Encompassing a wide expanse of California’s stunning desert landscape, Joshua Tree National Park offers plenty of great activities for everyone to love.
Coming up, we’ll walk you through some of the best activities in Joshua Tree so you can spend less time planning your trip and more time enjoying yourself in the great outdoors.
Here are 14 things to do throughout the year in Joshua Tree National Park.
Things to do in summer
Enjoy the sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden
Although you’ll have to stay up late to see the sunset, the golden light of the desert sun glistening over the Cholla Cactus Garden is truly magical in the summer.
The garden is accessible by a short 0.5-mile hike, which makes it the perfect evening activity for summertime adventures in the park. If you enjoy photography, the sunset over the garden’s unique collection of teddybear cholla makes for some fantastic and unique pictures, too – just don’t forget your hiking camera backpack for carrying all of your gear.
Take a sunrise hike up Ryan Mountain
While we can’t quite recommend hiking up Ryan Mountain in the midday heat of the summer, watching the sunrise from the summit is quite the experience. Since the trail does gain quite a bit of elevation, you’ll want to get an early start and bring your trekking poles for balance as you hike.
Depending on how big your appetite is, it’s a good idea to bring some hiking snacks and even a coffee maker on your hike so you can enjoy the first light rising of the day above the desert with a coffee in hand.
Read More : 11 Things to Bring for A Day Hike
Visit the Black Rock Nature Center
If you’re looking for a nice indoor activity to enjoy during the middle of the day during the summertime, the Black Rock Nature Center is certainly worthy of a visit.
Located near the Black Rock Campground in the northwestern corner of Joshua Tree, the nature center offers a variety of interactive exhibits so you can learn more about the park. At the nature center, you can also talk to park rangers or have a picnic while enjoying your stunning surroundings.
Things to do in fall
Fall is a particularly nice time of year to go backpacking in the park, especially as the temperatures start to cool. Unlike most other places in California that start to get very snowy by late autumn, Joshua Tree’s trails stay snow-free for most of the year.
The California Hiking and Riding Trail is a great option for more intrepid backpackers among us. Keep in mind, however, that while you may be able to wear hiking shorts during the day, you will want to bring warm clothes with you while backpacking as it can get quite cold at night.
Try horseback riding
Joshua Tree National Park is a particularly great place to explore by horseback during the fall months. There are over 250 miles of trails within the park that are open to horses, allowing you to see some of the more remote parts of Joshua Tree with relative ease.
If you have your own horses and horse packing equipment there are 2 horse campgrounds in the park; Ryan and Black Rock. Alternatively, you can arrange for a guided trail ride with one of the many outfitters in the area, including Knob Hill Ranch and Crazy Horse Ranch.
Things to do in winter
Take a scenic drive around the park
Even if it’s a bit chilly in the morning, winter is a nice time to go for a scenic drive around the park.
Joshua Tree sees fewer visitors in the winter than during the spring and the fall, so you’ll have more of the road to yourself as you drive. Additionally, the cooler, yet still mild temperatures of winter are better for long drives than the park’s scorching hot summer conditions.
During a winter drive around the park, you’ll often have many of the park’s most popular viewpoints, such as Keys View, all to yourself. Be sure to bring a camping chair during your drive so you can pull over at one of these great vistas, sit back, relax, and soak in the view.
Try rock climbing
While the most popular climbing seasons in Joshua Tree are technically the fall and the spring, the 60ºF (15ºC) winter temperatures actually provide better friction and improved climbing conditions.
If you’re new to climbing, winter is a particularly good time to learn the ropes at the park. With fewer visitors and people at the crag, you usually don’t have to wait to hop on a climb.
For folks who aren’t yet expert climbers, there are plenty of great guide services in the area that are happy to take you out for a day of climbing. Joshua Tree is a world famous climbing destination, so if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s certainly worth spending half a day or more on the rock.
Winter is a great time of year to stargaze in the park, especially if you happen to be visiting around a new moon.
The good news is that nearly any campground toward the center of the park, such as Ryan, Belle, and White Tank, makes for a great stargazing destination. All you need to do is place your sleeping pad on the ground, crawl into your winter sleeping bag, and gaze upward at the beautiful stars above you at night.
Things to do in spring
Visit Barker Dam
Barker Dam is one of the few areas of natural standing water in Joshua Tree National Park’s arid desert landscape. The spring is generally the best time to see the small pond while also enjoying some moderate daytime temperatures.
Plus, Barker Dam is home to a surprising collection of flora and fauna, so it can also be a nice place to spot spring wildflowers. The rocks around the pond also provide excellent scrambling opportunities for people who like to get out and explore.
Search for wildflowers at the Cholla Cactus Garden
Spring is prime wildflower season at Joshua Tree and there’s no better place to see them than at the Cholla Cactus Gardens.
The gardens are accessible via a short hike, which provides you with a great way to view the beautiful spring colors of the park’s succulents. In particular, the garden’s namesake teddybear cholla cacti have beautiful green flowers while the hedgehog cactus and beavertail cactus often have stunning pink blooms for you to check out.
The spring months, particularly around March and April, are by and large the best time of year for birdwatching in Joshua Tree. While there are birds in the park throughout the year, the spring months give you the chance to see some of the region’s year-round residential birds, summer nesters, and winter migrants all at the same time.
In particular, there are plenty of brightly-colored warblers that stop over in Joshua Tree during their migration, which are especially fun to see contrasted against the desert hues in the spring months.
If you get really lucky, you may even see very large groups of turkey vultures spending the night in the park during their migration. The Oasis of Mara is an especially good place to spot birds near sunset, as is the Fortynine Palms Oasis.
Things to do with kids
Tour Keys Ranch
Keys Ranch was one of the first permanent settlements located within the park. It got its start in the early 1900s as a homestead and quickly spread into a bustling community with everything from a workshop and a schoolhouse to an orchard that supported the local families.
These days, the ranch is well-preserved and is listed as a National Historic Site. Due to the ranch’s historic value and delicate nature, it is accessible by guided tour only.
The park offers guided tours from October to May each year. These tours are about 90 minutes long and cover approximately 0.5 miles of terrain, making them ideal for the whole family.
As you can imagine, the ranch is quite popular during the spring and the fall, so advanced reservations are required. You can book your ticket up to 60 days ahead of time, but the sooner you can book, the better.
Picnic at Hidden Valley
The Hidden Valley Picnic Area has long been a family favorite for enjoying a meal together in Joshua Tree National Park. Located just next to the Hidden Valley Campground, the picnic area has dozens of tables that are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
After you finish your picnic, you can then head on a family-friendly stroll through the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, which offers great opportunities for little naturalists to spot local wildlife or scramble up rocks.
Scramble to Skull Rock
For more adventurous kids, a hike up to Skull Rock is a must-do. The trail itself is just 1.7 miles long, which makes it a nice option for children of all ages.
Older kids often have lots of fun scrambling up to the rock, but be sure that they wear a good pair of hiking boots if they want to head off-trail. After checking out Skull Rock, you can take your kids over to scramble on the other formations near the Jumbo Rocks campground for added fun.
Gaby is a professional mountain guide with a master’s degree in outdoor education. She works primarily in the polar regions as an expedition guide, though she can be found hiking, climbing, skiing, sailing, or paddling in some of the world’s most amazing places when not at work.