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Top Things to do at Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park has some of the most unique rock formations you have ever seen in the U.S. It is these giant boulders set against the natural beauty of the desert that makes Joshua Tree irresistible to photographers, nature lovers, and adventure seekers alike.

Whether you’re looking for a quick stop on your way to Vegas, a long weekend escape from Los Angeles or flying out just to see the park, Joshua Tree National Park is an incredible place to explore during spring, fall and winter. Experience the beautiful desert landscape of Joshua Tree with these top things to do at Joshua Tree National Park.

Best Things to Do at Joshua Tree National Park - Kids Are A Trip

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Where is Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree National Park sits on the border of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert in southern California. It is one of nine national parks in the state.

There are three entrances to the park. The north entrance is closest to Twentynine Palms, the west entrance is at Joshua Tree Village, and the south entrance is near Cottonwood Spring.

There are four visitor centers where you can ask about the park’s main attractions and pick up maps: the Oasis Visitor Center, Black Rock Nature Center, Joshua Tree, and Cottonwood Visitor Center. Be extremely careful if you visit in the summer months as the temperatures hover around 100°F and above.

If you want to spend a few days exploring, these are some of the best places to stay in Joshua Tree.

What to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

1. Photograph the Famous Skull Rock 

One of the top things to do in Joshua Tree National Park is to take a photo at Skull Rock. Skull Rock is a granite rock that was formed as rain droplets accumulated in pockets on the giant rock. Gradually over time, the rock eroded, and two cavities were created that resembled eye sockets.

Skull Rock Joshua Tree National Park

Since this attraction is located right at the main road, it’s easy to access and you’ll see crowds gathered around. On the right of Skull Rock, you might also see a group of people climbing around the rocks for a photo.

They are trying to capture a rock that looks like an elephant – the Elephant Rock. Plan to spend 30 minutes checking out the Skull Rock and the Elephant Rock.

2. Camp at Jumbo Rocks Campground

If you’re looking for an unforgettable camping experience, camp at Jumbo Rocks Campground. This campground has 124 camping sites and is the high season is between the months of September and May.

It also has an amphitheater and is perfectly located at the center of Joshua Tree National Park. You can also hike the 1.7-mile trail to the Jumbo Rocks Campground from Skull Rock.

Even if you’re not camping, walk around the jumbo rocks scattered all around the campground. And head to campsite #18 to hike up to a scenic view of a rock that looks like a penguin, right next to a juniper tree. 

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3. Walk the Boardwalk through the Cholla Cactus Garden

Take a walk on the Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail through the Cholla Cactus Garden. The trail is on a boardwalk that’s only a 0.2-mile short hike. On the path you’ll see about 10 acres of teddy-bear cholla and if you’re here during the springtime, you’ll see flowers blooming on the teddy bear cholla cactus.

Cholla Cactus Garden Joshua Tree

Wherever you are in the park, plan to drive to the garden before sunset to capture the perfect sunset photo with the Cholla Cactus.

Be sure to pack and wear long layers when hiking through the garden. The cactus spines are very sharp and will be painful if you accidentally touch them.

To be safe, do not stray from the boardwalk hiking trail. Allow up to an hour walking around the garden. 

4. Stand Under the Arch Rock

Hike through Joshua trees and rock formations along the Arch Rock trail until you reach Arch Rock. It’s a 1.2-mile loop hike that starts flat first, goes downhill and then up.

The Arch Rock is surrounded by many different-sized rocks, and you can spend a whole day just exploring the area. Arch Rock is visible from ground level, but to get a photo with it, you will have to scramble up the rocks.

Arch Rock Joshua Tree

While there may be a crowd around the Arch Rock, there’s also a line of people waiting to get their photo taken. Be patient and you are sure to get the perfect shot under the Arch Rock!

While you’re here, climb up a couple of rocks to get to the Heart Rock. It might be difficult to find Heart Rock as there aren’t any directions to it but use Google Maps to hike towards it.

If you see people hiking to or from the Heart Rock be sure to ask for directions. 

5. Picnic at the Split Rock

Take a lunch break in the park and picnic at the Split Rock Picnic Area. Split Rock is a rock that has big split going through the middle of it. You can either hike the 1.9-mile loop trail to Split Rock or drive up to the picnic area.

Parking is limited but you’ll eventually find a spot. It’s one of the few places where you will see less of a crowd, perfect for a picnic. 

Other popular picnic areas include Hidden Valley (close to the Hidden Valley Nature Trail) and Quail Springs. Both have picnic tables available.

6. Examine an Old Mill Site, the Wall Street Mill

The Wall Street Mill was used for gold mining in the 1930s. It’s a moderate 2.4-mile hike out and back with minimal shade.

Wall Street Mill Joshua Tree

There are vintage rusty cars and other old artifacts on the way to the mill site. The trail is sandy so allow up to 2 hours to fully hike the trail. Walk through history on the Wall Street Mill Trail.

7. Look up at the Petroglyphs on the Barker Dam Trail

The Barker Dam Nature Trail takes you through a historic dam that was built and used by cattle ranchers to store water.

The hike is a 1.1-mile loop that requires some rock climbing so plan to spend an hour at this trail. It is one of the easy hikes at Joshua Tree National Park.

Barker Dam

At the end of the trail, you’ll come across petroglyphs drawn by Native Americans. Read through the interpretive signs along the way and if you’re lucky, you might spot some desert bighorn sheep. 

8. Admire the Bird’s-Eye View at Keys View

At Keys View, enjoy panoramic views at the top of San Bernardino Mountains. On the left, you’ll see the Salton Sea, and, on the right, you’ll see the Santa Rosa Mountains and the San Jacinto Peak. Below, you’ll see the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs.

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Look farther to the right for the snowy peak of the San Gorgonio Mountain. While you’ll get views from the parking lot, you can take a shore walk of 0.1 mile to the lookout point.

Keys View is located on the southwestern part of the park, and it takes about 20-30 minutes from the other attractions at the park. Plan to head here either as the first or last stop of the day.

This is a popular sunset spot so expect crowds or come at sunrise for a tranquil experience. Plan to spend up to an hour at this scenic view. 

9. Surround Yourself with The Greenery at Cottonwood Spring Oasis

One of the park’s fan palm oases, the Cottonwood Spring Oasis has California fan palm trees and cottonwood trees around the area. This oasis is located about 10 minutes from the south entrance of the park.

Cottonwood Spring Oasis

Plan to spend a half hour exploring the greenery. Pack your binoculars to look out for birds in this 0.1-mile hike through the oasis. Throughout the year, you might see the greater roadrunner, mockingbird, or the cactus wren. You might also see birds of prey including the prairie falcon and the red-tailed hawk. 

Whether you’re a first-timer or a repeat visitor, Joshua Tree National Park offers a number of activities.

The Joshua trees, palm oases, endless expanse of desert, and rugged rock formations make it ideal for hiking, camping, or even just picnicking. When you’re planning a trip to this desert paradise, make sure to try these 9 things to do in Joshua Tree National Park.

About the author: Rasika is the owner of the travel blog Bae Area and Beyond. She is from the Bay Area and her blog covers California destinations. She hopes that her readers will fall in love with California, just like she did.

Book Your Flights

You can find discounted fares using sites like Momondo or Skyscanner. If you want to keep an eye on discount fares, we suggest signing up for Going, a daily newsletter with flight sales around the world.

If you travel frequently, consider investing in a Priority Pass for airport lounge access. It’s nice to have a space where you can relax before your flight.

Book Your Accommodation

We regularly use Expedia.com and Hotels.com to find lodging when we travel. It’s a great way to compare vacation rentals, hotels, and resorts.

If your family knows they want to stay in a vacation rental, we recommend looking at VRBO and Plum Guide.

Book Your Transportation

For rental car agencies, try Rentalcars.com. We tend to use Hertz simply for the quality of service.

Book Your Tours and Travel Photos

We regularly used companies like Viator and GetYourGuide to book tours when we travel. Both have great communication and a large variety of activities that work for all ages.

If you’re visiting a city with multiple attractions, be sure to check out a discount pass, such as CityPASS or Go City. Both are worthwhile investments.

Context Travel is another option and they offer more educational-based activities. The former teacher in me loves their tours.

One of our favorite things to do annually is taking photos with Flytographer. They have photographers around the world and we’ve used them on four separate occasions. This is our favorite travel souvenir.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

With the state of travel these days, it’s important to have some type of travel insurance to cover any unforeseen accidents, illnesses, threats, or cancellations. We always travel with insurance and would recommend SquareMouth, Travelex, or Medjet as good options. And if you want to compare different insurance options, use Travel Insurance Master to find the best policy for your group.