The Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park (+ a one day itinerary!)

Looking for the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before visiting this gorgeous park, plus where to stay, our tips, and more!

We have visited Joshua Tree two times now and after our most recent visit we realized that we have been sleeping on this park!

On our first visit in December 2018, we just passed through on a long road trip from Washington to Texas. We were limited because of our pup Kona and while we saw Joshua Trees and a beautiful sunset, we didn’t really do the park justice. So on our most recent visit in February 2022, we spent a whole day in the park trying to experience as much as we could!

Watch how we spent one day in Joshua Tree National Park!

And we had WAY more fun than we expected! To be honest, we weren’t as excited to visit Joshua Tree compared to other parks. While we know many people love it, we aren’t as big on desert scenery and tend to prefer the more green and lush parks, as well as parks with a wide variety of scenery. 

But our most recent visit proved us wrong, as we ended up having a blast hiking, climbing, and exploring all over the park! And in this guide we’re sharing the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, as well as how to get there, where to stay, and other tips, so you can experience its beauty for yourself!

Looking for more things to do in California? Check out our California guides and vlogs!

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located in Southern California, just east of Palm Springs and about three hours from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas. And it is the second most visited of California’s nine national parks, with about 3 million visitors a year!

And while we may have been skeptics at first, after one visit you’ll understand why it’s so popular! Joshua Tree National Park is basically a playground for both kids and adults with tons of rocks to admire and climb, hiking trails, camping, stargazing, mining ruins, and more!

The landscape is a fascinating combination of two deserts, the Mojave and Colorado, and dotted with boulders, mountain peaks, and of course its namesake, the Joshua Tree, which are quite unique looking, with twisted arms and spiky leaves. But despite its name, the Joshua Tree is not actually a tree, but is part of the agave family. 

Both Native Americans, like the local Cahuilla, as well as homesteaders, have considered this to be a very useful plant. These leaves could be made into baskets and sandals, the flower buds and seeds were a healthy addition to their diet, and their limbs and trunks could be used for fencing and corrals.

Unlike pine or oak trees, they do not have growth rings, so it’s difficult to estimate their age, but they grow on average ½ inch to three inches per year and some researchers believe they can live over 150 years, but many in the park could be much older. Some of the tallest in the park are around 40 feet tall!

Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!

These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors. 

When to visit Joshua Tree National Park

Barker Dam | Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

As you can imagine, with the park having a desert ecosystem, it can get very hot. The best time to visit Joshua Tree would be October through April when the average high is at or below 80 degrees fahrenheit and the average lows seldom get into the 30s (the park very rarely gets snow). This does coincide with the busy season for Joshua Tree National Park, which runs from November to May, but even with some higher crowds, it will be worth it for the weather.

We would advise not visiting in the summertime, as the weather can be in the 100s and with zero tree cover, it would be pretty brutal (and also potentially dangerous) to be hiking all day.

We have visited the park in both December and February and the temperatures were mild both times. During our most recent visit in February, it was pretty cold in the mornings and very windy all day, but the sun provided a bit of warmth. 

One thing to keep in mind when visiting is that the park ranges in elevation, from 536 feet up to 5,814 feet, so the weather can vary depending on where you are in the park. Keys View, for example, was WAY colder than down by the main road, so make sure to pack layers!

Also, if you can visit during the week, you’ll have a much less busy experience. We visited mid-week in February and were able to have quite a bit of solitude at many spots and always find parking. We hear that the park can get insane on the weekends due to its proximity to many cities in California.

Getting to + around Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located about an hour east of Palm Springs, CA and between 2.5-3.5 hours from major cities in the United States, making it one of the more accessible and convenient national parks to visit. Here’s how to get to the park whether you’re flying or driving!

Flying to Joshua Tree National Park

If you’re flying to Joshua Tree National Park, you can fly into Palm Springs International Airport (PSP), which is about an hour drive from both the north and south entrances of Joshua Tree.

This airport offers nonstop flights from many destinations across the US including Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and more. It is also serviced by many of the major airlines like Alaska, United, Delta, American, and Southwest, so finding a flight won’t be a challenge.

Driving to Joshua Tree National Park

If you’re combining Joshua Tree with other Southern California adventures or visiting another large city in the area, here is how long you can expect to drive to Joshua Tree here from nearby major destinations:

Los Angeles, CA: 2 hours, 20 minutes (131 miles)
Las Vegas, NV: 3 hours, 8 minutes (187 miles)
San Diego, CA: 3 hours, 12 minutes (159 miles)
Phoenix, AZ: 3 hours, 27 minutes (223 miles)

Getting around Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park does not have a park shuttle, so you will need to either rent a car, drive your own to get around, or hire a tour guide to show you the top sites. We visited the park in our 170 WB Mercedes Sprinter van and had no issues parking in the park, so any small sized RVs or vans should be totally fine!

Where to Stay near Joshua Tree National Park

The Coachella Valley near Joshua Tree National Park is made up of a few popular destinations like Palm Springs, Indio, and Palm Desert, that will all boast comfortable accommodations. However, this area can be pretty pricey to visit, but thankfully there are many camping options, both paid and FREE!

Hotels 

Hampton Inn & Suites Indio 
The Wesley Palm Springs
Hilton Palm Springs
Fairfield Inn & Suites Twentynine Palms
Holiday Inn Express Twentynine Palms

Airbnbs

Walk to downtown from Magical Oasis (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms): This casita style apartment is located close to downtown Palm Springs. It has all the luxuries you’ll need for a comfortable stay including two patios and laundry room.

Gorgeous Mid-Century Modern Home in Palm Springs (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms): You’ll have the entire home to yourself and it comes with access to a heated pool,  large patio with mountain views, and a gas powered grill. Throw all that in with the large painting of a llama blowing a bubble and we’re sold!

Stardust Oasis Guest House (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): The design and decor of this guesthouse is spectacular! You’ll feel like you’re taken back to the 60s with the bright, modern look of the place. You also have a private patio with a firepit, outdoor shower, and access to the full yard and pool. 

Relax Poolside at a Colorful Oasis with a Dreamy Desert Vibe (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom): This plant-filled hideaway has a bright, vibrant feel to it that also comes with an amazing outdoor space. You have your own pool, grill, and bikes to pedal around the neighborhood. 

Atomic Bungalow (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms): You’ll have this entire 1959 Mid-Century Meiselman all to yourself! It comes with unobstructed mountain views from inside and out and a new salt water heated pool. The inside has new contemporary furnishings and all the other luxuries you’ll need to feel at home.

Camping at Joshua Tree National Park

There are over 500 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park spread around 8 campgrounds, with the majority of them reservable. Many of these campgrounds can accommodate both RVs and tents, but do not have electric hookups (some have a dump station though). 

It is highly recommended to book your campsite as early as possible, especially if you plan to come during a holiday, weekend, or any day of the week in the spring, as they can fill up. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance and you can reserve at recreation.gov.

There are five reservable campgrounds that range from $20-$25/night:

There are also three first-come, first-served campgrounds that are $15/night: 

Free camping Joshua Tree USA

Boondocking

While camping in the park is a very convenient (and relatively cheap) way to stay when exploring, there are also some easy, free camping options nearby too!

Joshua Tree North Dispersed
We stayed here for one night and it was very quiet with quick access to the northern entrance of the park. This camping spot is not glamorous at all, but is perfect if you’re looking to spend all day in the park and just need a place to camp or park and then leave early the next morning. It is simply a massive open field that can probably fit 100s of vehicles, but I imagine it wouldn’t be very fun to be there on a windy day. 

Joshua Tree South Dispersed
We also stayed here a few nights and this area is much more popular and in our opinion, more scenic. There is much more vegetation here, giving some privacy between sites versus the North Dispersed option, and the camping spots are located on a few long dirt roads with spots dotted along. It has very easy access to the southern entrance of the park (literally steps away!), but is further from the majority of the areas we will recommend in this guide, which are more towards the northern part of the park.

Tortoise Rock Casino
Although we didn’t stay here, this looks like a good, easy option as well if you want more of a parking lot experience. According to reviews, they allow you to stay up to 3 nights.

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What to bring with you to Joshua Tree National Park

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But for this specific area, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.

Layers

As we mentioned above, the park’s elevation ranges from 536 feet up to 5,814 feet, so you’ll want layers to ensure you have layers to wear!

SUN PROTECTION

Because of how exposed the park is to the sun, you’ll definitely want to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to protect yourself from its rays. 

WATER

Make sure to pack lots of water! There are water fountains at the Visitor Center if you need to fill up, but our 3L Camelbak bladders helped ensure we had enough water throughout the day. Even in the winter when its cooler, it’s easy to become dehydrated, as the air is very dry and the sun still beats on you.

FOOD AND SNACKS

Unless you want to leave the park, we suggest bringing food to eat in the park, as there are no restaurants inside the park and the nearest town (Joshua Tree) is about 30 minutes or more (one way) from the major sights.

Things to know before visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

Entrance fee

There is a $30 entrance fee to visit Joshua Tree National Park and this covers 7 days in the park. We recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 per year and gets you into all National Park Service managed sites and federal lands for free.

Start early!

We always recommend starting your day early at the national parks to beat the crowds, but at Joshua Tree National Park you’ll also want to do this to beat the heat. There is not a lot of tree coverage throughout the park and you’re in the desert, so you will take a beating from the sun.  Plan to do any strenuous activities first thing to ensure you have the energy and the coolest weather!

How much time do you need?

One full day will allow you to see the top sights in the park, but two days will give you the chance to go more off the beaten path and enjoy the park at a slower pace. We’re including a one day itinerary at the end of this article to help you get started with planning! 

Dogs are not allowed

Dogs are not allowed on any park trails, but are allowed within 100 feet of roads, campgrounds, and picnic areas, as well as on any unpaved roads.

Curious what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on a hike? Read this guide about how we travel with a dog.

Cell Phone Reception

There is very little cell reception in the park, so make sure to download offline Google Maps of the area and any trails you wish to hike on AllTrails. 

The Best Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

With several areas of the park to explore and a mix of activities, there are tons of things to do at Joshua Tree National Park, with many of them being relatively easy for all ages and activity levels.

Below are some of the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, broken out by activity. This is not an exhaustive list of everything there is to do in the park, but rather what we believe should be prioritized when planning your time in Joshua Tree. We are putting an asterisk (*) next to the top spots we recommend, based on our experience! 

Go for a hike

While we normally enjoy doing longer, harder hikes to escape the crowds at national parks, we loved that there were tons of shorter hikes in the park, making it easy to knock out a bunch in one day!

Hall of Horrors Map

Hall of Horrors

Miles (roundtrip): 0.6
Elevation Gain: 26 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Hall of Horror is a narrow passageway through massive rocks and boulders, sort of like a slot canyon, that makes for a fun and unique spot in the park.

However, it is tricky to find. To get there, walk around the right side of the first giant rock formation that you’ll see from the parking lot. Once around the right side, you’ll notice a smaller formation behind it. Go to the left and walk between the two formations until you get to the left side of the smaller formation.

From here, there are a couple entrances into the Hall of Horrors, which does require a scramble to get to, so this isn’t a good hike for everyone. We have drawn some general directions on the photo above and the AllTrails reviews are a good resource to read how people found it.

Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

Hidden Valley Nature Trail*

Miles (roundtrip): 1.0
Elevation Gain: 118 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

If you’re looking for the best spot to see tons of Joshua trees, the Hidden Valley area is full of them! The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is located in the northern part of the park and along this short 1 mile trail, you’ll go hike among rock formations and get to see a valley full of Joshua trees.

Tip: After your hike, go down the trail by the picnic area to see even more Joshua trees! We enjoyed a sunrise in the picnic area and we were surrounded by the Joshua trees

Barker Dam Nature Trail*

Miles (roundtrip): 1.1
Elevation Gain: 59 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

The Barker Dam was originally built by cattlemen in 1900, before being built up a few more feet in 1949. Today there is the 1.3 mile Barker Dam Nature Trail that takes you to the dam, as well as a reservoir that after it rains, will fill with water, which is a unique sight in the desert.

During our visit (February) the water was all dried up, which we were slightly bummed about, but the rocky scenery and seeing the dam still made it worth the trek. Also, if you complete this hike as a loop, you have a chance to see some petroglyphs too! We did read they had been vandalized, so we aren’t sure if they are authentic, but it was still neat to see.

We suggest looking at recent AllTrails photos and reviews to see if there is any water. If there is, this hike is a MUST! If not, we’d still say it’s worth it, as it’s short and has tons of cool rocks, plus some history behind it, but it wasn’t our favorite trail of the day.

Arch Rock Trail (+ Heart Rock)*

Miles (roundtrip): 1.7 
Elevation: 108 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

This short trail will take you out to Arch Rock, as well as the famous Heart Rock. Starting from the parking lot, you’ll cross the road and follow the path until you reach a junction. If you go towards the right, you’ll eventually come to the Arch Rock.

While not as impressive as some arches at Arches National Park, we were surprised by how much we loved this hike! The arch was glowing in the afternoon light and right by the base of it was a fun walkway through rock walls, as well as tons of opportunities to climb over, between, and under rocks. This is the spot that truly made us understand why people love to play on the rocks at Joshua Tree National Park…it is like a jungle gym!

To find Heart Rock, go back towards the junction and go the other direction from where you came and follow a path for a bit. We ran out of time to visit Heart Rock, but from what we have seen, it looks super cool!

Tip: Be careful following the Google Maps directions. It will try to take you to the White Tank Campground, which is directly next to the Arch Rock. Parking at the campground is only for those with camping reservations at this campground. Make sure to follow the signs along the road to find the Arch Rock Nature Trail parking.

Ryan Mountain*

Miles (roundtrip): 2.9
Elevation Gain: 1,062 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Ryan Mountain is the second highest peak in the park and one of the best hikes in the park if you want views of the area! This trail climbs over 1,000 feet in around 1.5 miles, so it is definitely steep and will get you breathing a bit, but at the top, you’ll have mountain views all around you, as well as a unique perspective looking down into the park. We loved getting to see all of the boulder fields from above!

While the hike doesn’t really feature Joshua trees, it’s a must-do in our opinion, as it gives you some amazing mountain views, which are our favorite!

Ryan Mountain Joshua Tree National Park

Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail

Miles (roundtrip): 3.1 
Elevation: 636 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

If you’re a bit sick of Joshua trees, head to the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail, which takes you to a fan palm oasis! This trail starts very close to the nearby town of Twentynine Palms, as well as Joshua Tree, so it’s very easy to access. The trail will climb over and back down a ridge to get your heart pumping, before reaching the oasis, where you can take a little break before you head back.

Note: This hike is temporarily closed as of June 2022, in order to let bighorn sheep have undisturbed access to the water during the summer heat. You can see updates here!

Lost Palms Oasis Trail

Miles (roundtrip): 7.5
Elevation: 1,046 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

The Lost Palms Oasis Trail is another fan palm oasis, but located in the more southern end of the park and with quite a bit more mileage than Fortynine Palms. It is a moderately challenging hike along rolling terrain until you reach a canyon that requires a scramble to find the oasis of fan palm trees. You can also take a spur trail about three quarters of a mile into the trail to hike to Mastodon Peak.

Panorama Loop and Warren Peak

Miles (roundtrip): 7.7 
Elevation: 1,689 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

An underrated trail in the northwestern part of the park is the Panorama Loop Trail, which is gently graded until you crest along the ridgeline of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Along the way you’ll pass through tons of Joshua Trees, interesting rock formations, and have panoramic mountain views in the distance. You can also add on a side trip to Warren Peak as well!

While we personally did not do this hike, it’s at the top of our list for next time, as the views look incredible and we hear it’s way less busy than some of the shorter hikes on this list!

See mining history

In its heyday, the Joshua Tree area was home to 300 mines and today you can explore some mine ruins on a handful of trails, which is a fun way to see some history in the park!

Wall Street Mill*

Miles (roundtrip): 2.0
Elevation: 75 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions 

The Wall Street Mill Trail is an easy, flat 2 mile trail that takes you to the Wall Street Mill and along the way you’ll see building ruins, old, rusty cars, and machinery. We really enjoyed this hike, it was a fun change of pace from the rest of the park!

One of Adam’s favorite features of the trail was the memorial of Worth Bagley. Bill Keys, a prominent rancher and owner of the Wall Street Mill, and Worth got into an argument and Bill shot and killed him. After something like that you would think Bill would try to hide what he did, but nope, he built a memorial to tell about it! Talk about the wild west!

Note: This hike can be accessed from the same trailhead as Barker Dam, so they are great to combine into one hike!

Desert Queen Mine

Miles: 3.4 
Elevation Gain: 620 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

Along the 3.4 mile Queen Mine Trail, you’ll get to see some of the mine, as well as the historic and very neat looking Boulder House. According to reviews on AllTrails, the trail isn’t super well marked, so make sure to download the offline AllTrails map!

Lost Horse Mine Trail

Miles (roundtrip): 4
Elevation: 515 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions

The Lost Horse Mine was one of the most productive mines in Joshua Tree. Along the 4 mile trail you’ll follow the road that was developed to haul ore and you’ll be able to see the impressive mine ruins. 

Drive up to Keys View*

Keys View is the highest view in the park you can drive to, at 5,185 feet above sea level. From the top you’ll experience panoramic views of the Coachella Valley and the San Andreas Fault, which is an 800 mile fault that runs through California. Keys View is a popular spot to watch the sunrise or sunset, but even when we visited mid-day, the views were still gorgeous!

See Skull Rock*

Skull Rock Joshua Tree National Park

One of the most iconic photography spots is Skull Rock, which as the name implies, is a rock that looks like a skull! It makes a quick roadside stop, but beware, this is a very popular spot! During our visit there was a line to get a photo with the rock, so we skipped getting a nice photo and instead played on the rocks around it, which was maybe even more fun!

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden*

Cholla Cactus Garden |Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park

The Cholla Cactus Garden is ten acres of teddybear cholla, which are not seen very often in the rest of the park, especially in this quantity. While the quantity of them in such a small area is cool on its own, what makes it even cooler is that glow in the sunlight! 

To witness this glow for yourself, you’ll need to be there just after sunrise or a bit before sunset. The sun needs to be lower in the sky so that it’s properly placed to light up the cholla. We weren’t totally sure if the glowing phenomenon would be as amazing as everyone says…but we were blown away by how much they glow!

If you’re going around sunset like we did, make sure to get there at least an hour and a half before the sunset. There are mountains around and the sun will dip behind them before sunset, which will cause the cacti to not glow anymore. We saw some folks arrive closer to sunset time and were disappointed that since the sun had already gone behind the mountains, they were no longer glowing.

Climbing/Bouldering

Joshua Tree National Park

If climbing and bouldering are your thing then you probably already know about the climbing and bouldering problems of Joshua Tree National Park. With over 9,000 rock climbing routes, the park is a mecca for veteran and beginner climbers. 

If you’re looking to climb or boulder in the park, but don’t have much or any experience, hire a guide to take you out there and show you the ropes! Cliffhanger Guides and Uprising Adventure Guides are popular and highly rated climbing guides in Joshua Tree and they offer experiences for all ability levels.

And even if you don’t want to do actual climbing, there are tons of fun rocks to play on, which ended up being a huge highlight for us in the park!

Stargazing

The BEST things to do in Joshua Tree National Park | Joshua Tree Itinerary | One day in Joshua Tree
Photo by Brent Cox on Unsplash

If you’re not too tuckered from a day of adventuring in the park and want to stay up to see the night sky, you’ll be in for a treat! Joshua Tree has some of the darkest skies in Southern California and has been named an International Dark Sky Park. This means you have a good chance of seeing the Milky Way! 

If you visit in the winter, you’ll have the longest nights and won’t have to stay up as late for night skies. But summer will give you the best chance of seeing the Milky Way. For more info, night time photography tips, and a more detailed breakdown of stargazing by the season, check out the National Park website.

One Day Itinerary 

The things listed above will keep you busy for days, but if you’re like us and only have one full day to explore, here is our suggested one day itinerary for Joshua Tree National Park, which will take you to the major highlights! 

  1. Watch the sunrise at Keys View
  2. Hike to the top of Ryan Mountain. This is a good one to prioritize for early in the morning before it gets too hot!
  3. Admire the Joshua trees in the Hidden Valley area
  4. Visit Barker Dam and Wall Street Mill, which you can access from the same parking lot
  5. Snap a quick photo of Skull Rock
  6. Hike to Arch rock and Heart rock and play on the boulders
  7. Watch the sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden…make sure to arrive early!
  8. Enjoy the night sky!

Ready to visit Joshua Tree National Park?

Pin this list of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park to help plan your trip!

about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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