A day in Joshua Tree National Park

A day in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Trees and scrubby brush under a bright blue sky.
Joshua Trees in the Hidden Valley region of Joshua Tree National Park

I love exploring our national parks! There are 61 designated parks, and I have visited less than half of them. But the ones that I have been lucky enough to explore have offered incredible landscapes, beautiful views of the sky and interactions with wildlife. While in Southern California in February, my husband and I had 7 hours to spend in the desert park, Joshua Tree. It is where the high, western Mojave Desert collides with the low, eastern Colorado Desert creating almost 800,000 acres of sandy open spaces, rock formations and differing ecosystems.

Leafless tree under a bright blue sky and in front of desert rocky terrain

We drove 3.25 hours from San Diego to the northwestern entrance of the park, stopping at the Joshua Tree Visitor’s Center for a park map and a much needed restroom break. After chatting at length with a National Park Service staff member, we created a plan to view a variety of terrain types within the desert park.

Hidden Valley

Sandy path leading to a boulder pile
Hidden Valley trail loop.

Hidden Valley was the first stop on our southeast Park Boulevard drive. We walked on the 1 mile loop through a rock-enclosed valley, said to have been used by cattle rustlers (thieves) in the early 1900’s. The path is sandy, winding along boulder piles and scraggly desert shrubbery. Joshua Trees, natural to the high elevation of the Mojave desert, dot the flatlands in this section of the park.

Backside of a man standing on a rock pile that resembles human butts.
Feeling Cheeky on the Hidden Valley Trail of Joshua Tree – lol

Map: Hidden Valley Loop

Hike difficulty: Easy

Barker Dam

large boulder piles reflected in a blue lake
Barker Dam

According to park literature, Barker Dam was created by cattle herders in the early 1900’s. We tried to walk the Barker Dam “loop” but part of the trail was closed, so we completed an out and back trek. Desert landscape is so unique! We saw many Joshua Trees and cactus plants. The dam was pretty, and I spent a little too much time taking photos of the reflective water. Bighorn sheep are reputed to frequent this area, but sadly, we didn’t see any during our excursion. Our “loop” was a brief walk: 1.8 miles with virtually no elevation climb.

Cactus in front of rocky boulder piles.

Map: Barker Dam

Hike difficulty: Easy

Keys View, 5,185′

A view of treeless mountain peaks.
Snow capped Mount Gorgonia is visible on the right, and Mount San Jacinto is on the left.

Keys View path is a short, paved, .12 mile uphill walkway with gorgeous views of western and southern California. Looking northwest, visitors can see the snow capped Mount San Gorgonio, an 11,455′ peak in the Angeles National Forest. South and slightly east of San Gorgonio, is Palm Springs, sandwiched between Mount San Jacinto, 10,831′ and Joshua Tree park. The Coachella Valley, a developed extension of the Colorado Dessert, is also visible from the overlook.

A view from the top of a mountain.
Mount Signal and the Salton Sea lie in the fog, just beyond the mountain peaks.

On clear days, the Salton Sea is visible from Keys View. This saltwater lake is a low point of the Colorado Dessert, positioned on the San Andreas Fault, 230′ below sea level. Further south, Mount Signal, a 2,562′ peak on the US-Mexico border can be seen on fog free days.

Ryan Mountain, 5,458′

Rock steps leading up a sandy path on the side of a mountain.
A narrow sandy trail cut into the side of a Rocky Mountain.

Ryan Mountain is the second highest peak in Joshua Tree. The switch backs and rocky steps make this 1.5 mile, 1,070′ incline relatively easy to navigate. We passed small patches of snow, which confused me a bit, since we were trekking in desert country. The view from the rocky summit was far different from what I am used to seeing in the Western Rockies or the Eastern Appalachian Mountains.

A man on a large rock pile at the top of a mountain
Looking west on the summit of Ryan Mountain.
The summit sign for Ryan Mountain

It took us 1 hour 26 minutes to walk the 3 miles and take a bunch of photos at the top. I am sure that it is more challenging to complete during the hot summer months. The February weather was perfect for this hike!

Map: Ryan Mountain

Hike difficulty: Moderate

Cholla Cactus Garden

A field of cholla cactus in front of a ridge of mountains.
Cholla Cactus Garden bordered by the Hexie Mountains to the west.

Where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet in the western Pinto Basin, a natural 10 acre garden of Cholla Cactus thrive. We walked the .25 mile loop through the grove of 4-7′ Cholla (pronounced choy-ya). The fuzzy looking brown and golden yellow cacti fill the sandy flat region.

A brown and cream colored cholla cactus
Cholla Cactus in the Colorado Desert of Joshua Tree National Park.

Map: Cholla Cactus Garden

Hike Difficulty: Easy

Cottonwood Spring

A man looks small beside the enormous Palm Fan Tree
Lost Palms Oasis Trail, Cottonwood Spring area.

Unfortunately, we had very little time to explore the southern most section of the park. The Cottonwood Spring region is an oasis in the desert. We did not see gushing springs, but rather wet areas that feed the large fan palm trees, some of them over 75′ high.

Bright wildflowers filled the flatlands leading to the southern exit of the park. Fields of purple, white and yellow flowers were a beautiful contrast to the gray Cottonwood Mountains and a perfect view for our exit of Joshua Tree National Park.

A field of purple, white and yellow wildflowers with gray mountains in the background
Purple wildflowers
Wildflowers are bright against the gray Cottonwood Mountains in the southern region of Joshua Tree.

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2 Replies to “A day in Joshua Tree National Park”

  1. Thanks for the post ... As coincidence would have it, we are headed to Joshua Tree next week. I am from the York area too, so I have done many of the same local hikes you have blogged about. Not even sure how I stumbled across your blog. I have enjoyed it! Merry Christmas.

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