Article Overview: Things to Do at Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is renowned for its unique desert landscapes, striking rock formations, beautiful oases, and plethora of amazing things to do. I first visited Joshua Tree back in 2013 with a group of friends and have come back many times since.
If you’re looking to disconnect from city life and get in touch with nature, Joshua Tree is a great place to do it. Cell phone service is almost completely nonexistent and civilization can only be seen from the highest peaks of the park. If you stay until after dark, you will see one of the most brilliant displays of the cosmos in the southwest.
To help you make the most of your trip, here’s the top 25 things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Ready to go? Let’s get right to it!
About My Travels to Joshua Tree National Park
As I mentioned, I first traveled to Joshua Tree with my brother Jim and some friends way back in 2013 on a road trip to the southwest. It was early January and the park was devoid of tourists and seemed magical. The landscapes were otherworldly and I knew then that I would be coming back for future visits.
Then, in 2014 I was part of a small film crew that shot a visually-stunning film on Joshua National Park. It was my job to find all of the most beautiful places and things to do (rough stuff). As a result, I know all nearly all the best things to do in Joshua Tree and have some pretty epic photos.
Things to Know Before You Visit Joshua Tree National Park
Entrance Fees are $30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Best Guide Book
The Best Guide Book: James Kaiser is the proverbial bees knees in this department. I love all of his National Park guides and his Joshua Tree Guide Book is no exception.
The Best Map: I like this map best for Joshua Tree National Park.
Sunscreen: Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
Getting Around: Joshua Tree is a very accessible park with the main park road taking visitors through various viewpoints, hiking opportunities, and interesting sites. Any vehicle will do on the main park road, but you’ll need a 4WD high-clearance vehicle for some of the unpaved and off-the-beaten-path roads in the park. Either way prepare for some scenic driving! The park does get very busy in the Summer so be prepared for limited parking in the more popular areas and full campgrounds.
Cell Service is spotty in the park. AT&T is pretty rough but Verizon is better.
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.
Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.
Water: Drink it. Lots of it. Don’t forget it in the car.
Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree
The Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree National Park is during the winter and early spring when the park is cooler and the crowds are lesser.
Best Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
25. Boy Scout Trail
At 8 miles point to point, the Boy Scout Trail is one of the most difficult things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. This hike should be started as early as possible in the morning and should not be attempted during midday heat.
While the trail winds its way through the beautiful Wonderland of Rocks area hikers should make sure to stay on the marked path rather than exploring the boulder piles as it’s very easy to get turned around.
Losing the trail is something to be avoided on this hike especially as temperatures rise.
If you’re into birds like me, then birding is sure to make your list of the top things to do in Joshua Tree. The park is home to many year-round resident species of birds that make it attractive to birders from all over. Each season the park gets a new round of amazing aviary species.
In addition to these temporary residents, brightly colored warblers and birds of prey have all been spotted here as they migrate. If you’re especially lucky, you might see groups of 200 or more turkey vultures stop for the night at the Oasis of Mara during their spring migration. It is quite a sight to behold and definitely worth the trip out.
23. Hall of Horrors
The Hall of Horrors Trail is a really cool and interactive hike as well as a popular bouldering spot in Joshua Tree National Park. The Hall of Horrors trailhead is located off of Park Blvd (the main park road).
This short stop is a really great, family friendly hike, that features narrow boulder slots and great scrambling rocks. At just .6 miles with no elevation gain, Hall of Horrors is one of the easiest hikes in Joshua Tree.
22. Geology Tour Road
21. Travel to Two Different Deserts
Joshua Tree National Park is divided into two different ecosystems – the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert. For those new to desert landscapes, you may not expect to be able to tell the difference but, it can be shocking just how clear the difference is. That’s why traveling between the deserts makes my list of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
The elevation between the deserts is the key difference. The Colorado is often hotter with little vegetation except for a few cactus gardens. As you climb above 3,000 feet, you enter the Mojave section. The Mojave desert is a bit more photogenic and typically the views people associate with Joshua Tree National Park. Pay close attention to the ecosystems and you can see what each one has to offer.
Top 20 Best Things to Do at Joshua Tree
20. Fortynine Palms Oasis
Fortynine Palms Oasis is perhaps Joshua Tree’s most beautiful desert oasis featuring massive fan palm trees. The trail can be steep at a view spots but all in all is doable were it not for the intense desert heat which should be avoided.
Sunrise is a great time to attempt the Fortynine Palms Hike. At 3 miles the trail is not too long with 300 feet of elevation gain.
Make sure to heed the posted signage and DO NOT enter the oasis as it is a very sensitive biological area containing a crucial water supply for a fragile ecosystem of desert life.
The vast expanses of desert land make backpacking one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s incredibly easy to find space to camp, although it’s important to be informed about what areas are appropriate for camping because you may damage the desert soil if you camp in the wrong spot. The park has 13 staging areas for backcountry camping trips where you can register and get all the information you need.
While park rangers are there to help on the day, planning in advance is crucial. You will need to carry all your water with you as there are no water sources in the backcountry. It isn’t advised to camp in the summer but, no matter what time you go, you will need to bring lots of layers because temperatures can change as much as 40 degrees in one day! Oh, and you’ll have to leave your furry friends at home because there are no pets allowed.
18. See the Spring Blooms
Many people time their trips to Joshua Tree in order to see the spring blooms. The exact timing of spring blooms can vary depending on winter temperatures and precipitation, but the park offers a wide variety of flora and the timing of their blooms varies too. The cactus gardens located in the middle of the park, where the Colorado desert meets the Mojave desert, are the ideal place to see the gorgeous cactus flowers and other blooms.
Because the park has two distinct ecosystems, you’ll get a unique opportunity to witness the difference as you drive through the park. Between the two ecosystems, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get a firsthand look at how the different elevations and ecosystems contribute to the spring blooms and vegetation found throughout the park.
Watch the Award Winning Joshua Tree National Park Film
Exciting petroglyphs can be found throughout Joshua Tree on the desert varnish that covers the old rocks. Desert varnish is a dark yellow or black layer that forms on the surface of many rocks in Joshua Tree National Park. The desert varnish in Joshua Tree National Park is over 2,000 years old which makes these ancient petroglyphs possibly thousands of years old.
Very little is known about the rock art in this region and it’s function in the societies which created it, but increased efforts have been made to preserve this art for future study and enjoyment. It’s really cool to look at – it looks like an alien language. These mysterious markings definitely make my list of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Some of the best stargazing in the country happens every night in the crown jewel of the Mojave, Joshua Tree National Park. It’s hard to choose a bad spot in this park to simply gaze up at the galaxy around you through one of the darkest skies you’ll find in America.
Observing the night sky is certainly one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree, but you can make it extra special by attending the Night Sky Festival. The park is designated an International Dark Sky Park because of it’s amazing unobstructed views of the cosmos. The park strives to be a refuge for those who want to experience a naturally dark night sky.
Boasting some of the darkest nights in Southern California, offers many visitors the chance to admire the Milky Way for the first time in their lives. If you want to attend the festival, it’s usually held in the fall and tickets can be purchased in summer. If you want to do your own stargazing, the park website offers plenty of tips for getting the most out of your experience.
Top 15 Things to Do in Joshua Tree
15. Rock Climbing
One of the top things to do in Joshua Tree, which attracts people from all over, is rock climbing. This climbing haven is famous for its traditional-style crack, slab, and steep face climbing routes. Joshua Tree appeals to all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes that suit any climber looking to master new challenges. Echo Rock, located off the Barker Dam Trail, is popular with first-timers and advanced climbers alike because it has a range of routes available.
If you do decide to go climbing, be vigilant about following all rules and guidelines because climbers are left to their own devices unless you hire a certified guide. You’ll need to bring your own gear or rent from a local shop outside of the park. If you have any questions or just want to connect with fellow climbers, the park offers Climber Coffee in the Hidden Valley Campground from 8:00-10:00 am on Saturdays and Sundays from mid-October through April.
14. Mountain Biking
Mountain biking is another popular activity you’ll spot while in Joshua Tree. There is a very popular 3-day biking trip through Joshua Tree hosted by REI, but many come on their own or bring their bikes out for the day because the rocky terrain and varied elevation make mountain biking one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Some tips for mountain biking in Joshua Tree: avoid the main paved road which don’t have a shoulder and stick to the backcountry dirt roads. The park has several biking campgrounds available with shared fire pits, but keep in mind that no more than 3 people are allowed per campsite so plan accordingly if you want to bring a bunch of friends.
It probably wouldn’t be advised for those who aren’t moderately experienced bikers as elevation gains can be in the thousands of feet as you travel from the lower desert to higher desert areas.
13. Horseback Riding
Feel like you’re on an adventure through the wild west with a horseback riding trip on the trails. Joshua Tree National Park boasts two hundred fifty-three miles of equestrian trails, so it definitely makes the list of top things to do in Joshua Tree. The two most popular areas of the park for equestrian users are Black Rock Canyon and the areas near the West Entrance. You’ll also find campsites with designated stock animal areas.
If you bring your horses with you to the park, be sure to stick to designated trails as desert soils can take years to heal when disturbed. Plan to bring enough water for you and your animals because the water sources here, including springs and water fountains, are not available for animals.
Be sure to bring plenty of food as well because grazing is not permitted and food is restricted to pellet feed only. You can visit the Joshua Tree NPS website for more information or to make overnight reservations.
12. Indian Cove Nature Trail
Yucca brevifolia, the park’s namesake, is also known as the Joshua Tree. The Indian Cove Nature Trail is an easy, 0.6 mile hike that puts you up close and personal with the flora of the desert. It’s perfect for great views of the joshua trees. Signage posted along the trail tells you more about all the plants and how the Indians who once inhabited this land used them. This is also a great trail for spotting native wildlife like bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, so keep an eye out.
This a perfect hike for newbies and experts alike, making it one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. If you’re traveling with children or older adults, Indian Cove Nature Trail is a great option that everyone could enjoy. Find it just beyond the ranger station off Indian Cove Road.
11. Camping at Joshua Tree
While you certain can enjoy yourself after just one day in the park, camping remains one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. The busy season is from November to May but before you try and book in the summer off-season, keep in mind that it can get well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer with ground temperatures over 180 degrees.
Book your site before you leave because cell service is unreliable if not non-existent in the park. If you can’t book a campsite in advance, the park does have first-come, first-serve campsites for rent or you can camp outside the park. No matter which camping option you go with, but especially if you are dispersed camping, be sure to bring plenty of water as water refilling stations are sparse. The park recommends one gallon of water per person per day.
There are 8 developed campgrounds located within Joshua Tree National Park. Of these, my favorites are Jumbo Rocks, White Tank, & Hidden Valley Campground.
Top 10 Best Things to Do at Joshua Tree National Park
10. Ryan Mountain
The Ryan Mountain Trail is one of the more challenging trails in Joshua Tree National Park due to its steep climb and completely exposed nature. There is no shade along the trail and as such this is a hike that should not be attempted during peak heat hours (or anywhere close).
The views from the top of the Ryan Mountain hike are some of the best in all of Joshua Tree National Park so if you think you’re up for it the reward is great.
Hikers should start this trail early and bring plenty of water (and a snack for the top!) The going is a steady incline of 1000 feet or so over a mile and a half, the back down.
Best Hikes in Joshua Tree: 15 Epic Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
9. Oasis of Mara
The Oasis of Mara is one of five spring-fed oases inside the park. It’s where Indians once found water and shade. Plus it provided the perfect place to hunt and gather food. The plants found here were a key part of life for the Serrano people who lived here. It’s amazing to see how such a small space could provide so much for the people who lived there.
Oasis of Mara is one of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park because it’s the most accessible place to view the California fan palm. If you plan on viewing the park from the comfort of your car, this is a great place to get out and stretch your legs. It’s located right near the Oasis Entrance. There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the view. It’s also the only trail where pets are allowed.
8. Sunset at Keys View
Keys View is the highest point in Joshua Tree. The trail is a steep-but-brief 0.25 miles and is a quick 20-minute drive from Park Boulevard down Keys View Road The views are worth the walk at any time of day. On clear sunny days, visitors can see views of the entire Coachella Valley, Palm Springs and peaks that stretch all the way to Mexico. Capture breathtaking views of the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio, and the Salton Sea.
Sunset is the the peak time to visit this trail though. The sky turns a beautiful orangey-red and those who stay long enough will be treated to breath-taking views of the starry-night sky and the millions of sparkling lights emanating from Palm Springs. Depending on when you visit, Keys View can get a little crowded because it is one of the quintessential things to do at Joshua Tree.
7. Cholla Cactus Garden
Located on the eastern side of the park, Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the most well-known things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. The main attraction of the hike is the deceptive Cholla Cactus (also known as the Teddy Bear cactus and Jumping Cactus). These spiky plants are a common food source for desert wildlife and some of the fruit may be edible (although we don’t recommend trying to pick any).
The spines of the cactus plant have backwards barbs that may look fuzzy like a teddy bear but are actually quite painful and somewhat difficult to remove. While hiking this short trail and many others in Joshua Tree I was graced by more than a few of these spines and can attest first hand to their incredible ability to grab onto hikers.
This trail is an easy 0.25 mile loop with stunning views of one of the largest concentrations of cholla cacti. The trail sits in the center of the park, right where the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet. Here you can see thousands of densely-concentrated cholla cacti.
The plants have organically grown in this dense formation and continue to thrive despite living so closely together. It’s arguably the best spot in the park to see such a variety of desert plants and flowers, so it’s definitely on of the top things to do in Joshua Tree.
6. Skull Rock
Skull Rock captures the magic and mystery of Joshua Tree. It began long ago as rain started to erode the granite. As more rock eroded, more water accumulated in pools and funnels, until (after many, many years) two hollowed-out eye sockets formed and the rock started to look like a skull. What feels like a set piece from an Indiana Jones movie is really just mother nature getting creative!
Skull Rock is easy to find. You can get a parking spot just across the road or walk the 1.7-mile trail from Jumbo Rocks Campground. The trail is easy but will take you 1-2 hours to complete. It’s worth it for one of the most unique things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Top 5 Best Things to Do at Joshua Tree
5. Mastadon Peak & Cottonwood Springs Oasis
Hiking Mastadon Peak via Cottonwood Springs is one of my favorite things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. The trail is a moderate one that leads to the best place in the park to soak in a sunset, Mastadon Peak.
From the Cottonwood Springs parking lot, take the Mastadon Mine Loop Trail past Cottonwood Springs. The trail is a 3 mile loop with about 375 feet elevation gain in total.
You’ll hike through a few dry washes on this gently inclining trail up to Mastadon Peak itself. Mastadon Peak represents perhaps the best place in the Joshua Tree National Park to see a sunset.
4. Barker Dam
Hiking to Barker Dam is one of the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park featuring much of the park’s best known topography along with a largely seasonal pool of water. Along this trail is one of the best places in the park to spot the elusive bighorn sheep.
The Barker Dam hike is just over a mile long with minimal elevation gain taking most folks about an hour or so to complete. Scenery includes Joshua Trees, cholla cacti, lizards, rock piles, and Barker Dam.
The trailhead for Barker Dam is located at the same parking lot as the Wall Street Mill.
3. Wall Street Mill
Seeing the Wall Street Mill is one of the coolest things to do in Joshua Tree featuring the ruins of an old gold ore crushing mill, the most intact of it’s kind anywhere in the region. Walking around the actual mill feels like you’re on the a set of western movie.
The mill was built by one of the park’s most lasting characters in 1933, William F. Keys, whose marks remain all over the park. The Wall Street Mill is on the register of national historic places.
Hiking to the mill is straightforward, starting next to the Barker Dam Trailhead, and following the separate Wall Street Mill Trail for just over a mile to the mill. Along the way hikers will pass by rusted out cars and more ruins from the 19th and 20th centuries.
2. Arch Rock
The Arch Rock Trail is one of the most beautiful and popular things to do at Joshua Tree. Located off the north end of Pinto Basin Road, the trail is great for kids. This area is very interactive, full of beautiful rock formations that create hallway effects at times.
The loop trail starts at the Twin Tanks parking lot circling by Arch Rock before making its way back. Hikers should keep a look out as Arch Rock is easy to miss amongst all the other striking rock formations.
Alternatively, if you are camping at the White Tank Campground and have a parking spot there, the hike to Arch Rock is much shorter!
1. Admire the Epic Joshua Trees
Let’s get real – the main reason most of us venture out to Joshua Tree is to see first-hand the wacky and wonderful namesake of the national park, the Joshua Tree! The name actually comes from 19th century Mormon settlers who saw the outstretched arms of the tree and thought it resembled the biblical Joshua praying for victory at Jericho.
The Joshua Tree, or Yucca brevifolia, is actually a Yucca plant and members of the asparagus family.
Some of the best places to view Joshua Trees in the park are:
- Park Boulevard (they’re everywhere)
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail
- Boy Scout Trail
- Black Rock Campground
Map of the Best Things to Do at Joshua Tree National Park
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
Closest Airport: PSP – Palm Springs International Airport (Palm Springs)
The fastest way to get to Joshua Tree National Park of course depends on where you’re coming from, but it’s probably safe to say it’s by flying into Palm Springs. From Palm Springs you can rent a car and be in the park in under an hour without trouble.
The most affordable way to get to Joshua Tree, other than driving, is most likely by flying into LAX or San Diego International Airport and then renting a car. Yes you’ll likely have to deal with hellish traffic, but you’ll get the cheapest prices on both flight and rental cars.
Navigating Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is an easy park to navigate from your car. There’s really only one main road that takes you through the park with a few other options to different trails or areas.
There are a few 4WD high-clearance roads in the park that will get you out away from the main roads and crowds without having to hike. It’s important to note though that in Joshua Tree when they say 4WD high-clearance, they mean it. Some of those roads are nasty.
Things to Keep in Mind While Visiting Joshua Tree
Please Recreate Responsibly! Joshua Tree has become somewhat notorious as a destination for miscreants who enjoy defacing or otherwise degrading park property. I know those of you reading this aren’t those people, but lets all make sure we follow signs, keep our trash to ourselves, and respect this beautiful place.
Be Safe on Those Trails! Seriously, Joshua Tree has had an epidemic of missing hikers in recent years due in part to increased visitation, unpreparedness, and very unforgiving terrain. Always remember to use the buddy system out here, bring plenty of water, tell others where you’re going, and always have a plan.
4WD High-Clearance Really Means it Here. Think again before pushing your sedan onto some of the back roads here labeled 4WD. I’ve seen firsthand the carnage these roads can wreak on ill-equipped vehicles.
Palm Springs is a great base-camp for those who can’t find a campground or prefer such creature comforts as a bed and running water. Boasting a vast array of amenities and only 40 minutes from the park, it’s a rare city next to a beautiful national park. Best to take advantage of it for food, lodging, and more.
List of the Best Things to Do at Joshua Tree National Park
- Admire the Epic Joshua Trees
- Arch Rock
- Wall Street Mill
- Barker Dam
- Cottonwood Springs Oasis
- Skull Rock
- Cholla Cactus Garden
- Sunset at Keys View
- Oasis of Mara
- Ryan Mountain
- Indian Cove Nature Trail
- Horseback Riding
- Mountain Biking
- Rock Climbing
- Spring Blooms
- Fortynine Palms Oasis
- Two Deserts
- Squaw Tank
- Hall of Horrors
- Boy Scout Trail
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Parks
I’m Will Pattiz, and along with my brother Jim, we’re collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
I’ve spent my entire adult life exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands. Along the way I’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Tips for Visiting a National Park
Permit Systems and Reservations
Check to see if the national park you’re visiting has a permit or reservation system in place before visiting. As parks become increasingly crowded more has to be done to safeguard them which means controlling the hundreds of millions of people who visit these places each year.
Popular national parks with reservation systems of some kind include Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Arches, Acadia, Denali, and more.
Want Less Crowds? Try a National Forest!
Try visiting a national forest while you’re on your trip to avoid the crowds. There are 155 national forests in America, many of which are equally as beautiful as the national parks they neighbor and only see a fraction of the visitors.
For example, try the Flathead National Forest next to Glacier National Park, the Bridger-Teton next to Grand Teton, and the Dixie which borders nearly all of the Utah National Parks.
Practice Safety, Seriously
National parks are amazing but wild places so it is essential to practice basic safety while visiting them. Every year people die while vacationing in national parks. This is easily avoided by:
- Sticking to trails
- Checking the weather before going out on a hike
- Maintaining a safe distance between wildlife which means at least 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators
- Avoid ledges with steep drop offs
Helpful Related Articles
Best Hikes Joshua Tree: 15 Epic Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree Guide: Joshua Tree National Park Ultimate Guide
Things to Do Death Valley: 18 EPIC Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
San Diego National Parks: 6 AMAZING National Parks Near San Diego
Los Angeles National Parks: 7 Epic National Parks Near Los Angeles
Road Trip Essentials: 35+ Road Trip Essentials You’ll Love (+ Packing List)
Road Trip Planning Tools: 15 Best Free Road Trip Planning Tools (& Apps) 2022
Best Hiking Apps: 20 Best Hiking Apps for All Skill Levels
Redwood National Park: Redwood National Park Ultimate Guide
Things to Do Redwood National Park: 15 EPIC Things to Do in Redwood National Park
Death Valley National Park Guide: Death Valley National Park Ultimate Guide
Things to Do Pinnacles National Park: 10 Epic Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park
Redwoods Near San Francisco: 15 BEST Places to See Redwoods Near San Francisco
San Francisco National Parks: 8 BEST National Parks Near San Francisco
Yosemite Facts: 10 Shocking Yosemite National Park Facts
Sequoia Facts: 10 GIANT Sequoia Tree & National Park Facts
West Coast Parks: 20 BEST West Coast National Parks Ranked by Experts