Best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park: 10 day hikes in a desert oasis
The best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park provide some of the best sunrises and sunsets you’ll ever see across windswept vistas in an iconic desert landscape
Far from the temperate rainforests of Redwood National Park and the glacier sculpted valley of Yosemite to the north lies a California desert oasis in Joshua Tree National Park. Just a couple of hours east of LA’s massive urban sprawl, Joshua Tree’s vast wilderness has captured the imagination of many an artist over the decades, but its iconic landscape is a true haven for hikers and rock climbers who come to explore its patterns of dense forest and rock formation. The best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park give you some of the best sunrises and sunsets you’ll ever see across the windswept vistas of this desert landscape.
Joshua Tree National Park is in southern California near the city of Palm Springs, and straddles two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave and the Colorado. It is named for the trees native to the Mojave, which takes up the western portion of the Park and sits a bit higher and is therefore cooler – sometimes even experiencing snow in winter. This diverse desert environment is characterized by alternating dense and sparse collections of Joshua trees and large boulders, some of which are billions of years old.
The eastern portion of the park lies on the lower, warmer Colorado desert and is marked by sandy dunes and low desert scrub like cacti. Summer temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park are likely to get up close to 100°F while winter highs are usually a much more comfortable 60°F, making it one of our top picks for best National Parks to visit in winter – although spring and fall are really the best time to explore here. Whatever time of the year you visit, you’ll want to read our guides on desert hiking and desert camping so that you go prepared for extremes.
Speaking of preparation, be aware that Joshua Tree is home to wildlife such as rattlesnakes, coyotes and scorpions. You’re in their house and the best thing to do is leave them well alone. Finally, don’t be fooled by the sandy landscape and hot temperatures into thinking you can explore in flip flops – you’ll still want to bring proper footwear such as hiking boots to explore this rocky, sandy terrain and avoid painful cactus spines.
You’ll notice that many of the best hikes in Joshua Tree are quite short, and flat, so you might be able to combine several in a single day but remember that in summer months, the middle of the day is off limits for hiking so you may just plan one at sunrise and one at sunset. We’ve also included a couple of longer hikes better saved for cooler weather.
Skull Rock Nature Trail and Jumbo Rocks
Distance: 1.7 miles
This short and sweet hike gets straight to the point, beginning with the striking rock formation that resembles a skull before delivering you straight into Jumbo Rocks, a garden of imposing rock boulders that have been smoothed out by the winds of time. It’s definitely family friendly and short enough to be combined with other hikes on the same day, but its striking scenery is not to be missed. The trail draws crowds, so plan to set out early.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Distance: 0.3 mile
If you’re seeking the cactus-rich desert landscape promised by your childhood memories of Bugs Bunny, look no further than the Cholla Cactus Garden. Positioned on the western edge of the Colorado desert, this area receives plenty of water and produces lots of vegetation as a result. This short loop takes you through a dense concentration of thousands of beautiful cholla cactus plants as well as the reptiles that live in them. You do not want to even lightly brush up against these plants however, so cover your skin and take care walking on the trail. This is a busy trail, and an excellent spot for viewing sunrise, which is all the more reason to set out early.
Hidden Valley Loop
Distance: 1 mile
This great trail is like a buffet of the best sights Joshua Tree has to offer. A narrow canyon takes you to a sheltered valley where you’ll be surrounded by classic, golden boulders formed below the earth’s surface millions of years ago then revealed over time by water erosion.
Arch Rock Nature Trail
Distance: 1.2 miles
This short, scenic lollipop trail takes you to a unique 30ft long naturally occurring granite arch that attracts visitors from all over the world. You’ll enjoy the sandy trail, diverse vegetation and opportunities for wildlife viewing on the way, and if you like to scramble over rocks you’ll find lots of opportunities for that too. Get here early and catch the sunrise through the arch.
Distance: 1.3 miles
Barker Dam was built by early cattle ranchers in the area and while it doesn't always contain water, when it does it provides a rare opportunity to capture the reflection of sunrise in the surface. Even if the dam is empty, this short hike is worth it for the rock formations and indigenous rock art along the way.
Distance: 0.6 miles
There are two great reasons to visit this trail: botany and rock formations. It’s another short, easy loop that you can do in either direction and signs on the trail teach you about how indigenous peoples here used the local plants medicinally, while you’ll enjoy excellent views of the Indian Cove rock towers popular with climbers.
49 Palms Oasis Trail
Distance: 3.1 miles
True to its name, this trail leads you to an oasis where you will discover 49 palm trees. It begins with a short half mile climb before ascending and descending several rocky ridges with spectacular valley views on the way to an enchanting desert wetland where the palm trees seem to magically flourish.
Ryan Mountain Trail
Distance: 2.9 miles
As one of the few hikes in the park to offer some decent elevation gain, Ryan Mountain Trail subsequently provides panoramic views of the Park. You’ll climb over 1,000ft in 1.5 miles over steep, rocky switchbacks and in return enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding area and desert wildlife such as bighorn sheep. This is a top choice for watching the sunset.
Panorama Loop, Black Rock Canyon
Distance: 6.7 miles
The trailhead for this hike is at 4,000ft, so you can expect wonderful views and cooler temperatures. This is another lollipop loop that provides plenty of uphill on the way through lots of beautiful Joshua trees to views of the surrounding San Gorgonio Mountains.
Boy Scouts Trail
Distance: 8-16 miles
This trail makes for one of the longer day hikes in the Park and if you’re looking for solitude, it’s certainly worth the mileage. The trail crosses the range that separates the Mojave from the Upper Pinto Basin, offering sensational views of the Indian Creek area. You’ll start in the Upper Pinto Basin and hike through a flat plain with smaller rock formations before crossing a ranch and hiking through a sandy wash to the Indian Cove trailhead. It is 8 miles one way so running a shuttle is recommended, otherwise you’re looking at a 16-mile round trip hike.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.