7 Incredible Day Hikes At Joshua Tree National Park

Hikes Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is one of the most popular National Parks in California and shows no signs of changing. Nearly 3 million visitors a year flock to Joshua Tree every year for camping, hiking, and other outdoor recreational activities.

As a California local, I have been to Joshua Tree many times. Joshua Tree has some of the most epic hiking trails that you can experience just a short drive from Los Angeles making it a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

Our guide covers 7 of the best hikes in Joshua Tree and what you can expect on these trails. Plus we share recommendations on when to visit, where to stay, and other helpful travel tips to make the most of your visit to Joshua Tree National Park!

Some of the links used in this blog may be affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a small commission when you book through these links for which I am very thankful!

Before we dive into the specific hikes, here are a few frequently asked questions about visiting Joshua Tree National Park!

What Is The Best Time Of The Year To Go?

If you’re not familiar with the desert weather, it’s important to note that Joshua Tree National Park has a very distinct visitor season which is spring and fall. The weather outside of these seasons is either too hot or too cold to be enjoyable (or safe even).

The best months to visit Joshua Tree in spring are February, March, April, and May. Past May, the temperatures rise to nearly 100 degrees making it a dangerous environment for hiking. If you do choose to visit Joshua Tree in the summer months, be sure to do any hiking earlier in the day or later towards the evening, and avoid hiking in the middle of the day.

The best months to visit Joshua Tree in the fall are late September, October, and November. The winter temperatures drop to the ’60s which is still doable with the right clothing and gear but try not to stay out on trails past sunset due to freezing temperatures.

How Much Time Do You Need?

Looking at the map, Joshua Tree might seem like a large park to cover, but in reality, most attractions are located close to each other.

Most of your time will be spent in the northern section of the park near some of the best hiking trails, campgrounds, and viewpoints.

We recommend spending 2-3 days in Joshua Tree to get a good glimpse of what it has to offer. Weekend trips are also a popular option but this is also the busiest time so be sure to book your campsites or accommodations well ahead of time.

Where To Stay In Joshua Tree?

If you’re planning to camp at Joshua Tree overnight, there are many incredible campgrounds to choose from. Some are based on reservations while others are on a first come first serve basis.

Jumbo Rocks Campground is the biggest campground at the center of Joshua Tree National Park that offers 124 sites scattered amongst scenic rock formations. We stayed at the Jumbo Rocks Campground for one night and enjoyed it. Jumbo Rocks is a very popular campground so reserve the campsites online early on.  

Jumbo Rocks Campground

If you’re heading on a last-minute trip and don’t have campsites booked, Hidden Valley Campground offers sites on a first-come-first-serve basis. But this campground fills up pretty quickly too so try to get a spot as soon as you arrive, especially on the weekends.

If you’d rather stay in a comfortable vacation rental, then check out our post that covers 10 Stunning VRBO Vacation Rentals In Joshua Tree, California!

Read Next: 15 Best Campgrounds In California For a Memorable Camping Trip

What To Bring?

When visiting Joshua Tree National Park it’s important to prepare for the right weather conditions like extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter.

Before heading out on any trails be sure to bring the basics:

  • Plenty of waterHydroflask is my go-to refillable water bottle for desert trips like this because it will keep your water cold even during the hottest of conditions.
  • Mineral sunscreen. This is an absolute must to protect yourself from getting sunburned.
  • Sunglasses. Polarized sunglasses will help battle the harsh desert sunlight and reduce glare reflected off roads when driving.
  • Lip balm. Your lips will get very dry with the hot desert sun so you’ll want to keep a lip balm handy.
  • Headlamp. Whether I’m heading out on a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip, I always bring a headlamp with me. It’s also useful for walking to the bathroom at night.
  • Portable phone charger. It’s always a good idea to bring a phone charger just in case your phone runs out of battery mid-hike.
  • Camping knife. Another good-to-have emergency item.
  • Emergency kit. REI sells compact lightweight emergency kits that are easy to bring in a day pack.

For clothing, your list will depend on the time of the year that you plan to visit Joshua Tree. On my most recent trip in April, I mostly wore hiking clothing like leggings, flannel shirts, and t-shirts plus a few colder-weather items.

For clothing I packed:

  • Leggings. Simple leggings are my favorite go-to pants for hiking. My favorite brand is Nike because their leggings typically last for years and their cuts are more flattering than other brands I’ve tried out.
  • Hiking shoes. I’m pretty clumsy so I prefer wearing hiking shoes with extra grip that prevent me from falling. But any walking shoes will do it for the easier hikes.
  • Socks. I like merino wool socks because they wick away moisture and regulate temperature to prevent your feet from sweating.
  • Day Pack. I have a small lightweight day pack from REI that fits all my essentials, water, and camera gear.
  • Comfortable hiking shirts. You might feel hot, and sweaty during the hikes so you might want to pack extra shirts to change into.
  • Light jacket. It can get chilly and windy at Joshua Tree in the spring and possibly even rain! I used my Mountain Hardwear jacket while hiking in higher elevations and during light rainstorms.

While this is a compact list with a few of the basic items, we do have longer-packing articles that dive into more details!

For car travelers: Check our guide covering all the essentials that we bring for road trips in our car.

For van travelers: Check out our guide covering 85 essentials that we bring for road trips in our campervan.

How Much Does It Cost?

There is a fee to enter and hike at Joshua Tree, even if you’re just coming for the day. The current cost is $30 for a 7-day visitor car pass or $25 for a 7-day motorcycle pass. You can purchase the entrance pass online ahead of time or at the Joshua Tree National Park entrance gate.

As an alternative, you can also purchase an Annual National Park pass for $80 which grants you unlimited entry into all US National Parks for a year. This is what I have and it usually pays itself off within a couple of trips.

Pssst! Here are a few of our other popular National Park posts that you may like:

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, here are 7 of the best day hikes at Joshua Tree National Park:

  1. Barker Dam Nature Trail
  2. Ryan Mountain Trail
  3. 49 Palms Oasis
  4. Skull Rock Trail
  5. Cholla Cactus Garden Trail
  6. Arch Rock Nature Trail
  7. Wall Street Mill

1. Barker Dam Nature Trail

Barker Dam Nature Trail is one of the most convenient and popular hiking trails at Joshua Tree National Park. This is a highly visited trail so I suggest hiking it early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.

The Barker Dam Nature Trail is an easy and quick trail that’s great for families, kids, and casual hikers. It’s mostly flat and travels in a loop next to giant boulders, rocks, and interesting desert plants with plenty of informative signs to learn more about them.

Barker Dam

The main attraction of this trail is the Barker Dam that’s located about halfway into the trail. This dam was built in 1900 and further improved by a local rancher and miner in the 1950s. Visitors are not allowed to walk on top of the dam but you can easily see it from the trail.

While the Barker Dam was built to capture water for farming and livestock, now it’s fairly dried up. The little water that it does collect is used up by desert animals and plants that are trying to survive the drought in its vicinity.   

After exploring the dam, you can keep going along the loop to see Native American Petroglyphs that are carved into a giant rock towards the end of the trail. Some of these drawings look like a snake, fish, and bighorn sheep that reside at Joshua Tree.  

Native American Petroglyphs next to the trail

If you have extra time after hiking the Barker Dam Nature Trail, I also recommend checking out the nearby Wall Street Mill Trail that starts at the same location and leads to a historic mining site.

Trail Summary:

  • Length: 1.3 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 55 feet (this trail is fairly flat)
  • Time Needed: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Starting Point: Barker Dam Nature Trail

Read more here: Hiking Barker Dam Nature Trail In Joshua Tree

2. Ryan Mountain Trail

If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, the Ryan Mountain Trail is a wonderful day hike that climbs up to the top of a mountain for jaw-dropping panoramic views of Joshua Tree National Park.

With over a 1000 feet elevation gain, this is a moderately difficult hike with lots of switchbacks, steep rocky steps, and boulders. This is one of the hardest day hikes that I’ve done at Joshua Tree but at the summit, you’ll be greeted by some of the best views around so the payoff is well worth it!

The Ryan Mountain Trail starts on a sandy path, immediately starts climbing up, and doesn’t stop until you reach the overlook at the end. The climb is hard and will make your legs burn (on the hike and for days after) but there are plenty of places to sit down, take a break and enjoy the views on the way up.

You’ll reach the top at 1.5 miles where you can enjoy sweeping 360 views of the surrounding desert landscape. As a bonus, you might even spot a bighorn sheep hopping around!

Bighorn sheep at the summit

Hiking tip: Despite the weather being hot at the trailhead, it can be very windy and cold at the summit. I recommend bringing a light jacket that you can put on at the overlook to protect yourself from harsh winds.

Due to the hike’s length and difficulty, also bring plenty of water for the way up and down. With the harsh sun beaming down on you and the elevation gain, you’ll be thankful for extra water, sunscreen, and a hiking hat. Hiking poles can also help tackle the strenuous uphill climb and assist from falling on the way down.

Trail Summary:

  • Length: 3 miles out and back
  • Elevation: 1066 feet
  • Time Needed: 2-3 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Starting Point: Ryan Mountain Trail

Read more here: Hiking Ryan Mountain Trail At Joshua Tree National Park

3. 49 Palms Oasis

Located on the Northern part of Joshua Tree National Park, the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail is one of the only trails at Joshua Tree that is outside of the park boundaries, further away from all other attractions.

This trail is unique because it leads to an unexpected palm tree oasis amid a dry desert landscape. And did we mention the panoramic views that you’ll get to enjoy along the way? It’s no wonder why so many visitors will drive out of their way to hike the 49 Palms Oasis Trail.

Similar to Ryan Mountain Trail (but not as hard), the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail climbs up a steep mountain for 1.5 miles and will make you work for it!

Despite being such a short hike, you will see heat exhaustion warnings at the beginning of the trailhead. Start this hike early in the day, bring plenty of water, and download a hiking app like Maps.Me to keep track of the route and always tell someone where you’re heading.

The trail is challenging and strenuous but the palm oasis at the end provides a wonderful resting place before you tackle the way back.

Large Chuckwalla next to the trail

Along this trail, you can also see some blooming cacti and Chuckwallas which are giant desert lizards. Don’t worry – despite looking like mini-versions of dinosaurs, they are not dangerous!

Trail Summary:

  • Length: 3 miles out and back
  • Elevation: 650 feet
  • Time Needed: 2-3 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Moderate
  • Starting Point: Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail

Read more here: Hiking Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail At Joshua Tree

4. Skull Rock Trail

Joshua Tree National Park is full of unique landscapes, rock formations, and natural arches. By far the most interesting rock formation here is the Skull Rock – that just as you might expect earns its name for resembling a skull.

Skull Rock

While the rock itself is located on the side of the main highway that travels through Joshua Tree National Park, we recommend hiking the 1.7-mile-long Skull Rock Trail Loop that starts at the Jumbo Rocks Campground and passes this interesting rock formation along the way.

Although this is a hike that many visitors overlook, it shouldn’t be missed! You also have the option to connect it with other hiking trails like the Face Rock, Split Rock, or Discovery Trail and extend the route by a couple of miles.

The main attraction of this trail is Skull Rock that’s located around 0.5 miles into the hike. With two eye sockets and deep crevasses shaped like a nose, this rock really does look like a skull!

The Skull Rock Trail is fairly flat and great for all skill levels. If you’re staying at the Jumbo Rocks Campground, this is a great trail to do in the evening before sunset. Just be sure to bring a headlamp in case it gets dark and a fully charged phone for navigation. Most of the Skull Rock Trail is well-marked but some sections are less obvious.

Trail Summary:

  • Length: 1.7 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 150 feet
  • Time Needed: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Starting Point: Jumbo Rocks Campground

Read more here: Hiking Skull Rock Trail At Joshua Tree National Park

5. Cholla Cactus Garden Trail

The Cholla Cactus Garden Trail is located in the southern part of Joshua Tree, but it’s well worth the added drive to experience roaming through this beautiful cactus garden in person.

The Cholla Cactus Garden has a quick 0.25-mile-long trail that leads through a dense garden full of Cholla Cactus.

Scenic wooden walkways at Cholla Cactus Garden

These cacti are called Teddy Bear Cholla but don’t let the cute name fool you – this plant has sharp spiked needles that easily attach themselves to their next victim walking by. If you get the “jumping cholla” cactus on your skin, clothing, or shoes – they are very difficult and painful to remove so use caution when hiking through the trails here.

This is an especially beautiful location to visit for sunset or sunrise as the sun illuminates these cacti in golden light. Whether you’re coming here for the views or to snap a few photos, this is one of the best Joshua Tree day hikes that shouldn’t be missed!

Trail Summary:

6. Arch Rock Nature Trail

The Arch Rock Nature Trail is a great place to explore unique rock formations, canyons, and natural arches at Joshua Tree. This short and sweet trail starts at a designated parking lot, crosses Pinto Basin Road, and leads through the flat desert landscape to a scenic rock arch.

Arch Rock

Despite being a short route, the Arch Rock Trail was one of the most confusing hikes that we did at Joshua Tree National Park. We often went off-track so I recommend using a hiking app to avoid getting lost.

There is very little elevation gain on this trek, but you will need to scramble over some boulders to reach Arch Rock at the end. Once you get there, you can climb around it for better views of the natural arch that was created as the result of wind and water erosion.

If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can keep going through deeply carved rock canyons to explore unique rock formations and shapes hidden from the crowds. Or you can turn around and head in a quick loop back to the starting point.

Trail Summary:

  • Length: 1.2 miles
  • Elevation: 100 feet
  • Time Needed: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Starting Point: Arch Rock Nature Trail

7. Wall Street Mill

The Wall Street Mill Trail is an easy day hike that you can check off from your Joshua Tree hiking list. This is a trail that’s not as highly visited as some of the other hikes at Joshua Tree but is great for those who enjoy a bit of history.

An Old abandoned car next to the trail

The Wall Street Mill Trail starts at the same parking lot as the Barker Dam Nature Trail. But while Barker Dam gets most of the visitors and attention, the Wall Street Mill Trail is a great crowd-less alternative. There is no reason for it – both have similar landscapes, unique attractions, and are wonderful quick day hikes.

Along the Wall Street Mill Trail, you will get to see old abandoned cars, house ruins, and a historic gold processing mill. This mill was owned and operated by a local rancher Bill Keys who also owned the Barker Dam.

During your hike, you’ll get to learn more about Joshua Tree’s history. Bill Keys was a big part of it and he even got into a deadly shootout with another man over a land dispute. Sounds like a story out of a Western movie? Yep, sure is!

Wall Street Mill

The hike ends at the Wall Street Mill that was used for gold ore crushing. Much of the mill is now blocked off from visitors with fences for safety but you can walk around for different perspectives of it. Here you’ll also get to see a few abandoned cars and other mining equipment that was left behind after the mining site shut down its operations.

Trail Summary:

  • Length: 2.4 miles out and back
  • Elevation: 70 feet
  • Time Needed: 2 hours
  • Difficulty Level: Easy
  • Starting Point: Barker Dam Nature Trail

Read more here: Hiking Wall Street Mill Trail At Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is brimming with exciting hiking trails made for all skill levels and these are just a few of our favorites!

We hope this post has helped you prepare for an incredible visit to Joshua Tree National Park. If you have any questions about these day hikes, don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments below.

Looking for more California inspiration? Be sure to check out these popular California posts as well:

  1. 20 Best Hikes In California For All Skill Levels
  2. 10 Best VRBO Vacation Rentals in Big Bear Lake, California
  3. Visiting Alabama Hills? Here’s All You Need To Know!
  4. 15 Stunning Destinations To Visit In California In Winter
  5. 10 Amazing VRBO Vacation Rentals in Mammoth Lakes
  6. Guide To Visiting Sequoia National Park In The Winter

Interested in stepping up your photography game? Here is the camera gear that I carry everywhere I go to create amazing travel photos:

  • Main camera: Sony a7c Camera. The Sony a7c is tiny, light, full-frame, and durable – in other words, amazing!
  • Polarizer Filter: Hoya 40.5 mm Filter. Polarizing filters reduce glare in water, protect the lens from getting scratched and bring out the best colors when it’s bright outside. Having a polarizing filter is a must-have if you plan to photograph lakes, oceans, rivers, and waterfalls.
  • Wide Lens: Sony 16-35 mm F4. Great for capturing wide panoramas, nature landscapes, and cramped city streets. Mounts to any Sony mirrorless camera and features autofocus, image stabilization, and incredibly sharp images.
  • Lightweight Travel Tripod: Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod. A good tripod is essential for capturing images in low light conditions, such as during sunset and sunrise, or creating smooth water effects when shooting waterfalls. The Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod is very sturdy, light, and folds small so you can take it on all of your adventures!
  • Memory Cards: SanDisk Extreme 256 GB. It’s always good to bring a few extra memory cards on trips. SanDisk Extreme is ultra-fast for capturing high-quality images, bursts, long exposure night shots, and 4k videos. This memory card is also durable and reliable yet very affordable.
  • Camera Batteries: Wasabi Power Battery Set. I’ve made the mistake of getting to a location to realize my camera is out of battery. Always keep your batteries charged with this camera charger set.
  • Camera Bag: Lowepro adventure shoulder bag. A camera bag is something you should definitely invest in! Without having a proper place to store it I would get my camera scratched, sandy, or even occasionally drop it.

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