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Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

The best things to do in Joshua Tree

A list of the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, from hikes and bikes to stargazing and horseback riding

Written by
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
Contributor
Kate Wertheimer
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Beyond the desert climate and sweeping natural beauty, there's something you'll notice pretty quickly upon arriving in California’s High Desert: there are plenty of outdoorsy things to do in Joshua Tree, whether it's hiking and biking or camping and wildflower sightseeing. Either way, you'll discover that this seemingly monochromatic swath of rock actually has more going on than meets the eye—enough to keep you busy for days, and coming back again and again.

Joshua Tree is one of the most magical places in California (and the country, no doubt). The National Park's varied and alien landscapes—due mostly to gnarled, ancient Joshua Trees and giant boulders strewn willy-nilly—make for impressive scenery during hikes, bike tours, or leisurely drives. If you visit in spring, head south to Pinto Basin to see colorful wildflowers in bloom. The stargazing is hard to beat, and wild coyotes may howl you to sleep if you plan an overnight camping trip.

One of the most notable stops along the way to the park includes Pappy & Harriet's for lunch, live music, and a ghost town stroll. There's also The Integratron center for a new-age sound bath, and the town of Joshua Tree itself which offers unique hotels, a few tasty restaurants, some good thrifting, and the kind of quirky public art that only exists in tiny, warm-weather communities. Enjoy your desert trip!


RECOMMENDED: the most beautiful National Parks in California

Joshua Tree things to do

Ryan Mountain hike
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

1. Ryan Mountain hike

This three-mile hike, with an elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet, is totally worth the trek. Once you're at the top (at an elevation of 5,450 feet), you'll have spectacular views in every direction: Lost Horse, Queen and Pleasant valleys, the Pinto Basin, Mount San Jacinto, and endless rock formations. It's one of the best views in the park, and a great way to spend a cool morning or winter afternoon.

Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

2. Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch

The two main attractions on the Pinto Basin Road are plant species just as Dr. Seuss-like as the Joshua Tree. First, the Cholla Cactus Garden, a prickly oasis of menacing-looking, silver-tinged chollas. Be sure to stay on the path, these suckers are sharp! Next, the Ocotillo Patch, where towering bunches of stalks make for great photo opportunities, especially post-rainfall when tiny crimson flowers bloom on each from top to bottom.

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Road and mountain biking
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

3. Road and mountain biking

Currently, bicycling in Joshua Tree is restricted to roads that are open to all vehicles. Beware that most of the roads don't have much of a shoulder, so remain vigilant when cars approach. You can still enjoy great views and serious exercise on the park's backcountry roads, just remember to wear a helmet and bring plenty of water. There are no designated bike lanes within the park. 

Stargazing
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

4. Stargazing

You may need to camp overnight for this one, unless you don't mind hanging around until well after dark. It's absolutely worth it either way—these are some of the clearest and starriest skies for miles. Shooting stars streak by every few minutes, and each season has its greatest hits, like Orion's Belt showing off in the winter or the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August. If you're looking to see the Milky Way smeared across the sky, plan for a moonless summer night.

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Barker Dam hike
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

5. Barker Dam hike

The basin behind Barker Dam fills up with water after a particularly rainy season, creating an unlikely (and welcome) desert sight: a lake. The one-mile looped hike is great for bird watching and a general change of scenery.

Wildflower viewing
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

6. Wildflower viewing

Seeing tiny flowers spring to life in colorful bursts that cover swaths of desert is one of the most magical experiences in the park. You'll have to plan your trip wisely, however, and keep an eye on the reports—weather can change things quickly. For the most part though, wildflowers begin blooming in the lower elevations of the Pinto Basin and along the park's southern boundary as early as February, and at higher elevations in March and April. Desert regions above 5,000 feet may have plants blooming as late as June.

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7. Horseback riding

Both Ryan and Black Rock campgrounds have accommodations for equestrian guests. The Backcountry and Wilderness Management Plan provides 253 miles of equestrian trails and trail corridors that traverse open lands, canyon bottoms, and dry washes. Most riding trails are open year-round and are clearly marked. There's just one catch: you’ll need to bring your own horse.

The ruins of the Keys' family ranch include rusted car frames in the yard and a ranch house with an original well intact. Listed as a National Historic Register Site, the ranch is only open to the public for guided tours. Each tour lasts 90 minutes and includes a half-mile walk around the site. Tours are $10 per person and are totally worth it if you're into wild west history.

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Birding
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

9. Birding

This may sound like a grandma's game, but birding is a great way to see serene, little-traveled parts of the park—in addition to some beautiful birds. And there are plenty to be seen: the roadrunner, phainopepla, mockingbird, verdin, cactus wren, rock wren, mourning dove, Le Conte’s thrasher, and Gambel’s quail can all be spotted in the park throughout the year. The migratory white-crowned sparrow, dark-eyed junco, sage sparrow, cedar waxwing, American robin, and hermit thrush are winter birds that remain in the park through March, when they switch places with summer nesting species such as Bendire’s thrasher, ash-throated flycatcher, western kingbird, Scott’s oriole, northern oriole, and western bluebird. If you're lucky, you might glimpse hawks, falcons, or even groups of 200 or more turkey vultures during spring migration.

Rock climbing
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Tree National Park

10. Rock climbing

Joshua Tree is a world-class destination for bouldering and rock climbing. It's famous for its traditional-style crack, slab, and steep-face monzogranite climbing. With more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes, there are challenging climbs here for all ability levels. If you're new to the sport, guides and gear are easily found through a quick internet search or a stop at Nomad Ventures, an adventure store just outside the park with a friendly, helpful staff.


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