Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park (Robert Glusic/Photodisc/Getty)

You could drive through Joshua Tree in a few hours and get a pretty good idea of what 792,000 acres of rock, sand, and prickly plants look like. But in order to fully appreciate this unique high-desert landscape, you really have to leave your car and examine the park up close. The low sunlight behind a cholla cactus that gives the needles a fuzzy glow; the tangled clumps of hot pink brambles poking out from beneath a rock—these are the details that make Joshua Tree worth coming back to again and again.

Joshua Tree is a hiker's/backpacker's dream with its mild fall-winter climate and diverse life and earth forms. Hikes range from quick, easy nature walks with interpretive signs to strenuous climbs over boulders and up to barren peaks. Some highlights: the 49 Palms and Lost Palms oases, miniature tropical paradises that pop out of the sand; and the Wonderland of Rocks, where elephant-sized boulders look like they were dropped there by giants.

Special Know-How

Before starting off on any trails, pick up a map at either of the park's visitor centers, Oasis of Mara in Twentynine Palms or the Cottonwood Visitor Center near the south entrance.

Keep in mind that temperatures can change as much as 40 degrees in a 24-hour period. It's important to dress in layers, regardless of what the weather looks like when you start your hike. Another thought to consider: When rain comes to the desert, flash floods are soon to follow. What may seem like a minor sprinkle can still send a powerful river of mud flowing through the dry washes. Be cautious.

The Best Walks & Day Hikes

Trails are listed as strenuous (S), moderately strenuous (MS), moderate (M), and easy (E).

Barker Dam Loop - 1.1-mile loop (E)
This the place to go see all the splendor that nature couldn't provide, including an impressive desert lake (created by a dam) and some dazzlingly bright petroglyphs (touched up in recent years by a movie crew). Contrived or no, this middle-of-the-park loop makes for a fun day hike. And the nature-made Wonderland of Rocks you sample en route makes up for the trail's phonier elements.

Boy Scout Trail - 8 miles one way (M)
Backpackers like this trail because it's easy to access, passes through a variety of terrain, and offers a challenge you can be proud of without wreaking too much havoc on your body. The trail travels through scenic washes along the edge of the Wonderland of Rocks, twisting past junipers, pines and oaks on its way up a rocky hillside and into narrow canyons.

California Riding & Hiking Trail - 37 miles one way (E-MS)
You don't have to commit to a three-day adventure in order to appreciate this long path through desert forests and creosote-dominated lowlands. The trail runs from the park's northwest corner to the North Entrance Station, but mid-trail access points allow you to try it in 4- to 11-mile chunks. Whatever section you choose, be prepared to share the trail with plenty of horses.

Cholla Cactus Garden - 0.25-mile loop (E)
Short but sweet, this interpretive trail meanders through a dense concentration of Bigelow cholla in the lower edge of the transition zone between the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, 20 miles north of the Cottonwood Visitor Center. These fuzzy little cacti are best viewed early or late in the day, when the low sun lights them up with a misleadingly cuddly glow. Tempting as it may be, don't touch the cholla. Those soft-looking needles lose their appeal when you have to extract them from clothes and skin.

Eureka Peak Trail - 10.4 miles round-trip (S)
The hardest part of this trail is having to trudge through lots of sand as you walk from wash to wash before starting your ascent. But when you reach the 5,516-ft. peak that looks out over Mt. San Jacinto, Mt. San Gorgonio, and the Coachella Valley, you'll probably decide it was worth the struggle. Cheaters can reach the summit by a car-accessible dirt road that climbs up from Covington Flat, but the view is much more satisfying when you had to break a sweat to see it.

Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail - 3 miles round-trip (MS)
When you drop into the rocky valley on the backside of a north-side ridge, the last thing you expect to see is a palm grove, even if know you know it's coming. You'll round a corner above the oasis, catch a glimpse of green in the distance and think, no, that can't be. Then you'll move close enough to see the tropical trees. By the time you leap off a big, slick boulder into a puddle shaded by palms, you just might have convinced yourself that it's real.

Indian Cove - 0.6-mile loop (E)
You can learn a lot about high desert ecology in very little time by taking this short interpretive trail at the northern edge of the Wonderland of Rocks. Signs along the way teach you about the plants and animals of the Mojave Desert and early human life in the area. If you're staying in one of the nearby towns and only have time for a quick visit, this is your best bet.

Lost Horse Mine - 4 miles (M)
This century-old gold mine is a well-preserved reminder of the area's prospecting history. You can poke around the remains of buildings and take a peek at open mine shafts. The path leading up to the site is a fairly uninteresting old mining road. But as you continue above the mine you'll walk along a ridge to an overlook with views of distant mountains and valleys.

Lost Palms Oasis Trail - 7.5 miles round-trip (M)
This clump of palms is twice the size of the one at the other end of the park. Though the trail is mostly flat, its length and the sandy terrain make it a bit harder to access, which means you're more likely to have it all to yourself (not counting the resident wildlife). Like 49 Palms, this oasis jumps out at you unexpectedly. You shouldn't leave the park without hiking to one of the two.

Mastadon Peak Trail - 3 miles round-trip (M)
From the tiny Cottonwood Spring oasis that is known for its surprising number of birds, you'll walk a partly-paved path that ends with a tricky scramble to the peak. Views stretch clear across the park, with mountains and the Salton Sea beyond. On your way up, take note of the ocotillo—it's the plant with the thin, spiky arms stretching up and out from the base toward the sky. Desert plants don't get much more interesting than this one.

Ryan Mountain Trail - 3 miles round-trip (MS)
From the 5,461-foot summit of Ryan Mountain, you can see Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto tipped in snow, as well as the Wonderland of Rocks and quite a few of Joshua Tree's broad valleys. But the reason to do this hike is that you don't have to wait for the top to get those views. As the trail wraps itself around the mountain, showing off a myriad of trailside plant life, impressive vistas surround you at every step.

Skull Rock Loop - 1.7-mile loop (E)
If you've set up camp at Jumbo Rocks and it's too early to start cooking dinner, this is a great way to kill some time before sunset. The shadows created by the late afternoon sun bring these bizarre rock formations to life. Interpretive signs teach you about your surroundings as you walk through boulder piles, desert washes, and a rock alleyway to the aptly named Skull Rock.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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