Joshua Tree National Park beckons hikers with pathways leading to a diversity of desert environments, including sand dunes, native palm oases, cactus gardens and jumbles of jumbo granite.
Joshua Tree is a great place to take a hike. And there’s a lot of park to hike!
JT is a large national park, slightly larger than Yosemite in fact, with compelling sights-to-see scattered over nearly 800,000 acres. With elevations that range from 900 feet to more than 5,000 feet, the park has a great deal of biodiversity as well.
With limited time, it’s best to choose a strategy to explore Joshua Tree. One approach is to focus on one area per visit: Cottonwood Springs, Black Rock Canyon or the Wonderland of Rocks for example. Another way to go is to choose one route of travel—say from the West Entrance or North Entrance—and stop for hikes along major park roads.
Another strategy to employ is to take a lot of short hikes. The park has a dozen interpreted nature trails ranging from 0.25 mile to 1 mile in length. They travel over gentle terrain and offer an ideal introduction to the wonders of the desert.
In combination with stops at the park visitor centers, the park’s nature trails deliver an excellent overview of the park. Taking several short hikes in a day is a good way to go for the first-time visitor as well as for those new to desert hiking, and who may be unfamiliar with its rigors and requirements.
In Joshua Tree, hikers have the opportunity to experience two deserts: the Mojave and the Colorado. The Mojave Desert in the western part of the park includes Joshua tree forests and some intriguing geology—particularly the dramatic hills of bare rock, usually broken up into loose boulders. Along with the Joshua trees that dominate the open spaces, the park also holds enclaves of pinyon pine, California juniper and the desert scrub oak.
Below 3,000 feet, the eastern part of the park reflects the Colorado Desert—with habitats of creosote bush, ocotillo, yucca and cholla cactus. This lower and drier desert features cactus gardens and dunes, plus palm oases, where water occurs naturally year-around and the native California fan palm thrives.
Paths to palm oases are one of the park’s special attractions. Oasis Visitor Center is located alongside the Oasis of Mara, also known as Twenty-nine Palms. For many hundreds of years Native Americans lived at “the place of little springs and much grass.”
Cottonwood Spring, near the south end of the park is a little palm and cottonwood-shaded oasis that attracts desert birds and bird-watchers. The trail to Fortynine Palms Oasis winds up and over a hot rocky crest to the dripping springs, pools, and the blessed shade of palms and cottonwoods. Lost Palms Oasis Trail visits the park’s premier palm grove.
No visit to JT would be complete without a short hike into the Wonderland of Rocks, twelve square miles of massive jumbled granite. This curious maze of stone hides groves of Joshua trees, trackless washes and several small pools of water.
Hikers often cross paths with rock-climbers and spot them practicing their craft on formations high above the desert floor. From Hidden Valley to the Wonderland of Rocks, the park has emerged as one of the world’s premiere rock-climbing destinations. The park offers relatively easy access to about 3,000 climbing routes, ranging from the easiest of bouldering to some of the sport’s most difficult technical climbs.
The Jumbo Rocks area is Joshua Tree National Park to the max: a vast array of rock formations, a Joshua tree forest, the yucca-dotted desert open and wide. Check out Skull Rock (one of the many rocks in the area that appear to resemble humans, dinosaurs, monsters, cathedrals and castles) via a nature trail that provides an introduction to the park’s flora, wildlife and geology.
In Queen Valley, just west of Jumbo Rocks, is the signed beginning of Geology Tour Road, a rough dirt road (four-wheel drive recommended) extending 18 miles into the heart of the park. Motorists get close-up looks at the considerable erosive forces that shaped this land, forming the flattest of desert playas, or dry lakebeds, as well as massive heaps of boulders that tower over the valley floor. Good hikes begin off Geology Tour Road, which delivers a Joshua tree woodland, an historic spring, abandoned mines and some fascinating native petroglyphs.
One of my favorite footpaths is Black Rock Canyon Trail, which follows a classic desert wash, then ascends to the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains at Warren Peak. Desert and mountain views from the peak are stunning.
Must-do classic hikes include the short but steep ascent through a lunar landscape of rocks and Joshua trees to the top of 5,470-foot Ryan Mountain. Reward for the climb is one of the park’s best views. Lost Horse Mine Trail visits one of the area’s most successful gold mines, and offers a close-up look back into a colorful era, and some fine views into the heart of the park.
Hike smart, reconnect with nature and have a wonderful time on the trail.