Normally just a sign glanced at during a road trip from Arizona to the California Coast, Joshua Tree National Park turned out to be an experience of a lifetime. If you’re not familiar with Joshua Tree, it’s a gorgeous National Park located in Southern California. It is the combination of two ecosystems, the Colorado and Mojave Desert. With a rugged rocky landscape and unique trees scattered around the valley, it’s a destination worth the trip! Visitors to the National Park enjoy bouldering, rock climbing, hiking, sunset views, local artistries, and an inspirational desert atmosphere. Enjoy our itinerary of Joshua Tree Best Hikes!
We decided to take a much needed girls weekend trip to celebrate the creation of this travel blog. Raini (from The ExplorList Blog) will cover Day 1 and Amanda (also from The ExplorList) will cover Day 2 since we did this trip together. Our trip was about 4 hrs to Joshua Tree National Park and another hour to reach our Airbnb. Just outside the park are numerous dreamy Airbnb locations that perfectly captured the boho vibes of the area. With our Airbnb booked, we set off planning and learning everything we could to share with you Joshua Tree Best Hikes for Your Weekend Getaway!
Girls Weekend in Joshua Tree National Park
Planning Before Trip:
National Park Pass:
If you plan to visit several National Parks this year, it is worth investing in the “America the Beautiful” annual pass for $80. Each national park charges a $25-$35 entrance fee, so you can easily get your money’s worth out of it! There are plenty of National Parks near the Phoenix Valley, if that is where you are visiting from. (Check out our other posts on National Parks you should visit here).
Weather in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree is open year round, but the best times to visit are March to May and October to November. Temperatures are most comfortable in the park during spring and fall. With an average of about 85 degrees. Being a desert climate, it can be warm during the day and temperatures can drop quite drastically during the night. We advise that you bring layers for the changes. Some trails are overgrown so long or convertible pants are a good idea to avoid scratches, cactus spines, and the sun. Sun protection is essential, so be sure to pack sunscreen and sun blocking hats.
We stayed at the cutest Airbnb in Landers, CA which is only 20 mins from the main entrance of the park. Take a look at these photos, it was an easy decision to book this stay!
Even though we were fairly close to town, with restaurants, shops, and grocery stores, we felt as though we were alone in the wilderness. At night, we admired the wide-open desert sky sparkling with thousands of stars. In the morning we took advantage of the amenities provided and took in the quiet of our surroundings. The boho inspired décor was cozy, making it an absolutely serene glamping experience!
There are many other great options for Airbnb in the area if this one is not available or doesn’t fit your needs. Check them out here.
We drove to Joshua Tree National Park from Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a straight shot on the I-10 west for 4 hours if entering at the south entrance. Although the main scenic spots in the park are closer to the north entrance, we wanted to check out the impressive slot canyons in the Mecca Hills Wilderness first. This is a less visited area nearby that we think is worth the stop!
**quick note- don’t forget to fill up your gas tank in Quartzsite, AZ before crossing into CA to save some money! It’s usually at least $1 more a gallon. There are no gas stations inside the park.
The Mecca Hills Wilderness is on the south side of the I-10 on the same exit you take for the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. If you choose to include this hiking area as part of your itinerary, just know that it is another 45-55 minutes to the north side of Joshua Tree NP. If you do not wish to visit this area first, you can take an alternate route from Phoenix that puts you right at the north entrance.
Find directions from Phx here.
Day 1 (Painted Canyon, Sunset at Ryan Mountain, Joshua Tree Saloon)
We left the Phoenix valley early in the morning so we could fit several hikes in on our first day. As mentioned above, we started our adventure in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, exploring the incredible slot canyons. This is truly one of Southern California’s Hidden gems.
You will get off the I-10 at Exit 168 Cottonwood Springs Rd and turn south, away from the Joshua Tree National Park south entrance. The road turns into Box Canyon Rd which you will follow for about 13 miles. You’ll then turn onto Painted Canyon Rd, leading you to the trailhead. The 5 miles on Painted Canyon Rd is not paved & very bumpy. You do not need a 4×4 vehicle but if weather conditions are bad, these roads will be closed. Be sure to double check that they are open before going!
The Rope & Ladder Canyon Loops are a one of a kind, adventurous experience challenging you to hike and climb through miles of narrow slot canyons. We went up the ladders, ascending to the canyon Ridgeline. Then, we looped around and went down the ropes trail to exit. If we were to do it again, we would go the opposite direction. It would probably be easier to climb up the ropes and go down the ladders rather than repel down the 20 foot wall with only the assistance of a rope and your personal upper body strength. But either way you choose to do it, it is doable and very fun!
If you follow the same trail and you’re unsure if you’re on the correct path for the ropes trail, look for this rock pile indicating you’re on the right track!
Sunset at Ryan Mountain
We finished Painted Canyon trail around 2pm and had just enough time to catch the sunset on top of Ryan Mountain. We drove back on Box Canyon Rd, over the I-10, and through to the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park! The southern half of the park has no vegetation, it is just crumbly rocks until you gain enough elevation, then cholla cactus & joshua trees start popping up. We refueled with some healthy snacks as we drove and were ready for our next venture at the end of the 1.5 hour drive.
Situated near some of the top attractions in the park, Ryan Mountain trail is the most challenging hike nearby. With a 1,069 ft elevation gain in just 3 miles, you get an incredible view at the top, and a great cardiovascular workout.
If you plan to do this hike for sunset, make sure you bring layers as it can be very cold on your way down. Temperatures in the Joshua Tree desert drastically change once the sun disappears, our hands were freezing by the time we got to our car! Depending on the time of year you visit, this may or may not be an issue. Always research the weather conditions and time of sunset before arriving so you can plan accordingly.
Joshua Tree Saloon
There are several fun spots to find dinner in town after a long day of adventure, but I highly recommend eating at the Joshua Tree Saloon. Directly outside of the northern entrance of the park, the Saloon offers a delicious selection of Southwestern BBQ. You wait in line, order & pay, and then find seating wherever available. Outdoor tables are lit with twinkle lights surrounded by heaters. Inside, you’ll find a blast to the past Old Western Saloon atmosphere with bar seating or tables/booths. The night we went, there was a live band at 7pm which was fun entertainment while we waited for our food.
I ordered the Cowgirl Gun Slinger cocktail and the Swiss & Mushroom Burger with a side of mac n’ cheese. The cocktail was absolutely amazing! Amanda got the Fresh Spring Mojito with Fish ‘n’ Chips for her meal. The mojito tasted more like a margarita, but was still really good! We waited almost an hour for our food, but if you’re visiting on a weekend or during peak season, expect to encounter large crowds at any open restaurant.
After dinner, we had planned to watch the night sky and relax outside of our Airbnb. However, the adventure packed day led us to call it a night. Joshua Tree National Park is known as an International Dark Sky Park and offers amazing views of the Milky Way, a night photographer’s heaven.
Day 2 (Brunch at Frontier Cafe, Downtown Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree Groves, Skull Rock, Heart/Arch/Shark-Fin Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden)
Brunch at Frontier Cafe
After a refreshing sleep in the glamping globe, Raini and I got up and had a light breakfast. After we packed up all of our things, we said goodbye to our amazing Airbnb and headed downtown. There were several great brunch options, but our top recommendations are Crossroads Café, Natural Sisters Café (vegan option), The Dez, and Frontier Café. We decided on Frontier Café for it’s eclectic southwestern charm. We ordered coffee, the classic egg sandwich, and the lox bagel (smoked salmon, capers, cream cheese and onion).
A tip for any food venture in Downtown Joshua Tree is to arrive early and expect lines. It appeared that wherever we went, there was always a crowd of people, so getting food quickly wasn’t as easy. This could be that we chose more popular locations. Or there was simply not enough restaurants for the amount of people visiting. Regardless, all the restaurants were worth the wait!
Downtown Joshua Tree
After you’ve finished brunch, take a stroll downtown for some fun shops and quirky art installations! You can find local treasures in the gift shop near Joshua Tree Saloon. And if you head east, you can find a vintage themed hair salon, art museums, the famous crochet museum, and boho inspired shops! We explored for about an hour and then made our way back into the park.
Joshua Tree Groves
The road that stretches through Joshua Tree National Park is called Park Boulevard. It’s a great road to see the most Joshua Trees and stop along the way for hikes and lookout points. We made our way south and decided to stop wherever we felt inspired. Inspiration hit quite a few times because we kept getting out of the car when we spotted an interesting Joshua Tree or a cool rock formation!
I was personally surprised at how tall Joshua Trees grow! And how rough and “hairy” the trunks are up close. After researching more about Joshua Trees, we learned that they are a vital part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. They provide habitats for many of the desert creatures, and fun fact, usually live to be around 150 years old! One tree in the park is thought to be over 1,000 years old.
Joshua Trees are also a symbol of spirituality. An example of survival, resilience and beauty born through perseverance. They are unique trees that require a cold period to flower and can be very vulnerable to climate change. Visitors in Joshua Tree can feel the energy vortices of the land that magnifies emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental levels. I can attest, as I felt a unique energy being surrounded by these ancient trees.
This is a place to find peace and connection.
- 1.7 mile loop
- 160 ft elevation gain
- Rated easy
- Family friendly
- Best times to visit: October-May
- Popular: Best to go early in the morning
Skull Rock is an amazing granite formation that mirrors the skull of a human. The trail is located east of Jumbo Rocks Campground. It’s a very popular stop for park visitors, so it requires some patience if you want a photo. We spent some time bouldering near the skull since it was pretty crowded when we arrived.
Heart, Arch, & Shark-fin Rock
- 1.4 mile out and back
- 88 ft elevation gain
- Rated easy
- Family friendly
- Can access Shark-Fin and Heart Rock from the trail
This trail is located at White Tank Campground, and the path to Arch Rock starts alongside campsite nine. The trail is relatively flat and you can explore along the way. We saw a unique rock and dubbed it “Shark-Fin” rock because it looked like a giant fin! 1/3 mile past Arch Rock is Heart Rock. This was a fun one to get pictures by and its easy to see how the boulder got it’s name!
Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails at the park, but can be within 100 ft of campgrounds, picnic areas, and roads.
Cholla Cactus Garden
- 0.20 mile loop trail
- 9 ft elevation gain
- Rated easy
- Accessible year round
An easy and quick hike, the Cholla Cactus Garden is a picturesque spot. The garden is located on the southern end of Joshua Tree National Park, so it was our last stop before we headed home. We arrived around late afternoon, and I wish we could have seen the sunset here, it would be breathtaking. The cholla is known as one of the cutest cactus’ on the planet. Nicknamed the “Teddy Bear Cactus”, however, it is one you don’t want to hug!
Be very careful walking around the garden since pieces of cholla fall off and are full of sharp spines. Closed toed shoes are recommended and children should be watched carefully. These are no joke and like the cactus, come in defense mode!
Thank you for exploring with us! We hope you enjoyed our guide to a fun weekend in Joshua Tree National Park. Are you ready for a new adventure? Discover other unforgettable destinations here.