Top 10 Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

by Jon D. B.
Entrance sign at the Visitor Center in Joshua Tree National Park California. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Want to explore a planet’s worth of incredible trails, rock formations, unreal plants, and stunning night skies all in one park? Joshua Tree National Park is it.

Add in top-tier climbing, rich cultural history, and all the surreal splendor that comes from the merging of two separate and wildly different desert ecosystems, and you’ve got one of the best national park experiences on Earth. To see it all, Joshua Tree has a good 300 miles of hiking trails and over 8,000 climbing paths to take hold of.

But no matter which excursions you choose from our Top 10 below, there’s one experience you have to add on no matter what: Dark Sky watching. A Silver-Tier International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree offers absolutely astonishing nighttime stargazing, with our own Milky Way Galaxy visible to the naked eye. So hit the unmissable national park treasures below during the day, then stick around for nights you’ll never forget. Let’s get to it!

10. Don’t Miss Skull Rock

PALMS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 28: Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park on January 28, 2021 in Palms, California. (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)

Evoking King Kong’s Skull Island (or Castle Grayskull if you want to get real nerdy), Joshua Tree’s Skull Rock is exactly what it sounds like: a rock shaped like a skull. Only the skull is ten times your size and will alter your very being while in its presence. Seriously, it’s wild.

Formed by natural erosion, this unmistakable landmark is located along the main east-west park road. There’s a convenient parking lot right across the road from the

Located along the main east-west park road, Skull Rock is a favorite stop for park visitors. A parking spot is located just across the road, too, making it super-easy to access. Looking to get a bit more out of the experience? Take the 1.7-mile nature trail that begins right by Skull Rock.

9. Explore the Past: Keys Ranch

Keys Ranch, Joshua Tree National Park, California. (Photo credit: NPS / Lian Law)

The best place to explore Joshua Tree’s settler history is the hike to Keys Ranch. This National Historic Register site was once home to the Keys family, Anglo-American emigrants who built the Desert Queen Mine alongside a stamp mill, schoolhouse, store, and workshop.

Their venerable village still stands today, making for a fascinating walk back through time. Outsider highly recommends the ranger-led tour if you’re a history enthusiast.

To find the ranch, pass the entrance to Hidden Valley Campground, turn left at the Y-intersection, follow the road approximately two miles to the locked gate. Your guide will meet you there (click here for a map). For tours, be sure to arrive at the ranch gate 15 minutes prior to your tour.

Bonus History Excursion: Lost Horse Mine is another fascinating pioneer ruin. A 4-mile hike leads to the historic mine; a once-prominent gold operation that produced millions of dollars worth of the precious metal.

8. Split Rock is all It’s Cracked Up to Be

PALMS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 28: Split rock at Joshua Tree National Park on January 28, 2021 in Palms, California. (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)

See what we did there? Split Rock is a whole lot more than a split rock, though. The name refers to the famous boulder above, but also to the excellent trail to get there. Here, you’ll weave in and out of “towering cliffs, slick boulders, and one of the densest collections of rock formations in the park,” Joshua Tree cites.

And take our word for it, Split Rock Trail is an absolute paradise for photographers. The trail is an easy, mostly flat walk that loops, so it’s all sightseeing and no stress.

To access Split Rock Trail and the joining picnic area, take the marked short dirt road from Park Boulevard. There, the trailhead provides access to the 2.5 mile round trip Split Rock Loop. And if you wish to keep going, there’s other trails that branch out from the loop.

7. Otherworldly Beauty: Fortynine Palms Canyon Trail

Sunrise at Fortynine Palm Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park. (NPS / Emily Hassell)

A famous Joshua Tree oasis, Fortynine Palms is open to the public in the fall, winter, and spring – but not the summer busy season – so be sure to plan accordingly. Summer sees the oasis close so that indigenous bighorn sheep can access its water undisturbed. It’s beyond worth seeking out in other seasons, however, as this gorgeous, literal oasis is famous for a reason.

Fortynine Palms (or 49 Palms) rests in the northern portion of the park, providing refuge and much-needed water for flora and fauna. The result is a truly breathtaking desert, well, oasis.

To reach this desert paradise, take to Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, the 3 mile out and back hike with 300 feet elevation gain. But please remember to Leave No Trace, and respect that this is a “sensitive biological area,” the park notes. Also, never enter the oasis waters as this must be kept pristine for the survival of indigenous plants and wildlife.

6. Joshua Tree National Park’s Own Arch Rock Nature Trail

Hiker on the Arch Rock Trail. (Photo credit: NPS / Hannah Schwalbe)

Not to be confused with the famous Arch trails of other national parks, Joshua Tree’s Arch Rock Trailhead begins in the Twin Tanks Parking Lot and leads to one of the park’s most impressive displays of geological wonders.

This is a short but highly enjoyable lollipop trail; meaning the route takes a straight line for .6-miles from the parking lot to the east, becoming a short loop after. The park recommends hiking the loop portion counterclockwise, as it’s easier to spot the namesake arch from that direction. 

Plenty of educational signs mark the trail’s signature wonders, and it’s another top trek for photography and sightseeing. But please keep in mind that the trail has zero shade and no cell phone service. Always come prepared (with plenty of water and snacks) to spend time out in the desert sun. And if you’re visiting in summer, starting this hike before 10 AM is highly recommended.

5. Joshua Tree National Park Vistas: Ryan Mountain

Looking for something a bit more challenging but beyond rewarding? Ryan Mountain Trail is a difficult three mile out and back hike with 1,050 feet of elevation gain, leading to sweeping panoramic views of Joshua Tree.

Located centrally in the national park, the trail begins as a flat trek, then quickly gains elevation up Ryan Mountain. The rough dirt and rock trail contains ample steps and steep sections, but plenty of vistas along the way will leave you glad you took on the challenge to the top.

Ryan Mountain’s trailhead is located along Park Boulevard between Ryan Campground and Sheep Pass Campground. There is also a secondary trailhead for campers at Sheep Pass Campground. But keep in mind that there is no parking available at Sheep Pass for non-registered campers.

4. Embark on Barker Dam Trail

A Pond Along the Barker Dam Trail, Joshua Tree National Park, California. (Photo by Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images)

One of the most beloved treks in Joshua Tree, the park’s rocky desert landscape meets highly-photogenic waters along the Barker Dam Trail. This easy 1.1-mile loop wanders through Joshua Tree’s iconic monzogranite boulders, namesake Joshua trees, and also takes you to the historic Barker Dam.

But there’s so much more to do here than simply hike and sightsee. Rock climbers and scramblers frequent this area, as do local wildlife. Here, you can catch a glimpse of the far-off San Gorgonio Mountain and take in the unique plants of the Mojave Desert, including the park’s famous Joshua trees, Mojave yucca, pinon pines, and more.

There’s also an ancient Indigenous rock art site to experience human history “from a respectful distance,” the park asks.

3. The Incomparable Cholla Cactus Garden

The Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA. (Photo by: Sergio Pitamitz / VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Speaking of Joshua Tree’s magnificent flora, the otherworldly Cholla Cactus Garden is an unmissable experience. Located 12 miles south of the park’s north entrance, the 0.25 mile Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail is your guide to explore this magnificent “garden” of cacti.

The trail is a flat loop that takes you through a whopping 10 acres of teddybear cholla-dominated landscape. Here, the Pinto Basin houses an unbelievable expanse of alluvial fans covered with creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and burrobush (Ambrosia dumosa) as far as human eyes can see.

To reach the trailhead, take the Pinto Basin Road near the transition zone between the Colorado and Mohave Deserts. Once there, however, be sure to be careful around these cacti. As the park cites, “They are commonly referred to as ‘jumping’ cholla as segments can break off and attach to people and animals as a way to reproduce.”

2. Joshua Tree National Park’s Hidden Valley

Joshua Tree National Park California view from Hidden Valley trail. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This gorgeous land lives up to its ethereal name. To experience one of the best sections of Joshua Tree National Park, take the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and you won’t regret a single second of it.

Hidden Valley’s trailhead is located just off Park Boulevard; you can’t miss it. Once there, it’s an easy one mile loop through Hidden Valley on a trail comprised of dirt and rock that gives access to stunning vistas, rock formations, and ample flora & fauna.

This popular hike travels through the rock-enclosed valley with plenty of interpretive signs along the way. Photos don’t do it justice, but you’ll snap a thousand if photography is your thing. And as always, be sure to Leave No Trace.

1. Joshua Tree National Park’s Best View: Keys View

PALMS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 28: Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park on January 28, 2021 in Palms, California. (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)

One View to Rule Them All. This highly-sought out destination sits perched on the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, and Keys View is famous for a reason. Here, you’ll find unparalleled panoramic views of the Coachella Valley. It’s beyond worth the 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard down Keys View Road.

To experience the best views, take Keys View Trail for all its worth. Winding through the Little San Bernardino Mountains, this is a fully paved 500 foot loop that’s easy enough to tackle. Once at the top, you’ll be greeted by a spectacular overlook of the Salton Sea, Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio, and the San Andreas fault alongside Coachella Valley.

And yes, it’s that San Andreas Fault. Here, the southwest side of the ridge “drops nearly a mile in elevation into the Coachella Valley,” the park cites. Glimpsing a portion of this infamous, mind-blowing 700 mile fault is just one of the many perks to Keys View, and Joshua Tree National Park in general.

Looking to learn more ahead of your excursion? See our Top 10 Things to Know About Joshua Tree National Park next.