A Guide to Joshua Tree National Park's Best Day Hikes

Joshua Tree at Sunrise

 Kyle Hammons / Getty Images

A hike in Joshua Tree National Park will cure anyone of the misconception that the desert is a barren, lifeless place. Designated as a national monument in 1936 and upgraded to national park status in 1994, Joshua Tree covers almost 800,000 acres of diverse, desert terrain about an hour from Palm Springs, California.

The Joshua Tree

Not surprisingly, the park is best known for its iconic, namesake trees, whose twisting limbs and sculptural forms add an otherworldly quality to the Joshua Tree landscape. The trees, a member of the yucca family, can put out beautiful displays of creamy blossoms starting in late March, depending on the timing and amount of rainfall in the park.

Best Time to Hike in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is located in a transition zone between two different deserts. With elevations ranging from 900 feet to more than 5,000 feet, the park includes both Mojave and Colorado desert plant communities. Its topographical variation means that wildflower displays can begin as early as late February in lower elevation sections and continue into late spring in the park’s more mountainous areas.

The park also has surprising weather extremes. You should be prepared for cold conditions in winter when snow and freezing temperatures can occur. But expect hot weather and occasional thunderstorms in summer when temperatures are routinely over 100 degrees. Intense summer rainstorms can result in dangerous flash floods.

The park’s distinctive monzogranite boulder formations combine with the Joshua Trees to create a surreal landscape filled with unique shapes and textures. The boulders have also made Joshua Tree, dubbed J-Tree or sometimes just JT, a major rock-climbing destination.

Speaking of rocks, Joshua Tree has a unique musical history. Back in the day, the likes of Keith Richards and Gram Parsons came out to the park for a bit of mind-expanding recreation and to scan the skies for UFOs. And thanks to U2’s landmark album "The Joshua Tree," the park gained an additional measure of pop culture fame—even though the cover was shot elsewhere in the Mojave.

Best Joshua Tree National Park Day Hikes

Here are five great Joshua Tree day hikes that show off the park’s diversity and beauty.

49 Palms Oasis

The 3-mile round-trip begins just inside the northern park boundary at the end of Canyon Road off State Highway 62. The trail climbs about 350 feet and leads through the rugged desert to a small but surprising oasis of native California fan palms. Because of the proximity of the oasis to populated areas, the palms have suffered a variety of indignities — from carved graffiti to arson. But, especially if your time is limited and you plan to be in the main part of the park, this hike is your best chance to visit a palm oasis.

Barker Dam Nature Trail

A good bet if you’re hiking with kids, the easy and flat 1.3-mile loop offers a look at the boulder formations of Wonderland of Rocks, as well as a bit of the park’s ranching history. The dam was originally built by cattle ranchers in the early 1900s and now provides a water source for a variety of wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep. The trail begins off the Park Boulevard loop road near Hidden Valley Campground about 10 miles southeast of the park’s west entrance station.

Ryan Mountain

Terrific panoramas of the heart of the park make this hike a great alternative if you’re ready for some climbing. It’s only a 3-mile round-trip but you’ll climb more than 1,000 feet to the 5,458-foot summit. The payoff? Great looks at the park’s broad valleys and rock formations, plus outstanding clear-day views of 10,834-foot Mount San Jacinto and 11,503-foot San Gorgonio Mountain — Southern California’s two highest peaks. The trailhead is located off the Park Boulevard loop road about 16 miles from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center and 18 miles from the Oasis Visitor Center.

Boy Scout Trail to Willow Hole

The 6-mile round-trip hike leads through gorgeous Joshua Tree forest and into the dramatic and intricate boulder formations of Wonderland of Rocks. The trail begins at the Keys View Backcountry Board and travels through a nice open stretch desert for roughly 1 1/2 miles until it reaches a junction. Go right and the trail leads through intricate rock formations and a series of washes in Wonderland of Rocks.

The route can occasionally get confusing and your best bet is to simply follow the boot prints. As its name suggests, Willow Hole is a verdant area with willows and a pond set among the boulders. The trailhead is about 11 1/2 miles southeast of the town of Joshua Tree along the Park Boulevard loop.

Lost Palms Oasis

Located in the park’s remote southeast corner, the 7.2-mile round-trip hike is one of Joshua Tree’s very best. The trail begins near the Cottonwood Visitor Center and travels through rugged, open desert and along ridges with sweeping views on the way to the park’s largest grove of palm trees.

The oasis sits in a secluded canyon and is an ideal spot to linger over a picnic. The trailhead is located off Cottonwood Springs Road off Interstate 10 and can be easily reached from resorts in ​​Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. It’s nearly 40 miles from the Oasis Visitor Center and 60 miles from the Joshua Tree Visitor Center but makes a perfect destination if you’re planning on a drive all the way through the park.