- Stop by Joshua Tree Visitor Center on the northwestern corner
- Start driving on the main Park Boulevard, and make a few stops to see the Joshua Trees up close
- Hike Hidden Valley Loop Trail (EASY to MODERATE path with a few rocky sections, 1 mile CLICK HERE for a PDF of the Hidden Valley Loop Trail map
- Travel to Keys View, and enjoy the panoramas of Coachella Valley
- Return to Park Boulevard, drive past Jumbo Rocks Campground, stop at Skull Rock
- Stop at Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch preferably at sunset
Exit the park near Cottonwood Visitor Center on the southeast corner
As our California vacation came to an end, it was time to get on the long road back to Texas. While going home is nice, I always feel a little sad when the travel adventures are over. To ease my end-of-vacation blues, hubby came up with a brilliant idea. He suggested that we take a slightly longer route than originally planned, and check out the best spots in Joshua Tree National Park. I was of course thrilled with this idea, so after we packed our stuff quickly and had breakfast, we left the Charter Inn & Suites in Tulare, CA filled with new excitement!
The 6 Best Spots in Joshua Tree National Park
We spent half a day at the park, and discovered it was truly a special place that has a lot to offer. Following the advice of the Park Rangers, we managed to see many of the unique features and attractions. Our favorite ones however were the following six, and I highly recommend that you not miss them when visiting. These are not only some of the most popular, but also some of the best spots in Joshua Tree National Park! If you are moving from the west to the east end, you can follow our exact route, and if driving the other way, just follow this list in reverse order!
1. Stop at Joshua Tree Visitor Center
The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is located on the northwest edge of the park, but technically, it is not within the park. I highly recommend that you stop here first, and take a look at the exhibits. You will find plenty of interesting information about the Joshua Trees, the wildlife, and the history of the park. Here, you can also pick up Junior Ranger booklets and badges if you are traveling with kids, and purchase nifty souvenirs like Joshua Tree seeds or a local artwork.
We arrived at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center in the afternoon, and went in to get maps, directions, and Junior Ranger booklets for the kids. We were happy to discover the nice exhibit inside with educational materials that were all the kids needed to answer the questions in their booklets. As soon as they filled out all the required information, Angie and Dani received their Joshua Tree Junior Ranger badges right then and there.
I also got a couple of things from the shop, Joshua Tree seeds, and a beautiful copper wire sculpture of a Joshua Tree made by a local artist. Hubby was so kind to get it for me, and not complain too much about the cost.
2. Get up Close and Personal with Some Joshua Trees
Enter the park through the West Entrance Station, and keep your eyes open because even in this arid desert land, there is so much to see! Naturally, when in Joshua Tree National Park, you really want to get to know the stars of the park.
Pull over on the side of the road at a designated area, and take a closer look at all the Joshua Trees nearby. You will discover that they come in all shapes and sizes.
Just step outside and explore!
The Joshua Trees We Found
Once in the park, we didn’t drive for long before I asked hubby to stop the car. I just had to go out there to take a closer look, and snap some Joshua Tree photos.
It was late August, and it was hot out there in the desert, but this didn’t stop me. I started walking on a narrow path that led away from the road, and was surprised to discover that some of the nearby Joshua Trees were actually quite tall.
The path didn’t take me far before it merged with the rest of the environment. It was obviously not an official trail, just a path created by other visitors who had the same idea as me.
Hubby and the kids joined me outside for a little bit but returned pretty quickly to the air-conditioned environment of the car. After I spent a while longer inspecting different Joshua Trees up close, I was ready to get back on the road.
3. Hike the Hidden Valley Loop Trail
Arguably, the Hidden Valley Loop Trail is the park’s most popular hike, taking you to some of the best spots in Joshua Tree. Here, you will find not only Joshua Trees, but also unique rock formations shaped by the desert climate. By all means, take this trail! It is a worthwhile 1 mile loop, and a fairly easy walk, except for a few rocky sections. CLICK HERE for a detailed map of the Hidden Valley Loop Trail.
Look at the deep vertical and horizontal cracks on the rocks, created by the harsh extremes of the desert climate. Notice the interesting shrubs, cacti, Joshua Trees, and other unique plants.
Experience the desert with all your senses as you walk this short but amazing trail!
Our Only Hike at Joshua Tree National Park
We made our way to the Hidden Valley Trail, and ventured out in the summer desert heat. This was the first time ever that I actually hiked in my flip flops. It just didn’t feel right to trap my feet in sweaty hiking boots, not in this temperature anyway. This was probably not the smartest idea since there can be that occasional carefree scorpion wandering on our path.
In any case, we started walking despite the heat and the scorpion danger, and I was ready to conquer this trail even in my flip flops. Hubby who is often the voice of reason, suggested that we only walk part of the way, and then return to the car, and keep driving. I reluctantly agreed, not so much because the heat bothered me, but because it was getting late, and I still wanted to see more of the park.
We walked about half way on the Hidden Valley trail before we turned around. It was a really neat path, passing near Joshua Trees, Yuccas, cacti, and other desert plants.
The Rocks Along the Way
One of the most interesting features of the trail were perhaps the rocks I mentioned earlier. They had so many deep cracks that it looked more like they were piles of individual rocks rather than one large single structure.
After we enjoyed this desert scenery for a little while longer, we slowly got back to the car, and kept on driving.
4. Enjoy the Panoramas at Keys View
Another worthwhile spot in Joshua Tree National Park is Keys View. From here, you will be able to see a vast panorama of the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea. On a clear day, you can even spot the city of Palm Springs, the Santa Rosa Mountains and Mt. San Jacinto.
Unfortunately, often the Coachella Valley is hazy due to pollution coming from industrial zones in Southern California. Polluted air travels through the nearby Banning Pass, and then settles over the valley. If you happen to arrive on a clear day, you will enjoy stunning desert views! It is these infinite panoramas that make Keys View one of the best spots in Joshua Tree National Park!
What We Saw from Keys View
We arrived to the Keys View parking area, and hubby and I made our way to the top of a little hill from where we could see the Coachella Valley. The kids were tired, and quite absorbed by whatever video game they were playing, so they chose to stay in the car while we took a peek.
The view was actually pretty awesome, especially under the low light of the late afternoon sun. Hubby and I looked around for a bit, and noticed some haze off to one side of the valley, but fortunately, it wasn’t too bad. However, we couldn’t really see Palm Springs as the haze was lingering right in that area.
After we took some photos, and documented our presence with a selfie, we headed back towards the car. There, we found the kids just as we left them, glued to their tablets, deeply engulfed in whatever was happening on those screens.
5. Stop at Skull Rock
Skull Rock is definitely one of the more popular attraction in the park because it is easily accessible and it’s shaped like…well…a skull! It is definitely an interesting stop that doesn’t require much effort.
Skull Rock is located right near the main Park Boulevard, past the Jumbo Rocks Campground. If you are headed east, it will be on your right side. It is a fascinating example of erosion that has occurred as a result of accumulating water. Pools of water collected, and eventually eroded the rock, forming the sockets of the skull.
Our Play with Shadows
After we left Keys View, we returned back to Park Boulevard, and continued our journey to the east. Honestly, I did not see Skull Rock marked on the park map, and wasn’t sure if we would find it. I had read about it earlier in the visitor center, and was definitely curious to see it. Fortunately, it turned out it was quite easy to find.
Shorty after we drove past Jumbo Rocks Campground, I spotted the unmistakable shape of a humanoid skull. We parked near the road, and excitedly came out to check it out.
Dani, our younger daughter, and I decided to climb up a few rocks to see it a little closer. We discovered that the afternoon sun was casting our shadows right on the skull, and decided to play with that a little. The sun was getting pretty low, and the warmth of the light made this place that much more mystical.
After spending some time having fun on the rocks, we got back to the car, and were ready to continue our journey.
6. Catch the Sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch
Cholla Cactus Garden is a small area of the park where a ton of Cholla Cacti grow close together. It is truly a unique place, and without question one of the best spots in Joshua Tree National Park. When in the garden, don’t go too close to these cacti as their spikes are extremely sharp and painful. Also, you may not want to walk around in very open sandals or flip flops. There are many fallen Cholla Cacti pieces on the ground that still have their sharp needles on! To get to this beautiful spot, take a right from the main Park Boulevard towards Wilson Canyon and Cottonwood.
In my opinion, the most scenic time of the day to visit the Cholla Cactus Garden is at sunset. The low light and warm, golden tones of the setting sun color the nearby mountains in orange-red, which creates a picture-perfect panorama.
A little further down the road is Ocotillo Patch, another small area of the park with interesting desert ocotillo plants. There again, you can enjoy the beautiful colors of the close of day, and take some more desert sunset photos.
Our Sunset Colors
We arrived at Cholla Cactus Garden at what seemed like the perfect time. Toward the east, the low sunlight was bathing the nearby Pinto Mountain making it glow with orange-red colors. Toward the west, the sun was slowly dipping lower beneath the horizon, coloring the sky with an array of warm hues. All this set the perfect background for taking some really neat photos at the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Before the sunlight was completely gone, we stopped at one more point of interest further down the road, the Ocotillo Patch. Here, I was the only one who left the car. Hubby and the kids seemed to have had enough for the day. I, on the other hand, had to not only stop and take some more photos, but also see up close the intriguing Ocotillos! Imagine a bunch of tall sticks covered with spikes emerging from a common spot on the ground.
After I spent a little time photographing and closely inspecting the ocotillos, I got back to the car as the last few rays of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon. Hubby continued driving further down the road until we exited the park near the Cottonwood Visitor Center on the southeast end.
Final Night in California
We continued our long journey toward Texas on Interstate 10 East. By this time, it was completely dark and driving was getting tiresome, so we decided to stop for the night in Blythe, CA.
When we got to the town, we found a place called Pizza Studio, where we got to make our own pizzas by selecting from a whole bunch of toppings. It was really quite delicious, and I highly recommend it if you are in the area and feel like something fast and tasty.
After enjoying our pizzas, we moved the car near our hotel, the Comfort Suites, which happened to be right next door. This marked the end of our California family vacation; more than two weeks of beautiful sights, incredible mountains, pristine lakes, enormous trees, and many more unforgettable adventures. That night, I went to sleep a little sad, but also feeling enriched by all of the experiences we had spending time with Mother Nature!
Additional Resources to Help Plan Your Visit to Joshua Tree
- Joshua Tree National Park – This is the official website for the park by the National Park Service, and my personal favorite resource. Here, you can find all the latest information, updates, and alerts.
- Visit California – Spotlight: Joshua Tree National Park – On this page, you can read additional suggestions about things you can do while visiting the park.
- National Park: Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park – This is another website where you will find information about the park, in case the above two were not sufficient.
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all pictures in this post were taken by me, Vessy, with the camera on my iPhone 7 Plus.
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