Joshua Tree National Park
When we were considering traveling to San Diego, one of the big pulls was the ability to explore completely new landscapes. Lauren and Ben had also never been up to visit Joshua Tree National Park so we knew that would be on the list for our must-do’s.
After spending the afternoon wine tasting in Temecula Wine Region, it was time to head to Joshua Tree National Park.
In order to get to Joshua Tree before sunset, we headed straight to the park from wine tasting. The drive was uneventful – passing desert land, military property, enormous windmill farms, even a casino – before seeing our first glimpses of Joshua trees.
Joshua trees do not look like typical trees, making them an iconic image for the park. It looks like a cactus meets a palm tree but is actually in the Yucca family and surprisingly, does have the ability to flower. There is also a ton of unique wildlife that can be spotted – kit fox, kangaroo rat, zebratail lizard, western screech owl, black-tailed jackrabit, pinacate beetle, desert woodrat, and Gambel’s quail (my personal favorite!).
We had a few places marked for us to watch sunset – Warren Peak, Ryan Mountain, Keys View, and Cholla Cactus Garden. The first two required a bit of a hike to get to the peak to watch the sunset and we were unfortunately running out of time. Cholla Cactus Garden was far into the park so we also did not think we would make it for sunset in time. Which left Keys View with the enormous benefit of being a drivable destination.
And wow, Keys View was the perfect spot to see the sunset! The view up here was absolutely stunning – we were amazed at how massive this park expanded. We made it with plenty of time to scout out a spot and enjoy this incredible scenery.
After this incredible sunset, we made our way to Cap Rock for star gazing. Joshua Tree has the International Dark Sky Park designation so we were really looking forward to seeing the perfect night sky. Lauren and Ben never cease to amaze us by their “on it” preparation – we did a lap around Cap Rock with head lights and returned to the parking lot with extra sweaters, folding chairs, and sandwiches. Before long, the sun left the horizon and the sky illuminated with stars, planets (Mars was exceptional), the Milky Way, and shooting stars. What a way to end our first visit to Joshua Tree!
An early rise had us eating breakfast tacos, packing up, and checking out of our Airbnb. Even into October, it was extremely hot during the day so our goal was to get our hiking done before lunchtime. There are so many trails to pick from – Joshua Tree is really a large park.
- Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail – as name explains, trail to a palm oasis, moderate 3.1 mile round trip
- Warren Peak Trail – elevation hike, 5.5-mile round trip
- Barker Dam Nature Trail – easy 1.4 mile loop
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail – easy 1 mile loop
- Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail – 6.8 mile loop
- Ryan Mountain Trail – elevation climb of 1000 feet, 3 mile round trip
- Skull Rock – easy 1 mile loop
- Arch Rock Nature Trail – easy 1 mile loop
- Cholla Cactus Garden – 0.2 mile to the garden
While we wanted to hit as many of these as possible before we melted, we prioritized Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail and Barker Dam Nature Trail. If we had time after these, we would add on some of the one mile loops to round out the day.
Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail is not through the main park entrance but is off the highway. Since this was the longer of the two hikes, we wanted to get this one in early. Signs at the start of the trail indicated warnings for heat stroke – we took note and started the trail.
The trail starts by climbing over and into the hills then down into the oasis. Like a mirage in the desert, enormous palms huddled together standing out from the entire surrounding. As we got closer, it was easy to see that these trees support an entire ecosystem in this valley… And we were happy for the shade they offered. Perhaps the “oasis” water is more noticeable at other times of the year but it was difficult to see today. The hike back was a bit more grueling given the sun had made its way higher into the sky – that warning at the start of the trail is no joke. A very unique landscape and would recommend this hike!
Our next trail was Barker Dam Nature Trail and we were hoping to get more views of the Joshua trees and the crazy rock formations. One thing we could not get over as we drove through the park were these enormous rock mounds – hundreds of rocks just piled up on top of each other like someone carefully constructed them. We read that this phenomenon is due to magma rising from the round which displaced rocks and over years as the soil eroded away, it left these mounds of boulders.
This trail was so fun! It was easy, flat, and short but had so much to see! Barker Dam Nature Trail takes you through all the rock mounds, trees and plants that had identification signs, and hundreds of Joshua trees. Awesome trail that any one can do and would definitely recommend on your visit!
We were so pleased with this trail, we really did not feel the need to fit in more and started the trip back to San Diego. We had such an amazing time in Joshua Tree National Park! I think having another half day either in the morning or evening to avoid the brutal sun – there is just no shade in this park – would have been good to check out more trails. I think I definitely underestimated how large the park was and how long it can take to get from one trail to the other. That paired with the limited entrances/exits means it can be challenging to get a lot done with a limited amount of time unlike other parks. The landscape is so unique and the night sky was incredible – this was definitely a great mini trip from San Diego!