We recently returned from a great trip to Joshua Tree NP. Unlike our usual camping vacations, this time we decided to go with a VRBO [we had last minute changes to our Christmas camping plans and to get a campsite in the park, you need to book six months in advance].
About the VRBO: we found a sweet 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom house that was dog-friendly, with a hot-tub & fire pit, and only 10 minutes from the West Entrance. It was recently remodeled and decorated in a modern, boho, JT style – it was perfect and we would definitely stay here again. Check it out!
But enough about that, let’s get down to the park tips and hikes that we did. A 7-day vehicle park pass is $30, but you can also purchase an annual park pass which allows you to come and go for a year. You can read more about entrance fees on the JT National Park website here.
- Wear layers — we visited in the winter but found ourselves extremely cold and sweating hot all on the same trail depending on the shade, time of day, and elevation gain.
- Arrive early if you want to park in lots/close to the trailhead. We also parked on the side of the road without issue.
- Download AllTrails map routes before getting to the park because there is no cell service and some trails are not clearly marked. You can sign up for a free 7-day trial to get the Pro version.
- Get a Junior ranger book [we picked ours up at the gate to the park]. Even though we skipped the badge, the kids still had fun filling this out each day.
- For most trails, you can get away with running shoes; however, we recommend hiking shoes/boots for going off trails and climbing.
- Bring lots of water [and keep a backup jug in your vehicle for refills].
- Bring food for the day as there is nowhere to buy food in the park.
- Be respectful to nature if going off trail [try not to step on plants/move rocks/etc].
- Pack out what you bring in.
- Bring hand sanitizer/hand wash [trailhead bathrooms don’t have sinks].
- Wear sunscreen, even in the winter!
- Bring a hat.
Day One Hikes: Arch Rock and Skull Rock Nature Trails
We arrived to the park early in the afternoon and still had a few hours before we could check in to our VRBO, so we thought we’d do a few short hikes
We started with the Arch Rock Nature Trail. It’s a 1.2 mile trail that is pretty flat and easy to navigate. Keep in mind that we were visiting in January — it would probably be pretty hot in warmer months as there is no shade. There are some fun boulders along the way [including one that looks like a wave].
To get to the arch you climb up a small crevice. Be prepared to wait for a photo op and if you’re feeling extra daring you can climb on top of the arch via the boulder underneath.
Apparently there is another cool rock, “Heart Rock”, which is about a 15-min hike from Arch, but you need the GPS coordinates before starting [we found out about it from another hiker on trail].
Next up was Skull Rock Nature Trail. This exhibit is right off the road and very busy with visitors, but we didn’t have any issue or a long wait for a climb and photo. Also, caution if you drive by here at sunset. It is very hard to see with the blinding sun and lots of pedestrians crossing.
The hike itself is about 1.7 miles and goes through Jumbo Rocks campground. We used our AllTrails map to navigate through this one.
It was getting close to sunset, so the air was a bit chilly and we even found some ice on the shaded side of the hike. The kids had a blast climbing the boulders and also finding all the “butt rock” formations on this trail 😆🍑
Day Two Hikes: Ryan Mountain Trail and Split Rock Loop Trail
We started the day off with a hike up Ryan Mountain. This is a steep, out and back, 3-mile round trip trail that some say is the hardest hike in the park. With a 1,000+ ft elevation gain and A LOT of stairs, we definitely agree that it’s a good workout!
The hike took us nearly 2.5 hours from start to finish, including a 40-minute lunch/rest break on the top of the mountain. The 360 degree views were exceptional and worth the hike!
The way down was much easier so we took some time to admire the flora and fauna. We saw Joshua Trees, cholla cactus, barrel cactus and so much more!
Our second hike of the day was Split Rock Loop Trail. This is a 1.9 loop trail that has lots of fun boulders to play on, is mostly flat, but still has some small hills to get your heart pumping. We really enjoyed this mellow hike after Ryan Mountain.
The main exhibit is right near the trail head, so if you don’t have time to do the whole trail, you can easily check out the split rock and get a photo in the crevice if you can climb up into it!
Day Three Hikes: Barker Dam Nature Trail, Hidden Valley Nature Trail, and the Hall of Horrors
We started our Monday morning off with a peaceful hike on the Barker Dam Nature Trail. This is a short, flat 1.3 mile loop trail with a pretty dam [it only has water in the winter/after rains], valley of Joshua Trees, and some cool petroglyphs [a movie crew added color to them, but there are still a few in their natural carving state]. We also met up with a curious road-runner on our return to the main trail.
𝕋𝕁𝔽𝕁 𝕋𝕚𝕡: get there early to avoid crowds and get a ripple-free shot of the mirror reflection in the Barker Dam lake.
After Barker Dam, we took a short drive to Hidden Valley Nature Trail. This is a busy 1-mile loop and we understand why. It is easily accessible, fairly flat, but also has lots of boulders to climb, you can watch rock climbers, and the scenery is just gorgeous with all the rocks surrounding you. It really looks like something out of this world! Afterwards we had a picnic [there are plenty of picnic tables around the parking lot].
Our last hike of the day was The Hall of Horrors. Out of all the hikes, this was probably our favorite. It is a bit hard to find, especially if you’re following the AllTrails map without reading the reviews. If you follow our recorded AllTrails route, you will get to the right spot. Or you can walk around the first rock formation to the back and head to the west side of the second rock formation and look up towards a hall/crevice with some vegetation [first pic in the gallery below].
Once you’ve climbed up the boulders there are two narrow crevices to explore. One is wider than the other [caution – the one on the left is pretty tight and easy to get stuck in if you have a wide chest/large stomach]. We explored the formation and found lots of cool sandy spots, boulders, caves, and crevices!
Day Four Hikes: Desert Queen Mine and Keys View Lookout Point
We wrapped up our Joshua Tree trip with a hike to the Desert Queen Mines. The kids really wanted to check out the mines and this was a perfect quick hike before we hit the road. There are a lot of options for this hike, but we kept to a 1.5 mile out and back hike to the mines. Before descending down into the valley, you come across a cool historic house/shelter. There are also a lot of mines to look in and some old equipment to check out along the way. Most of the mines have gates on them, but you can still get a decent look into the openings.
Before we left the park, we stopped by the Keys View Lookout Point. We had planned on doing the Inspiration Trail hike too but it was pretty windy that morning and the hike was steep, so we decided to try it on our next visit. This was a quick stop and definitely worth it for the breathtaking views!
We left the park at lunchtime and unfortunately ran in to some troubles with our truck about a half hour in to our drive home. While Shawn checked the engine, I took the kids to explore the Dinosaur Museum in Cabazon. The kids loved it — especially going up into the giant T-Rex and roaring at everyone below. Fun Fact: the park was featured in Peewee’s Big Adventure!
𝕋𝕁𝔽𝕁 𝕋𝕚𝕡: although it’s not listed the website, they also offer a firefighter discount so make sure to ask!
We ended up needing a new alternator, so we found a dog-friendly hotel in Banning and stayed the night there so that Shawn could replace it. Smooth sailing back home the next morning.
We plan on going back to Joshua Tree again and hope to take our camper next time so that we can experience what it’s like to stay inside the park.
Have you been to Joshua Tree NP? What’s your favorite campground or hike? Reply below in the comments!