Joshua National Park features the unique Joshua Tree, many rock formations and over 30 short hiking trails. Most of the trails and viewpoints can be explored over 1-2 days.

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).

HikeLengthGradeDescription
Cottonwood Spring0.1 mi / 0.2kmEasyShort walk to fan palm oasis with cottonwood trees. Birds.
Bajada0.25 mi / 0.4kmEasyWalk on a bajada and discover plants of the Colorado Desert
Cholla Cactus Garden0.25 mi / 0.4kmEasyThousands of densely concentrated cholla cactus plants
Keys View0.25 mi / 0.4kmEasySpectacular views of San Andreas Fault and nearby mountains
Cap Rock0.4 mi / 0.6kmEasySee boulder piles, Joshua trees, and other desert plants. Loop walk
Oasis of Mara0.5 mi / 0.8kmEasyExplore a desert oasis. Loop walk
Indian Cove0.6 mi / 1kmEasyDesert plants
Discovery Trail0.7 mi / 1.1kmEasyConnects Skull Rock & Split Rock trails through boulder piles
Hidden Valley1 mi / 1.6kmEasyRock-enclosed valley once used by cattle rustlers
Ryan Ranch1 mi / 1.6kmEasyHike along old ranch road to historic adobe structure
Barker Dam1.1 mi / 1.8kmEasyOut-and-back trail to dam built by early cattle ranchers. Indian rock art
Hi-View1.3 mi / 2.1kmEasy/ModerateRidge with panoramic views. Some steep sections
Arch Rock Trail1.4 mi / 2.1kmEasyLollipop trail to small arch and heart-shaped rock
Skull Rock1.7 mi / 2.7 kmEasyBoulder piles, desert washes and Skull Rock (which is next to road)
Split Rock Loop2.5 mi / 4kmEasy/ModerateLoop hike from Split Rock to Face Rock
Mastodon Peak3 mi / 4.8kmModerateCraggy granite peak and an old gold mine
Fortynine Palms Oasis3 mi / 4.8kmModerateCross ridge with barrel cactus to a fan palm oasis in rocky canyon
Ryan Mountain3 mi / 4.8kmEasy/ModeratePopular hike to summit of Ryan Mountain
Lost Horse Mine4 mi / 6.4kmEasy/ModerateOut-and-back trail to remains of historic gold mine
Pine City4 mi / 6.4kmEasy/ModerateDense stand of junipers and pinyon. Old mining site
West Side Loop4.7 mi / 7.6kmEasy/Moderate Ridge and washes west of Black Rock Campground
Lost Horse Loop6.5 mi / 10.5kmModerateExtension of shorter Lost Horse Mine trail
Warren Peak6.3 mi / 10.1kmModeratePanoramic views over western part of Joshua Tree
Panorama Loop6.6mi / 10.6kmEasy/ModerateFollows ridgeline with scenic views, dense Joshua tree forest
Willow Hole7.2 mi / 11.5kmEasy/ModerateTrail along edge of Wonderland of Rocks. Joshua trees, boulders
Lost Palms Oasis7.5 mi / 12kmEasy/ModerateOut-and-back trail to remote fan palm oasis
Boy Scout Trail8 mi / 12.9kmEasy/ModerateOne-way trail deep into the Wonderland of Rocks
California Riding & Hiking Trail35 mi / 56kmModerateOne-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.

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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.

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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.

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Barker Dam

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.

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Ryan Mountain

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.

Booking.com

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.

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