More than just its namesake tree, Joshua Tree National Park is home to some of the most exciting desert landscapes in the American Southwest. You can easily stretch your visit beyond a single day with miles of hiking trails on all levels, desert gardens, and surprisingly lush oases. Here’s a roundup of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
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10. Take a Picture With the Skull Rock
There’s more to Joshua Tree National Park beyond the famous desert tree, and Skull Rock is a great example. The oddly-shaped skull we see today was created slowly over millions of years as drops of water accumulated in small depressions on the surface of a massive granite boulder. The short pilgrimage to Skull Rock is one of the favorite stops on a visit to Joshua Tree, but you’ll need to wait for social media enthusiasts to capture the perfect shot before getting close to the skull.
9. Escape to Fortynine Palms Oasis
Though often barren as far as the eye can see, the desert landscape sometimes has a trick up its sleeve. If you want to get away from the crowds, hike to the Fortynine Palms Oasis in the park’s northern section. I didn’t count 49 palm trees, but I can confidently attest to the serenity of the lush oasis. The trail is closed during summer to ensure the wildlife can access fresh water.
8. Watching the Night Sky
Naturally, Joshua Tree’s desert location offers optimal stargazing conditions. The national park was declared an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, treating visitors who stick around after sunset with spectacular glimpses into the night sky. Head to the Sky’s The Limit Observatory if any stargazing programs are taking place, or find a spot free of light pollution, such as roadside pullouts along Pinto Basin Road.
7. Climb to the Summit of Ryan Mountain
The Ryan Mountain Trail is a short but challenging ascent to one of the most stunning vistas in Joshua Tree National Park. From the summit at the height of 5457ft, enjoy unobstructed 360-degree views of the national park and the surrounding mountain peaks. Watch how tiny passing cars appear on Park Boulevard and get a bird’s eye view of some of the park’s magnificent clusters of granite boulders.
6. Go Back in Time at Keys Ranch
You’ll need some luck and advanced preparation to score tickets to guided ranger-led tours of the historic Keys Ranch. It’s hard to believe how a family of seven could survive in this harsh desert landscape, but that’s exactly what William and Frances Keys managed to accomplish. Beginning in 1910, the Keys settled this land, planting orchards, mining, grazing cattle, and doing just about anything needed. Tours of the historic ranch tell the family’s story over the course of six decades. It’s a great way to spice up your visit to Joshua Tree, and the kids will love it.
5. Hike to the Lost Palms Oasis
In the park’s remote southeastern section, the long hike to the Lost Palms Oasis is another great way to escape the crowds. Start with a quick detour to Mastodon Peak and continue hiking along a relatively rich desert landscape to the secluded oasis. On the return leg, pass through the Cottonwood Spring and imagine what this area must have looked like before humans arrived.
4. See a Bit of Everything at Barker Dam
The Barker Dam Nature Trail packs a lot of excitement for a 1.1-mile hike. Start with a short detour to the Native American rock painting site and pause every few steps to listen if any resident woodrats are at work. Then, continue through a forest of Joshua trees to Barker Dam and the impressive array of smooth granite boulders in all shapes and sizes. On your way out, extend the thrill by merging with the Wall Street Mill Trail and visiting an abandoned mine.
3. Stroll Around the Cholla Cactus Garden
The Joshua tree is undoubtedly the national park’s star plant, but the cholla cactus gives it a good run for its money. Located roughly where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, the Cholla Cactus Garden is a sight not to be missed. There’s nothing but barren desert around this lush but thorny desert garden, and the dense concentration of cholla cactuses radiating under the heat of the day or glowing at dusk or dawn is something to be seen. Just don’t get too close to these guys, as their thorns easily detach and stick to humans and animals.
2. Get Lost in the Hidden Valley
Before William Keys blasted a sizable access point to the hidden valley, this partially-enclosed 55-acre area was abundant with tall native grass and mostly hidden from the outside world. This made it the perfect spot to hide stolen cattle back when this was a popular way for rustlers to make ends meet. Go for a stroll along the Hidden Valley Nature Trail and enjoy one of the most diverse and impressive spots in Joshua Tree National Park.
1. Watch the Sunset from Keys View
Where there’s a desert, there are usually spectacular sunsets. The best place to catch the sunset at Joshua Tree National Park is in Keys Views. Pack something warm and grab a secluded spot before the crowds arrive at the finest scenic viewpoint in the park. From 5185ft, enjoy sweeping views of the Coachella Valley and the surrounding peaks. On a clear and relatively smog-free day, you might see as far as the Salton Sea, some 35 miles away.
This wraps up the list of the top 10 things to see and do in Joshua Tree National Park. Plan your visit to the park with this in-depth travel guide and explore additional California guides. If you’re planning an epic desert road trip, explore other travel guides to the American Southwest.
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