On a one-day trip, don’t miss the best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park! Explore Hidden Valley, discover Barker Dam, trek Wall Street Mill, climb Skull Rock, and so much more along these nature trails and short walks.
Table of Contents
- 1 Best Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
- 2 Joshua Tree National Park
- 2.1 Park Admission
- 2.2 Joshua Tree Map
- 2.3 Boulders
- 2.4 Hidden Valley & Jumbo Rocks Area
- 2.5 Oasis of Mara Visitor Center
- 2.6 Pinto Basin Road
- 2.7 Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center
- 3 More Best Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
- 4 Map It!
- 5 How to Plan A California Desert Camper Van Road Trip
- 6 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 7 Pin this Post!
Best Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
I had recently learned of the California desert wildflower super bloom, and not wanting to miss it, quickly booked a flight to the West Coast, hired a camper van, and made reservations at a Palm Desert RV resort.
On the first day, I chased wildflowers at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a location where lots of spring color had been reported. A hike up Tahquitz Canyon, another site boasting a profusion of spring blooms, would be the third and final excursion of my California desert getaway.
My primary intention at Joshua Tree was to continue my wildflower chase, but I knew there were no bloom guarantees. I also wanted to see as many park highlights as possible and hopefully do a few short hikes.
I am the first to admit that it would be impossible to evaluate every Joshua Tree hiking trail in one day. But based on a ranger’s recommendations and the number of quality trails I was able to fit in an 8-hour day, I will go out on a limb and say these are some of the best hikes in Joshua Tree when on a one-day trip.
Joshua Tree National Park
I can hardly believe Joshua Tree has only been a National Park since 1994. This was my first time visiting, and even if I had not been on the hunt for spring desert wildflowers, I would have put the park on my itinerary.
The park is named for the unique variety of agave (think tequila) that grows in the Lost Horse and Queen Valleys of the Mojave Desert region of the park. Mormon settlers in the 1900s named the tree because its growth habit reminded them of of the Old Testament figure Joshua lifting his hands in prayer.
Note: I am the original Sunday School boy, and I believe the intended allusion is to the story from Exodus 17 where Aaron and Hur lifted Moses’ hands so Joshua could win a battle against the Amalekites. Jerry would call this one of my Sheldon Cooper moments.
The entrance fee for the park is $25.00. It is a 7-day vehicle permit that admits “the passengers of a single, non-commercial vehicle on the day of purchase and for the next six days.”
If you can take advantage of that scenario, the price of admission is a bargain. When you are the only person in the vehicle, and you only have one day to spend in the park, the price is steep.
I decided to take a gamble and splurge on the $80 price of an America the Beautiful annual pass. Although we have been able to use the pass for some of our visits to federal lands during the past year, there were also times the passes were not accepted at concession-operated federal facilities, such as freshwater springs in the Ocala National Forest.
So, was my annual pass investment worthwhile? Absolutely! Even if we had never used the pass again, you can’t go wrong supporting our national parks and federal lands, especially in these times of budget cuts, limited funding, and government shutdowns.
Joshua Tree Map
You could easily spend a week or more exploring Joshua Tree National Park. The park has multiple campgrounds and countless locations for backpacking, mountain biking, rock climbing, stargazing, and yes . . . hiking.
Due to the linear arrangement of its main roads, Joshua Tree is a park visitors can conveniently enjoy even if they only have one day to explore.
I chose to enter at the west entrance of the park near the Joshua Tree Visitor Center and drive to the south entrance just beyond the Cottonwood Visitor Center, with a mid-route detour to the Oasis Visitor Center near the north entrance.
The ranger on duty at the visitor center marked up a map to show me where to find wildflowers in bloom, highlight not-to-be-missed areas of the park, and identify best short hikes.
You can download a copy of the park map by clicking the image above. Additional maps and resources are available at the Joshua Tree NP Maps page.
One of the first features to catch my eye as I cruised down Park Boulevard were the massive rock piles. It literally looked like giant dump trucks had deposited loads of boulders at random locations across the landscape.
You can learn how these geologic formations were created on the Joshua Tree NP website.
Hidden Valley & Jumbo Rocks Area
I dedicated most of my day exploring the Hidden Valley & Jumbo Rocks region of the park. Based on my conversation with the ranger, many park highlights and worthwhile trails were located within this area.
Hidden Valley Trail
The morning air was still crisp when I arrived at the parking area for Hidden Valley Trail. The 1-mile loop is clearly marked with a paved sidewalk that ends at the trailhead.
Legend holds that in the late 1870s, the 55-acre box canyon at Hidden Valley was once a hideout for the McHaney Gang and their rustled cattle herds.
This trail gives a great introduction to the park landscape and lends the feeling that one has stepped into the set of a western movie.
Narrow passageways, rock formations, and native plants offer countless subjects for photo opportunities.
Rock climbers within the canyon provide hikers additional entertainment while on the trail. With more than 8.000 climbing routes in the park, Joshua Tree is a world-class rock-climbing destination.
Purple mat wildflowers and Mojave mound cactus were in bloom along the trail.
Parry’s nolina (beargrass) and Mojave yucca were budding out, as well.
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Barker Dam Trail
The parking area for Barker Dam Trail was a mere two-mile drive from the Hidden Valley lot. A connector trail runs between the two, but with only a day to hike the highlights, I hopped in the van.
I was unprepared for the stunning beauty I would encounter along this 1.1 mile loop trail, especially around the rain-fed reservoir.
Barker & Shay Cattle Company cowboys built the lower level of the dam along this natural basin in 1902 to create a source of water for their cattle. In 1950, members of the Keys family completed construction of the upper level and renamed the structure Big Horn Dam.
The manmade lake is ephemeral, and its levels are based on rainfall. At the turn of the 20th century the desert received an average of ten inches annually. Today the average is two to five inches.
The desert water source attracts wildlife including bighorn sheep and migrating birds.
Remnants of cattle watering and feed troughs remain in the outflow below the dam.
At 11,503 feet, snowcapped Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains is the highest peak in Southern California and can be seen from the trail.
Native American petroglyphs are evident farther along the Barker Dam Trail. A nearby interpretive sign reports that the original stone etchings have been “traced over with paint,” an unfortunate act of vandalism.
Wildflowers along the Barker Dam Trail included yellow fiddleneck, white woolly bluestar, red mistletoe berries, and beavertail cactus.
Wall Street Mill Trail
The Wall Street Mill Trail is also 1.1 miles long, but it is a linear trail, meaning that the return hike is also 1.1 miles. As a first time visitor, I debated whether this trail would be the best use of my time. Boy, am I ever glad I chose to commit to explore this area below the Wonderland of Rocks!
The day had warmed considerably, and weather records report that 81° was the high at Joshua Tree on the day of my visit. Even on cooler spring days, it is imperative that short-distance hikers carry water along to stay hydrated.
First up on the trail, a fascinating piece of history by way of an interpretive signpost. The story is sad because a man lost his life here and also unfortunate that, in spite of the National Park Service’s best efforts, vandals have ultimately ruined an opportunity for hikers to witness a piece of history first hand.
A spur path leads to a crumbling pink building known as Wonderland Ranch. Not much is known about the Ohlson family who lived here, although one account implies that the occupants were drawn to the area by the second gold rush in the 1930s.
An old bed frame, glass fragments, pottery shards, and rusty nails are a vivid testament to modern human history in the park.
I would discover even more up ahead.
Heading up the trail, I caught a glimpse of the the first abandoned vehicle I would find along the way.
In the distance an Old West relic rises like a sentinel in the desert. I imagine the windmill, like the rusty truck, belonged to the Keys or Ohlson families.
The Wall Street Mill location was named by Oran Booth and Earle McInnes, two prospectors who filed a claim in 1928 at the location where William McHaney had dug a well in the late 1800s. In 1930, William Keys purchased the property, filed a milling claim, and began developing the site to process gold ore from the second rush.
A hand-powered winch pulled ore cars up the inclined tramway to initiate the separation process.
Taking advantage of the established well, Keys transported an 1891-built two stamp mill to the site. A 12-horsepower gasoline engine powered the “system of shafts, belts, and pulleys” in a process to separate gold from the ore.
The mill remained in intermittent operation until 1966.
Joshua trees were budding out, and Frémont’s phacelia was blooming at a shady spot below the mill.
A southern desert horned lizard and a tarantula hawk wasp made appearances, as well.
Two more vintage pickup trucks lay abandoned in the sand.
And the boy inside this old guy came out to play.
I discovered even more trailside relics on my return hike. The patina of oxidized metal against the desert landscape was not unlike the metal Ricardo Breceda sculptures I had seen earlier in the week along the outskirts of Borrego Springs.
I would love to have taken the ranger-guided tour to Keys Ranch, also located within the Hidden Valley & Jumbo Rocks Area, but alas it did not fit into my schedule.
There is a 1.7 mile Skull Rock Trail, but I did not hike it. I did, however, stop roadside to catch a glimpse of the iconic feature. I climbed the rocks and snapped a few photos, but based on my current research, I did not see Skull Rock.
I thought this stone formation was Skull Rock, and perhaps it is, but it does not resemble the image on the NPS page.
Oh well! Even with the best laid plans, sometimes these things happen. We’ll catch it next go around . . . .
Live Oak Picnic Area
The ranger at the visitor center mentioned a rare oak tree growing in Joshua Tree’s desert ecosystem, and I was excited to find it.
The oak itself is a curiosity, and its survival at the edge of the Mojave Desert is nothing short of miraculous. The tree is a naturally-occurring hybrid between a Muller’s oak and a valley oak. There are Muller’s oaks that grow in the area, but according to park botanist Neil Frakes, “the nearest valley oak is at least one hundred miles away and much closer to the Pacific Ocean.”
The oak grows in a wash that carries runoff after rain, a factor that has helped it to thrive and produce acorn crops in spite of climate change. Only two such oak hybrids are known to exist. The other smaller specimen is also located within the park.
I know similar rock formations occur elsewhere in the park, but I was fascinated by these veins of rock cubes. I have learned that these stone ribbons are called “dikes” and the intrusive layers were formed when magma filled joints between the rocks.
An open dike is visible at the highest level and resembles a crumbling honeycomb.
Note: There is signage marking the turnoff from Park Boulevard into the picnic area, but no signs marking the location of the tree. It took me a while to find it, but if you hang right and follow the dirt road a short distance until it ends in a cul-de-sac, you will find the tree just a few steps down the embankment.
I met this painter from Texas while scouting the area.
California bluebell and smallseed sandmat while exploring the Skull Rock and Live Oak areas.
Oasis of Mara Visitor Center
Leaving the Hidden Valley & Jumbo Rocks Area, I detoured up to the Oasis Visitor Center. I was curious to see the Oasis of Mara. This paved accessible .5 mile loop path is the only trail in the park that allows leashed pets.
The walk left me a bit underwhelmed, and I would not rank this as one of the best hikes in Joshua Tree, but I did think it worth mentioning for future visitors to know their options.
My detour was not a total loss. I did get to see a cholla and beavertail cactus in bloom.
Pinto Basin Road
I reentered the park via Park Boulevard, and then continued south along Pinto Basin Road. The basin landscape with its desert scrub, sand dunes, and distant mountains bore little resemblance to the bouldered terrain from before.
The transition into the Colorado Desert brought new vistas and even more wildflowers in bloom, but Joshua trees had disappeared from view.
I encountered purple chia and desert globemallow (orange), notch leaf scorpion weed (purple), and white sacred datura. California bluebells were even more prolific along the roadsides here.
Cholla Cactus Garden
The Cholla Cactus Garden is a natural stand of teddybear cholla located in the Pinto Basin. A flat .25 mile loop meanders through ten acres of this unusual, densely-concentrated growth.
Visitors are cautioned to keep their distance from this many-armed cactus, with warnings that the “slightest touch can cause the cactus spines to penetrate your skin,” and to remove “the embedded spines is difficult and painful.”
Other species grow in the cactus garden, including this lovely Engelmann’s hedgehog cactus.
Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center
The Cottonwood Visitor Center is located seven miles from the southern entrance to the park. In my case it would be the exit. But there would be one more brief walk at a location one mile east of the visitor center.
Cottonwood Spring is a desert oasis with a rich history. Over the years, Native Americans, cowboys, and miners have all gravitated to this source of water.
California fan palms and cottonwood trees dominate the landscape, making it one of the best birding spots in the park.
This spot is also the trailhead for the 3 mile loop Mastodon Peak Trail and the 7.5 mile (round trip) Lost Palms Oasis Trail.
The best evidence of Native American history at the oasis are two bedrock mortars where Cahuilla Indians ground “mesquite and other seeds into flour.”
More Best Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
The Joshua Tree National Park hiking web page features a handy comprehensive reference for trailhead locations, distances, estimated times, and descriptions for the park’s short walks and nature trails, as well as moderate, challenging, and backcountry hikes.
I recommend packing a picnic lunch with plenty of bottled water to maximize time in the park, but there are plenty of fast food outlets in the city of Twentynine Palms near the Oasis Visitor Center.
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How to Plan A California Desert Camper Van Road Trip
The first article in the California desert wildflower series, How to Plan a California Desert Camper Van Road Trip, details how I put together this spontaneous trip in record time.
During my California desert hub-and-spoke road trip, I visited three wildflower super bloom sites: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Tahquitz Canyon. I will be writing posts about my experiences at the final site next week and linking to it here when it publishes.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is an ideal destination for wildflower chasing, especially during a spring super bloom. On a day trip, visitors can hike desert trails, drive the Borrego Badlands, and scout 130 Ricardo Breceda sculptures along the outskirts of Borrego Springs.
Tahquitz Canyon is located in the mountains above Palm Springs. The day I hiked the canyon, the wildflowers along the path were showing out, and a waterfall was a welcome reward at the end of the trail.
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever hiked Joshua Tree National Park? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!