Declared a national monument in 1936 and re-designated as a national park in 1994, Joshua Tree National Park covers two distinct deserts: the Mojave and Sonoran. The two are quite distinctively different landscapes, with the Mojave section in the western half of the park being above 3,000 feet, and featuring giant branching yuccas, sandy plains and enormous massive granite monoliths. The Sonoran Desert or “low desert” to the centre and east of the park is drier, sparser and more forbidding. The Little San Bernardino Mountains traverse the southwest edge of the park. Despite (or perhaps because of) the few facilities and services, Joshua Tree attracts nearly 3 million visitors annually.
From the south end of the park, the Pinto Basin Trail heads up from Route 10 and passes Cottonwood Visitor Centre, the southern entrance station where you buy an entry pass and get a map (there is no food or drinks sold here).
There are not as many signposted attraction in the south of the park. One of the first stops is the Cholla Cactus Garden, where there is a very short walk through a dense patch of the unique teddybear cholla. The area is a transition zone between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts where more water supports this incredibly dense patch of cholla cacti.
Another interesting plant which grows in the southern section of the park is the ocotillo plant, a semi-succulent indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert and Colorado Desert. It looks spiky from a distance, but when you get close the branches are covered in small, soft leaves.
Silver Bell Mine was operational for almost 40 years, with gold being mined in the 1930s, lead in the 1940s and copper in the 1950s until production ceased in 1962. A 1.3mi / 2.1km trail takes you up to the remains of the tipples, gigantic ore bins that held and fed rock to a stamp battery (mill) that crushed the ore.
Continuing north through the park, there’s a number of granite rock formations that can be seen from the road – inselbergs formed by weathering of the granite bedrock millions of years ago. There’s also an increasing number of Joshua Trees or Yucca brevifolia – after which the park is named (rather obviously!). These trees grow mostly in the Mojave Desert between 1,300 and 5,900 feet (400 to 1,800m) elevation, and are also found northeast of Kingman (AZ) in Mohave County; and along the US 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup. The tree was though to have been named by a group of Mormon settlers who crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century, and used the tree to guide them through the desert
Near the middle of the park is the short hike to Arch Rock, a short walk walk to a natural arch and a heart-shaped rock formation.
Nearby is Split Rock, which is down an unsealed side road and marks the start of a 2mi / 3.2km loop hike. At the beginning of the trail is a large cave shelter, used for thousands of years by native Americans. The earliest known residents of the land in and around what is now Joshua Tree National Park were the people of the Pinto Culture, who lived and hunted here between 8000 and 4000 BCE.
A short distance along the main road is Skull Rock, another distinctive rock formation – it’s right next to the road and one of the most popular and busiest spots in the park.
The density and size of the Joshua Trees seems gradually increases as you head north through the park… Surrounded by tall Joshua Trees, the Hall of Horrors is a collection of enormous boulders, amongst which are two narrow slot canyons. It’s a popular spot for rock climbing as well as hiking.
A short detour down a side road is Barker Dam, where there is a short and popular hike. Although often dry at this time of the year, there’s water in the reservoir when we visit in October – and the trail passes an interesting native American petroglyph site.
Barker Dam and Hidden Valley are the last signposted features at the north-western end of the park before the West Entrance Gate. Beyond the entrance station is the town of Joshua Tree.
Hiking in Joshua Tree
There are about 30 hiking trails in Joshua Tree; most are fairly short, but there are a few longer ones (all are day-walks, with only the 35 mile (56km) California Riding and Hiking Trail being a multi-day hike).
|Cottonwood Spring||0.1 mi / 0.2km||Easy||Short walk to fan palm oasis with cottonwood trees. Birds.|
|Bajada||0.25 mi / 0.4km||Easy||Walk on a bajada and discover plants of the Colorado Desert|
|Cholla Cactus Garden||0.25 mi / 0.4km||Easy||Thousands of densely concentrated cholla cactus plants|
|Keys View||0.25 mi / 0.4km||Easy||Spectacular views of San Andreas Fault and nearby mountains|
|Cap Rock||0.4 mi / 0.6km||Easy||See boulder piles, Joshua trees, and other desert plants. Loop walk|
|Oasis of Mara||0.5 mi / 0.8km||Easy||Explore a desert oasis. Loop walk|
|Indian Cove||0.6 mi / 1km||Easy||Desert plants|
|Discovery Trail||0.7 mi / 1.1km||Easy||Connects Skull Rock & Split Rock trails through boulder piles|
|Hidden Valley||1 mi / 1.6km||Easy||Rock-enclosed valley once used by cattle rustlers|
|Ryan Ranch||1 mi / 1.6km||Easy||Hike along old ranch road to historic adobe structure|
|Barker Dam||1.1 mi / 1.8km||Easy||Out-and-back trail to dam built by early cattle ranchers. Indian rock art|
|Hi-View||1.3 mi / 2.1km||Easy/Moderate||Ridge with panoramic views. Some steep sections|
|Arch Rock Trail||1.4 mi / 2.1km||Easy||Lollipop trail to small arch and heart-shaped rock|
|Skull Rock||1.7 mi / 2.7 km||Easy||Boulder piles, desert washes and Skull Rock (which is next to road)|
|Split Rock Loop||2.5 mi / 4km||Easy/Moderate||Loop hike from Split Rock to Face Rock|
|Mastodon Peak||3 mi / 4.8km||Moderate||Craggy granite peak and an old gold mine|
|Fortynine Palms Oasis||3 mi / 4.8km||Moderate||Cross ridge with barrel cactus to a fan palm oasis in rocky canyon|
|Ryan Mountain||3 mi / 4.8km||Easy/Moderate||Popular hike to summit of Ryan Mountain|
|Lost Horse Mine||4 mi / 6.4km||Easy/Moderate||Out-and-back trail to remains of historic gold mine|
|Pine City||4 mi / 6.4km||Easy/Moderate||Dense stand of junipers and pinyon. Old mining site|
|West Side Loop||4.7 mi / 7.6km||Easy/Moderate||Ridge and washes west of Black Rock Campground|
|Lost Horse Loop||6.5 mi / 10.5km||Moderate||Extension of shorter Lost Horse Mine trail|
|Warren Peak||6.3 mi / 10.1km||Moderate||Panoramic views over western part of Joshua Tree|
|Panorama Loop||6.6mi / 10.6km||Easy/Moderate||Follows ridgeline with scenic views, dense Joshua tree forest|
|Willow Hole||7.2 mi / 11.5km||Easy/Moderate||Trail along edge of Wonderland of Rocks. Joshua trees, boulders|
|Lost Palms Oasis||7.5 mi / 12km||Easy/Moderate||Out-and-back trail to remote fan palm oasis|
|Boy Scout Trail||8 mi / 12.9km||Easy/Moderate||One-way trail deep into the Wonderland of Rocks|
|California Riding & Hiking Trail||35 mi / 56km||Moderate||One-way trail from Black Rock Canyon to park North Entrance|
If you’ve got limited time, the hikes below can all be done within a day, and visit many of the park’s main attractions.
Cholla Garden hike
A very short and easy walk through a dense stand of the unusual teddybear cholla that grows in a transition zone between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts.
Distance: 0.4mi / 0.6km loop. Allow 15min for short loop.
Arch Rock Trail
This short hiking trail leads to two unusual rock formations – a natural rock arch and the distinctively shaped Heart Rock.
Distance: 1.7mi / 2.7km loop. Takes 45min to an hour.
A relatively easy hike that goes to the historic Barker Dam (also known as the Big Horn Dam), and passes a Native American petroglyph site.
Distance: 1.3mi / 2.1km loop. Allow 45min to an hour.
One of the most popular hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, Ryan Mountain delivers spectacular 360-degrees views. The steep trail is best hiked at sunrise or sunset! Avoid this walk during summer.
Distance: 3mi / 4.8km return. Allow 1.5-2 hours.
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is about 50 miles (80km) east of Palm Springs (the closest airport) or 150 miles 225km) east of Los Angeles. I visited the park on 3-week road trip through south-west USA. There are three entrances to the park: Yucca Valley in the west, Twentynine Palms in the north, and Cottonwood Springs in the south. The main Visitor Center is in the nearby town of Joshua Tree.
Accommodation near Joshua Tree
There is no accommodation (or restaurants and grocery stores) inside Joshua Tree National Park; the closest places to stay are in the towns of Joshua Tree, or Twentynine Palms. For something a little different, the Pioneertown Hotel in historic Pioneertown lets you stay in a living, breathing production set used to film Western movies.
When to visit Joshua Tree
You can visit Joshua Tree National Park year-round – but it’s unpleasantly hot in summer and it can be dangerous undertaking some of the hikes. The best time to visit is considered to be March to May and October to November, when temperatures are lower; winter nights get very cold but daytime termperatures are perfect for hiking.
- Recreation.gov – Joshua Tree Pass (or buy an annual America the Beautiful All Parks Pass)
- Recreation.gov – Joshua Tree Visitor Guide
- National Geographic – Everything to know about Joshua Tree National Park
- Amazon – Joshua Tree National Park map (National Geographic: Trails Illustrated Map #226)
- Joshua Tree National Park map – JPEG (1MB) / PDF (31MB)