Surround yourself with stunning rock formations and unique wildlife at Joshua Tree National Park. This blend of high and low desert environments brings incredible scenery, unique wildlife, and plenty of strange looking trees called Joshua Trees, which give the park its namesake. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the park, including an in-depth look at the best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park.
About the Park & When to Visit
When it comes to deserts, Joshua Tree National Park really gives you a great bang for your buck. The park is the meeting place of two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado Desert or “the Colorado”. While you might think that all deserts look the same, a drive from one end of the park to the other will quickly change your mind. The Colorado, also known as the “low desert” is sparse with higher temperatures, while the Mojave or “high desert” is home to branching yucca trees and massive granite monoliths. The best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park are found in both the high and low desert areas, it really depends on what you’re looking to see.
If you’re a hiker or rock climber the best time to visit the park is between March or April. During this time of year, you’ll enjoy cooler temperatures. During a good rain year, you might even have the added bonus of seeing the desert bloom with wildflowers – wowza! If you can’t make it in the spring of October and November are also good times to visit. Temperatures are also lower during the fall months and you’ll have extra darkness for stargazing, trust me, the night sky is phenomenal in Joshua Tree. It is a dark sky area, meaning that there is not a significant amount of light pollution from nearby towns.
In my opinion, it’s worth spending at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This will give you time to take in plenty of hiking and drive through the entire park to really see the differences between the two deserts. Of course, if you have more time to spend there is no end to the sites, hikes, rock climbs, and pleasant drives you can take.
Map of Joshua Tree National Park
The west side of the park is where you’ll find The Colorado, while the east side sits lower in elevation and is home to the Mojave. You could spend several weeks combing through the park and tackling every Joshua Tree Hiking Trail, but not everyone has or wants to dedicate that much time to the park. Below is an image of the park layout, so you can get oriented before your trip to Joshua Tree.
Getting to the Park & Where to Stay
Joshua Tree has three park entrances. The West and North entrances are accessible from Highway 62 in the town of Joshua Tree. The South entrance near Cottonwood Spring can be accessed from Interstate 10, 25 miles east of Indio. For public transit options check the Morongo Basin Transit Authority website.
If you’re planning to camp inside the park there are plenty of options. Joshua Tree has eight campsites, Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan, Belle, Hidden Valley and White Tank. Although the campgrounds are busy, you can make reservations ahead of time through Recreation.gov.
If you can’t snag a reservation inside the park there are two Bureau of Land Management Disbursed Camping Areas nearby. These do not have water, bathrooms, or trash collection so make sure you come prepared. Additionally, you can find some great camping options in Joshua Tree through HipCamp.
Traveling to the Desert? Read this first:
- 22 Tips to Master Desert Camping
- The Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Free Camping in the USA
- Budget-Friendly Desert Road Trip Hacks
Native History in Joshua Tree National Park
One important thing to keep in mind when visiting and hiking in Joshua Tree is that these lands were taken from Native people. The Chuilla, Chemehuevi, Serano and Mojave tribes utilized the lands of Joshua Tree for it’s medicine, food, and wellbeing. Although we may just see a desolate desert, the Native people of the area thrived off of the land. There is plenty of food here, in fact over 121 plant species have been identified as being integral to Native survival on this land.
Not to mention, there are plenty of signs of civilization throughout Joshua Tree National Park. Remember, you are visiting someone’s home, place of worship, and place of resources. Do not remove, touch or get close to petroglyphs, ancient ruins, pottery shards or arrowheads.
What to Pack for Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park
Before you hit the trail, it’s important to be prepared for hiking in a desert environment. First, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got the basics so be sure to pack the Ten Essentials first. On top of the Ten Essentials you’ll also want to consider the following:
- Extra sun protection. The desert lacks shade, so bring a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen or UV-protected shirt or sleeves, and sunglasses.
- Proper Footwear. You’ll want to wear hiking shoes (boots will feel too hot) with non-cotton socks to prevent blisters. Consider wearing socks that go above the ankle to help protect you from a cactus encounter. Learn more about how to select proper hiking footwear.
- Extra First Aid Kit Items. Pack a powdered electrolyte drink (I love Nuun), tweezers for cacti encounters, anti-itch cream/Benedryl/or similar product in case you have a bad reaction to cacti.
- Extra water. Plan on drinking double your normal intake. Remember, you cannot filter and use water inside the park, so come prepared! Remember, water is heavy.
- Salty snacks. You’ll want to replenish your salt supply and not overhydrate. Think salty chips, salty trail mixes, beef jerky, and other salty treats.
- Consider a personal swamp cooler. Take a long-sleeved cotton shirt or bandana and soak it in cold water before you head out. Wring out the excess water, fold, and store in a zipped baggie. During the hottest part of the day, put on the damp shirt or bandana. Voila! The water will evaporate in the dry environment, have you feeling cool in a jiffy.
- A headlamp, especially if you plan on hiking the evening.
- Bathroom kit. Complete with small shovel, TP, a baggie for used toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. Or be a super-steward and pack it out with a WAG Bag.
- A camera with a zoom lens or your phone.
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Navigating Joshua Tree Hiking Trails
Navigating your way through the best Joshua Tree hikes, or any desert hiking trail, takes a bit of extra knowledge. First, watch your step! There are prickly cacti around every bend. These cacti will latch on detach themselves in clumps and stick to your clothing and body. They also itch when you remove them.
Avoid cactus by sticking to marked trails and following ranger signs and instructions. Although most of the Joshua Tree National Park hiking trails are well marked, always be sure to carry a map, compass, and a digital GPS of the trail you would like to hike. Keep in mind, water is scarce and it is illegal throughout the park to utilize found water sources (too many endangered animals, like the desert tortoise, rely on these water sources to survive) so come prepared.
Hiking Responsibly in the Desert
Before you head on any hike, it’s really important to understand the basics of Leave No Trace. With the rise in popularity of national parks, there has been a tremendous strain on park resources, so it’s up to you to do your part.
First, always leave it better than you found it, this means packing out ALL of your trash (including food scraps, wrappers, cigarette butts, feminine products, and toilet paper). For TP, cover a zippable baggie in duct tape and sprinkle in some baking soda (for the smell). Make this your icky trash bag and keep this with you until you can properly dispose of it.
Always follow closure signs, stay on the trail, and respect the spaces you are traveling in. When it comes time to use the bathroom, if there isn’t one nearby, carefully step 70 adult steps from the trail and any water sources then pee on a rock, since animals can destroy vegitation in search of your salty urine. If you have to go number two and there isn’t an outhouse around, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep. You get an A-plus if you use a bag to pack out your waste. Poop does not decompose in desert environments, so be considerate of this fact when you use the loo.
For more about lessening your impact on the desert, take a look at this comprehensive guide to desert travel.
General Tips for Hiking in Joshua Tree
Again, hiking in the desert takes a few special skills. Keep the following in mind while you hit all the amazing hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park.
- Beat the heat. Hike in the early hours of the day or later in the evening to avoid the brutal mid-day sun.
- Leave it wild. Don’t touch the wildlife. In fact, it is super-illegal to harass wildlife in Joshua Tree National Park, especially the tortoise. You can kill them if you approach them, as they urinate to keep away unwanted company, which causes them to lose precious water. Use your zoom lens instead.
- Seek shade. Shade is hard to come by, so take note of the sun’s position while you are hiking. Find a shady spot to rest if you can, but don’t trample wild areas to do it.
- Be kind. Say hello to fellow hikers.
New to hiking? Don’t worry, it’s cool to be new. Check out these in-depth resources:
- The Ultimate Guide to Hiking
- What Hiking Gear Do I REALLY Need to Hike? (coming soon)
- How to Find Hikes Near Me
- Hiking Clothes for Women on Any Budget
The Best Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
Distance: 1.7 miles
Elevation: 160 feet
While this might be a short hike by some standards, it’s packed with lots of iconic Joshua Tree sites and scenery, making it a must-see Joshua Tree hiking trail. It’s the perfect hike for families, beginners or those who want to take it easy and learn more about the areas flora and fauna.
You can start this loop hike from the nearby Skull Rock parking area or from within the Jumbo Rocks campground. As you walk along the well-defined path you will see boulder piles, desert washes and pass by the hike’s namesake Skull Rock. Over time wind and water have shaped this large granite monolith into the shape of a human skull.
Keep an eye out for nature trail signs along the way that will tell you more about the area’s plants and animals. If you’re lucky you might even catch a kangaroo rat hopping among the boulders as you walk.
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation: 375 feet
You begin this loop hike near the Cottonwood Visitors Center at the South end of the park. There is ample parking here and plenty of signage to get you on your way. As you approach the beginning of the trail you’ll see a magical clump of palm trees, an oasis really. Head down the paved path through the trees and enjoy the shade. Make sure to read the signs and find out more about the native peoples who once lived in this area, it’s pretty fascinating.
As you continue along you’ll start a gentle progressive climb up stone and sand steps. The sand is fairly compressed, but will still add a little extra resistance to your hike. As you continue to climb you’ll start to be able to take in more and more of your surroundings. At the top of this climb, you will see the base of Mastodon Peak. A tenth of a mile scramble will take you to the top where you can enjoy 360-views of the park, making it one of the best hikes in Joshua tree with a view. I recommend approaching this climb from the backside of the rock pile for easier climbing. On a good day, you will also be able to see the Salton Sea off in the distance from this point. This is a good spot to stop for a little snack or a water break before heading onward.
Once you climb down the peak you will continue on the trail and pass an old gold mine. It’s not too much to look at now, but it was operational up until 1971. From this point you will continue along desert washes, heading downward through loose sand and gravel. In another few tenths of a mile, you will find yourself back at the parking lot where you began.
Lost Horse Mine
Distance: 4 miles
Elevation: 550 feet
Type: Out and back
Unlike many of the other mines in Joshua Tree, Lost Horse Mine was quite productive, yielding approximately 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver. Today it is not operational, however, it is very well preserved thanks to the National Parks Service.
It’s worth warning you now that there is no shade to be found on this trail, so I advise starting early or heading out in the evening light. The hike begins at the parking lot at the end of Lost Horse Road which is clearly marked on any park map. You begin with a gentle climb towards the nearby mountains, but not to worry, it’s not too steep. As you continue hiking take note of the desert plants, specifically the iconic yucca trees. Continue walking upwards and you will begin to see the valley below as well as the mine up ahead of you.
The mine itself is fenced in for safety, but take some time and walk around to check it out from all angles. Once you’ve taken in the mine you can head back the way you came, or take a short hike to the hill above. From this point, you can see sweeping views of the park and all the many layers of surrounding mountains.
West Side Loop
Distance: 4.7 miles
Elevation: 785 feet
To get to this hike you need to enter Black Rock Campground in the northeast corner of the park. The trail begins east of site #30 at the back of the campground. The higher elevation of this part of the park is the perfect climate for yucca trees, juniper, pinyon pines and wildflowers in the spring.
I recommend taking this loop hike in the clockwise direction, starting on the High View Nature Trail which has a junction with the West Side Loop at 0.1 miles in. Head uphill briefly and then downhill, watching out for the often snow-capped San Gorgonio off in the distance. As you continue around the loop you will walk through a wash and then begin a steep climb towards a rolling ridge.
At 2.5 miles you will begin a descent, bringing you through a large grove of Joshua trees. This was by far my favorite part of the hike. The sheer number of Joshua trees in one small area was beautiful. At this point you will start heading back towards the campground where you started, continue following signs for the West Side Loop and you will be back at the parking lot.
Lost Palms Oasis
Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation: 500 feet
Type: Out and back
This out-and-back hike can be extended to include the scramble of Mastodon Peak described earlier. The trailhead is located just past the road that leads to Cottonwood Campground. There is a small turnaround and plenty of parking along the side of the road.
Start your hike at the Cottonwood Springs Oasis, a small but beautiful clump of native fan palms. Head through the shady palms to the next 3.5 miles of desert hills. Along the way, you will see plenty of rock piles, monoliths, native plants and trail stairways built by the park service. Keep a lookout for the ocotillo cactus which have bright red flowers in the spring.
You will pass signs for Mastodon Peak Mine, but to stay on this trail follow signs for Lost Palms Oasis. This portion of the hike will give you a real sense of the desert, leading you through sand and gravel, between boulders, and at times scrambling.
Near the turnaround point, you will be able to see the Lost Palms Oasis you walked through at the beginning of this hike from above, as well as a second clump of palms called Dike Springs. If you’re feeling energized you can scramble downward towards the palms, or simply turn around and head back the way you came.
Summing Up the Best Joshua Tree Hikes
These are just five of the hikes you can explore inside Joshua Tree National Park. Each one shows off the landscape, plants, and animals particular to that area of the park. If you’re spending more than a couple of days in Joshua Tree make sure to check out Keyes View or head to Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center for some stargazing.
Meet Kristi of Indoorsy Camper
Kristi Westberg is a writer, camper, hiker, knitter, and bookworm living in Pasadena, CA. She is the creator of Indoorsy Camper a blog where she writes about the outdoors from a beginner’s perspective because she’s a newbie too.
She believes that all bodies are strong and capable of experiencing the outdoors and that they should have fun while doing it. Her hope is that by chronicling her mishaps and successes she will inspire other indoorsy types to have the courage to get outside.