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Best Day Hikes Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

While some National Parks receive so much attention that you know you are going to be wowed during a visit, I had no idea how much I would love Joshua Tree National Park. Visiting during our Southwest road trip (Click here to see our basic road trip itinerary), this was one of our very favorite places we went to. Located in southern California, the park is home to the merging of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, two diverse desert ecosystems, making it a landscape like no other. Named after the distinctive Joshua Tree, these beautiful and bizarrely shaped trees dot the park. Make sure your camera has plenty of open space when you visit, because you will take a ton of gorgeous pictures here! The scenery is truly one of a kind. There are an abundance of outdoor activities to keep you busy in Joshua Tree National Park including rock climbing, star gazing, camping and backpacking.  We loved camping at Jumbo Rocks Campground which you can read about here. And the hiking in the park is downright amazing!  Here are a few of what we think are the best day hikes in Joshua Tree National Park.

Best Day Hikes Joshua Tree National Park

Skull Rock Trail

This easy and level 1.7 mile trail loop starts in the Jumbo Rocks Campground (Read about our fabulous stay here). Meandering through the rock strewn desert landscape, there are signs describing the various plants in the area before arriving at the namesake Skull Rock.  Shaped exactly like the head of a skeleton from water erosion in the granite, Skull Rock is a fun hike for kids of all ages. I hiked this early in the morning just as the day was heating up. Make sure to bring water for your hike- the desert is hot! If you would rather not hike, there is also a parking area on Park Valley Boulevard close to the formation so there is no reason for you not to hop out and take a look.

Hidden Valley Loop Trail

Possibly the prettiest one mile hike I have ever been on, the Hidden Valley Loop Trail was one of our favorite hikes in the park. We spent a beautiful evening picnicking at the tables adjacent to the trail head before hiking this easy gorgeous loop as the sun was starting to set.  Surrounded by rocks walls thousands of feet tall, the hidden valley area is of historical significance as it was the hiding place of a band of cattle rustlers from the 1800’s known as the McHaney Gang who concealed stolen cattle in the protected valley before rebranding them to sell as their own. It is quite amazing to walk through a narrow opening in the rock walls into the expansive valley. Knowing the history made this hike especially fun for our kids. Beyond this entryway the area was blasted open with dynamite in the 1930’s so hikers are now treated to access into the beautiful area.   The surrounding rocks are now a haven for rock climbers and we saw several climbers during our hike. The Hidden Valley Loop is a mostly flat well marked trail that meanders through interesting rock formations and abundant desert plant life. If the timing works for you, plan to take this hike in the evening as the colors of the setting sun reflecting off the cliffs was unforgettable.

Climbing Ryan Mountain

Another fantastic hike with a trailhead just off the main Park Boulevard is the climb up Ryan Mountain, named after J.D. Ryan, a 19th century rancher and miner.  This three mile loop has about 1100 feet in elevation gain and was somewhat strenuous in the heat, but the trail is well maintained and easy to follow. Hiking on the hot July afternoon, we had the trail and summit to ourselves and the view at the top was well worth the effort. The panoramic view of the valleys below were absolutely breathtaking and one we will never forget. At over 5,400 feet elevation at the summit, the temps were much less intense than the desert floor and we all enjoyed resting in the cool(er) breeze. Make sure to bring adequate water for this hike as the desert sun and heat is strong and there is there is no shade on the exposed trail.  It took us a couple of hours to make the whole loop hiking at a leisurely pace and we each brought 1liter of water and 1 liter of gatorade which was a perfect amount. If you are hiking with young children, make sure they understand to stay on the well marked trail as the drop offs are steep in some areas. These three trails are what we think are the best day hikes in Joshua Tree National Park.  With amazing landscape all around you, it is a photographers dream.  We loved our visit to this amazing park and look forward to a return visit.

If you go:

-Sunscreen is imperative when visiting and hiking the best day hikes in Joshua Tree, especially if your visit is in the summer as ours was.  We slathered ourselves multiple times throughout each day.

-It is vital that you carry with you more water then you think you will need.  The desert sun and temperatures can be unforgiving, and it is better to bring along too much then not have enough when you need it. In addition, make sure you are replenishing the electrolytes lost through sweat.  When hiking in warm weather, we always take with us salty snacks and diluted Gatorade.

-To stay cool in the desert heat, we used several cooling products that we really liked. We were grateful to each have a Polar Pad Cooling Towel which worked wonders to cool us off.  I also wore a Kafka’s Cool Tie that the kids gave me for my birthday.  It was amazing! Dave wore a Cooling Hat that he loves to wear in the heat. The rest of us each wore hats as well to keep the sun out of our faces.

-A couple of good resources we used for planning our trip to Joshua Tree were Best Easy Day Hikes Joshua Tree National Park and Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide.

One of the least crowded National Parks, Joshua Tree does not get all of the attention that many other parks do, but it is a hidden gem that I hope your adventures someday take you to.

Happy travels!

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