The Mojave and the Colorado Desert meet at Joshua Tree National Park, a sweeping 800,000-acre park where you find rugged mountains, dry basins, washes, and diverse animals and plants. Whether you opt for a level half-mile round-trip or a strenuous three-hour out-and-back climb, take special precautions for your desert day hike. Take sunscreen, sunglasses, a first-aid kit, and plenty of water no matter how far you plan to go. Hats, trekking poles, and trail maps for longer hikes can make your hike safer and easier. For easy access to the hiking trails, book a stay at one of many incredible vacation rentals near Joshua Tree National Park. When you lack the time to traverse all the trails in this massive park, take a look at the eight best day hikes in the area.
1. Skull Rock Trail
Close to the road, the 1.7-mile Skull Rock Trail loop starts at the Jumbo Rocks Campground. You climb a hill to see the eyes and nose of the Skull Rock rising out of the surrounding granite outcroppings. As you walk along the trail, look for a shaded area to enjoy a picnic with the kids then let them scramble among the boulders for some photos and fun.
2. Hidden Valley Loop Trail
Surrounded by rock walls that stand thousands of feet high, Hidden Valley’s historical significance includes serving as a hideout for a band of cattle rustlers in the 1800s. The one-mile Hidden Valley Loop lies mostly flat, meandering through majestic rock formations and beautiful desert plant life. Depending on how long you choose to linger, this very easy walk takes from 30 minutes to 3 hours as you explore the rock formations. Look for the trailhead just off Park Boulevard, 12 miles southeast of the west entrance to the park.
3. Arch Rock
The trek to Arch Rock entails only a half-mile climb, which is easy but somewhat steep in areas. Some hikers view and photograph the 30-foot arch from the trail, while others march right on up to the open space to explore the great shapes and climbing challenges. Photography buffs particularly enjoy shooting the night sky for spectacular images of the Milky Way. Access the trailhead across from campsite 9 in White Tank Campground, near the southern entrance to the park.
4. Ryan Mountain
Set aside at least three hours for this 3-mile round-trip climb that ascends 1,070 feet up a dirt trail that includes switchbacks and numerous stone steps, some of which are a foot high. Hiking poles help with stability and shock absorption, especially on the way back down. This strenuous hike rewards you with beautiful 360-degree views of the park once you reach the top, including breathtaking vistas of the San Gorgonio and the San Jacinto Mountains. Follow the signs to Keys View until you reach the Ryan Campground, three miles south of the Hidden Valley Trail.
5. Barker Dam
To reach the Barker Dam Loop trailhead, look for the turnoff sign on Park Boulevard, 12 miles west of where it intersects with Pinto Basin Road. Drive 1.5 miles to the Barker Dam parking area. Tall boulders rise on either side of the trail, then you emerge on the shore of the small lake to find a beautiful desert oasis. Hike this trail in winter or spring when the lake is full, and the water reflects the rugged landscape. Look for two unique historical sites–the water tank built by early cattle ranchers, and petroglyphs in a cave. Look for bighorn sheep as you meander along this calm trek to the dam.
6. Split Rock Loop
This easy 1.9-mile loop trail affords your family opportunities to climb and scramble around rough granite boulder piles. To reach the trailhead, turn off Park Boulevard into the Split Rock day-use area and enter the loop at either end to explore the rock formations, desert landscapes, and beautiful desert flowers. Your hike involves very little elevation change, but you do dip in-and-out of a few small basins as you walk among Joshua Trees, cholla cacti, and creosote bushes.
7. Cholla Cactus Garden
Cholla Cactus Garden quarter-mile loop follows level terrain through an intense concentration of cholla cacti. To reach the trailhead, take Pinto Basin Road from Park Boulevard toward Cottonwood Springs for 12 miles. The cactus garden loop, on the south side of the road, sits where the upper Mojave Desert merges with the lower Colorado Desert. These are called teddy bear cacti because they look so cute and fuzzy, and this garden is one of the few stands in the park. Watch the kids closely, making sure they stay on the trail to avoid picking up bits of cactus that detach from the stems with the slightest touch.
8. Mastodon Peak Loop
Vacation rentals near the southern end of Joshua Tree National Park give you easy access to the Mastodon Peak Loop trailhead, at the Cottonwood Springs Oasis Parking Lot, a mile southeast of Cottonwood Visitor Center. This easy 2.5-mile loop climbs barely 500 feet along a mostly soft, sandy trail that features stone stairs in some places. The hike features many of the park’s distinctive boulders, a historic mine, and excellent views of Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea.
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