When hearing about Joshua Tree, some of you might think about the classic U2 album and not about the national park. Both, however, are related. U2 spent some time near Joshua Tree National Park when recording their iconic record, eventually naming it after the strange-looking trees native to the area. This national park is perhaps less famous than other national parks in California, but it’s still a seriously stunning place. In this post, I’ll share with you an itinerary for three days in Joshua Tree National Park.
Joshua Tree became a national park in 1994, together with Death Valley, when the United States congress elevated both places’ status from “national monument” to “national park”.
This desert park is as wild as they come. Boulder-strewn, dotted with Joshua trees and other desert flora, and home even to shady palm oases, the landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park are nothing short of marvelous. The park is pretty rugged, though, and void of any tourist facilities to speak of. There are only campgrounds, most of which do not have any water. If you’re looking for a real desert experience, spending three days in Joshua Tree National Park is recommended.
How to Spend Three Days in Joshua Tree National Park
Of the park’s nine campground, only two accept reservations beforehand—Indian Cove and Black Rock— and only in the high season. All the others are first-come, first-served. Three campgrounds have potable water—Indian Cove, Black Rock and Cottonwood. Note that the busy season in Joshua Tree National Park is roughly from October through May. Summers in the desert are scorching hot and don’t see many visitors.
The best time to visit is, arguably, spring, which is when wildflowers carpet the desert floor.
If you’re visiting in spring—March and April, make sure to arrive early. Campsites usually fill up every day, certainly on the weekends. Consider visiting Joshua Tree National Park during the week. Even then, you should aim to arrive by mid-morning in order to secure a camping spot.
Try to find a spot at a campground in the center of the park. Jumbo Rocks, Belle, White Tank, Hidden Valley, Sheep Pass and Ryan campgrounds are all nice. Again, there is no water in the park. Bring at least one gallon (3.8 liters) per person per day.
Three days is ample time to get to know Joshua Tree National Park inside out. This means you can take your time once you’ve set up camp. When arriving, make sure to pick up a park map and newspaper at the entrance booths. They’re always filled with suggestions, tips and useful information.
Spend the first of your three days in Joshua Tree National Park getting your bearings and exploring.
Start off in the Hidden Valley area in the heart of the park. The 1-mile Hidden Valley Trail loops through an area of giant boulders and clusters of rocks—a real rock climber’s heaven. Feel free to go for a rock scramble yourself. At the parking lot, there’s a nice picnic area where you can have lunch.
In the afternoon, explore the rest of the park’s central region. Hike the short Skull Rock Loop to a rock formation that—that’s right!—resembles a human skull. Another fine hike is the Barker Dam Nature Trail. This easy 1.3-mile trail runs through one of the park’s best areas for spotting bighorn sheep.
If you’re not done after these three, albeit short, hikes, there are several others you can do in this area. Retreat to your campsite to cook up a hearty meal. Watch the sunset from one of the surrounding boulders and prepare to enjoy a memorably spectacular night sky.
Enjoy a breakfast in the desert (or drive to JT’s Country Kitchen in Joshua Tree for a filling home-cooked country breakfast) on the second day of your three days in Joshua Tree National Park before heading out for a day of hiking.
The first hike of the day is Ryan Mountain. This trailhead starts off Park Boulevard and ascends Ryan Mountain. Climbing 900 feet over 1.5 miles, this is a steep trail. It is, however, manageable for anyone who’s hiked before. From the mountain’s summit, you have a superb 360-degree view of the national park. Views take in Lost Horse, Desert and Queen Valleys. Retrace your steps to the parking lot.
Bring a picnic or return to your campsite for lunch. In the afternoon, drive your rental car down Keys View Road and onto Lost Horse Mine Road. Strap on your hiking boots again for a 6.2-mile hike on the Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail. This moderate trail leads past Lost Horse Mine, one of only a few mines in Joshua Tree that produced profitable quantities of gold during the California gold rush.
After your hike, continue your drive on Keys View Road to Keys View. This is arguably the best viewpoint in the entire national park. Stick around for sunset and head back to your campsite.
Pack up camp on the last of your three days in Joshua Tree National Park. Hop in your car and go for a scenic drive on Pinto Basin Road. Roll down your windows as you enjoy this 30-mile drive from the Mojave Desert down to the Colorado Desert. Consider stopping at Cholla Cactus Garden, where you can see ocotillo plants and jumping cholla on a quarter-mile trail.
Arriving at the Cottonwood Visitor Center in the very south of Joshua Tree National Park, enjoy a picnic lunch. Near the visitor center you can visit Cottonwood Spring, a small oasis with a natural spring.
Another oasis is found at the end of the Lost Palms Oasis Trail. This 7.2-mile roundtrip hike leads to the park’s largest oasis, home to numerous desert fan palms. You can extend this hike by also taking in the Mastodon Peak Trail, adding about 1.5 miles to its length. When doing this hike, make sure to carry plenty of water as there is very little shade on the way.
After three days in Joshua Tree National Park, exit the park at the South Entrance.
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