13 Amazing and Inexpensive Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is a spectacular National Park that wows millions of visitors every year with its unusual scenery. The park’s otherworldly landscape of bristled trees and loose boulders is great fun to explore for the entire family.

There are countless things to do in Joshua Tree which provide an up-close view of the high desert environment. And since it’s a National Park, all of the activities are free after paying the $30 entrance fee. The nearby city of Joshua Tree is also filled with interesting (and wacky) things to see if you tire of the desert scenery.

Here are 12 of the best things to do in Joshua Tree, along with some tips on how to make your dollar stretch further during your visit.

Can’t Miss Things to Do in Joshua Tree

Discover a Hidden Valley (and Former Cattle Rustler Hide-Out)

Hidden Valley

The best place to begin your visit to Joshua Tree is in Hidden Valley. This stunning area is surrounded on all sides by towering granite boulders. Inside the valley, a unique ecosystem thrives in which both Joshua Trees and juniper woodlands co-exist together.

The valley is also steeped in history. A gang of cattle rustlers supposedly used the natural landscape to hide their stolen cattle in the 1870s.

Today, an easy 1-mile interpretive trail loops through the valley and is one of the best hikes in Joshua Tree. Be aware that this is one of the most popular attractions in the park, so consider arriving on a weekday or in the late afternoon to miss the crowds.

Hunt for Petroglyphs on Barker Dam Nature Trail

Barker Dam

Another popular attraction is the Barker Dam Nature Trail. This easy 1.3-mile path loops through the Mojave Desert to a small lake. This hidden pool was created in the early 1900s by cowboys who constructed the dam to water their cattle.

The pool is an important water source for a variety of animals in the park. On your hike, you may see ducks, rabbits, squirrels – and even bighorn sheep if you’re especially lucky.

Be sure not to miss the petroglyphs on the way back to the trailhead. These ancient drawings were carved into the rock hundreds of years ago and are one of the trail’s highlights.

Snap a Photo at Iconic Arch Rock

Arch Rock

Joshua Tree National Park is filled with seemingly endless piles of stones. These granite rocks have eroded over time into an assortment of eye-catching formations and boulders.

One of the park’s most well-known formations is Arch Rock. This stone forms a graceful archway and makes for a really spectacular photo-op. The rock is located in a field of boulders and requires some easy scrambling to reach.

Arch Rock is located a few minutes’ walk away from the White Tank Campground. For those who aren’t lucky enough to score a site at the campground, park at the Twin Tanks parking lot. From there, it is an easy 1.2-mile hike to the rock and back.

Marvel at the Enormous (and Creepy!) Skull Rock

Skull Rock

Joshua Tree’s other famous rock formation is Skull Rock. True to its name, this massive boulder vaguely resembles a misshapen skull. The rock is located just off of Park Boulevard and can be visited in just a few minutes.

If you have more time to explore the area, Skull Rock Nature Trail is a good option. This 1.7-mile loop trail starts at Skull Rock and showcases the vibrant Mojave landscape.

Parking for Skull Rock is located alongside the road on Park Boulevard. It is also a short walk away from Jumbo Rocks Campground.

Admire the Prickly Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua Tree National Park is unique in that two distinct ecosystems are located inside its boundaries. The Colorado Desert is king in the park’s southern half, while the Mojave Desert dominates the northern half with its distinctive Joshua Trees.

The National Park’s Cholla Cactus Garden is located at the transition zone between these two deserts. This special area provides the perfect environment for these prickly plants to thrive.

The garden’s highlight is a dense grove of teddybear cholla. An easy quarter-mile trail loops through the plants and provides a great opportunity for a close-up look. But don’t get too close! These cacti sport razor-sharp spines which are quite painful if touched.

Relax in the Shade at Cottonwood Spring Oasis

Cottonwood Springs Oasis

Most visitors to Joshua Tree are surprised to learn that five palm tree oases are hidden throughout the park. These oases feature gorgeous fan palm trees and are great places to spot birds and other wildlife.

One of the best places to see these trees is at the Cottonwood Spring Oasis. Located near the park’s southern entrance, the oasis features a natural spring with a handful of towering palm trees. Ancient Native American artifacts are also located nearby.

If you’re looking for a longer hike, continue past Cottonwood Spring for another 3.5 miles to the Lost Palms Oasis. This hike offers a great view of the Colorado desert, along with the largest stand of fan palms in the park.

Explore Joshua Tree’s Wonderland of Rocks

While boulders are found throughout Joshua Tree, the highest concentration is located in the Wonderland of Rocks region. This area is a 12-mile square maze of jumbled rocks that is hard to navigate without scrambling over rock piles.

One of the best things to do in Joshua Tree is to explore these rocks. This is most easily accomplished by hiking the 6.8-mile Willow Hole Trail. The hike travels deep into the Wonderland of Rocks zone and ends at a hidden oasis that is flanked by willow trees.

Be aware that wilderness camping is not allowed in this area so as not to disturb the population of bighorn sheep.

Go Rock Climbing or Bouldering

Another way to appreciate Joshua Tree’s boulders is by climbing them. Joshua Tree is a world-class climbing destination and is filled with over 8,000 climbing routes and 2,000 boulder platforms. Climbing, bouldering, highlining, and slacklining are all practiced throughout the park.

Even if you’re not a trained climber, visitors of all ages can enjoy playing on the rocks. Quail Springs Picnic Area near the West Entrance features a rock pile that is easy to climb around on for kids and amateurs.

Drive in Joshua Tree’s Stunning Backcountry

If you’d like to see Joshua’s backcountry in comfort, try going for a drive. Geology Tour Road is an 18-mile motor tour that leads through some of the park’s most interesting scenery. Plan for approximately 2 hours to make the entire trip.

Eureka Peak is another great destination in the backcountry that is typically overlooked. This mountain is accessed via Covington Flat Road (between the Black Rock Canyon and the West Entrances). Plan on 2-3 hours for the journey.

Be advised that a 4-wheel drive vehicle is typically required for both of these scenic drives. The roads have deep ruts and soft sand which is difficult for many vehicles to handle. Stay on the roads and be prepared with supplies in case your car breaks down.

Hike the Spectacular Panorama Loop Trail

Panorama Loop Trail

If you’re keen to miss the crowds at Joshua Tree, head to the Black Rock Canyon Entrance near Yucca Valley. This little-used area is home to a wealth of incredible hiking trails as well as a campground and nature center.

A great way to explore this area is by hiking the 6.4-mile Panorama Loop Trail. This hidden gem begins at the parking area by following the Black Rock Canyon Trail until tracing the crest of a ridge with sweeping views.

For even more of a challenge, you can extend your hike by an additional 1.6 miles and summit nearby Warren Peak as well.

Visit the City of Joshua Tree’s Quirky Attractions

Noah Purifoy Art Museum

For a change of scenery, head to the nearby City of Joshua Tree just outside of the park’s West Entrance. This fun community is home to a variety of artists and other oddball types who specialize in unique art installations.

The World Famous Crochet Museum is located inside of a tiny decommissioned Fotomat kiosk that is filled to the brim with crocheted animals. For art on a bigger scale, check out the Noah Purifoy Art Museum. This 10-acre outdoor gallery features an impressive assortment of large-scale sculptures and installations constructed from junked materials. Entrance to both museums is by donation.

Other great things to do in Joshua Tree City (and nearby) include the Sky Village Swap Meet (weekends only), Desert Christ Park, and the old-west themed community of Pioneertown. These are all free to enter.

Catch the Sunset at Keys View

Keys View

There is no better way to wrap up your visit than by watching the sunset at Keys View. This stunning overlook is the park’s highest vehicle-accessible location and is one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree.

Keys View is perched on the crest of the San Bernardino mountains and provides incredible views of the Coachella Valley down below. You can also usually see Mount San Jacinto, San Gorgonio Mountain, and the Salton Sea from this location

To access Keys View, drive 20 minutes south of Park Boulevard along Keys View Road. Be sure to bring along plenty of layers as it can get very chilly at sunset.

Stargazing

stargazing

Joshua Tree is known as one of the best places in the country for stargazing because the nights are so dark. Not only is the park located in the high desert, but it’s far away from major cities and has very little light pollution.

The best stargazing is found on the east side of the park, which is furthest away from nearby California cities. In fact, the nearest city to the east end of the park is Phoenix at 300 miles away!

Make sure you wear layers and bring supplies for your stargazing trip. Also, be sure to plan your adventure for when the moon is not in the night sky to reduce light pollution further and allow you to see all that the Milky Way has to offer.

Hands down, stargazing is one of the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Tips for a Frugal Visit

Joshua Tree is a great place to visit on a budget since most activities are free or very inexpensive. Entrance to the National Park is $30 per vehicle which grants access to the park for an entire week. Once inside, all activities are free unless you hire a guide or go camping.

The biggest challenge for frugal travelers to this area is lodging. There are no hotels inside of the park, so look for lodging in the nearby communities of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, or Palm Springs. Unfortunately, staying in all of these cities tends to be quite expensive – especially during the peak seasons of spring and autumn.

Camping is a great way to keep costs down and to get a closer view of the area. There are 8 campgrounds inside of the park, 5 of which require reservations and 3 that are first-come-first-served. Booking in advance is highly recommended as the sites tend to fill up weeks or months beforehand.

If you can’t secure a campsite, consider backpacking in Joshua Tree instead. You can self-register for a free permit at one of the park’s 13 backcountry registration boards. Be sure to set up camp at least 500 feet away from the trail and one mile away from any road.

 

Katy Shaw
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Katy Shaw is a long-distance hiker and blogger who has spent months exploring Joshua Tree National Park. She is currently traveling around the world in search of new hiking trails. You can follow her adventures on her blog A Rambling Unicorn.