Ultimate Hiking Guide: 24-hours in Joshua Tree National Park
Larger than the state of Rhode Island, Joshua Tree National Park is an iconic park in California.If you’re a hiker planning a trip to Joshua Tree can be overwhelming. This This family-friendly 24-hour Joshua Tree itinerary for hikers includes the best easy hikes in Joshua Tree National Park.
You’ll start your adventure stargazing at your campsite at Cottonwood Campground and spend the day hiking four of the best nature areas in Joshua Tree National Park. As you explore this vast park you’ll move from the flat plains of the Colorado Desert, filled with cholla cactus and yucca plants, to the Mojave Desert surrounded by towering rock formations and the gangly Joshua Trees.
In this 24-hour Joshua Tree hiking itinerary you’ll enter through the South Entrance (off of Hwy 10) and exit at the West Entrance Station on the opposite side of the park.
Know Before You Go
The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is from October-May. The desert gets hot (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, and it can be unsafe to hike in Joshua Tree at the peak of the day in these extreme temperatures. If you’re visiting in the winter (December and January) the night time temperatures can dip below freezing, so be sure to bring your heavy sleeping bags and insulated sleeping pad if you’re camping.
The park and Cottonwood campground is open 24/7, 365-days a year so you can come and go as you please. There is an entrance fee that you will need to pay in addition to the fees to camp at Cottonwood. In 2019 the park entrance fee was $30 for those without a National Parks pass.
Please respect the Joshua Trees and the delicate desert vegetation. The iconic Joshua Tree only grows 3-inches a year. This means that the tall Joshua Trees that you see in the West side of the park are hundreds of years old, some trees are even thousands of years old. These delicate trees are declining in number. Please refrain from climbing the Joshua Trees. If you climb on the trees you not only hurt these delicate plants, but you risk being ridiculed on the Instagram page Joshua Tree Hates You, and no one wants that!
Water is hard to come by in the desert and Joshua Tree National Park is no different. Most stops along this route don’t have water fountains or spigots so you should bring extra water in the car with you. It is recommended to pack 2-gallons of water per person.
The desert seems to suck all moisture out of your skin and the sun is extra strong. In addition to extra water, you’ll want to pack a hat and slather on the sunblock. I hate the greasy feeling of sunblock so I choose to wear a light colored, lightweight long-sleeve shirt to protect my skin. I typically wear something like this Columbia button down shirt or this cute, but inexpensive lightweight long-sleeve shirt with UPF 50 protection.
There’s no wifi or cell service in the park. Be prepared with a full tank of gas and a map of the park so you don’t miss any of the sites.
Check out the full itinerary below
Camp at Cottonwood Campground
Start your Joshua Tree National Park adventure by stargazing and swapping stories around the campfire. Cottonwood Campground is a short distance from the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park and just down the road from the Cottonwood Visitor Center. The night sky is the main attraction at this campground, and the sky is so dark here that you can often see the milky way.
The campground has 62-sites and advance reservations are required through Recreation.gov to camp during the busy season (October through May). The campground has running water and flush toilets, but it does not have a camp store (if you want a campfire you’ll have to bring your firewood with you). Sites are small, but each site comes with a picnic table, a fire ring, and space for two or three tents (RVs are also allowed in the campground).
Hike the Mastodon Peak Loop
Start your morning by taking an early morning stroll after breakfast, or hit the trail after packing up camp. This 3-mile loop begins at the Cottonwood campground and is the first hike in your 24-hour Joshua Tree itinerary.
The hike features an abandoned mine, a palm oasis, and spectacular views of the Salton Sea and the Coachella Valley. Since this trail begins from the campground you don’t need to move your car (this also means that you’ll be hiking the trail in the opposite direction from most other hikers).
While this trail isn’t difficult (only 375-feet of elevation gain), it will get your blood pumping. The hike starts with an uphill climb on a well-worn path and a series of rock stairs. As you continue to climb you’ll pass by several plaques telling you about the plants and their medicinal powers. As you summit the first hill, the trail will drop down into a wide, sandy wash. You’ll travel through the wash a bit, before going uphill again and passing by an old mine site. (Remember, you’re going opposite most hikers so when you see trail marker arrows you’ll want to go in the opposite direction from where the arrow is pointing.)
As you approach the mine, Mastodon Peak will come into view and you’ll start getting views of the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. At mile 1.2 you’ll reach a junction where you can go left and take an unmaintained trail up to the top of the peak, or you can continue straight on the trail following signs for Cottonwood Springs. Even if you choose not to take a short side trail to the top of the peak, the views from this junction are outstanding!
The last .9 miles to Cottonwood Springs is an easy downhill stroll. Most of the path is made of stone stairs and there are plenty of unique rock formations to admire. When the fan palm oasis comes into view you’ll wonder if it is a mirage! It is so strange to see this abundance of palm trees in the middle of the desert!
Just after passing the palm oasis you’ll come to a parking lot (where all of the day trippers had to fight for parking!). Head straight through the parking lot to pick-up the trail again and follow signs for the Cottonwood Campground, it is a short half-mile back to the camp.
Pack up the car and head out on Pinto Basin Road to see the rest of Joshua Tree National Park.
Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden
See Arch Rock
Just past the White Tank Campground you’ll see a large parking lot on the left side of the road (Twin Tanks Parking Area).
The trailhead for this half-mile hike begins at the far side of the parking lot and meanders through the wide desert valley a short distance before the trail crosses the road at a crosswalk. Continue straight on the Arch Rock Nature Trail following signs for Arch Rock. As you head into the rocks you’ll pass several interpretive signs about the natural geology of the area. After you pass by The Arch continue on the trail a short distance until it brings you back to path that leads back to the parking lot.
If you want to spend more time around these amazing rocks you can take a quick detour and follow the path toward White Tank Campground (P.S. there’s a bathroom here too).
Cruise by Skeleton Rock
After leaving the Arch Rock you’ll head back on the road and continue on Pinto Basin before you make a left onto Park Boulevard. Skeleton Rock is a popular Instagram spot and it can be mobbed on the weekends. Luckily for you, the rock is visible from the road. Since there is usually some slow-moving traffic you can admire the rock while you slowly cruise by, knowing that another awesome hike is just down the road.
Walk the Barker Dam Nature Trail
The Barker dam loop trailhead is located at the turnoff for Hidden Valley. This hike is an easy 1.5-mile nature trail to a natural desert reservoir. The path goes through a narrow canyon with towering rock walls before reaching the Barker dam and reservoir. If it has been a wet winter the small pond in the middle of the desert can be quite a sight when it is filled to capacity.
Originally called the Big Horn Dam the dam itself was constructed by early pioneers as a watering hole for cattle. As you continue on the trail, and begin to loop back to the parking lot, you’ll walk through a wide valley passing by several interpretive plaques and even some petroglyphs.
This area is popular with climbers and hikers and the small parking lot can be quite busy on the weekend. The trailhead is located at the turnoff for Hidden Valley. Go past the Hidden Valley Camp and continue until the end of the road. To begin the hike, look for the trail leading from the restroom towards the large boulders.
Enjoy the Desert Sunset
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