It’s not just a U2 album: Joshua Tree National Park is a sprawling national park in the high desert of southern California.
Located a stone’s throw from Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, like most American National Parks, is beautiful and unique.
Due to Joshua Tree’s unique latitude, elevation, and desert setting, it’s the only place in the world where – you guessed it – the Joshua trees grow. You’ll see them all over the park.
But Joshua Tree National Park has so much more to offer than scraggly trees.
Want to see the best sights in Joshua Tree National Park in just a day?
Here are my recommendations of the best things to in Joshua Tree National Park, California.
1) Drive to Keys View
The best view in Joshua Tree is found at Keys View. It’s a scenic viewpoint overlooking the Coachella Valley, including all of Palm Springs and surrounding cities.
On a clear day, you can see from Keys View to the Salton Sea.
From Keys View, you can look back into Joshua Tree National Park. You can also look down on the San Andreas fault (the rippling hills between you and the Coachella Valley lie right along the fault).
There’s little walking required at Keys View. You can walk to the tops of surrounding hills. However, the best views are located in the parking lot (or a short staircase up from the parking lot).
2) Hike the Hidden Valley Nature Trail
The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a 1 mile loop hike that takes you through an old secret valley in the heart of Joshua Tree.
A couple centuries ago, cattle thieves used this valley to hide stolen livestock. The steep, rocky walls made it the perfect hiding spot.
Today, it’s a quick, easy, and scenic hike / walk. It takes about 30 minutes to loop through the valley and take photos along the way.
The area is popular with rock climbers (as is most of Joshua Tree). If you know what you’re doing, then you can climb to the top of spires and rock formations across Hidden Valley.
3) Walk Around Barker Dam
Hidden Valley, Keys View, and Barker Dam are the “big three” sights of Joshua Tree. They tend to appear at the top of most lists of the must see sights in Joshua Tree.
Barker Dam is a small reservoir built by ranchers in the early 1900s to store water. You’re in a desert, and water is hard to find. The ranchers made it easier.
Today, Barker Dam is a 1.5 mile loop trail from the parking lot. There are also spots to make the hike more challenging and interesting – like scaling the side of a steep rock to get a spectacular view over Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree has legendary camping.
It’s also very easy to camp in Joshua Tree. There are plenty of campgrounds. All you need is a tent.
You can find first come, first served camping in Joshua Tree (like in Hidden Valley Campground). You can also reserve spots in advance (as is the case in Jumbo Rocks). Both campgrounds are central to everything. Wherever you camp, you should be surrounded by rocks and Joshua trees.
Although there’s still plenty of light pollution in the area, the high altitude and clear skies make it easy to see plenty of stars. It’s an unforgettable camping experience in the high desert.
5) Go Rock Climbing and Bouldering
Joshua Tree is popular with rock climbers of all levels. Whether you’re looking for a bouldering root or tackling complex walls, Joshua Tree has a range of unique rock formations to explore.
Joshua Tree has over 8,000 climbing routes to explore. You can find information about specific routes at the visitor center.
Go rock climbing or bouldering in the winter months, as it’s too hot in the summer. Winter works well because some of the northern climbing hotspots (like Yosemite) are covered in snow.
6) Discover Wildflowers in Spring
Joshua Tree blooms in the spring, creating a spectacular effect.
Bloom times vary from year to year. They also vary based on elevation. The lower elevations of Joshua Tree tend to bloom in February, while higher elevations bloom in May or June.
If you’re visiting Joshua Tree between February and June, ask the rangers where the best blooms are when you enter the park. Cottonwood Spring is a good spot. However, any place with Joshua trees will have a good bloom.
Other Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
You can spend half a day in Joshua Tree. Or, you can spend a week. Here are other things to do in and around Joshua Tree National Park:
Guided Tour of Keys Ranch: William F. Keys was a rancher who settled in the Joshua Tree area in the early 1900s. Today, you can tour Keys Ranch with a ranger. The 90-minute tour takes you around the workshop, schoolhouse, and store. It’s all a National Historic Register Site. If you want to learn more about one of the earliest settlers in the area, then do the guided tour of Keys Ranch.
Check Out Skull Rock: Joshua Tree has no shortage of cool rocks. Skull Rock is one of the coolest. Located just beside the road, Skull Rock in Joshua Tree is a popular tourist attraction.
Climb Ryan Mountain: If you want to do a proper hike in Joshua Tree, then Ryan Mountain is a great choice. It’s a 3 mile round trip hike with a 1,000 foot elevation gain. It’s steep and you’re at a high elevation, so make sure you’re in good shape. If you make it to the top, you get 360 degree views over the Coachella Valley and area.
Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden: Cholla cacti are a special type of cactus typically found in Mexico. However, there’s a grove of the yellow cacti in Joshua Tree. Located close to the Cottonwood Visitor Center you’ll see thousands of cacti. Visit during blooming season for maximum effect.
Drive From One End to the Other: You can drive from the south entrance of Joshua Tree to the north (or vice versa). You can even loop it into a Salton Sea road trip. If you’re visiting Joshua Tree from Palm Springs, it makes sense to do the loop. Although the southern half of Joshua Tree isn’t as exciting as the north part (which is where most sights are clustered), it’s still a beautiful high dessert area.
Joshua Tree National Park is a cool and unique place unlike anywhere else in the world.
It’s not as mind-blowingly beautiful and postcard-perfect as other National Parks in the United States. However, it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area.
If you’re in Palm Springs or looking for a weekend trip from the coast, then Joshua Tree National Park is absolutely worth a visit.