Joshua Tree is such a stunning California National Park, where the rugged landscape often feels more like a remote planet than a desert two hours drive east from Los Angeles and 2 hours and 45 minutes from San Diego. The signature trees with their tuffs atop the branches always remind me of something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The best way to experience the park is to get out and explore it on your own two feet. Where you prefer a leisurely stroll or more of an adrenaline-inducing adventure, here are some of the best hikes in Joshua Tree, spanning all physical levels.
Top Hikes In Joshua Tree
We’ll start with the easier hikes and work our way up into more difficult treks. No matter what trail you choose, here are some of the best hikes in Joshua Tree that are bound to be treated with spectacular desert views.
There are plenty of easy hikes for those who want to see the scenery, but are not up for an intense desert workout (I hear you). Most of these paths are flat, and have minimal elevation gain.
A popular trail that takes hikers past the giant skull rock formation, whose eye sockets formed out of centuries of erosion from the rain. There’s a parking lot across from Skull Rock, but this 1.7-mile trail allows you to take in the scenic surroundings, starts from the Jumbo Rocks Campground.
A valley sheltered by rock formations that was once thought to be used by folk who use to steal castle and store them conveniently in this secluded area. The 1-mile loop starts at the Hidden Valley picnic area.
Close by to Hidden Valley trail, this dam provides a beautiful spot in the park to reflect, especially after the rains when the water level is high. Constructed by early cattle ranchers, this watering hole often attracts big horn sheep. The 1.1-mile loop starts at the Barker Dam parking area.
Filled with Joshua trees, this trail takes you along the western ridge of the park to enjoy panoramic views from above. The 1.3 miles loop has an elevation gain of 400 feet, and there are steep inclines for portions of the trail.
Oasis of Mara
This brief path is a great spot to get a glimpse of a desert water source that was historically important for Native Americans, miners and cowboys in the area. The .5-mile loop is the only trail that allows dogs on-leash and starts at the Oasis Visitor Center.
For those of you who want something in between an effortless stroll and a trail that is no joke, here’s some solid medium hike choices.
Located close to the southern entrance of the park, this area used to be the location of several gold mines that were built near the Cottonwood Spring Oasis. There are several hiking options here, but the trail to Mastodon Peak allows you to see the Mastodon Mine and old Winona Mill Site. This 3-mile loop has a 375-foot elevation change, and starts at the Cottonwood Spring parking area.
Lost Horse Mine
A trail that passes by the remains of one of the most successful mines in the area that produced both gold and silver. The estimate of the total bounty? 5 million dollars. Not too shabby for a desert mine. The trail is 4-miles there and back, and starts off at the Keys View Road. The Lost Horse Loop is a longer option at 6.5-miles and a has 550 elevation change.
Fortynine Palms Oasis
Hike amid barrel cacti as you make your way along a ridge, and then down into a rocky canyon that has a fan palm oasis at the bottom. The trail is 3-miles there and back, with a 300 foot elevation gain, and starts at the Forty Palms parking lot (off of Highway 62).
If you want to challenge yourself on the trail and feel you have the stamina in the desert heat, these difficult hike routes are for you.
A popular hike that takes you to the summit of the mountain, where stone steps help you make the ascent. The reward is at the top, with spectacular views of Joshua tree forests and impressive rock formations below. It is 3-miles there and back, starts at the parking lot between Sheep Pass and Ryan Campground.
Boy Scout Trail
This strenuous hike rewards adventurous folk with a descent from a Joshua tree forest to the Wonderland of Rocks (large monzogranite rock formations) that are commonly found at the northern edge of the park. This hike is 8-miles one way, and hikers who make it all the way to the end are recommended to take the park’s vehicle shuttle back if available. The hike starts at either Indian Cove backcountry board (north end) or the Boy Scout Trailhead (south end).
Hike to the summit of this peak located on the Little San Bernardino Mountains, and enjoy the panoramic views of the quieter western part of Joshua Tree amid the Pinyon pines. This trail is 6.3 miles out and back, with a 1000 foot elevation gain. The trailhead starts at Black Rock Campground.
How To Get To Joshua Tree
There are three entrances: the West Entrance and the North Entrance off of Highway 62, and the South Entrance from the 168 exit off I-10. There are four visitors centers in Joshua Tree: Oasis, Joshua Tree, Cottonwood, and Black Rock, where you can learn more about specific hiking paths from the park rangers, and use the flush toilets and picnic tables.
A seven-day vehicle pass is $30.
Best Time To Visit Joshua Tree
The weather in Joshua Tree can be intensely hot during the summer and it’s advised not to hike during the daytime. The best time during the summer is to hike before sunrise or around twilight or later (a full moon can make a great light source!). Spring and autumn are ideal seasons to go, since the heat is not as intense (though the park is much more crowded). The winter can also be a good time, though it can get cold and there’s increased rainfall during this time.
Flash foods can come on quickly and powerfully in this Southern California desert, so make sure to check the weather forecast right before you head out onto the trail. Be careful when encountering wildlife and respect their space, and watch where you step since venomous critters like rattlesnakes and scorpions call the park home.
What To Bring To Joshua Tree
As with any desert hike, it’s important to be prepared when you’re out on the trails. Most importantly, bring double the water you think you’ll need (at least two gallon of water per day to replenish body fluids). Potable water is only available in the Oasis Visitor Center, the West Entrance station, Black Rock Campground, Cottonwood Campground, and Indian Cove Ranger Station.
Other trail necessities that are recommended are:
- food (with plenty of protein-rich snacks like nuts and beef jerky)
- sun protection in the form of wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
- plenty of layers, since it can cool down at dawn and dusk
- close-toed shoes to protect your feet from sharp rocks and any wayward cacti
Note that there’s no cell service in the park so make sure you have all your maps downloaded or go old school and pick up a paper map at a visitor center.
Where To Stay In Joshua Tree
Within the park itself there are nine campgrounds to stay at, where during the busy season of October through May, they are first-come, first-serve, except Black Rock and Indian Cove. During the quieter summer months, all campground grounds are first-come, first-serve. There are group sites where you can book a year in advance and can accommodate between 10-60 people. Most sites only allow tents, except for Indian Cove Group Campground, which allows small RVs.
Through the park only has camping options, the nearby town of Joshua Tree has some good lodging options.
Joshua Tree Inn & Motel-located a mere five miles from the park entrance, this hacienda-style inn has a lot of historical charm and each room has a patio to relax on after a long day of exploring.
Spin and Margie’s Desert Hideaway-a family-owned spot that is filled with personality and hospitality, and boasts clean spacious rooms with kitchenettes to prepare a pack lunch for the trails.
Joshua Tree Restaurants
There are no grocery stores within the park, but there is a café at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, where you can pick up boxed lunches. There are eight picnic areas within the park: Black Rock, Split Rock, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Indian Cove, Cap Rock, Live Oak, and Quail Springs.
Within the town of Joshua Tree here are some good options for fuel:
- Pie For The People-outstanding pizzas at a spot located right outside the park’s west entrance.
- Royal Siam Thai Cuisine-a local favorite that’s perfect for a post-hike celebratory meal of green curry and pad see ew.
- The Natural Sisters Café-solid spot to grab a black bean burger and vegan peach pie for the road.
- Sam’s Indian Food and Pizza-for excellent mango curry and their addictive garlic onion naan.
- Joshua Tree Health Foods-conveniently located near the south entrance to the park, this local store is a great place to pick up healthy snacks and drinks before heading into the park.
- Joshua Tree Coffee Company-a great spot to pick up some strong morning fuel (try the vanilla latte) and sip in the outdoor courtyard.
What are the best hikes in Joshua Tree in your opinion?
Photo sources: featured photo, Joshua Tree sunset, photo 2, photo 3, photo 4, photo 5
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