Yes, visiting SoCal‘s Joshua Tree National Park was on our list of places, but as lovers of desert rock (Queens of the Stone Age is a family favorite band)…well…we wanted to embrace the entire desert experience. This post covers the best places to visit in the park, but we hope you’re also encouraged to explore all the things to do in Joshua Tree California – the city … plus her surrounding communities.
THINGS TO DO IN JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
2-DAY NATIONAL PARK PLAN OF ATTACK
If you’re staying in Joshua Tree like we did, then you’ll likely come in the West Entrance. Hike Hidden Valley and Barker Dam, Keys View and Skull Rock… and exit via the North Entrance, which is in Twentynine Palms.
On the second day you’ll continue to explore the best trails in Joshua Tree with a hike to Ryan Mountain early to avoid the heat, explore the Hall of Horrors, and then head toward the Cottonwood Visitor Center to see Arch Rock, the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Here are the details:
Hidden Valley is a wonderful starter-trail in the park. It’s only 1 mile and it’s very easy, but it showcases so many of the parks great features. If you can only do one hike because of time or heat, then this is the one that really shows off the park! If JTNPS is the Mojave Desert’s gem, then Hidden Valley is the gem within.
Planning a National Parks road trip? The America the Beautiful Pass covers entrance for an entire year to all the US National Parks and over 2,000 federal recreation fee sites. Fees are covered for everyone in the car for per-vehicle sites and for up to 4 adults for per-person sites. This is a no-brainer, friends. While fees vary, you’ll likely break even after two visits. Plus, REI will donate 10% of pass sale proceeds to the NPS Foundation.
Barker Dam Nature Trail is an easy 1.3 mile loop that offers great views of the rocks and Joshua trees..plus lots of tiny critters (maybe you’ll even see a desert tortoise!) We visited in Summer, so the water was dried up, but the boys still enjoyed seeing the dam. A fun point on the trail, for us, was seeing the petroglyphs. This was the first time we’d seen them with color – reds and blues, so pretty against the white sandstone.
The Keys View to Inspiration Point Trail is a 2-mile moderate moderate to difficult trail (made more difficult on a hot day) so if that doesn’t work for you then just enjoy the overlook. The trail here is paved and the views are pretty spectacular. Just take note that it will take about 30 minutes to drive from the main road in the park down to the view point (and 30 min back!).
The boys were very excited about this one, but be warned it is FULL of people. We didn’t see many people on the trails when we hiked, but I think it’s because they were all here. Also, it’s just off the road so doesn’t require any effort, so more people tend to stop here. It was still fun to get out and grab a picture!
Because of the elevation, this hike can be rough…but I’m so glad we did it! It’s 3 miles round trip, with a 1,000 ft elevation gain in that 1.5 miles. We were warned to go early since it was summer, so we were on the trail at 8:30am. I wish we had gone sooner because it does get so hot…but when you go early at least there is some shade from the mountain itself before the sun gets fully overhead.
The views from the top are 360-degrees of amazing! You can see the Coachella Valley and the entire surrounding area. Bring a mid-morning snack and enjoy yourself once you reach the summit. And remember, it takes about half the time to come down as it did to climb to the top!
HALL OF HORRORS
You’ll have to backtrack a few miles to Hall of Horrors (it’s worth it to climb Ryan as early as possible) but the parking is easy here. Tell the kids, it’s not spooky. It reminds of of slot canyons, with really unique rock formations and places for people to enjoy rock climbing or bouldering.
It’s not easy to find, and when you walk through the first “hall” you might think you’re done…but you’re not! Use All Trails to help you find the trailhead, and be sure to complete the entire loop!
ARCH ROCK FOR A BEAUTIFUL JOSHUA TREE SUNSET
Arch Rock is on of the most popular hiking trails in the park and the most photographed place in the park, with it’s 30ft natural arch at the end of a .6 mile hike. You’ll find the trailhead at the White Tank Campgrounds, with easy parking.
The hike is not a difficult one, but because it is so popular it’s a good one to do at sunset so that you can avoid the crowds and see the amazing night sky – without risk of stumbling over the trail.
CHOLLA CACTUS GARDEN
As you head South on Pinto Basin Road, not far from Cottonwood Visitor Center, you’ll see – as if out of no where – these amazing yellow cactuses. There are thousands of them everywhere. Of all the things to see in Joshua Tree Park, these were such a delightful array of color that they can’t be missed!!
Most Cholla are found in Mexico, so it’s a treat to see them here but be warned. First, you’ll see signs for bees and they are not kidding. The cactus where in bloom when we visited and there were more bees than cactus – and they were swarming everywhere. Our boys didn’t like it, but they didn’t bother me when I was taking photos – just beware if you have an allergy.
Fun fact about this cactus: It’s called a “jumping” cactus. If you touch the barb, even gently, it attaches itself to your skin with reverse barbs. And it hurts like a …well… you know.
NOAH PURIFOY DESERT ART MUSEUM
Noah Purifoy is known for 66 Signs of Neon, constructed from debris from the Watts Rebellion. He lived and worked mostly in Joshua Tree and in LA…but he went to Atlanta University in the late 40s, which is cool. The Desert Art Museum is an outdoor gallery that is free to the public (donations welcome!) and it contains dozens of large, unique art pieces that kept us in awe for at least an hour.
If you’re a photog (or aspiring photog) then head there in the Golden Hour for some really inspiring subject matter. Even if you just love art…it’s a great time to see it. We love the Voting Booth piece and the Pirate Ship more than anything.
Integratron was originally constructed by a man who believed that the plans were given to him by aliens from Venus. He claimed it offered rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel. He’s passed on…three sisters own it now. While they don’t make the same claims, they still insist there is a geomagnetic vortex here…and perfect -perfect- acoustics.
We attended a sound bath here under the stars while Joanne (one of the owners) performed the bath on 20 quartz crystal bowls. We didn’t float or travel through time…but we did thoroughly enjoy ourselves.
It’s a rock…but not just any rock. Covering 5,800 sq ft of ground, it is 7 stories tall and believed to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world. In the 50s people gathered here to await aliens (yes, it was led by the same guy who built Integratron.)
No aliens have been seen here, but there was a loud BOOM! in 2000 when the rock mysteriously fractured. Today it is just a fun roadside attraction, and another example of the mysteries held in the lo-desert.
WHERE TO EAT IN JOSHUA TREE
BREAKFAST: CROSSROADS CAFE
With a dozen breakfast joints to choose from, it can be daunting. Do yourself a favor and head straight to Crossroads Cafe. Get the Breakfast Burrito or an Eye Opener — a bagel or croissant with egg and cheese. You can also top it with ham, bacon, sausage or veggies.
LUNCH: COUNTRY KITCHEN
Country Kitchen has been serving breakfast and lunch for over 80 years now. It’s no longer owned a run by the original owner from Cambodia (Mareine Uy) but she shared the recipes with the current owners and they’ve kept her spirit alive here.
No -it’s not a Cambodian restaurant. You’ll find typical American breakfasts, or a Reuben or Patty Melt. But let me tell you the secret…it’s the SALADS! I know, it sounds strange. Just trust me on this one.
The Peanut Salad (cabbage, carrots, mint, noodles, crushed peanuts and garlic vinaigrette – this is my favorite!).. or Stir Fry Noodles…or Thin Rice Noodle Salad… or Crispy Salad with noodles, peanuts and honey sesame dressing. These are not just “good meals in a small town” good….these are AMAZING Cambodian-inspired salads that rival big city cuisine.
DINNER: PAPPY AND HARRIET’S
Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown is a fantastic restaurant…but it’s the atmosphere that makes it a must-stop for visitors. It’s not a tourist stop, really…it’s a locals hangout. Think wild west restaurant meets punk rock hang out meets biker bar. You’ll see leather, chaps, and tattoos, plus tie-dye, dreadlocks and daisy chains….and everything in between. It’s the lo-desert personified.
Get a spot outside and listen to live music, or pull up a table inside to avoid the heat of mid-day. We went for the ribeye since the outdoor grill was running and it smelled amazing. Always a good choice. There’s also very delicious creative cocktails…and a kiddo menu. Bring your appetite.
DAY TRIP: HIKE MOUNT SAN JACINTO STATE PARK
We took a day trip into Palm Springs (about 45 min away) and had a good time. There are great restaurants and lots of beautiful people, but the highlight of our daytrip was Mount San Jacinto State Park.
We climbed the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway with a very cool tram car that spins a full two times before getting you to the top at 8,500 feet. Once there, you’ll find restaurants, observation decks, natural history museum, two documentary theaters, and a gift shop. The observation desk show off the Coachella Valley on one side and …in my opinion…the star of the show on the other. The mountain!
The park offers over 50 miles of hiking trails, including many backcountry sites that we are planning to return to tackle. While you’re here, though, consider some easy hikes. The Discovery Trail is an easy 1.3 mile loop with magnificent trees.
Want something more strenuous? Try the Round Valley to Wellman Divide Trail – a difficult 6.6 mile loop that is fantastic!
DAY TRIP ALTERNATIVE: SALTON SEA
We ran out of time before we could visit Salton Sea, but it makes a great day trip alternative, making your way down Pinto Basin Rd, out of the park through the Cottonwood Visitor Center. It’s the lowest point in the US, 236 ft below sea level! What to do here? Visit the International Banana Museum (hilarious, right?), the colorful Salvation Mountain, the East Jesus outdoor art project… and the best thing? A picnic at Salton Sea State Recreation Area.
COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT VISITING JOSHUA TREE
What should you not miss in Joshua Tree? Our top picks for Joshua Tree NPS include the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, Barker Dam, and Cholla Cactus Garden.
Can you do Joshua Tree in a day? Absolutely! You certainly won’t get to see everything, but there are plenty of trails, restaurants and adventures that you can do in a single day.
What is there to do in Joshua Tree besides hike? Tour Keys Ranch, camp and take in the stars, enjoy the roadside visits like Skull Rock, go rock climbing, take in the Anthony Bourdain-approved eats, visit the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum and day trip to Mount San Jacinto State Park.
How far is Joshua Tree from LA? Los Angeles to Joshua Tree is just under 2.5 hours making it the perfect day trip.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO CALIFORNIA AND THE NATIONAL PARKS:
- REDWOOD NATIONAL FOREST: 12 Best Hikes in Redwood National Forest
- MORRO BAY: Kayaking to a Desert & Other Amazing Things to do in Morro Bay, CA
- HIKING PALM SPRINGS: 17 Best Trails for Hiking in Palm Springs
- TYPES OF NATIONAL PARK PASSES BY PARK RANGER JOHN
- JOSHUA TREE CAMPING
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