Updated: Apr 9, 2022
Joshua Tree National Park is known for its fantastical namesake trees, twisting and bending against a stark desert landscape and spectacular sunsets. Famous here, too, are the lunar-like landscapes of huge granite monoliths and boulders that are calling out to be climbed. Whether you have a few hours, a day or three days, the mystical appeal of the park will entice you, transporting you into the Mojave and Colorado deserts for adventures amongst the trees, between steep rock walls and under the stars. From birding to bouldering, there’s much to do. Here are a few favorites you won’t want to miss in Joshua Tree National Park.
Take a Hike
You won’t be hard-pressed to find a great trail in Joshua Tree National Park - there are 800,000 acres to explore, with practically every level of hike you seek. For an introduction to the area, particularly for families, a good place to start is the Hidden Valley Nature Trail (and the surrounding area), on which you’ll get an eyeful of the geography that defines the park. This one-mile loop takes you into a vast bowl surrounded by rock walls and past the Great Burrito, a huge monolith that attracts climbers of all abilities.
The Arches Rock Trail is another short option, though very popular, so be prepared for plenty of other hikers and campers, who are allowed to pitch tents along the trail. This 1.2-mile out-and-back route is near Twentynine Palms and, in the spring, is overflowing with wildflowers. For fewer people on the trail with you, stay up late and head out this way after dark for stargazing and a different POV on Arch Rock.
Check Out the Cacti
For nature lovers and photographers, the Cholla Cactus Garden is particularly intriguing. You’ll see chollas throughout the park, but in this area of the desert floor, they are the only cactuses around - more than a thousand of them densely packed together. Photography is particularly stunning in the early-morning hours or late-afternoon golden hour, when the backlit needles appear as if glowing.
It’s tough to come to Joshua Tree and not be inspired to at least scramble your way to the top of a boulder or two. Kids (and adults) can use the park as a natural playground, tackling some of the 8,000 climbing routes and hundreds of climbing formations. Grab a map at the visitor center and check them out for yourself. The most popular spots for both rope climbing and bouldering are Hidden Valley and the west end of the park.
Learn the Desert Lore
Step back in time for a few hours and visit the remains of the Keys Ranch. William F. Keys’ settled this area in the 1910s and the ghost town-esque remains of his former homestead and ranch are now a National Historic Register Site. Sign up for a ranger-led, guided tour and visit the house, schoolhouse, store and workshop that made up the ranch.
Explore an Oasis
The rare, permanent Cottonwood Spring Oasis was used by native Cahjuilla Indians, miners and prospectors after coming to life after an earthquake in the area. Its varied flow is somewhere around 500 gallons per day. The lushness of the oasis attracts a variety of birds, including Gambel’s quail, hummingbirds, bushtits and the pointy-crowned titmouse. If you’re visiting the oasis in the springtime, you’ll likely be treated to a quilt of kaleidoscopic wildflowers both near the visitor center and out Interstate 10.
Go Horseback Riding
There’s something so quintessentially appealing about riding on horseback through a western desert. Explore Joshua Tree’s 250 miles of equestrian trails, starting from the special horse camp at Black Rock, where you can reserve a horse, or the first-come, first-served stables at Ryan campground. The more popular trails are in the Black Rock Canyon area and cross beautiful open desert and canyon floors.
Check Out a Quirky Museum
Joshua Tree has a few surprises up its sleeve. Stop by the Crochet Museum, a free, lime-green building near the Joshua Tree Saloon with everything from crochet bears to handwoven signs. At Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum, you can explore 10 acres of his creative outdoor art installations. Pick up a brochure when you enter to learn about these unique environmental sculptures that were inspired by the barren Mojave landscapes.
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