I went to college in southern Arizona, a mere five-hour drive from Joshua Tree National Park. Road-tripping is a deeply-ingrained part of western culture, especially among budget-minded college students, so I’ve made the 290-mile trek eight or nine times — at least.
As I’ve gotten older, my trips have become better-planned and far more efficient. Long gone, but certainly not forgotten, are the days of pooling cash with my sorority sisters to see if we had enough to make it to SoCal. Instead of just arriving, taking a few obligatory selfies, sleeping in a falling-apart tent, and heading home, I eventually started actually exploring all the park’s many offerings. Here, after extensive R&D, are my recommendations for the best things to do in Joshua Tree.
Why I Love Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree has always held a special place in my heart and the reason is simple: there’s truly nothing like it. You’re clearly in the desert, but expansive mountains also stretch out all around you. The iconic Joshua trees are scattered amongst unusual rock formations, all under a clear and colorful desert sky, making the landscape look even more otherworldly.
Truthfully, it all feels more than just a bit magical. It’s magnetic — there’s something undeniable, yet inexplicable, about Joshua Tree that pulls me back again and again.
My Top 6 Things To Do in Joshua Tree National Park
- Watch the sunrise or sunset from Keys View. Drive (climb is more accurate; you’ll ascend about 5,000 feet in elevation) 25 minutes from the northwest entrance to this stunning lookout. With near 360-degree views, you can see Palm Springs, the infamous San Andreas fault line, and even Mexico on clear days.
- Hike. Hiking is unquestionably one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, with dozens of unique trails. I love the 1.3-mile Barker Dam Nature Trail loop and 6.5-mile Panorama Loop.
- Skull Rock. If you love being outside but don’t necessarily want to hike, head to Skull Rock. You can scramble up the distinct rock formation and the surrounding area has tons of walking paths.
- Cholla Cactus Garden. Love cacti? This should be at the top of your list of things to do in Joshua Tree. Only cholla cactus grow in this natural “garden.” Even to someone who lives in the desert, this sight is absolutely striking. Just be extra careful — cholla cacti get their name because they’re almost magnetic, “jumping” from their parent plant to unknowing passersby.
- Stargaze. As an International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree has incredible stargazing. Head to Skull Rock or anywhere along Pinto Basin Road for some of the best vantage points.
- Sleep under the stars. If you’re stargazing anyway, why not camp under the night sky? Joshua Tree has several awesome campgrounds for both tents and smaller RVs. I’ve camped in both, but I honestly prefer renting a Cruise America RV and going that route. There’s nothing quite like the convenience of stargazing outside, then heading inside to a nice comfy bed!
Things I’ve Learned From Joshua Tree
I travel extensively, and it’s really easy to get caught up in always finding the next adventure. So caught up that it can make you overlook the epic adventures right in front of you. It’s a big world, and there’s a whole lot to see, right?
Well, several visits to Joshua Tree have taught me that there’s something to be said about exploring the same destination — having the same adventure, if you will — again and again. As many times as I’ve been, I always find something new, and there are still plenty of things to do in Joshua Tree on my list.
My Joshua Tree Bucket List
While I’ve checked many of the best things to do in Joshua Tree off my bucket list, there are still several others!
- Tour Keys Ranch. Walk through literal frontier history with a tour of settler William F. Keys’ property. The only way to see it is via a ranger-led tour, which is offered October-May and requires advance reservations.
- Cottonwood Spring Oasis. The National Park Service calls this oasis “one of the best kept secrets in Joshua Tree National Park” and to be honest, it surprises me that I've never been. There’s just so much to see!
- Horseback riding. There are several outfitters close to the park offering rides both in and just outside it. Knob Hill Ranch and Joshua Tree Ranch are both high on my list!
- Wildflowers. Many people (myself included!) are surprised to learn that there can be big wildflower blooms in the desert. Joshua Tree’s diverse terrain makes it possible, but getting the timing right is tricky. I’ve never managed to see them, but the best odds are in March and April.
Experience Your Own Joshua Tree
Whether it’s your first visit to Joshua Tree or your 10th, I hope you find it as magical as I do. Embrace the uniqueness, get out there, do some stargazing, and enjoy the park!