“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
“We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities … Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”
– Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States
We are so lucky to access the wilderness and experience the natural beauties of the U.S. National Parks. From popular to overlooked National Parks, President Johnson had the right mindset to embrace nature and preserving it for future generations. The National Park had its 100th birthday on August 25, 2016, and we wanted to join in on the celebration. We drove over 400+ miles from the Bay Area to Joshua Tree National Park after the Thanksgiving holiday and spent three days exploring the park.
Joshua Tree National Park is beautiful! From the numerous hikes, camping, rock climbing, and seeing unique plants and animals, there are plenty of fun activities for everyone to enjoy the desert. We had our fun seeing the famous Joshua trees and Mojave yucca (and always mixing up the two plants since they look similar) everywhere in the park and scattered across the Mojave Desert. If you’re into landscapes, the park is unique with having two landscape ecosystems of the Mojave (western side of the park) and Colorado Desert (eastern side of the park). The evenings are quiet and a great opportunity to stargaze. No light pollution here!
One of the best parts about visiting at the end of November was the fewer crowds and easier access to parking at the trails. Some of the trailhead parking lots were full. The weather varied greatly due to being in the desert environment. We experienced sunny, crisp and cool air, and even high gusty winds and rain in the evenings.
Below is our suggestion on how to spend 3 days at Joshua Tree National Park, especially if you want to maximize the time hiking. Plan accordingly due to weather, the time of year visiting, breaks, etc. If you have a shorter amount of time at the park, consider this day trip or 2 days in Joshua Tree itinerary.
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Joshua Tree National Park in 3 Days
Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary: Day 1
Start the day at the Visitor Center and talk to a park ranger to get your questions answered, hear about upcoming ranger events at the park, or get hiking recommendations. The four visitor centers are: Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Oasis Visitor Center, Cottonwood Visitor Center, or Black Rock Nature Center. More info on the visitor Center’s locations and hours here.
Starting at the northern entrance station, our strategy was to drive to the farthest hiking trails in the southern part of the park and work our way back to the northern entrance stations. Here are the hikes that we took for the day:
Keys View (.25 miles round trip)
Take an easy stroll on the paved trail which overlooks the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio, and the Salton Sea. It’s a beautiful overlook of the valley and you’re at an elevation of 5,185 feet!
Lost Horse Mine (4 miles)
Start this trail early as there is very limited parking for 10-20 cars. Otherwise, park on the main road and walk to the trail. The trail has rolling hills which connect with the Lost Horse Loop (6.5 miles) if you want a longer hike. At the summit, you see a former mill and gold mine that is fenced off.
Cap Rock (.4 miles)
Huge boulders are everywhere in the park. Follow the flat path and climb on as many boulders as possible.
Hidden Valley (1 mile)
This is a popular trail where you’ll see lots of rock climbers on the boulders. It was recommended to see the sunset from Hidden Valley trail.
Barker Dam (1.1 miles)
We were excited to see the water as the park pamphlet had a photo of the dam. However, it was underwhelming as the dam was dried up. This wasn’t one of our favorite trails.
Ryan Mountain (3 miles)
This trail is awesome to photograph the sunrise and sunset. It’s one of the challenging trails as you have inclines with 1000 feet in elevation gains. The summit is at 5,458 feet of elevation and is super windy at the top.
Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary: Day 2
The second day was to visit the East and South parts of the park. The schedule included more driving on this day. We hiked the following routes:
Skull Rock (1.7 miles)
It’s the famous rock that looks like a skull. Visit this rock early in the morning or evening when there are fewer people, or stay patient to get your group photo. Most people visit the rock and leave, however, there is a nice flat trail around the boulders.
Split Rock Loop (2.5 miles)
It’s one of the least visited trails. You drive on a gravel road for 5 minutes before reaching the parking area. We loved the trail as it had various inclines and you walk over boulders. Follow the signs and you won’t get lost. Plus, you can see “Face Rock,” the side profile of a rock that has facial features.
Arch Rock (.3 miles)
Somehow we got lost and off of the path for Arch Rock and ended up doing longer than .3 miles. This is a cool spot to see a natural arch. Some scrambling required to get up to the arch spot.
Cholla Cactus Garden (.25 mi) & Ocotillo Patch
Prepare yourself for the long drive down from the center of Joshua Tree to Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch. The Cholla Cactus Patch is a great place to see lots of cholla cacti (aka a jumping cholla) and is fun to photograph. They are adorable and look fluffy and fuzzy like a teddy bear. Watch your shoes and clothes as the cute cholla cacti may stick, thus the “jumping” action. I had one stuck on my shoe and the needle didn’t come out unless we used tweezers.
Not too far from the garden is the Ocotillo Patch. The tall plants are spiny and have green and red leaves, and located in the Colorado Desert. Some of the plants had red flowers which come out after the rain.
Lost Palms Oasis (7.2 miles)
We finally made it to the Cottonwood area to take the trek. You see palm trees on the start of the trail. It’s a moderately difficult trail with several inclines and some scrambling. In the middle of the trail, you walk through a slot canyon and eventually get the summit to see the palm trees. There is a scrambling trail to get closer to the palm trees. Since we started the trail in the late afternoon and the sun was setting, we observed the trees from afar then hiked back to the car.
Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary: Day 3
On our travel day back to the Bay Area, we stopped by one hiking trail and also did a side trip to the Noah Purifoy Foundation Outdoor Museum in Joshua Tree.
49 Palms Oasis (3 miles)
If you don’t have the time to do the long Lost Palms Oasis trail, the 49 Palms Oasis is the best alternative. The trail is off Highway 62 and Canyon Road. No need to show your entrance ticket to a ranger. The incline is steep at the beginning of the trail, however, you reach the palm trees quicker.
Noah Puroy Foundation Outdoor Desert Art Museum
Are you an art lover? We recommend making a side trip in Joshua Tree to visit the Noah Puroy Foundation Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Admission is free and feel free to make a donation in the collection box. The entrance has a map of the artwork for a self-guided tour, or just explore on your own. The museum has artwork everywhere and made out of random stuff, such as toilets, bicycles, and pipes. They are interesting and open to interpretation.
To get to the museum, you’ll drive through dirt roads and residential area. It is at least 15 to 20 minutes away from Joshua Tree National Park. There are signs pointing to the direction of the museum as you’re closer. The museum is next to someone’s house, so please be respectful when parking.
We came across this spray-painted Joshua tree during our exploration. We found out through social media that a singer spray painted the tree for a music video and didn’t receive permission. Vandalism is not cool. Please respect nature, wildlife, and plants for future generations. Harming the living things causes stress and as travelers, we must be sensitive to our surroundings and environments. We all make an impact no matter how large or small.
- There is no cell phone service at Joshua Tree National Park. You’ll be truly unplugged.
- The weather changes at any time. It is recommended to dress in layers. If you visit during the fall or winter, there are random rainstorms.
- Bring enough food and water as there isn’t any restaurants or convenience stores in the park.
- Visit the park during the non-peak seasons for fewer crowds.
- The park entrance fee is $20 which is good for 1 week. Credit cards are accepted.
- We stayed in Twentynine Palms which is 10 minutes away from the North Entrance Station. Otherwise, you’ll drive 20 minutes to the West Entrance Station. There are plenty of hotels available. Our budget hotel, America’s Best Value Inn, was $50 per night. Find hotels in Twentynine Palms here.
- A car is needed in the park as everything is spread out.
Have you been to Joshua Tree National Park before? What are your favorite hiking trails?
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