20 Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
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With its unique rock formations and distinctive Joshua Trees set against a barren desert landscape, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most magical and enchanting places on the planet. From checking out the panoramic vistas at Keys View to exploring abandoned mines and ranches in the wilderness and stargazing in the crystal clear night skies, we loved the variety of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Having fallen in love with Joshua Tree during our many California trips, we’ve put together this list of the 20 best things to do in Joshua Tree National park. We hope you have as much fun exploring Joshua Tree as we did!
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is the meeting point of the ecosystems of two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado.
The higher and cooler Mohave Desert encompasses the western portion of the park and is dominated by the distinctive Joshua Trees and unique rock formations. The eastern end, made up of the lower elevation Colorado Desert is remarkable for its Ocotillo plants, cholla cactus and yucca bush.
The result is an other worldly landscape filled with a wonderful array of plant life which includes the Joshua Tree itself. From a barren desert landscape to mountains, rocks and the incredible Joshua Trees, Joshua Tree National Park is a magical world waiting to be explored.
20 Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
From rocks shaped like skulls, hearts and faces to a remarkable cactus garden, these are our 20 favorite things to do in Joshua Tree National Park!
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: – there are parking lots with limited spaces at most of the major sights in Joshua Tree National Park. When a car park is full you have to wait for a space or move on to the next thing on your list. We found that most parking lots had spaces early in the morning and some in the middle of the afternoon. Late morning and late evening seemed to be the busiest times in terms of parking.
Map of Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
How to Use This Google Map: Click on the grey star at the top of the map and this map will be added to your Google Maps account. You can then view it on your phone or computer in Google Maps by clicking on the menu button, going to “Your Places” and selecting this map. We use these maps all the time as you can set out your itinerary ahead of time and quickly reference the saved maps.
1| Arch Rock
The elevated Arch Rock is accessed via a 1.2 mile out and back hike from the Twin Tanks/Arch Rock lot. The 30 foot granite arch sits in the middle of a large boulder field. The flat hike is fun and, towards end, involves some scrambling over rocks to get to the Arch.
2 | Heart Rock
The largely undocumented Heart Rock is one of Joshua Tree’s hidden gems. Shaped like a heart, the rock is located in the same area of the park as the popular Arch Rock. For Instagram fans, Heart Rock is one of the best Instagram spots in Joshua Tree!
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: it took us two attempts to successfully locate Heart Rock. Although it is not far from Arch Rock there is no distinct trail and we came across a few other hikers also on the search for the rock. We’ve written a detailed guide on how to get to Heart Rock which you can use if you’re planning on hiking to it during your trip to Joshua Tree – click here to discover how to get to Heart Rock!
3 | Keys View
Keys View is the highest point in Joshua Tree National Park and, on a clear day, the views are incredible for its high vantage point over the park. The panoramic views are truly breath taking: it’s easy to spot the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea, and the highest peak in Southern California, the 11,500 foot San Gorgonio Mountain. On a really clear day Signal Mountain in Mexico is visible but it’s a rare event due to poor air quality.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: Although it is a 20 minute drive from Park Boulevard, Keys View is one of the most popular spots in the park and more than worth the detour.
4| Skull Rock
With its two sunken eyes and skull shaped rock, the aptly named Skull Rock sits just off the main Joshua Tree road. There is also an easy 1.5 mile nature trail loop which starts from the Skull Rock parking area and passes through boulder piles and desert washes.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: Skull Rock is usually easy to spot as it’s one of the most popular and easily accessible rock formations in the park and there tends to be a crowd at it for most of the day.
5 | Cholla Cactus Garden
The flat and easy 0.33 mile trail is, rather ironically, also one of the most treacherous in the park! The boardwalk trail passes through thousands of cholla cactus and the garden is considered to have the world’s densest population of cholla cactus.
The Choclla Cactus Garden is located in the middle of the park and is quite a drive from the rest of the park’s sights. It is incredible to see but do plan your time accordingly.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: Beware of the cactus! If you get too close or brush against the cactus, the cholla cactus leaps onto and penetrates clothes, shoes and skin. The needles are share and extremely painful to remove.
6 | Sunrise and Sunset
Sunrise and sunset are magical times at Joshua Tree. The park covers almost 800,000 acres so there are endless spots to explore and take in the beauty. Our favourite sunrise and sunset spots include:
- Sunrise: Keys View, Ryan Mountain (bring a head torch for the pre sunrise hike)
- Sunset: Keys View, Ryan Mountain (bring a head torch for the post sunset hike), Arch Rock, Barker Dam
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: the park is open 24/7 making the park easily accessible for early morning and late evening visits.
7 | Joshua Trees
The parks namesake are an incredible sight. The twisted, spiky Joshua Trees tower over the Joshua Tree landscape creating a fantasy land. The Joshua Tree is unique to the Mojave desert and is only found at elevations between 2,00 and 6,000 feet across California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The Joshua Tree is protected and grows up to 40 foot with a life span of around 500 years.
8 | Stagazing
Joshua Tree is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Joshua Tree is designated as an International Dark Sky Park and the night time views are incredible. Tucked far away from major cities and the subsequent light pollution, the night sky glitters and sparkles above the Joshua Tree National Park.
In summer, the Milky Way is often visible on moonless nights.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: if you are planning to photograph the stars it’s relatively easy to find a quiet pull in away from the busier main road and the passing traffic. Don’t forget to pack your tripod!
9 | Split Rock and Face Rock
This moderate 2.5 mile trail is a loop which takes in both Split Rock and Face Rock. The trail includes some amazing rock formations and offers the opportunity to meander between huge boulders while admiring the desert vegetation.
10 | Geology Tour Road
An 18 mile off road adventure through Pleasant Valley. The drive showcases many of the unique geology features of the park as week as well as the desert landscape and, occasionally, some wildlife. There are lots of opportunities for short hikes to explore the rock formations.
A 4x4 is required and conditions can be difficult after rain.
11 | Rock Climbing
Joshua Tree is famous for its crack, slab and steep face climbing. There are over 8,000 climbing routes across the park which range from easy to extreme. It’s a world class climbing destination and, even if you don’t plan on climbing, it’s fascinating to watch the climbers in action.
12 | Cap Rock
Known as Cap Rock due to the flat rock capped atop a huge boulder, the Cap Rock trail is an easy 0.4 mile loop at the turn off for Keys View. The loop takes hikers past piles of boulders, Joshua Trees and dessert plants and the shaded trail is a great option to escape the afternoon sun.
13 | Cottonwood Spring Oasis
Located close to the south entrance, this area of the park illustrates the unique Colorado Desert landscape.
The Cottonwood Spring desert oasis resulted from earthquake activity and was an essential stop for processing gold and other goods. The area is remarkable for its fan palms which tower 30 feet high.
If you plan on spending time exploring the south of the park, there are a few other hiking trail in addition to the Cottonwood Spring trail.
- Bajada is another easy trail and showcases the plants of the Colorado Desert
- Mastodon Peak is a moderate trail which loops pass an old gold mine
- Lost Palms Oasis is a challenging 7.5 mile hike which leads deep into a canyon with a remote fan palm oasis. This hike should not be attempted in high temperatures and the hike out of the canyon is strenuous.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: the south of the park is beautiful in early spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.
14 | Desert Queen Mine
The Desert Queen Mine was once a profitable mine which operated on land that is now part of the Joshua Tree National Park. The presence of gold was discovered in the area in 1894 and the mine operated from 1895 to 1961. Its chequered past includes tales of murder, robbery and bank foreclosure which are all said to have played a hand in the changes of ownership throughout the years.
There are two options on the trail for the Desert Queen Mine: the first is a 0.7 mile round trip which leads to an overlook across from the mine. It’s also possible to cross the canyon over to the mine and this adds an extra 1.6 miles to the hike.
After crossing the canyon, old mining machinery lies abandoned along the trail and the trail passes over fenced mine shafts.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: the Desert Queen Mine trail is accessed via a 1 mile dirt road.
15 | Ryan Mountain
The Ryan Mountain trail is one of the most popular hikes to the park and leads to the summit of Ryan Mountain, a 5,457 foot peak in the heart of the park. The 3 mile trail is relatively straightforward although the 1,000 feet of elevation gain can be challenging. The reward is incredible panoramic views of Joshua Tree National Park and its endless expanse.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: Ryan Mountain is the second tallest point in the park. Only Keys View is higher.
16 | Hall of Horrors
The Hall of Horrors is a quick stop off Park Boulevard close to the Ryan Mountain trail. The huge boulders are parallel to each other forming a series of hallways to scramble through.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: make sure to pick up a leaflet detailing Geology Road at the visitor center. It provides an explanation of the 16 stops on Geology Road. Our favorite was stop 16 and its incredible views.
17 | Barker Dam
During winter and spring, the Barker Dam trail is one of the only opportunities to see a body of water in Joshua Tree National Park. Constructed by early cattlemen in 1900, Barker Dam is a short and easy trail which showcases the desert wildlife. The trail is surrounded by boulders and there is a wall of petroglyphs along the way.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: the dam is typically empty during dry season.
18 | Keys Ranch
Located in a remote and rocky canyon, Key Ranch was the home of Bill and Frances Keys and their five children for almost 60 years.
Bill was hired to run the aforementioned Desert Queen Mine in the early 1900s and remained in Joshua Tree after it shut. Together with his wife, they built Keys Ranch. The sprawling ranch included a ranch house, a school room, a store and a fruit orchard.
The ranch is accessible through a prearranged guided walking tour which takes place between October and May.
The Keys Ranch tour last 90 minutes with a 0.5 mile walk through the preserved buildings and mining equipment.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: tours must be booked in advance and reservations open 60 days in advance.
19 | Samuelson’s Rocks
Samuelson’s Rocks are one of the park’s most quirky sights. The remote set of boulders are embellished with philosophical musings and political insults aimed at the then president Herbert Hoover. They were written by John Samuelson, a Swedish immigrant who lived on a homestead near the rocks. Samuelson had a checkered life filled with tales of shipwrecks, murder and insanity and the rocks are one of the few items which document his existence.
Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park tip: Samuelson’s Rocks are still on our Joshua Tree wish list but we wanted to include them so you can included them on your itinerary if you wish. If you are planning to make the 3 mile hike to the rocks, you will need to search for the GPS coordinates and make sure you can access their location offline. The trail isn’t marked and there is no assigned parking lot.
20 | Hidden Valley
The Hidden Valley trail is a relatively easy 1 mile loop through a rock enclosed valley which is thought to have once been used by cattle rustlers. The trail is a fantastic introduction to the plant and animal life in Joshua Tree and there are lots of signs detailing what to look out for in the area. It’s a great place to watch the park’s rock climbers in action and there are plenty of opportunities to participate in some rock scrambling.
After checking out the trails at Joshua Tree National Park make sure to save some time to explore Joshua Tree Town, Twentynine Palms and Pioneertown. These are awesome creative towns with an old school vibe and there are some fun things to do near Joshua Tree! We loved the wild west vibes of Pioneertown, the adorable World Famous Crochet Museum and and catching a movie under the stars at Smith’s Ranch. Check out our full guide on things to do near Joshua Tree National Park – click here to read!
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