Updated: Jun 11, 2022
Joshua Tree National Park is a vast protected area in southern California. It’s characterized by rugged rock formations and stark desert landscapes. Named for the region’s twisted, bristled Joshua trees, the park straddles the cactus-dotted Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert, which is higher and cooler. Being such a large park, it can be hard to see all of it, but there are a lot of short hikes in Joshua Tree you can do in less than 3 hours.
The research that went into visiting Joshua Tree ended up being really important because some of the trails were tricky to find. We were able to explore so much in two short days, including the most popular of all the easy trails while there.
I’ve compiled my list of favorites and what makes them so unique into a list of the hikes in Joshua Tree you can do in less than 3 hours.
Note: Some hikes in Joshua Tree are not clearly marked on the map. We found this to be really frustrating because we didn’t have cell phone service inside the park and relied on the map. We had to ask park rangers and even save some hikes for the next day because of this. In this post, I tell you where to find each hike on the map so you won’t miss any spot in the park! Here is a link to the maps of Joshua Tree National Park provided by the National Park Service.
Okay, before the hikes…
Can I just tell you about this cute Airbnb? We wanted a unique experience, did not have camping gear, and found that it was definitely cheaper to stay on that side of the park at just $78 for a night. Plus, how cute is this place?! We were there on Thanksgiving, too, and Julie was nice enough to bring us pie to go along with the pasta we made for Thanksgiving dinner. Such a great host. It was the best place to stay! This also gave us the chance to make our own food and save even more money.
Here is the link to find Julie’s airstream.
1. Hidden Valley
1 mile, takes between 1 – 2 hours
Parking lot, toilets, and picnic tables available. The trail is clearly marked with arrows and easy to find and clearly marked on Joshua Tree NP map.
This hike is a really easy one but tons of fun. It is a loop trail around a literally hidden valley inside awesome rock formations and is flat the whole time. This popular trail is named after ranchers who used to hide cattle in the valley after stealing them and taking them from Texas to California to rebrand.
The trail took us about an hour, but I say one to two hours because there are really neat rock formations you can climb around on. Do this hike in the morning or afternoon so that you get shade. The trail is through rock formations, but you’ll only get shade on one side… Otherwise, you are in the desert sun the whole time.
You’ll see lots of Joshua trees along this hike!
2. Ryan Mountain
3 miles, 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours
Limited parking is available. You can also park along the road when there is limited space. Bathrooms are available here. Clearly marked on Joshua Tree NP map.
This is the most difficult hike we did. It took quite a bit of time to get up the mountain, but the views were incredible! As you hike up the side of the mountain, you go around two different sides, so the views are always changing.
We were lucky enough to do this hike in the morning, so we had shade most of the way up. There are plenty of spots to stop and relax along the way up. Joshua Tree lists this hike as a really difficult one.
We started early in the morning when it was not so hot, took lots of breaks, brought lots of water, and in the end, found it was not that difficult. You can expect that it goes up the entire trail up. However, this means that the whole way down was super easy. We saw all types of people doing this hike successfully, and you get a great view at the top!
You’ll see lots of different cactuses and panoramic views on this hike.
3. Cholla Cactus Garden
.25 miles, 30 minutes
Parking lot available. No bathrooms. Clearly marked on Joshua Tree NP map.
This almost doesn’t count as a hike because it really is just a walking path. But, this one is fun because there are tons of really neat Cholla cactuses with mountains right behind them. I loved seeing the really neat formations and walking through this beautiful spot.
You’ll see lots of Cholla cactuses on this hike.
4. Barker Dam
1.1 miles, 1 – 2 hours
Parking lot available. Parking along the road as well. Bathrooms and picnic tables here. Clearly marked on Joshua Tree NP map.
Barker Dam is a pretty easy trail to take that has similar views to Hidden Valley. The thing that makes it unique is that you hike by a lake halfway through the trail because of the dam! We had fun climbing around on all the rock formations and seeing the dam itself. This one can take one or two hours because there are so many spots where you can sit and take in different views. It’s really easy to go off-trail here because of the cool bouldering rocks.
This trail is a more difficult one to find and may take a few minutes to follow if you do not have a map. The positive thing is that it is easy to see which direction to go to get back onto the trail. One thing that makes it so unique is the Native American petroglyphs you can see. I’ve seen Native American drawings but never up so close! It was really fun to see along our hike.
You’ll see lots of Joshua trees, a small lake, and petroglyphs on this hike.
5. Arch Rock
.3 miles, 30 minutes
Behind White Tank Campground. Parking along road. Bathrooms available. Not on NP map—starts at White Tank Campground.
You have to walk through White Tank Campground to get to this trail. Look out as you walk for the trailhead marker. We ended up losing the trail and just followed others toward the rock formations on the right of White Tank Campground and found Arch Rock! We climbed around the rocks until we found it. Climbing on top of the arch was a bit tricky but so much fun! Definitely an easy hike but still fun to climb around.
You’ll see arch rock along this hike.
6. Skull Rock
1.7 miles, 2 – 3 hours
Parking along the road. No bathrooms or picnic areas. Found right before Jumbo Rocks Campground. Not on NP map. Located next to Jumbo Rocks, which is on the map.
Skull Rock is another really cool rock formation to see and climb around. You can definitely spend hours here just bouldering around. We spent time hiking and climbing around on the rocks then enjoyed our lunch on top of a rock in the shade. It was our first big hike and fun to see take in all the different rock formations and cactuses found in Joshua Tree.
You’ll see rock formations, skull rock, and lots of cactuses on this hike.
There you have my favorite hikes in Joshua Tree you can do in less than 3 hours! I loved Joshua Tree, and I know you will have a blast on your trip, too.