Joshua Tree National Park – A Full Day of Hiking and Adventures

Joshua Tree National Park – A Full Day of Hiking and Adventures

Entering into Joshua Tree National Park from the North Entrance


Many of the millions of people who go to Joshua Tree National Park each year are seeking photographs of Joshua trees, an iconic plant which actually grows throughout much of the Mojave Desert. However, on our first visit to the park, we discovered that Joshua Tree has so much more to offer than just Joshua trees. And, to truly experience the beauty of the desert, it is worth your while to get out of your car, take a few hikes, scramble over some rocks and see the desert up close.

Our kids might say that we run them a little ragged on days when we are exploring National Parks, but I doubt they’d say that any of the hikes or stops we made along the way were wasted time. They share our love of travel and exploring the parks as much as we do. However, they are still kids; and, although they seem to have limitless energy at times, they are prone to running out of steam. We knew we only had about 12 hours to spend in the park, so we did what we do best, which is to prioritize and try to cram as much into the day as is humanly possible with three kids!


{NOTE: Before you set out on any trails, no matter the time of year, bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen.  There isn’t much or any shelter on many of the hikes, and you can still get a sunburn (like we did) or end up dehydrated even in the winter!}

joshua tree national park guide

Joshua Tree National Park hikes, what to pack, information on when to go and things to do in Joshua Tree National Park are highlighted in our 11+ page itinerary for Joshua Tree National Park.




Indian Cove Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

We usually like to stop at the visitor center before hitting any trails but knew we were unlikely to make it back to the Twentynine Palms area (where we spent the previous night). So, we googled the NPS site for Joshua Tree to get our bearings, grabbed our coffee in town, drove through the Indian Cove campground and located our first hike of the day--the Indian Cove Nature Trail. Our morning stroll was a good way to warm up for the longer hikes, take a closer look at the desert plants and learn about their traditional uses by Native Americans. The kids spotted a couple jack rabbits, viewed their first cholla cactus up close (heed the safety warnings!) and found a bird nest hidden amongst the spines of a pencil cholla. This 0.6 mile trail took us less than 30 minutes.

Hiking on the Indian Cove Nature Trail in Joshua Tree National Park




Fortynine palms oasis trail in Joshua Tree National Park

We loaded into the car and headed to our next hike of the morning: Fortynine Palms Oasis. From the time we started the hike until we arrived at the oasis, we only ran into a few people. We heard this was a popular hike, but I guess February mornings are ideal since we had the trail and oasis nearly to ourselves! The trail climbed up gradually and wound around a rocky ridge dotted with barrel cactus. The early part of the trail was cold and blustery. I can’t imagine hiking in the heat with the lack of trees and quick elevation gain. However, heat wasn’t a problem on the day we hiked, and our two youngest kids surprised us by nearly running the whole trail! Beyond the ridge, we descended into an oasis of fan palms peeking out from the rocky canyon. We stopped to take pictures, rehydrate and have a quick snack. Then our kids were off and running again! The trail guides recommend 2-3 hours for this 3 mile hike. However, our crew finished in just under an hour and a half. It should be noted that there is an elevation gain of 300 feet in both directions.  For details on the Fortynine Palms Oasis hike, check out our blog that features the hike.

Fortynine palms oasis trail in Joshua Tree National Park



Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park

After a quick stop at the Oasis Visitor Center, we drove south to Cholla Cactus Garden. This is a great short, nature hike for everyone. Here you will see a dense collection of thousands of naturally growing cholla cactus. However, this is one of those trails that you want to be sure to stay on. Be aware that those really cool looking cactuses have very sharp needles, and you’ll want to keep an extra close eye on children! Our three got the lecture before we entered the trail, but I did bring my tweezers, just in case. The trail is only 0.25 miles, and you’ll want to be sure to take lots of pictures. Allow 15-30 minutes here.

Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park



Live Oak picnic area in Joshua Tree National Park

We decided to skip the Cottonwood Spring / Lost Palm Oasis area due to time (plus we had already hiked to Fortynine Palms Oasis). We headed back northwest to have lunch at Live Oak. Although there are picnic tables here, we opted to picnic on a boulder with an awesome view. Afterwards the kids did some rock scrambling. This is also a great spot for photos with some of the unusually shaped boulders.

Live Oak Picnic Area in Joshua Tree National Park




Skull Rock in Joshua Tree National Park

After our picnic at Live Oak, our next stop was Skull Rock—an iconic rock formation and Joshua Tree photo stop. It is a great spot for kids to rock scramble. However, since it was so crowded with people, we didn’t spend much time here. There is a 1.7 mile loop you can do, but you can also easily access the main attraction right by the edge of the road. Our hardest hike of the day lay ahead, and we didn’t want the kids to lose steam or start making excuses to skip it. That doesn’t usually work with us anyways!


A view from the top of the Ryan Mountain Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

Ryan Mountain is just a short drive from the Hall of Horrors. Trail guides recommend 1.5-2.5 hours for this 3 mile hike. It took our crew about 2 hours in wintertime. (Note: this is a challenging hike and should be avoided when it’s hot!) Although the hike isn’t very long, the elevation gain is 1075 feet on the way to the summit of 5500 feet above sea level. This trail is very safe and well maintained but strenuous, and there aren’t many flat sections on the way up. You start your ascent almost right away with a long staircase that climbs towards the mountain. After reaching the junction, you stay right and follow the trail which cuts into the side of the mountain. The scenery isn’t spectacular along the way; however, the 360 degree views from the top of Lost Horse and Pleasant Valleys plus the snow-capped peaks of mountains to the west make the hike one of the most popular ones in the park. Our eldest son was more interested in chatting with the park volunteer at the base of the hike than enjoying views from the summit, so he made his way down the mountain in about 30-45 minutes. It took the rest of us a little longer but the views descending the trail are worthy of a few more pictures, especially later in the day.

Hiking down the Ryan Mountain Trail in Joshua Tree National Park



Hall of Horrors in Joshua Tree National Park

We stopped briefly at Hall of Horrors (on the right-hand side of the road past Ryan Mountain) but the kids were just too tired to even get out of the car and busy eating snacks. So, we settled for a few quick pictures. Hall of Horrors is a popular climbing spot, and you can take a path which leads closer to the rocks to watch the climbers. It is also a beautiful spot to photograph a group of Joshua trees against a backdrop of the boulder field.



Barker Dam Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

Our kids clearly were running out of gas, having completed two 3 mile hikes (plus several nature trails), but we convinced them that Barker Dam loop would be worth the 1.3 mile hike. We had heard it was one of the best places to spot big-horned sheep in Joshua Tree since the sheep use it as their main water source. Due to the recent rains, there was plenty of water, but no sheep. However, we all enjoyed this leisurely hike which took us less than an hour. The Barker Dam area is one of the more picturesque locations for photos in Joshua Tree.




Hidden Valley Trail in Joshua Tree National Park

Hidden Valley was our last walk of the day. It is a 1 mile nature trail that circles the rocky perimeter of the valley. It is rumored to have been used by cattle rustlers since the enclosed rocky area made a great spot to enclose animals and hide out. Hidden Valley is also a popular spot to rock climb. This easy walk took us about a half hour.



Keys View at Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park

We knew we wanted to make it to Keys View in time to see sunset, so we left Hidden Valley as the sun began to drop lower in the sky. It helps to know at what time the sun sets, as the sky really starts to show its colors about 45 minutes ahead of sunset. Trust me--you don’t want to miss it! Even if you can’t make it for sunset, this is a great spot on a clear day for breathtaking views of the San Andreas Fault, the Salton Sea, Coachella Valley and several mountains. We had just made it to the parking area as people were literally running from their cars with cameras. It was cold and windy at the lookout point so the kids took a quick look and then took shelter from the wind. My husband and I took our fair share of photos and enjoyed the setting sun before returning to the car—thankful that our rental minivan had heated seats. The temperature had dropped to 37 degrees! As we drove west, we enjoyed the remainder of light as it cast the Joshua trees in shadow against the darkening sky.  Learn more about parking, when to go and directions on how to get to Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park in our blog.

Sunset from Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park


  • Joshua Tree National Park is open every hour of every day throughout the year. The hours of each visitor center vary, and you should check the hours before you go to make sure they are open.  The Black Rock Nature Center is the only visitor center that is not open every day.
  • While there is no lodging in Joshua Tree, there is plenty of camping. Eight campgrounds in total are available.  Only two of the Joshua Tree campgrounds take reservations.  During the summer months (when it’s hotter in the park and more sparsely attended), reservations are not required.  You can also see this great article on RV Camping in Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Camping outside the park is an option if the park’s campgrounds are filled up, and there are quite a few options for this as well.
  • Nearby lodging is plentiful and can be found in Twentynine Palms, CA and Yucca Valley, CA.
  • Visiting Joshua Tree National Park in winter is a great way to beat the heat. Though it is the desert, it can get very cold in the winter, so just make sure you are prepared!

joshua tree national park guide


custom national park poster


Note: this blog was updated on June 9th, 2018.








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About Just Go Travel Studios

We are Amy & Pete Brahan. Very simply, we are passionate about our National Parks and Public Lands and explore them with our three kids whenever we can.

As much as we enjoy traveling, we also love sharing our knowledge and helping others create everlasting memories through our custom-made travel posters, downloadable travel itineraries and detailed blog articles.

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