For those who prefer to observe birds of prey, resident birds include the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Cooper’s hawk, and the prairie falcon.
Joshua Tree draws many transient birds during migration, including warblers, black-headed grosbeaks, western tanagers, and indigo buntings. Visitors occasionally sight migrating birds of prey like sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, osprey, and Swainson’s hawks.
Where are the park’s best birding locations? Barker Dam and any of the oases yield the best odds for birdwatching.
Although the flora gets most of the attention, Joshua Tree has its share of fauna. Covering nearly 800,000 acres and housing various ecosystems, Joshua Tree has a variety of wildlife. Commonly spotted mammals include ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, and coyotes. More exciting but less commonly seen mammals include bobcats, foxes, and bighorn sheep.
In spring, visitors occasionally see California tree frogs and red-spotted toads after the winter rains. The park is home to many reptiles, including lizards and snakes. Visitors sometimes spot desert tortoises. Unfortunately, the desert tortoise population is sharply declining, making them a threatened species, one step away from endangered.
Joshua Tree offers world-class rock climbing with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to solve. With various monzogranite formations, the park offers something for all ability levels. It is renowned for its traditional-style crack, slab, and steep face climbing.
If you fear heights as I do, the park has plenty of bouldering and rock scrambling areas at lower elevations, not overlooking steep ledges. You will find the bouldering and rock scrambling quite rewarding.
Visit the Joshua Tree climbing page for more information about rock climbing in the park.
Although the park does not have lodges, it contains around 500 campsites. Camping is an excellent way to experience all the park offers, including the night skies, gorgeous sunrises, and sunsets with glowing cholla cacti and Joshua tree silhouettes.
The NPS suggests reserving a campsite in advance since they regularly sell out. The following campgrounds require reservations:
- Black Rock
- Indian Cove
- Jumbo Rocks
The park offers three first-come, first-served campgrounds:
- Hidden Valley
- White Tank
Visit the Joshua Tree camping page for details on all campsites. For those who prefer other accommodations, you can find many hotels, motels, and modern vacation rentals in Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.
Wrap-Up: Things To Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree offers surreal desert landscapes, peculiar rock formations, storybook trees, glowing cacti, excellent stargazing, and top-notch hiking and climbing. It even has a hiking trail designed by kids for kids. There is something for the entire family here, delivering a memorable desert experience that will leave you dreaming about trees, rocks, and stars.
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
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About the author
Scott McConkey is a nationally syndicated travel writer and the founder of Miles with McConkey, where he provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, and inspiration. His travel articles have been seen in The Associated Press wire, ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, MSN, and many more. He and his wife, Julie, left the corporate world after nearly 30 years for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year has evolved into a second act. She creates visual content while he utilizes the written word. Their goal is to create content inspiring others to travel more and live their best lives now.