California’s Joshua Tree national park is definitely one of the best and most interesting places you can visit in the desert. It features so many different hiking trails that it would take you ages to explore just half, and all of them boast truly incredibly sights and an abundance of Joshua Trees.
The best thing about the hikes in this national park is that they are all predominantly easy. Most trails are pretty much flat with a very small elevation gain, and there are hardly any steep ascents or climbs in the park. Even complete hiking newbies can enjoy the trails in this park and see everything from jumbo rocks to bighorn sheep. Here’s our guide to the ten best hikes in Joshua Tree, California!
For the best experience, focus on shorter hikes, especially if we’re talking about summer adventures. California heats are no joke, and it’s not really smart to spend several hours under the sun when the temperatures get extremely high. The good news is that the national park has lots of great short hiking trails that you can cover in an hour or two, so they’re pretty great if you just want to escape for a little while. And when the temperatures get lower and more bearable, you can go and check out the more demanding trails.
Bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. The Joshua Tree national park is in the middle of the desert, so don’t expect tonnes of water sources along the different hiking trails. Also, there’s not really a lot of shade on the trails, so you will need to protect yourself from the sun. Ample sunscreen is a must to protect your skin from any burns and sun damage, while a hat goes a long way towards protecting your health during prolonged sun exposure.
It’s best to rent a car. Generally, you can’t get far in California without a car. Sure, Uber is very popular there, but if you’re not trying to maximize your spending, a car is the most efficient and convenient option. There’s no direct public transport to the Joshua Tree National Park – the closest place you can reach with a bus is the town of Indio. Walking is not really an option because it would take you nearly 10 hours to cover the 30 miles to the park. Cycling might be an option in mild weather, but we’d still not recommend it because of the desert climate.
Wear proper hiking shoes/boots. You might be thinking that sandals are the best option because you’re in the desert, but that’s not really the case, especially for the longer trails. There’s a lot of sand on the trail and that’s actually one of the harder terrain types to hike on. Sandals and all other open-toed shoes are a nightmare for this terrain because sand is going to get inside the shoes, and it will be really uncomfortable to walk like that for long periods of time. Plus, you need all the grip and traction you can get, if you want to be as fast and as efficient on the trail as possible.
The Ryan Mountain trail is one of the most popular hikes in Joshua Tree. The out and back trail is about 5 kilometers long, which most people are able cover in just under two hours. The elevation gain is mild at some 320 meters and no parts of the trail are extremely steep. The total ascent is very mild and casual, and even the final stretch to the top of the mountain is simple for the most part.
This particular hiking trail is so popular because of its moderate difficulty and spectacular rewards. Most people with decent fitness levels will be able to do this hike, and they get to admire some of the best views in this entire national park. Plus, you get to see all sorts of beautiful rocks along the way, as well as stunning wild flowers.
It takes the average person about two hours to cover this out and back trail, so it’s feasible that you could do it in the summer, as long as you set out on the trail either early in the morning or in the evening. Due to the lack of shade and extreme heats, it’s not recommended that you go on this hike when the Cali summer heats kick in, at least if you like being conscious.
The most interesting thing about this particular trail is that you won’t see any Joshua Trees in the area. For the most part it is a moderately difficult trail through the desert, with some rocks and a couple of steep segments. The very end of the trail is the most difficult part – you are supposed to make a loop around the oasis, which requires you to scramble quite a bit.
But the descent is entirely worth it if you’re able to make it, since it rewards you with some truly spectacular views. Also, that’s definitely the hardest part of the trail that features the steepest descent – the rest is pretty much just a casual walk.
The officials from the national park recommend that you don’t attempt to do this hiking trail between May and October, precisely because of the reasons I told you about in the intro. The extreme heat is actually dangerous on longer hikes, especially in the desert. Bear in mind that it can take up to 4 hours to complete the loop, and that’s a lot of time to spend under the blazing California sun.
Bring lots of water for this hike, since the steeper climbs make it quite tiring. Plus there’s the ridiculous heat, which calls for proper hydration even more.
The Skull Rock Nature trail is a fun and easy loop hike that shows you some truly impressive sites in this national park. It’s incredible how rewarding this short hike is – the whole point of it is to go around the Jumbo Rocks, which are one of the most popular sights in Joshua Tree national park.
The Jumbo Rocks are absolutely spectacular to see – all the different shapes and sizes are truly mesmerizing. But the best part is that there is even a campground here, so you could spend an entire night in the national park if you wanted to.
Other things worth noting about the Skull Rock Nature trail are that it is kid friendly but dogs aren’t allowed. The terrain is simple and easy, and the total elevation gain is only around 50 meters, which is pretty much nothing. Especially since there aren’t really any steep climbs. In fact, the majority of the trail is just a paved road, which is very easy to follow.
As with all the other trails in the park, it’s recommended that you skip this one between the months of May and October. However, if you’re visiting the national park during those exact months and you absolutely have to go on a hike, at least you can finish this trail in less than an hour under the blazing sun.
The Black Rock Canyon trail is actually one of the very few hiking trails in this national park that are rated as difficult. And even that’s just because of the final segment of the trail that includes mostly vertical climbing to the top of the peak. But if you are looking for something more challenging that doesn’t exactly follow paved roads, this trail might just be a great option for you.
You won’t see lots of different wildflowers along the way, but you will encounter an astounding amount of gorgeous Joshua Trees. The terrain is mostly sand and gravel, so we highly recommend closed toe shoes for the most comfortable experience. With sandals, you’re going to get lots of sand and gravel between your toes, which is ultimately not nearly as comfortable.
Some sections of the trail are somewhat shaded, but it’s not something you can rely on. If you want to stay out of the sun, it’s best to do this hike really early in the morning or in the evening, when temperatures drop and there’s a slight breeze.
Another thing worth noting is that multiple different trails actually intersect with this one, so you will want to follow the signs and markings to make sure you’re on the right path. The good news is that this is a well marked trail and following it all the way to Warren Peak should not be an issue at all.
The Lost Horse Mine trail is a moderately difficult hike that takes you to a really unique sight – the Lost Horse Mine. The mine has quite a rich history, as it actually originates from the time of the Gold Rush. You can’t really get too close to the mine since it is fenced off, but it’s still a very interesting sight.
We recommend doing this loop hike clockwise, since this makes the final segment of the hike just a flat stretch. The terrain is generally not very demanding – there is some elevation gain and a few steeper segments, but it’s nothing that people with moderate fitness levels won’t be able to handle.
A couple things worth noting about this trail is that it is completely exposed, so you will need a hat and ample sunscreen. Actually, it’s best to do it really early in the morning if you want to avoid all the nasty heat, or just late in the evening. Trying to do this hike in the middle of a hot summer day is just not a comfortable experience, even if you bring enough water.
Another thing to be aware of is that you’re walking over lots of sand and gravel, so definitely wear closed hiking shoes. Also, segments of the trail are known to be slippery, so you really want something with lots of grip and traction.
The Willow Hole trail is another medium length trail in the Joshua Tree national park. It’s great if you’re looking for something a bit more challenging than the quick loops, and it can be very entertaining if you plan the hike properly. Of course, it’s best to set out on the trail very early in the morning before the heats kick in, since there is very little shade along the trail.
You will see many Joshua Trees, some stunning wildflowers, but eventually the vegetation becomes very sparse. If you’re doing the hike in the winter, you’re probably going to see a small body of water and a waterfall at the end of the trail. It’s unlikely to see them during the warmer months because of drought.
Also, you will likely encounter a lot of different animals along the way, from toads to bighorn sheep. That’s another reason to bring your favorite camera on the hike!
The trail itself is not very demanding – the total elevation gain is only 75 meters over the 10 kilometers, which is very little. In fact, the most difficult thing about this trail is the terrain – the last segment is just sand, which is going to slow you down quite a bit.
The Hidden Valley Nature trail is a great short hike for everyone. It’s a very easy trail anyone can do – as long as you’re able to keep walking for 30 minutes, you will be fine. Also, this is one of the few trails that you can actually do even during the really warm weather, precisely because it’s such a quick hike.
There’s some shade on this trail so you will actually be protected from the sun, especially early in the morning when the sun is not directly overhead. The most interesting part of the trail is the narrow passage between the rocks, which opens up into a stunning valley. The trail is mostly flat towards the boxed canyon, and you will really be able to enjoy all the wonderful sights along the way.
Another cool thing about the Hidden Valley is that it’s actually become very popular with rock climbers. You will probably see some of them scrambling up that canyon while you’re hiking. And if you have any previous climbing experience, you could even attempt to climb that canyon yourself – just make sure that you have plenty of water for your time in the desert.
The Split Rock trail is another easy hike great for people who want to see unique rock formations and wildflowers. It’s an easy trail with very little elevation gain, so it’s not too demanding or tiring. The trailhead is at the parking lot near Split Rock and it’s possible to do the loop hike in either direction.
The terrain is mostly rock and dirt paths, so it’s actually a bit easier than some of the other trails that are predominantly sand. But it is still an exposed trail, so be sure to wear a hat and bring lots of water, especially if you’re doing the hike when the UV index is high.
There are lots of rocks along the trail, which will provide some shade if you’re looking to stop and rest for a minute. Also, it’s possible to climb the rocks if you have the proper equipment, so maybe bring some ropes if you’re looking to make this hike a bit more challenging than it is.
The Split Rock itself is perhaps the most interesting part of the trail, due to its unique shape. But there are lots of stunning sight along the way, including even more giant rocks, Joshua Trees and cacti.
The Eagle Cliff Mine trail begins at the Split Rock, you’re just following a path that’s different from the Split Rock trail. You can merge the two trails if you want to experience more of the national park – this is perfectly doable since both hikes are very short, and the terrain is not really demanding. The elevation gain is also very small, so you are not going to get too tired even if you do both trails consecutively.
In fact, the first segment of this hiking trail actually follows one part of the Split Rock trail. That part of the trail is mostly flat and easy terrain, and only after that do you start actually gaining elevation and climbing somewhat. But it’s still a slight elevation gain, which only gets steep towards the very end of the trail.
The trail takes you all the way to the Eagle Cliff Mine, which is a very interesting sight. You can actually go inside the mine, which will provide you with some shelter from the sun. And you will get to see all sorts of old mining equipment, but also some really interesting rock formations along the trail.
This is an out and back trail, so you are heading back the same way you came. Once you reach the part that intersects with the Split Rock trail you can continue to do that hike, or just head back to the trailhead – if the heat is unbearable or if you’re out of water, we highly recommend you end the hike for now.
The Barker Dam Nature trail is unique in that it takes you to a large body of water – something you’re not going to see that often in this California desert. The lake is surrounded by massive rocks, which actually provide some shade in the area.
The best thing about this hike is that it is short and easy, so pretty much everyone can do it. The loop trail is only about 2 kilometers long, and the total elevation gain is just some 19 meters so it’s pretty much a flat trail. But, it’s worth noting that, depending on the season, there actually might not be any water in the dam – this sometimes happens in the summer when it hasn’t rained for quite a while and the heats get unbearable.
We highly recommend taking a short detour when you start making your way back to the trailhead. After the lake, the trail will slightly descend into an open flatland – follow the path until you reach the trail junction. From there, just head towards a big overhanging boulder and you will immediately spot the reason for the detour – the petroglyphs that lots of people don’t even know exist there!