Choose Your Own Adventure in Joshua Tree National Park, California
Granite domes, long-limbed cacti, prehistoric wildlife, and legendary night skies should land this park on every hiker’s bucket list, so beat the spring rush by going now. We bet mild temps, quiet trails, and late blooms will leave you thinking this is the sleeper season, after all.
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In more than a decade living in the area, Ethan Peck has probed every inch of J-Tree, a national park larger than Rhode Island. His guide service, Joshua Tree Adventures, specializes in taking visitors hiking in the less popular parts of the park. Sign us up.
The trails in Joshua Tree seldom intersect in ways that are conducive to making loops. Thankfully, the desert doesn’t always require a trail. Access Peck’s favorite route from the Geology Tour trailhead. The 10-miler requires a bit of basic routefinding, but you won’t have to retrace your steps. Follow the California Riding and Hiking Trail 3 miles among granite formations before meeting the Squaw Tank Trail and heading another 3 miles to the volcanic mound called Malapai Hill. There are no designated campsites, so “explore near the rocks to find a flat, perfect place to pitch a tent,” Peck says. From here, it’s 4 cross-country miles due north to the trailhead, but the open terrain of the Mojave Desert and the always-visible reference of Malapai make it easy going. (Pack in all water.)
Campsites are easier to find in fall than winter or spring, but no guarantee. Since most don’t accept reservations, Peck recommends aiming for Indian Cove, which you can snag online ($20). From there, set out to explore a slew of small canyons and rocks, or, if you have some navigational chops, dayhike into the north side of the Wonderland of Rocks for more play time. If you’re feeling lucky, head to popular Hidden Valley for drive-up sites among the spiny Joshua Trees (best chances midweek).
Big kids’ jungle gym
Whatever your climbing ambitions, no Joshua Tree visit is complete without a trip to Wonderland of Rocks, a maze of stone that juts out of the ground in the northwestern corner of the park. To takethe back door to the climbing mecca, Peck recommends following the Boy Scout and Willow Hole Trails 3.5 miles to Willow Hole, a tree-shrouded pool tucked behind the rock jumble. Budget a few hours for exploring the pinyon-juniper woods and low, beginner-friendly climbing routes, then return the way you came.
J-Tree is big: You won’t see it all on one trip, or even a dozen. But you can get a taste of the park’s diversity with a few strategic side trips. Peck recommends tacking on the park’s short walking tours as a “cool down” after longer treks. His favorite: the .3-mile Cholla Garden Loop. At the foot of the Hexie Mountains, the oasis is lush with short and prickly silver cholla cacti, which bloom with small yellow-green flowers in late spring. If you’re more interested in fauna, head to Indian Cove to poke around the washes for desert tortoises (abundant after rain).
SEASON October to May Entrance $25/vehicle PERMIT Required for overnighting (free); register at one of 13 registration boards.