5-Day Best of Joshua Tree Itinerary

The landscape of Joshua Tree National Park is mesmerizing—from the spiky trees to the scoured desert, and jumbled boulders begging to be climbed. A visit here typically means camping, with extra time spent exploring the funky sights of the surrounding desert towns. Bring water and your own vehicle, and plan a week to visit this desert wonderland October-May.

Rocks and water at Barker Dam in Joshua Tree National Park
Barker Dam in Joshua Tree. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Day 1

Start the day off in the town of Joshua Tree at the nouveau diner Crossroads Café for a creative take on diner classics, including plenty of veggie options. The laid-back vibe and fresh plates ranging from grilled herbed polenta and eggs to buttermilk hotcakes will set you up for a day of exploring in the park.

After breakfast, follow Park Boulevard to the West Entrance, stopping at the Joshua Tree Visitors Center to pick up maps, load up on water, and make reservations for the Keys Ranch Tour (Fri.-Sun. Oct.-May) before entering the park. Enjoy a scenic drive along Park Boulevard into the popular Hidden Valley region of the park, stopping off to explore the short nature trails at Barker Dam, Cap Rock, and Skull Rock.

If you haven’t reserved a campsite in advance at Black Rock, Indian Cove, or Cottonwood, keep your eyes peeled for available sites at Hidden Valley Campground or Jumbo Rocks. Try to time your arrival for a Thursday, before campsites have filled for the weekend.

After staking your campsite, check the park calendar for an evening stargazing tour.

Dim light at sunset at Keys View
Sunset at Keys View. Photo © Nickolay Stanev/123rf.

Day 2

Today, plan your activities around your reservations for the guided 90-minute tour of the Keys Ranch, a preserved historic homestead near the Hidden Valley Campground. After the tour, you’re perfectly positioned for a hike to the remains of the Wall Street Mill, another legacy of rancher Bill Keys.

Finish your exploration with a scenic drive to his Keys View, a 20-minute detour from Park Boulevard along Keys View Road. Stay and watch the sun set over the Coachella Valley below.

Day 3

Enough of these easy natural trails! Today, it’s time to get those lungs pumping a more rigorous hike. For epic views, climb Ryan Mountain to its 5,457-foot summit. If you just can’t get enough of the parks’ numerous mining ruins, opt instead for a steep climb to the Lost Horse Mine. And for those irresistible boulder piles, the Willow Hole Trail offers a scenic out-and-back ramble.

If it’s too hot to hit the trail today, hit the road instead on a backcountry drive. The Geology Tour Road is accessible to all vehicles for the first 5 of its 18 miles through the park’s unique geologic formations. Those with four-wheel drive have more options, such as Berdoo Canyon Road or several backcountry roads in the park’s southern Cottonwood Spring region. Take a night off from campfire cooking to grab a burger with other hikers, rock climbers, and locals at the lively Joshua Tree Saloon, a 20-minute drive west from the Willow Hole Trailhead.

Trail through the Cholla Cactus Garden
The Cholla Cactus Garden along Pinto Basin Road. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Day 4

It’s your last day in the park proper, so break camp and head east on Park Boulevard, with stops along Pinto Basin Road to check out Arch Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Continue south along Pinto Basin Road to soak in the stark landscape of the Sonoran Desert, a contrast to those iconic boulder piles. Pinto Basin Road ends at scenic Cottonwood Spring, where you can take a short hike around the spring or a longer hike to the Mastodon Mine or Lost Palms Oasis.

After your hike, return north on Pinto Basin Road to Park Boulevard and exit the park at Twentynine Palms, where you’ve booked a room at the 29 Palms Inn. Spend the evening wandering the lush grounds and dining at the on-site restaurant. For more music and company, see what’s on at The Palms in Wonder Valley.

White dome of Integratron building in Landers California
The Integratron building in Landers was built by a self-proclaimed alien contactee. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Day 5

From Twentynine Palms, the wonders of the Yucca Valley await today’s exploration. After breakfast, drive west on Highway 62 to the town of Joshua Tree and wander amid the outsider art at the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, where the artists’ large-scale creations sweep across the Mojave Desert floor.

Arrive in Landers, just north, in time for your sound bath at The Integratron (reserve in advance) where the domed structure hums and chimes with the sounds of crystal bowl harmonies.

Dinner is at the saloon and restaurant Pappy & Harriet’s (reserve one of their seatings up to two weeks in advance), a former Wild West movie set in aptly named Pioneertown. Debrief your day, people-watch, and enjoy the funky surroundings while digging into the hearty Tex-Mex menu at this one-of-a-kind spot. If the excellent live music keeps you up late, you can always bed down at the Pioneertown Motel out back.

Jenna Blough

About the Author

Jenna Blough grew up on the edge of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, where she was allowed to run wild, instilling a love of the outdoors early on. After her parents dragged her and her sister on a cross-country road trip of epic proportions (visiting American classics like Wall Drug in South Dakota, Mesa Verde in Colorado, and the Petrified Forest in Arizona) she developed an equal appreciation for Wild West roadside attractions, historic sites, and wilderness.

Jenna eventually found the California desert to be her geographic soul mate. Drawn by the austere beauty of Death Valley, she is fascinated by its cultural history, ghost towns, native sites, and the Mojave's shifting landscape.

Jenna received an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology, an MA in English literature, and an MFA in writing. When she's not living out of a tent, Jenna resides in Los Angeles with her husband Ryan Jones. Visit her blog at http://www.whentheroadends.com.

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