Joshua Tree National Park is full of not only Joshua Trees but also canyons with hidden palm oases, towering rock formations and other unique flora. Our Joshua Tree National Park guide will go through how to explore it all in 4 days.
This National Park is where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet. The Mojave, or high desert, on the northern side of the park is where you will find the iconic Joshua trees. The Mojave desert is the only place in the world where these unique trees live. The Colorado, or low desert, on the southern side of the park also has distinctive vegetation including, but not limited to, the thorny and plentiful Ocotillo plant.
We truly enjoyed our time hiking and exploring in Joshua Tree National Park. We hope our guide helps you find experiences you will love in the park as well. The first part of this post is a 4 day guide to exploring Joshua Tree National Park. The second part of this post goes over the logistics of visiting the park, including how to access Joshua Tree National Park and where to stay around the park.
FYI: This post was written based on a trip taken in early February
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Day 1: Hike Ryan Mountain, Cap Rock and Hidden Valley Trails
Hike Ryan Mountain
3 miles round-trip, 1,000 feet of elevation gain
Ryan Mountain is an exhilarating uphill hike that leads to panoramic views of the park. This trail was the most challenging hike we did in the park, due to the quick elevation in a short distance. However, it is well worth the effort. We did this hike in about 1.5 hours but recommend budgeting at least 2 hours depending on how quickly you hike.
Looking for great hiking boots? Here are links to the ones we’ve used for 7+ years and highly recommend: Men’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots & Women’s Keen Waterproof Hiking Boots
Hike Cap Rock Nature Trail
0.3 miles round-trip, 39 feet of elevation gain, loop
After hiking Ryan Mountain, head to the nearby Cap Rock Nature Trail. This trail leads you through pretty rock formations and foliage with many informative signs along the trail to teach you about both.
The Cap Rock Nature Trail is the most inclusively accessible trail we did in the park. It is appropriate for all fitness levels as it is very short and flat.
Hike Hidden Valley Nature Trail
1.0 mile round-trip, 114 feet of elevation gain, loop
Next, head to Hidden Valley Nature Trail. This trail brings you through a unique ‘hidden valley’ surrounded by rock formations on all sides with lots of pretty trees and scrubs in it. The foliage that grows in the hidden valley is so extensive because of how the rocks on the outside of the valley protect the it from the wind and drain in ample water into the area as well.
This trail offers some of the best views in the park for very minimal effort. There are also many signs along the path to identify and educate you on the different plants and wildlife throughout the valley.
Day 2: Hike Forty Nine Palms Oasis, visit Skull Rock and Hike Wall Street Mill/Barker Dam Trails
Hike Forty Nine Palms Oasis
3.0 miles round-trip, 636 feet of elevation gain, out & back
This was one of our favorite trails in the park as it was relatively short and quickly led you to a beautiful palm oasis. We set out on this trail just after sunrise and would highly recommend starting at this time as we were the first people on the trail and only saw about 5 other people in total throughout our hike.
On this trail, you hike up for the first half of the out hike and then down into the oasis. This hike did not feel overly strenuous given that the elevation gain was broken up between the out and return journey, making for a rewarding yet relaxing hike.
Stop at Skull Rock
Next, head to Skull Rock, which is located right off the road. You can quickly park on the side of the road to see this rock that truly resembles a human skull. Alternatively, you could also hike the associated nature trail around the rock that is approximately 1.7 miles in total with minimal elevation gain.
Hike Wall Street Mill & Barker Dam Nature Trail
Wall Street Mill is an out & back trail that is 2.4 miles round-trip with 23 feet of elevation gain & Barker Dam Nature Trail is a loop trail that is 1.3 miles with 63 feet of elevation gain.
After stopping at Skull rock, head to the Wall Street Mill and Barker Dam Trails. Both hikes are relatively flat and easy to complete. On both of these trails, there are MANY Joshua trees for you to adore. Both of these trails also have many signs along the way to teach you about the flora and animals in the area.
The Wall Street Mill trail brings you to an abandoned mill that previously processed gold in the late-1800s. Conversely, the Barker Dam trail takes you past petroglyphs and a previously functioning cattle dam.
We recommend combining these two hikes as you can park at Barker Dam lot or Wall Street Mill lot to access both. We parked at the Wall Street Mill lot and our hike was, in total, about 3.6 miles round-trip with little to no elevation gain.
Day 3: Hike Lost Palm Oasis, visit Cholla Cactus Garden and Hike Arch Rock Trail
Hike Lost Palm Oasis
7.4 miles round trip, 1,026 feet of elevation gain, out & back
Lost Palm Oasis trail is located on the southern side of the park, which is at a lower altitude and is part of the Colorado Desert so the flora looks a bit different here.
This hike has a decent amount of elevation gain but it doesn’t feel overly strenuous as it is spread out throughout the hike. We found the pace and effort of this hike to be quite pleasant.
After 3.4 miles, the trail ends but you are not yet at the Oasis. You can see the oasis from atop the rocks but you have to scramble down to get to it. After you reach the sign that indicates the trail goes no further, go to the left to scramble down into the palm oasis and/or hike up to the right for the best birds-eye view of the palm oasis. We enjoyed relaxing in the oasis, which we had completely to ourselves, before making our return journey.
Stop at Cholla Cactus Garden
After hiking to Lost Palm Oasis, stop at Cholla Cactus Garden. Here, you can take a short walk through an area completely FILLED with Cholla Cactus, a unique type of cactus not seen elsewhere in the park. This destination is a quick stop but definitely worth it to see these cacti that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Hike Arch Rock
1.2 miles round-trip, 88 feet of elevation gain, out & back
Next, head to the Arch Rock Trail. This is a short hike, with minimal elevation gain, to a unique rock arch that also takes you through some other interesting looking rock formations along the way. This arch is not as impressive as the ones we’ve seen in Arches National Park (see Arches National Park Quick Guide) but the rock formations here were nonetheless neat to see.
Note: Make sure to pay attention to the signs and turn right once you cross the street here otherwise you will end up on the California Riding/Hiking Trail accidentally (like we did). We were not paying attention and followed a hiker in front of us, assuming they were going to Arch Rock as well. Remember to always independently verify when hiking and to look at the signs even if you think you know where you are going. See What you can Learn from our First Backpacking Trip for more on independent verification.
Beware: To access all the spots on today’s itinerary, you will drive on the windy Pinto Basin road that may provoke motion sickness. See…How to Prevent Motion Sickness While Traveling and Flying.
Day 4: Hike Lost Horse Mine Trail
Hike Lost Horse Mine
6.4 miles round-trip, 1000 feet of elevation gain, loop
This loop trail is very peaceful and offers varying views throughout. We recommend hiking this loop in a clockwise manner so that you do all the elevation gains in the first half of the hike. The second half of the hike is then much easier as it is pretty much flat.
The first half of this hike, you will climb towards the Lost Horse Mine, an old preserved gold mine. During this climb, you will be afforded vast desert views. The second half of the hike, you will be on a mainly flat part of the trail and see some of the largest Joshua trees in the park. We liked seeing how variable the Joshua trees are in size depending on where you are hiking in the park.
Alternatively, you could hike to the Lost Horse Mine as an out and back hike, 4 miles total round trip. However, we recommend hiking this as a loop because you will see more variety on the loop trail and the second half is a relatively easy hike.
Relax or Return Home
Spend the rest of your day relaxing, as well did, or fly out later this evening home.
How to Access Joshua Tree National Park
Fly into Los Angeles, Las Vegas or San Diego to access Joshua Tree National Park. Los Angeles Airport is a bit closer (30 minutes closer) than the latter two but we chose to fly into Las Vegas because we were also visiting Death Valley National Park on this trip and this airport worked out better for us logistically. See our Two Days in Death Valley National Park guide if you want to add this onto your adventure too.
Also, LAS is typically less expensive for us to fly into than LAX. For the best flight deals, see our 5 Ways to Save on Flights post and/or become a member of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a flight subscription service we use and love. Use this link for a FREE 2 week trial of Premium Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Another option is to fly into San Diego, which is about 3 hours from Joshua Tree National Park. For more information on visiting San Diego and great hiking in the area see San Diego, California Quick Guide.
How this Itinerary is Set-Up
While visiting Joshua Tree, we did one ‘highlight’ (more challenging/stunning views) hike per day and then one or two shorter hikes afterwards to see as many trails as possible. We also strategically planned this itinerary to see things close together in the park on the same day to optimize travel times.
Where to Stay
Set up your home base in Twenty Nine Palms, Joshua Tree or any of the other surrounding communities in/around Yucca Valley. Wherever you book, make sure you are on the northern side of Joshua Tree National Park, as this is where most the attractions/trailheads in the park are located.
We choose to stay in Landers, about 30 minutes Northwest of the park, to allow us to book a more economical Airbnb with a lot of outdoor space. We loved our Landers Airbnb and highly recommend it. It was the perfect spot to unwind after our mornings hiking in Joshua Tree National Park. We particularly loved spending our afternoons reading in the hammocks here. Use this link to get up to $65 off your first Airbnb.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Joshua Tree National Park. Anything you’d add to our Joshua Tree National Park guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
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