Joshua Tree National Park is a desert hiking and camping destination located in Southern California. In addition to its often harsh environment, Joshua Tree National Park is known for its Yucca Trees (better known as Joshua Trees), cholla cacti, and vast rock formations. If you're ready for a desert adventure, there are many things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, like taking a stroll on the Hidden Valley Trail, hiking the rigorous Ryan Mountain Trail, or camping at the Jumbo Rocks Campground. If you want something to do other than hiking, you can view the cacti at the Cholla Cactus Garden, learn about the park at one of the three Visitor's Centers, or watch the sunset at Key's View. Since the park is located far from a large town, Joshua Tree National Park does not have much light pollution, which means that it is a great place for stargazing. As one of the National Park Service’s 62 National Parks, Joshua Tree is equipped with 3 visitors centers near the 3 main entrances to the park. In the Spring and early Summer, Joshua Tree lights up with fields of wildflowers, starting on the southern end of the park in the Spring and slowly moving north, and up in elevation, as the Summer approaches.
There is no drinking water located inside Joshua Tree National Park, so they recommend bringing at least one gallon of water per person, per day into the park with you—two gallons if you are doing strenuous activity or if you will be in extreme heat. There are no restaurants located inside the park, so visitors will also need to bring all snacks and meals. Due to its desert location, Joshua Tree National Park can face extreme weather, so be prepared with appropriate clothing, water, and sun protection. Also, there is no cell service in the park, so get familiar with your map and stay with your group. The entrance fee to Joshua Tree National Park is $30 for a 7 day pass and is also covered by the $80 America The Beautiful Pass—The National Park Service's annual pass*. After our research of the many online articles written about Joshua Tree, online reviews, and our personal experience, we determined that the following are the best places to hike, play and stay in and around Joshua Tree National Park.
*Prices at time of publication.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail is an easy, 1 mile loop trail that is centrally located in Joshua Tree National Park, right across the street from the Hidden Valley Campground. This loop is known for its interesting rock formations, desert plants, and Yucca Trees—better known as Joshua Trees. Due to its fairly short distance and slight elevation gain, Hidden Valley Nature Trail can be enjoyed by most people year around. It is rumored that this trail used to be utilized by cattle farmers before being incorporated into the National Park System.
After gathering data from 36 articles written on Joshua Tree, Hidden Valley Nature Trail was mentioned 25 times, making it one of the top options on our list. While this hike has very high reviews, most other hikes do as well, so our personal experience here was an important factor.
We enjoyed our leisurely stroll through Hidden Valley Nature trail which incorporated some of the main elements of the National Park—including the notorious Joshua Tree. This trail is not completely flat, so we were able to climb some incline without the commitment of a moderate or difficult hike. Fairly easy with great sights, we felt that visitors could not go wrong with this hike.
This is one of Joshua Tree National Park’s most popular hikes, so you may have to circle the parking lot a few times to find a spot if you visit in the busy seasons (Spring and Fall). There is a picnic area located in the same parking lot, so you can plan to have a meal or snack here before or after the hike.
With similar rock formations and just a slightly longer length, Skull Rock hike is the main competition to Hidden Valley Nature trail. However, the main draw to Skull Rock Trail is Skull Rock itself, which is easily accessible from the side of the road and does not require doing any of the hike. For this reason, we recommend hiking Hidden Valley instead, and then stopping to view Skull Rock if you have time (located next to the Jumbo Rock Campground).
Ryan Mountain is a steep, 3 mile, out and back trail that is rated as challenging on Joshua Tree’s website. On top of Ryan Mountain, you’ll see an incredible view of the park, but you will have to work for it. In just 1.5 miles, you will climb 1,050 feet to the top of Ryan Mountain, but will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the whole park. Due to the challenging nature of this hike and no coverage from the sun, this hike is very dangerous in the summer or during extreme heat and should not be attempted during those times of year under any circumstances.
Out of the challenging hikes that we read about in our research, Ryan Mountain had the most mentions in articles written about Joshua Tree. Also, we felt that at 3 miles, this hike was more accessible to most hikers looking for a challenge, unlike many of the other challenging hikes that were 6-7 miles. Also, the reward of a panoramic view gives this hike a competitive advantage.
From the beginning of the trail, Ryan Mountain made us work. The trail starts with a seemingly endless ascent of dirt and rock stairs that make you gain elevation fast—which makes sense considering how much elevation you gain over the course of the 1.5 mile summit to the top of the mountain. There are a few Joshua Trees scattered throughout the trail, but the terrain is mostly filled with rocks, dirt, cacti, and bushes. We weren’t able to make it to the top of Ryan Mountain due to the hot weather, but even the distance we went gave us a stunning view and we can only imagine how incredible it is from the top!
Water is essential in Joshua Tree National Park, and their website recommends that hikers bring at least 2 gallons of water per person, per day. Ensure that you bring this water into the park with you, and that you bring enough with you on this challenging hike. Again, challenging hikes in Joshua Tree National Park should not be attempted at all in Summer or during extreme heat.
The Lost Palm Oasis Hike was Ryan Mountain’s strongest competition. Located in the southern section of the park, Lost Palm Oasis is a 7.5 mile out and back hike down into a canyon that is home to a grove of giant palm trees. Since you are hiking into a canyon, the most difficult part of the hike is on the way back. Lost Palm Oasis is a great hike, but is not the best option for most people due to its length. However, if you are looking for a long and challenging hike that will take most of your day, Lost Palm Oasis is a great option.
Keys View is a short loop that boasts some of the best views in the park. In just the 0.25 loop, you can see the sights like the San Andreas fault and the Salton Sea. The hiking guide on Joshua Tree’s website estimates that you will spend 30 minutes here, but you will likely find yourself spending even more time here due to the captivating views.
Keys View quickly emerged as a top contender during our research with 14 article mentions and promises of stunning sunsets. We considered other areas in the park for best lookout point, but none seemed to have the incredible payoff of Key View with only 0.25 miles of hiking.
Unfortunately, Keys View was closed during our visit to Joshua Tree due to high bee activity. We don’t usually like to recommend something without visiting it ourselves, but we also don’t want to pick another option that we don’t think is best just because our top choice was inaccessible at the time of our visit. We are confident in our choice of Keys View, especially after our research was affirmed by the Park Rangers we talked to in the Oasis Visitor Center.
Visit Keys View during sunset! Most of the articles we read said that Keys View is the best place in the part to watch the sunset.
There are several places in the park where you can see panoramic views, but most of them require a significant hike, like Hi-View (1.5 miles) and Ryan Mountain (3 miles). While these locations have great views, lookout points usually has little to no hiking required, like Keys View.
Ranger Programs are educational experiences—including free walking tours, talks, and evening programs—hosted by park rangers at the United States National Parks. When we visited Joshua Tree in the Summer, the Ranger Programs included “Ranger Talks” every morning at the Oasis Visitor Center and various additional events, like evening programs, on the weekends. The frequency and schedule of Ranger Programs vary throughout the year, so be sure to check the schedule on Joshua Tree’s website. Topics also vary, but are related to the park in some way.
The articles written about Joshua Tree National park mostly discussed hiking and camping and did not include much information on other activities. However, Ranger Programs were mentioned a few of the articles we read and after some additional research, seemed like a great opportunity to learn about the park from experts. However, since there are no reviews available for Ranger Programs online, our experience was a crucial factor in determining if Ranger Programs would earn a spot on our guide.
We attended a 10AM Ranger Chat at the Oasis Visitor Center which is located near the Twentynine Palms entrance. With no idea of what to expect, we were excited to learn that our chat was about bighorn sheep—a species that is native to this area and lives in the park. The ranger taught us all about bighorn sheep, including their habitat, predators, and what their big horns are actually used for. We also learned that bighorn sheep are crepuscular, which means they are most active during dawn and dusk. After his talk, the park ranger answered questions for about 15 minutes.
Again, be sure to check the schedule on Joshua Tree’s website to see if there will be any Ranger Programs during your visit. If you attend a Ranger Chat at a visitor center, pay close attention to which visitor center it will be hosted at. Joshua Tree National Park has 3 visitor centers and they are all pretty spread out and far from each other.
If you miss a Ranger Program or they aren’t being offered during your visit, you can always ask questions to the Park Rangers in the Visitor Center. However, Ranger Programs are special because they are often topics that you would not think to ask about or research on your own. Ranger Programs are the only scheduled educational experiences that we find inside the park, so there is not any direct competition.
The Cholla Cactus Garden (pronounced choy-uh) is a quarter mile loop showcasing one of Joshua Tree’s most interesting cacti—the cholla. Chollas are scattered throughout the park and you can be found pretty anywhere. But at the Cholla Cactus Garden, you are completely immersed in chollas and they are all you can see any direction you look. This leisurely stroll showcases these beautiful cacti which draws many visitors to this sightseeing location.
Out of the 36 articles that we analyzed on Joshua Tree National Park, the Cholla Cactus Garden was mentioned 25 times which made it score the top of our list—tied only with Hidden Valley Nature Trail. We looked for other places in the park where you could view iconic parts of the park, but nothing compared to the abrupt density of chollas in the Cholla Cactus Garden.
As we drove to the Cholla Cactus Garden, we found ourselves wondering how far we were from the garden since we did not have cell service, and even wondered if we might accidentally pass it. After only seeing scattered chollas on the side of the road for so many miles, seemingly out of nowhere, we suddenly saw a dense field of cholla cacti that seemed to go on forever. There is no way we would have missed it! As we walked through the short loop, we noticed that the cholla cacti were bigger here than many of the others we saw throughout the park. It was really enjoyable to be immersed in the chollas and to see them up close.
Be careful to not touch the thorns of the chollas. We read some signs that indicated that if the torns break your skin, they can cause significant irritation and discomfort.
There was no significant competition for sightseeing locations. We tried to find a specific location that is known for viewing Joshua Trees, but they are mostly just seen on hikes and on the side of the road. The cholla cacti are also found on hikes and the side of the road, but not in the same volume at the garden.
Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center is a non-profit organization that teaches its visitors about astronomy. Located just before the Twentynine Palms entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, Sky’s the Limit is always open with a self-guided tour available to visitors, and there is usually a volunteer on Saturdays to provide a free tour of the walkable model of the solar system and the solar scope. On Saturday nights when the moon is not out, the observatory hosts a free stargazing party where astronomers bring their telescopes to share with visitors.
While our research showed that Joshua Tree is a prime stargazing location, Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center was not mentioned much in our initial research—which we imagine is because it is located just outside of the park. However, stargazing was one of the most recommended activities in the articles we read, but they did not provide a recommended location. Our experience at Sky’s the Limit was very special and we were able to see some of the telescopes that they use to look at the stars. This experience solidified Sky’s the Limit’s spot on our guide.
We happened upon Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center when we were driving from the Oasis Visitor Center to the park entrance. When we arrived, we were greeted by a friendly volunteer who gave us a tour of the model solar system and let us look in a special telescope where you can look at the sun. He also showed us a much larger telescope that is used during their stargazing parties. Unfortunately we visited during a full moon, which meant there would not be a stargazing party that night for us to attend.
If you want to see stars in Joshua Tree, try to plan your visit as far from a full moon as you can. However, if you happen to visit during the day, or during a time where stars aren’t visible, we still highly recommend visiting Sky’s the Limit to see the walkable solar system model.
While our research didn’t provide many specific stargazing locations in the park, some people recommended simply driving to an area that was away from campgrounds so it is completely dark. This would certainly work, but we still recommend visiting Sky’s the Limit’s free stargazing party if you are visiting on a Saturday night where stars are visible so you can view the stars through their telescopes. However, if you are visiting on a weekday, or maybe don’t want to trek far from your campground, stars can still be seen anywhere in the park.
Pioneertown Motel is a western-style motel with an interesting history. Pioneertown itself has an old-western street that was used by Hollywood to shoot Western movies when they were popular in the 1940s. Adjacent to this old-western street is Pioneertown Motel. Originally built for the actors to stay while they filmed, Pioneertown Motel still follows the same western style that put its town on the map. While Pioneertown Motel may look rustic from the outside, the rooms are far from roughing it—with their updated, stylish rooms, air conditioning, and wifi. There is also a 24-hour lounge called “The Canteen”, which has games, books, and coffee. Right next door to Pioneertown Motel is Pappy and Harriets, a restaurant made famous for its combination of BBQ and live music. Rooms at Pioneertown Motel start at $165 on weekdays, and they do not require a 2-night minimum on weekends.*
The research for hotels close to Joshua Tree National Park was difficult. We didn’t feel like any of the hotels in proximity to Joshua Tree National Park were worth recommending, whether that be because of their quality or value for money. Pioneertown Motel was easily the best lodging option that we researched, but we hesitated to recommend it because its about 30 minutes from the park entrance. However, we decided to include it on the guide so visitors can know the closest, high quality hotel that we found.
After making the trek up to Pioneertown, we first stopped at the old-western street where we visited the film museum, looked at the shops, and enjoyed the western props. Pioneertown Motel is right next door, and had the same old-western vibe that everything in this small town has. The back of the motel opens up to a large desert where you can see Joshua trees in the distance while you lounge in your hammock.
If you decide to stay here during your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, make sure you factor in your travel time to and from the park when you plan your day since Pioneertown Motel is about 30 minutes from the entrance to the park. If you want to be closer to the park, you may want to consider camping inside Joshua Tree National Park.
The competition for best hotel near Joshua Tree is scarce due to lack of quality options, but we did consider choosing Joshua Tree Inn. While Joshua Tree Inn is much closer to the park and less expensive, we did not feel that the quality of the rooms were competitive with Pioneertown Motel.
*Price at the time of publication.
Jumbo Rocks Campground is a centrally located campground in Joshua Tree National Park, where each campsite is uniquely immersed in different rock formations. As one of the biggest campgrounds in the park, Jumbo Rocks has over 100 sites and offers both RV and tent only camping options. There is an amphitheater in this campground where certain ranger programs are hosted, making it very convenient for visitors to attend. During the summer, campsites are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis, but are available for reservation during the rest of the year (exact dates available of Joshua Tree’s website). Campsites are $15 per night*, and have shared pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire grates.
We researched all 8 campgrounds located in Joshua Tree National Park and found that Jumbo Rocks Campground was the best campground that was centrally located near the popular sights and hikes in the park. There are a few other campgrounds in this area, but none were as unique or special as Jumbo Rocks Campground. Also, since this campground has so many sites, visitors may have a better chance of booking a site here than other sites. Jumbo Rocks campground was also mentioned the most in the articles we read about Joshua Tree, tied only with Indian Cove Campground (see next section).
Since we visited Joshua Tree National Park during a less busy time of the year, we got to pick from a large selection of available campsites. If you have the opportunity to do this, it’s quite fun since every site is so different. During sunset, we climbed up on the rocks behind our campsite and watched the sun set over the pink sky.
Pick a campsite with an open area of rocks behind your site. This makes for a great area to explore and take photos.
Hidden Valley Campground is the main competition to Jumbo Rocks Campground since they are both centrally located to many of the popular attractions and hikes in the park. Additionally, both campgrounds were highly mentioned in articles written about Joshua Tree, and are clearly adored by visitors. However, sites at Hidden Valley Campground are only reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis—even during the busiest time of the year. We thought that the ability to reserve a site ahead of time during the busy months was an essential characteristics to planning a trip ahead of time. Also, we found that Jumbo Rocks Campground was a more interesting campground overall.
*Price at the time of publication.
Indian Cove Campground is located in the northern area of the Joshua Tree National Park. This campground cannot be accessed by any of the three main entrances to the park—there is just one road in, and one road out. Similar to Jumbo Rocks Campground, the campsites at Indian Cove are immersed in rock formations, but many of these rocks have sharper lines than the smooth and round rocks at Jumbo Rocks Campground. There are both individual and group campsites at Indian Cove Campground. During the Summer months, sites 40-101 are closed and all other camping is first-come, first serve; reservations are required during the rest of the year (see Joshua Tree’s website for exact dates). Campsites are $20 per night*, and have shared pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire grates.
There are only a few secluded campgrounds in Joshua Tree, and Indian Cove was mentioned significantly more in articles about Joshua Tree than other secluded campgrounds. In fact, Indian Cove was mentioned just as much as Jumbo Rocks, our other top pick for camping. Our experience at Indian Cove quickly confirmed what we had determined from our research.
Our experience at Indian Cove Campground was very exciting as we were blown away by the grandeur of the rock formations that surrounded us and seemed to go on for miles. Even though we had to take a single road to get to this campground it was fairly quick and easy, and not a terribly far drive to the main park entrances.
We found that campsites 32 and 33 had the best views of the unique rock formations here, while also being immersed in the rock formations themselves. If these sites are open during your stay, we recommend them.
The main competition for Indian Cove Campground are White Tank Campground and Cottonwood Campground—two other campgrounds that are fairly secluded from popular areas of the park. While White Tank Campground is private and has rock formations like Indian Cove, it is closed during the Summer months, which excludes it as an option for many potential visitors. Cottonwood Campground is not only secluded, but it is also very far away from many of the views and hikes that attract people to Joshua Tree, making it difficult—or a long car ride—to get the full experience. Even though Indian Cove Campground is secluded, it is not as far from the popular places in the park as Cottonwood Campground.
*Price at the time of publication.