The otherworldly landscape and relatively flat roads in Joshua Tree National Park make it one of the more accessible national parks to drive through. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll take one look at Joshua Tree’s improbable boulder piles, prickly cacti, and – of course – the Joshua Trees, and you’ll be ready to park your car and scamper off toward the horizon in search of some real outdoor adventure.
If your visit to a national park isn’t complete without at least two different outdoor sports and a few long days outside, this guide is for you. It’ll give you a taste of Joshua Tree’s best outdoor adventures including hiking, biking, camping, and rock climbing. In this special landscape where the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet and blend, there is plenty to both see and do as you explore this unique desert habitat.
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
For the most up-to-date information, including current conditions, fees, maps, closures, and more, be sure to check out the National Park Service’s Joshua Tree webpage.
Getting There and What’s Nearby
Joshua Tree National Park lies 140 miles east of Los Angeles in southern California. There are two main entrances along the northern boundary on Highway 62, and one in the south along Interstate 10.
Most visitors who stay in the area base themselves in the north at one of the nearby towns: Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, or Twentynine Palms. While you’re in the area, take a drive through Wonder Valley on Amboy Road to see the curious ruins of America’s last homesteads.
The western edge of the park is very close to Palm Springs, home to the notoriously steep and challenging Cactus to Clouds hike for those looking to pack in even more tough miles.
If you have the time to explore further, Joshua Tree National Park is one of several stops on a longer SoCal desert roadtrip. You could even link it up with an epic California roadtrip itinerary that includes most of the state’s highlights in one epic loop.
When to Visit
The desert landscape can be unbearably hot during the summer months, so most people visit between September and May. Winter can have pleasant daytime temperatures but nights often drop below freezing and daylight hours are short, making it a less pleasant time for camping.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit, with average temperatures ranging between 50 – 85 degrees F. If you time your visit right, springtime brings a few weeks of unusually colorful scenery as the wildflowers bloom.
Hiking in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree may not have the most hiking options compared to some other national parks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of interesting trails and, for the experienced hiker with high tolerance for walking in sand, some challenging cross-country desert routes.
Most of the hiking in Joshua Tree National Park tends to be on shorter trails to specific destinations, with the notable exception of the 35 miles of California Hiking and Riding Trail.
For all of the hikes below I’ve linked to the description on Hiking Project, an app I use and recommend. You can download the app and cache the trail descriptions and maps for offline use, all for free.
Before starting any hike, and especially the moderate and challenging hikes listed below, make absolutely sure you’re carrying enough water, are familiar with the trail conditions (ask at a ranger station if in doubt) and have reliable navigation. Some sections of the park are quite remote.
Hikers looking for short (less than 3 miles) routes can find several pleasant options accessible for most experience and fitness levels. I recommend the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, a one mile loop situated in the middle of the park at the Hidden Valley parking area.
Even if you’re looking for a longer hike, this quick loop is a great place to start because of the signs identifying the common plants and animals along the way. Consider it a warm up and a fun way to learn about the flora and fauna you might see along the trail on longer hikes.
The Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail is another fun hike, and very close to the town of Twentynine Palms where many visitors stay. It’s a short trail with nice views that leads to a desert oasis.
These moderate Joshua Tree hikes are perfect for hikers looking to spend at least a few hours exploring on foot and away from the crowds.
Boy Scout Trail: 8 miles one way
The Boy Scout Trail is an 8 mile point-to-point route through classic Joshua Tree scenery. If you’re able to set up a two car shuttle or get a ride, it makes a fantastic one-way hike with a net downhill grade starting from the southern end at Boy Scout Trail parking area. It could also be done as an out-and-back, going as far as you like before turning around (remember, it’s uphill on the way back if you start from the southern end).Boy Scout Trail (8 miles p to p) https://www.hikingproject.com/trail/7016874/boy-scout-trail
Warren Peak Trail: 6 miles out and back
For hikers who love to earn their views, the Warren Peak Trail is a welcome opportunity to get off the low desert floor and survey the surrounding area from above. It starts and ends at the Black Rock Canyon parking area, near the town of Yucca Valley on the northwestern end of the park.
Eureka Peak Trail Loop: 11 mile loop
The Eureka Peak Trail is less popular and more challenging than the Warren Peak Trail, taking hikers to the top of an even taller peak. It can be combined with a section of the California Hiking and Riding Trail for an 11 mile loop from Black Rock Canyon parking area.
California Hiking and Riding Trail: 37 miles one way
This 37 mile point-to-point trail traverses the northern section of the park and would make a tempting thru-hike, if you can arrange transport. It’s more frequently hiked in shorter segments as an out-and-back of whatever length you like, or to close the loop between other nearby trails.
The “riding” refers to horseback riders, and the trail is open to hikers and equestrians but not bicycles.
Intrepid hikers should also check out the complete Hiking Project trail map to find more ideas for less traveled trails, but beware: many involve some sandy slogging.
Camping in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is an excellent place to camp, and one of the more unique landscapes in which I’ve ever pitched a tent. Watching the sun set over the boulder-strewn landscape is a sight to remember.
Between September to May, the high season in Joshua Tree due to cooler weather, campsites can be hard to get. The sites at Jumbo Rocks, Black Rock, Cottonwood, and Indian Cove are reservation-only during this time and fill up quickly.
The smaller sites of Belle, Hidden Valley, White Tank, and Ryan are first-come-first-serve all year long and also hard to snag a spot at during high season.
During the scorching summer months all campgrounds are first-come-first-served and easier to find space at, particularly on weekdays, but note that some campgrounds close during this time.
Note that some of these campgrounds have no water available; you’ll need to bring your own. For details on this as well as reservations and open/closed campgrounds, check the NPS website.
There is BLM land outside the park boundaries where you can camp for free (dispersed camping), being sure to leave no trace. Check this map for more information.
Biking in Joshua Tree
Biking in Joshua Tree National Park is not as easy as you might think, given the relatively flat and wide open landscape, but there are some options for the intrepid rider.
Bicycles are allowed on Joshua Tree’s network of dirt OHV roads, but consider yourself warned: these can be quite sandy and are best suited for mountain bikes with wide (2.5 inches or more) tires.
Road cyclists who don’t mind riding with some traffic can enjoy a variety of paved loops through the park and surrounding towns.
As much as I love bikepacking (overnight camping accessed by bike), Joshua Tree isn’t the ideal place for it. In addition to those sandy roads, backcountry camping is restricted for bicycles and you’d need to find a place at one of the park’s car campgrounds. Here’s a potential overnight route with further details.
Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree is known world-wide for its rock climbing. Experienced climbers will find a range of tenuous slab climbs on grippy rock, mostly trad style with a few sport routes (beware the widely spaced bolts in some cases).
Never climbed before? Joshua Tree is actually a great place to take your first outdoor rock climbing lesson. Several reputable guide companies run single day or even half-day lessons, no experience necessary. I highly recommend it! You’ll want to book in advance. See this post on climbing at Joshua Tree for Beginners to learn more.
If you’re not interested in roped climbing at all, the distinctive boulder piles scattered throughout the park are still a lot of fun to scramble around on. Look for rock formations close to most of the the major parking areas. Play within your ability level and have fun.
If you’re dreaming about a visit to Joshua Tree National Park, you might also find these helpful:
- Sleep Better While Camping: 12 Tips
- Cone Peak: Big Sur’s Most Epic Hike
- Lost Sierra Outdoor Adventure Guide
Excited about backpacking but need help getting started?
The Backpacking Trip Planner Workbook will help you start off on the right foot.
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