Joshua Tree National Park Top Activities

Updated: Dec 1

Located in southeastern California, Joshua Tree National Park is a paradise for those who enjoy desert scenery and hiking.


For the best experience - avoid visiting during the summer months where temperatures during the day will often exceed triple digits.


Below you will find a list of my favorite activities from my recent visit to the park along with helpful tips on how to navigate and prepare for your trip to the park.


Have a specific question about visiting Joshua Tree National Park? Jump ahead using the table of contents below.


11 Top Activities to do in Joshua Tree National Park


  1. Ryan Mountain

  2. Cholla Cactus Garden

  3. Cottonwood Springs

  4. Arch Rock

  5. Skull Rock

  6. Barker Dam

  7. Hidden Valley Nature Trail

  8. Key's View

  9. Fortynine Palms Oasis

  10. Enjoy World Class Stargazing

  11. Visit Nearby Amboy Crater

Be sure to watch the video version of this tour guide below which includes tons of amazing footage that I took during my visit when you're done reading this post!


You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!

 

Ryan Mountain


Ryan Mountain is hands down my favorite hike in Joshua Tree National Park.


This beautiful 3.0 mile (4.8 km) out and back hike leads you to some of the most impressive views in all of Joshua Tree. I'd rate the trail as moderately difficult primarily due to the 1,000+ feet of elevation gain (over 300 meters).


Ryan Mountain Summit
Panoramic wind swept views from atop Ryan Mountain

The Ryan Mountain trail is very well kept and provides stairs during the steeper portions so don't let that deter you.


Arrive early to beat the crowds (this is a very popular spot) and ensure you snag a parking spot. There are bathrooms located at the trailhead.


There's essentially no cover along the way so wear sunscreen.


The peak can be windy so bring an extra layer so you can enjoy your time at the summit!


I also wrote an entire post dedicated to hiking Ryan Mountain that's worth a look.


Cholla Cactus Garden

If you've ever wanted to roam around a giant patch of Cholla - here's your chance.

Cholla Cactus Garden is located in the southern area of Joshua Tree. This stop pairs well with a visit to Cottonwood Springs (more on that below).



Located directly along the main road this is a very unique area of the park characterized by it's extremely dense pocket of Cholla Cacti. You'll stumble across Cholla in other parts of the park, but nothing quite like this.


Cholla Cactus close up
Don't get too close to the jumping cacti!

The short nature walk weaves through a sea of Cholla allowing you to get up close and personal. This is a really cool area of the park to do some photography. Two things to keep in mind here. First off - this can be a hotbed for bee activity. Also - you're getting up close and personal with a literal forest of cacti, if you're bringing small children stay alert or they might return covered in unwanted souvenirs.


Cottonwood Springs


It's hard to believe something like this exists in the middle of a desert.


Like Cholla Cactus Garden this point of interest is located in the southern area of Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood Springs Oasis itself is located a stones throw from the parking lot making this a must see location given how easy it is to access (no 3.0 mile mountain hikes necessary). The California Fan Palms here are massive - towering above the oasis.


Cottonwood Springs, Joshua Tree
Cottonwood Springs is an impressive and colorful desert oasis

When I visited in December the contrast of the autumn colors made the area that much more impressive. You can make this a quick stop if you're just interested in visiting the oasis. There are some other popular trailheads that originate here worth mentioning such as Lost Palms Oasis, Mastodon Peak and Moorten's Mill.


Arch Rock


The appropriately named rock that is shaped like an arch.

Arch Rock is arguably one of the most recognizable spots in Joshua Tree. You have two options here - the official Arch Rock Nature Trail hike is a popular 1.2 mile out and back trail which involves crossing the main road to reach the arch.


Arch Rock
Arch Rock is one of the easier points of interest to reach in the park

Alternatively if you can find parking in the Arch Rock campground or just outside of it along the main road you can cut this stop to a shorter 0.3 mile out and back journey if you want to save time or save your legs for other spots.


The longer version is enjoyable - but Barker Dam and Hidden Valley will offer more impressive scenery for the same distance and effort.


Skull Rock


Another appropriately named rock formation.


Skull Rock is a must see location in Joshua Tree if for no other reason than you literally can't travel through the park without seeing it. The formation is directly along the main road and is a popular stop. It's a great place to snap a few cool photos but be mindful the rock can quite literally be crawling with other tourists.


Skull Rock
Views of Skull Rock as seen from across the main road

I'd suggest climbing on top of the small rock formations across the road to get a better view and for a cool photo op. The area does have a 1.7 mile nature loop but heed my advice from Arch Rock which would be to save your legs and budget your time for Hidden Valley and Barker Dam.


Barker Dam

This is one of the best areas of the park to have a chance at spotting big horn sheep.

Barker Dam is one of the better areas in the park to have a chance at spotting wildlife. Unfortunately, when I visited in December the Dam was bone dry - but if you visit during the rainy season it will improve your odds of catching animals looking for water in the area.


Petroglyphs at Barker Dam
Be sure to keep an eye out for the petroglyphs near Barker Dam

The rock formations along the 1.4 mile loop hike are impressive as is the variety of vegetation you'll come across. After passing the Dam site itself, about 1.0 mile in, keep an eye out for a small sign marking Native American Petroglyphs that were carved along some of the rock formations.


Hidden Valley Nature Trail


The best place in Joshua Tree to experience the parks diversity.


Hidden Valley Nature Trail is the best "nature walk" in all of Joshua Tree. The trail has very little elevation change and is a short 1.0 mile loop making it perfect for all visitors. Along the way you'll wind through dense and diverse desert vegetation while being surrounded by stunning rock formations.


Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Hidden Valley boasts a surprising amount of color and variety despite the climate

Keep an eye out for the 'Great Burrito' - if you're lucky you'll spot rock climbers here or in the area directly across from the parking lot. No visit to Joshua Tree is complete without a stop at Hidden Valley Nature Trail.


Key's View


Super easy to access vista and the best place to catch a Joshua Tree sunset!

Looking for an awesome place to catch a sunset while visiting Joshua Tree? Key's View has you covered. Reaching Key's View is a breeze as a paved road takes you all the way to the top. This is a popular area to watch the sunset so plan on arriving a little ahead of time to ensure you snag a parking spot.


Mountains seen from Key's View
Be sure to stop by Key's View for a memorable sunset experience

If you're interested, there's a really cool 1.5 mile out and back hike that leads to Inspiration Peak. Tired from a long day of hiking? Sit back and enjoy the view from the observation area located directly next to the parking lot.


Be mindful - you're on top of a mountain so it can be extremely windy and chilly in the evenings. Have extra layers handy!


Fortynine Palms Oasis


Must see desert oasis with ample wildlife activity.


If you have time - make the visit to Fortynine Palms Oasis, you won't regret it! Logistically this location works a bit different. You'll need to exit Joshua Tree to the north - cut through the town of Twentynine Palms and reenter Joshua Tree through a separate entrance that caters to this trailhead.


Fortynine Palms Oasis
Be mindful that you need to access this area from a separate Joshua Tree entrance

The trail is moderately difficult with 500+ feet of elevation gain over the 3.1 mile out and back trek. You'll be rewarded with views of towering Fan Palms that thrive from a fault in the earth that provides them with water. This is another great spot to catch birds and other wildlife searching for water.


Enjoy World Class Stargazing


Joshua Tree is prime real estate when it comes to stargazing. The park is open 24 hours a day so you can either extend your day into the evening or come back after dusk.


Generally speaking anywhere in the park works well. But for the absolute best experience I'd recommend picking a spot near the center of the park. Being further away from nearby towns will help cut down on light pollution.


During my visit we pulled off at the Turkey Flats area which is centrally located within Joshua Tree National Park.


Visit Nearby Amboy Crater


If you have time - be sure to check out the Amboy Crater National Landmark which is north of Joshua Tree. From the parks northern exit you should be able to reach the National Landmark in about an hour.


Once you reach the parking lot a 4.1 mile (6.6 km) out and back hike takes you up the side of an extinct cinder cone volcano!


Just be careful about visiting on warmer days when the sun is still out as the area can be extremely hot and arid.


Amboy Crater
Views of Amboy Crater near the park entrance

Amboy Crater is also an excellent area to do some stargazing. Check out DarkSiteFinder.com if you're looking for a tool to identify other areas in the USA with good stargazing prospects.


If you're interested in learning more about Amboy Crater I have a fully dedicated post summarizing my visit.


Looking for a video guide on Joshua Tree National Park?


If you're still looking for additional information or cool videos I took within Joshua Tree National Park then you're in luck! I also have a helpful YouTube video that highlights all of my favorite activities to see and do within the park.


Be sure to check out my post on useful tips before visiting


We covered a lot of ground in this post but before visiting Joshua Tree National Park you'll want to read my guide on useful tips to know before you visit the park.


Learn about what to pack, how long it takes to drive