Piles and stacks of huge boulders dominate a landscaped dotted with iconic Joshua trees. Barren hills make up the backdrop while blue skies create a vibrant contrast with the yellows and browns of the Southern Californian deserts. A park filled with life and seemingly made for adventurers, there’s a myriad of Joshua Tree National Park highlights. In this post, I wanted to share my favorite places in the park, as well as the most popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
8 Joshua Tree National Park Highlights
If you’re wondering what to do in Joshua Tree National Park, I suggest that you start with the following list. These eight places are basically the park’s star attractions. The beauty of it all is that you can cover them all in just two full, fun-filled days. And this does include a few scenic hikes as well.
Hidden Valley is the perfect introduction to Joshua Tree National Park. In fact, if for some crazy reason you’re rushing through the park and only have about an hour to spend, this should be the one place you go to.
It has everything that makes the park worth visiting, from boulder fields to stands of Joshua trees and occasional wildlife sightings. A 1-mile loop trail takes you through this wonderful area. Feel free to try some rock scrambling while you’re there.
Arguably the greatest viewpoint in the entire park, Keys View is one of the star attractions in Joshua Tree National Park. Located at the end of a side road of Park Boulevard, which, by the way, is one of the greatest drives in national parks in the USA, it’s one of the best spots for sunset-watching.
The lookout faces west and offers a view over almost the entire Coachella Valley. You can see the Salton Sea to the southwest and a part of the San Andreas Fault as well.
Barker Dam is a historic water reservoir built decades ago by cattle ranchers. A pleasant 1.1-mile-long circuit hike takes you past the park’s iconic boulders and namesake Joshua trees. This is also one of the best places to spot bighorn sheep. However, as this is a rather busy area, consider visiting early in the morning if you want to see them.
Additionally, the trail also leads past a rock covered in Native American petroglyphs, adding a dash of culture to this wonderful natural landscape.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Located along the Pinto Basin Road, which runs from the higher, cooler Mojave Desert to the lower, hotter Colorado Desert, this patch of beautiful—but prickly—cacti is one of my favorite Joshua Tree National Park highlights.
It’s also by far the easiest hike in the entire park, a quarter-mile loop through thousands of cholla cacti. Don’t walk the trail with open shoes, though, and stay on the trail. There’s plenty of puncture potential there.
Lost Horse Mine
During the California gold rush, countless fortune-seekers flocked to the state. Some of them explored the Joshua Tree area, eventually striking gold at only a handful of places. The Lost Horse Mine is one of the very few mines within the park’s borders that was actually lucrative for a while.
Now, it reminds hikers of this important part of the region’s history. The hike itself is moderate, running through some remote desert. So, make sure to wear a hat and drink plenty of water.
Lost Palms Oasis
One of the longest hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, the Lost Palms Oasis lies at the end of a 4-mile trail through the scorching Colorado Desert. This is one of the greatest Joshua Tree National Park highlights in my opinion. As its name suggests, this is an oasis home to dozens of California fan palms. In fact, Lost Palms Oasis has the biggest number of these iconic trees in the park.
When you do this awesome hike, make absolutely sure to bring plenty of water, to wear a hat and to take regular breaks. There’s no shade whatsoever, except underneath the palm trees a trail’s end.
Jumbo Rocks is among the most fun places in the park. An area characterized by boulder piles, sandy flats and countless Joshua trees, I personally think it’s the best campground in Joshua Tree National Park. All sites are first-come, first-served, so make sure to arrive early in the morning to score a spot.
Jumbo Rocks itself is a gorgeous place to explore, but its proximity to places like Skull Rock and various climbing areas makes it even better.
Recommended National Park Guidebooks
5 Popular Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park
Almost all the Joshua Tree National Park highlights above require some hiking. Whether it’s a short desert stroll or a trek to a remote oasis, hiking is necessary to fully experience and explore the park. Besides hiking, however, there are a few other popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.
Note that you don’t need to have professional skill levels to do these things. Everyone with a basic fitness level can do them, which is exactly why Joshua Tree is such a popular destination and one of the greatest national parks in America.
A desert park in Southern California, Joshua Tree enjoys gloriously dark nights. This is one of the top places for stargazing in this part of the country, the absence of light pollution bringing out thousands of stars. If you’ve never seen the Milky Way before, this park guarantees that first experience. You can go for night hikes or simply sit at your campsite and look up.
Arguably the most popular activity in Joshua Tree National Park is hiking. Numerous trails—long and short, challenging and easy—crisscross the park’s greatest areas. Note that pets are not allowed on any trail in the park, though.
Additionally, the park lies at the meeting point of two deserts, the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, and can be ruthlessly hot. Always bring water, food, sunscreen, a map and a hat. Don’t go beyond your physical boundaries. Also, don’t forget your camera. Hiking in Joshua Tree is sensational.
Mountain Biking / Cycling
A network of backcountry roads offers adventurers access to some of the park’s remotest corners. These roads are ideal for both 4-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikes. Popular mountain biking roads include the Queen Valley Roads, Geology Tour Road and Covington Flat with its tall Joshua trees, pinyon pines and junipers.
Additionally, you can also explore Joshua Tree on its paved roads. Particularly Park Boulevard, which runs between the park’s two northern entrance, is a phenomenal stretch of road for cycling.
Rock Climbing / Bouldering
Joshua Tree National Park is one of America’s best national parks for rock climbing. This truly is a rock climber’s, boulderer’s and slackliner’s mecca, attracting thrill-seekers from around the globe. There are no fewer than 8,000 climbing routes in the park’s boulder fields and mountains.
The park is home to eight designated campgrounds, most of which are situated in its northern, Joshua tree-dotted part. Six of them are first-come, first-served: Belle, Cottonwood, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan and White Tank. If you want to book a site in advance, you can do so at Black Rock and Indian Cove.
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park is nothing short of brilliant. For me personally, the three days spent at Jumbo Rocks was the best camping experience of my life. Seriously.
I hope this post featuring most of the greatest Joshua Tree National Park highlights and popular things to do in Joshua Tree National Park was helpful to you.
If it was or if you have more questions, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email! I’d be happy to help you further if I can.