Favorite things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is hard to describe. It's a wild desert that seems to have popped out of a Dr. Seuss story - or maybe it was the inspiration of such stories? Whatever it is, if you're in the area, Joshua Tree National Park is worth a visit! The park is not only famous for its Joshua trees, but also for the huge boulders strewn haphazardly everywhere. We highly recommend camping in the park for a night or two to truly experience the magic of Joshua Tree. Don't forget to browse our inventory of camping gear rentals for Joshua Tree National Park.
Below is a list of our favorite things to do and see in Joshua Tree National Park. Wondering where to stay? Check out this list of places to camp in or near Joshua Tree National Park.
Things to know before visiting Joshua Tree National Park
Park pass. Keep your park pass within reach when you drive out of the park. You may be asked to show it if the entrance station is open.
Drinking water and phone reception. Bring all the water you need for the duration of your stay in the park and download offline directions where you want to go. There are no water filling stations and no cell phone reception in the park. You can fill up water and use the wifi at visitor centers near park entrances.
Toilets. Popular parking lots and trailheads have only vault toilets - you won't find flush toilets in the park.
Weather. June, July, and August are unbearably hot! If you must travel here during that time, we recommend limiting your activity to sunsets and sunrises. It is very common and very dangerous to get disoriented in the heat, so please take this risk into account! October through April is the ideal time to visit. Nights will get colder than you expect, so plan accordingly. Daytime temperatures are usually perfect for physical activity such as hiking and rock climbing. September and May could be surprisingly hot or surprisingly cold. Check the weather before heading out.
Hiking trails. The signed trails in the park are well-maintained and very easy to follow. However, there are many unsigned trails that you may read about online and choose to follow. If you do, study the directions and download them to your phone for offline use prior to entering the park. People get lost on these trails too frequently, so please prepare accordingly so it doesn't happen to you!
Rock climbers. The northern part of the park is very popular with rock climbers, boulderers, and highliners. Just about any boulder you see has an established climb on it.
Where is the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park?
Joshua Tree National Park is pretty big and has three major entrances. You should plan ahead before visiting so you know where to start. Here are a few things you need to know about the park entrances:
The west entrance, in the town of Joshua Tree, is the closest entrance to the main part of the park, with most of the campgrounds, easy hikes, and classic rock climbs. Unsurprisingly, it's the most popular entrance to the park. There are often long lines at this entrance station, sometimes as long as a mile or more! If you're coming from Palm Springs during peak times (October-April weekends and holidays), consider continuing to the north entrance. Alternatively, look at a map to decide whether a detour to the south entrance makes sense for you.
The north entrance, in the town of Twentynine Palms, requires only 5-10 more miles of driving within the park boundaries to get to its popular areas. This is the second most popular entrance to the park. If you're coming from Las Vegas, this is the best way in, especially during peak times.
The south entrance, near Cottonwood Spring Campground, is about 30 miles east of Indio. This is not a busy entrance because it then takes about an hour to get to the popular destinations. If you're coming from San Diego, I recommend camping for a night at Cottonwood before continuing north to explore the rest of the park.
Black Rock Canyon, in the town of Yucca Valley, is not connected by roads to the main part of the park. This is a popular area for horseback riding, hiking trails are usually quiet, and the campground rarely fills up. The downside is that it's far away from any other attraction in the park.
Indian Cove, in the north of the park, half-way between the towns of Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, is similar to Black Rock Canyon in that it isn't connected by roads to the main part of the park. Unlike Black Rock Canyon, however, the campground is almost always full in peak season. It is very popular with rock climbers and has a few hiking trails, but it's far from any other attraction in the park.
Favorite things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
In order of difficulty, from short walks to longer hikes
Keys View at sunset/sunrise
This is a very popular destination all day long, but especially at sunset and/or sunrise it's well-worth the detour to get here. You get panoramic views of Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, San Jacinto Peak behind Palm Springs, and the nearly year-round snowcapped San Gorgonio Mountain. There's a short trail uphill from the parking lot to the viewpoint, then you can walk along the ridge to find your solitude for admiring the views and taking pictures.
Cholla Cactus Garden
This may be my favorite stop in the park, even though it's always full of people. The cactus variety in this short loop is stunning, especially when the cactus is in bloom. Again, it's really nice to be here at sunset and/or sunrise when the chollas shimmer behind the light rays of the sun. A 10-minute easy loop meanders through this naturally-occurring cactus garden. Watch out for bees and stay away from the cactus spines!
Barker Dam and/or Hidden Valley
These two loop trails are pretty cool, but it's hard to keep recommending them because they are always so full of other hikers and rock climbers. It takes away a bit from the quiet nature experience. We include them in this write-up because, if by some miracle you arrive at an empty trailhead parking lot, you should take advantage of the solitude and go out for a nice easy walk here! Both trails capture the iconic Joshua Tree National Park topography, with lots of Joshua trees in front of huge monzogranite boulders. Both trails also feature self-guided signs explaining the desert plants and some history of the region.
Another extremely popular trail, hiking to the peak of Ryan Mountain is worth the effort for its 360 degree views of the park. The trail is about 3 miles roundtrip and climbs about 1000 ft, so get ready for some cardio!
Much less frequented Warren Peak offers great views of Joshua Tree National Park from the west side. The downside is how far this is from anything else! But if you're looking for some solitude, this 6.3-mile roundtrip trail could do the trick. It climbs about 1110 ft to the peak, making it a moderate difficulty hike. The trailhead is behind site 30 in Black Rock Campground.
Fortynine Palms Oasis and/or Lost Palms Oasis
Hike to a true desert oasis marked by dense grove of fan palms. Fortynine is in the north of the park, with its own entrance off Hwy 62, half-way between Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree. It's a short hike, only 3 miles roundtrip, but has a 300 ft elevation gain in a desert environment, making it a moderate difficulty hike. Lost Palms is in the very southern tip of the park, starting near Cottonwood Visitor Center. This hike is over twice as long, about 7.5 miles roundtrip, with a very difficult descent into the fan palm oasis.
6.5-mile moderate hiking loop that may be difficult to navigate. Research directions and save them for offline use - even the trailhead isn't marked! This is a much less crowded trail that leads through the iconic Joshua Tree National Park topography. You'll pass countless Joshua trees between huge monzogranite boulders, as well as slot canyons, arches, and desert washes.
Joshua Tree National Park is a year-round destination with breathtaking rock formations, panoramic views, and fun activities for all ages. Spring is ideal for seeing the desert in bloom, while winter is wonderful for physical activity such as rock climbing and day hiking. Take note that in summer it gets very very hot in the park! You should limit your activity to sunsets and sunrises, and escape to air-conditioned buildings during the day.
If you'd like more information on any of the destinations mentioned above please don’t hesitate to contact us.