Best time to visit: Fall through Spring
Recommended Hikes/Walks: Boy Scout Trail to Willow Hole, Hidden Valley, Barker Dam, Ryan Mountain, Split Rock Loop
Ideal For: Hiking, Rock Climbing, Auto-Touring, Horseback Riding, Star-Gazing
Where to stay: north/west side of the park
Joshua Trees grow throughout the Mojave desert which spans three U.S. states, but their densest concentration is found in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. Besides the trees, the park is famous for giant outcroppings of granite boulders, created by tectonic fault lines in the region. Joshua Tree is a desert park and it gets dangerously hot during summer, making fall and spring the most pleasant time to visit. Winter can be cold and windy but still preferable to summer.
Must See Attractions:
North side of the Park - Not a distinct section, but the entire northwestern half of the park is where all the Joshua Trees are concentrated. It is literally a forest of them - they go on and on and seem to be perfectly spaced out between each other. The drive from the park's west entrance to the Pinto Basin Road is spectacular.
Queen Valley Road - This is a dirt road, but it is well maintained and easily handled by all vehicle types when dry. The road is narrow but it is marked as a two-way route. When driving the route, try to go right at forks to avoid coming face to face with another car at a narrow section.
Barker Dam - A nice, short walk to an old dam that was built in the early 1900s by the first pioneers to settle here. This walk can be extended to a hike into a serene patch of Joshua Tree forest, surrounded by piles of granite boulders on all sides. Read more about it in the hiking section below.
Arch Rock - Located right next to the White Tank campground, Arch Rock is impressive and quite large for a natural bridge made of granite. There is some parking near the trailhead - within the campground. it's a short walk to reach the arch.
Key's View - The highest elevation in the park that you can reach in a car. This viewpoint looks out across the Coachella Valley and on clear days, you can see the Salton Sea and sometimes all the way to Mexico.
Other Granite Outcroppings - There are many outcroppings of granite boulders piled up throughout Joshua Tree. The rocks are weathered into rounded shapes and they really are a cool characteristic of the park. They are very popular for rock climbers but casual hikers can enjoy exploring them and even scrambling up them. Many of the outcroppings have names, and many more do not. Explore at will!
Joshua Tree's desert climate can reach summer temperatures well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid summer months if possible. Winter nights can drop below freezing.
There are a lot of hiking routes in the park that are not marked on the park map. The park newspaper has more details on these routes. Check at the visitor center for more detailed hiking maps as well.
Joshua Tree has one of the darkest night skies in Southern California, making it a great place for star-gazing and for watching meteor showers.
Drinking water is available at the visitor center and at the west entrance station, but nowhere else within the park boundaries (including most of the campgrounds). Fill up at the entrance stations, and be sure to bring your own supply if you are planning to stay at the campgrounds.
Joshua Tree is piloting a shuttle service during spring 2018 and 2019. Read more about it here.
Where to Stay:
On the north side of the park. The northwest part of the park is the Mojave Desert which is where all the Joshua Trees and granite outcroppings are. The southeast side of the park is the Colorado Desert which is flatter with less vegetation and very few Joshua Trees.
There is a small town just outside of the park's west entrance gate which has a few hotel options and also has houses available for rent on Air BnB.
There are several campgrounds that can be reserved online in advance. These campgrounds a good options and worth booking in advance, but are almost always full on weekends. They can be reserved online in advance here.
There are more first-come-first-served campgrounds in the Mojave section of the park. Each is nestled into granite outcroppings and they offer the best overnight experience in Joshua Tree, especially for star-gazing. These campgrounds have no drinking water so be sure to bring your own. The sites are highly prized and are often full, especially on weekends.
Hiking in Joshua Tree:
If you look at the park map, there doesn't appear to be many hiking routes in Joshua Tree - that is not really the case! There are a lot of trails that are not marked on the main park map. The park newspaper that you get at the entrance station has more detailed hiking options and maps.
Boy Scout Trail to Willow Hole - This is my favorite hike in Joshua Tree. It should be started from the south end of the Boy Scout Trail which is about a mile east of Quail Springs, near the parks west entrance gate. The Boy Scout Trail runs all the way to the park's northern boundary, but the turnoff to Willow Hole is well before that. The Boy Scout Trail runs through some of the most serene patches of Joshua Trees in the park - I highly recommend this hike! Read more about it here.
Barker Dam - The Barker Dam Loop by itself is better classified as a walk than a hike, but it can be extended to explore an area of secluded Joshua Trees that are surrounded on all sides by tall granite rock formations. The exit point to reach this section is to the west of Barker Dam and it runs all the way to the dirt road that leads to Key's Ranch. This area is really tranquil and it can be explored by following the washes that run between the trees. Try to stay in the wash area (deep sand/no vegetation) in this area and avoid cutting your own path across the desert floor.
Split Rock Loop - Not as famous as its cousin Skull Rock Loop, but in my opinion, Split Rock is the better hike of the two. It is a few miles east of the Jumbo Rocks campground. This hike is not marked on the main park map, but there is a sign on the road to points to the turn-off. The hike is a two mile loop among massive granite boulders. If you are comfortable scrambling on the rocks, there are some really cool, tight spaces and caves that you can squeeze through just off the trail.
Squaw Tank Trail - This is a long hike that is way off the beaten path. This hike starts at the Ryan Campground and the first few miles is on the eastbound California Riding and Hiking Trail. The Squaw Tank Trail splits off from the Riding/Hiking Trail after a few miles. The split off is easy to miss but it is marked by a metal sign and there are more trail markers with arrows further along this route. Squaw Tank Trail mostly follows a wash on a slight downslope through the most remote granite outcroppings in the park. It is an out-and-back hike, so when you have gone as far as you wish, the way back is the way you came. I would estimate this hike to be about 9 miles roundtrip with minimal elevation change. You will likely see nobody else on this trail.
Ryan Mountain - This hike offers a nice climb given most hikes in Joshua Tree are pretty flat. Ryan Mountain is in the center of the park and its peak offers outstanding views in every direction. Read more about the hike here.
Other hikes/walks that you may want to consider are the Skull Rock Loop, the Cholla Cactus Garden, and the Pine City Trail.
49 Palm Oasis and Desert Queen Mine can safely be skipped.
Off the Beaten Track
Geology Tour Road - I haven't driven this as it is advertised as requiring 4 wheel drive, but I have found info online saying that the first 6 miles of it can be handled by most cars. Read more about it here. There a few other rugged dirt roads in the park which require 4-wheel drive for anyone interested in off-road auto-touring,
Parts that I missed
Cholla Cactus Garden - This short nature walk looks pretty cool. See a video of it here.