Joshua Tree National Park Things to Do Tips by PinkFloydActuary
Joshua Tree National Park Things to Do: 176 reviews and 274 photos
Ocotillo along Bajada Trail
This is a very flat, very sunny 1/4 mile trail on the south end of the park (south of the Cottonwood visitor center). If you are coming from the north, you probably can skip this one. If you're coming from the south, you'll get a preview of the desert scenes you'll see heading through the park. It is a nature trail, so there are a number of signs discussing how plants live in the desert. A good overview or recap, depending on where you're coming from.
Near the south end of the park, you can drive to the Cottonwood Springs, home of a palm-tree oasis and a grove of cottonwood trees. The area is known for attracting various birds, but I didn't see any in my short time there. If you're interested in taking the 1 mile lround trip trail, park at the Cottonwood campground, the trail starts near sites 13A&B. If you park at the oasis yourself, you may have difficulty finding where the short trail begins (I never did find it.) It is an amazing sight to have the lush green trees after driving through the stark desert.
This is simply a pullout along the scenic drive, south of the Cholla Garden trail. There's a plaque where you can read about the Ocotillo, a strange, spindly plant that survives by shedding its leaves in times of drought, but will grow large leaves and beautiful red flowers within days of getting some rain. All you can really do here is pull off for a moment and get a picture, but if you have any interest in the plant life in the desert, it's worth the couple of minutes to do this.
Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail
As you cross out of the Mojave desert and into the Colorado desert, the scenic drive has fewer points to stop at. One of the more impressive ones is this patch of Cholla cacti. The Cholla is also known as the jumping cactus - if you should get too close and brush up against this cactus, the spines will "jump" and stick themselves into you. There are a number of warning signs at the beginning of the trail that leads through the garden to be extremely careful, as you'll get very up close and personal with these along the quarter-mile loop trail. This is an extremely nifty landscape, and a very flat and easy path (although you certainly will probably be a little more aware of you footing so you don't trip and fall into one of these babies!) Some of the cacti are fairly tall, and eventually you end up in a spot where you can see nothing else around you. A highly recommended stop - but not good for small kids or pets.
Natural Arch - White Tank Campground
If you pull into the White Tank campground, there's a small parking area across from site 9. From there, you can take a short (less than half mile) nature trail loop to see a natural arch. The trail is not difficult (since it is so short), but there are a few hills and if you want to get a good look at the arch, you will have to scramble over some rocks. The arch is close to the start of the trail (going counter-clockwise), and is probably the only real thing worth seeing on the trail, so if you are pressed for time, you can get in and out pretty fast.
Heading east towards Pinto Basin Road, you'll see a small pulloff where you can park and immediately see Skull Rock. As you can imagine, this is a rock formation that looks like a skull! There is a nature trail leading here from the campground, but I'll admit that I accidentally got very far off the path and had to head for high ground to get my bearings. If you're just interested in Skull Rock itself, you'll be able to get a look at it from across the street or up close and personal without any hiking.
Sunset from Keys View
This is one of the most popular spots in the park, and once you see the view, you'll know why. I was lucky enough to be here as the sun was setting, and some of the desert landscapes with the moon coming up were phenomenal. Depending on the air quality, you can see as far as Mexico, though more likely you can see at least the Salton Sea. There's a very short path that leads to various overlooks and plaques describing the views you are taking in. Though the road to Keys View is a dead end, it's one of the spots you cannot miss on your trip to Joshua Tree.
The Joshua Tree
Perhaps the easiest trail in the park. This trail is a paved trail that's about a half mile long. It's another nature trail, with signs that point out the various plant life that grows throughout the Mojave desert sections of the park. The trail gets its name from a rock that looks like it's about to roll off a tall hill right next to the parking area. This isn't a must see spot, due to the size and what you get to see along the trail, but it's very short, so you can cover it in about 10 minutes.
Cutting across the road, past a campgroud, you'll see a larger parking lot and the trailheads for a couple of trails. One of the trails you can take is the Barker Dam Nature Trail. This trail is a little over a one mile loop - fairly flat (minimal climbing near the Dam itself). There are two major points of interest along the trail. The first is the artificial dam that was created to hold water for livestock. The second is a site where you can view some petroglyphs. Unfortunately, these were vandalized by folks filming movies a number of years ago - they painted some of them in order to get them to show up on film better. As with many of the nature trails in the park, there are signs along the way to tell you what you are looking at. Worth the stop.
Yucca in Hidden Valley
Coming from the northwest entrance of the park, one of the first hikes you can take is the Hidden Valley Nature trail. This is a 1 mile loop trail that is fairly flat. There's a large picnic area with ample parking at the start. The hike takes you into a valley that was once a place that cattle rustlers would hide in. You do get the feeling of being secluded from the world, as large boulders and rocks surround you on all sides. There are a number of signs posted along the trail that discuss what you are looking at and some of the history of the area. You'll see a number of Joshua Trees and Yuccas. This isn't the most scenic trail in the park, but since it's short, it should be worth your time to stretch your legs.
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