How I Spent Six Hours in Joshua Tree National Park

The goal was to see as much as I could in one day (and try to do it with one tank of gas).

Photo by Lydia Mae Orendain
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“You can do anything here as long as you don’t get caught. Just kidding, that’s bad.” – Nina L

That’s what my friend, Nina, said at the end of the day when I asked her what she thought about Joshua Tree National Park. Granted, she went on to say how magical and beautiful it was, but the first few lines stood out to me most. There is something about the vibe in Joshua Tree that makes you feel free and limitless. Maybe it is the sheer amount of youngsters living in vans, climbing, and having fun. Or maybe it is the desert air and the warm sun.

Nina was in town for five days visiting, when on a whim we decided to head to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. She was leaving the next morning, all the campsites were full, and we had to be back in Los Angeles that night. Less than a three-hour drive, Joshua Tree is a popular spot for those living in LA, especially climbers.

Now, Nina and I are both climbers—Nina being a little (okay, a lot) stronger and more advanced than myself. If we had time to plan, we probably would have spent a few days climbing there, but this is not that story. This is the story of one car, two girls, and six hours in a national park.

The goal was to see as much as we could in one day (and try to do it with one tank of gas). Here is how we did that.

Note: We did not plan this day, it was all very spontaneous.

We left Los Angeles at 6:45 a.m. The night before we had meal-prepped some overnight oats and packed lots of snacks for the day. But, of course, that was really the only planning we did. Wearing my Merrell boots, with my tea in my Hydro Flask, and my backpack filled with sunscreen and snacks, we made our way.

We entered the park at 9:15 a.m. The line to enter was short, probably because it was a Wednesday. We already had our annual park pass hanging up in the car so we buzzed right on through. We took a quick pee break at the West Entrance, grabbed a map, and got back in the car to head to our first stop.

A sign for "Creosote Trail 0.5 mi" in the desert
Photo by Hannah K

Creosote 0.5-mile Trail at 9:30 a.m. This was not a super exciting trail. It was flat and I normally wouldn’t have stopped, but my butt was so sore from all the driving that I needed to get out and walk for a bit.

Quail Springs at 10:07 a.m. When entering from the West Entrance, Quail Springs is the first spot to stop with a parking lot. I remember the first time I went to Joshua Tree with my dad; we stopped there too, and there were some college kids hanging out and making breakfast and listening to the Walking Dead. My dad heard the music, made a sharp right into the parking lot, and started singing along. Nina and I didn’t sing, but we did get out and walk around the rock formations.

Hidden Valley 1-mile Loop Trail at 10:30 a.m. Before we got to the park, we knew that none of our hikes would be long. We simply didn’t have time. So instead of heading to the popular Boy Scout Trail, which takes about six hours, we decided to do many 20- to 30-minute hikes. This trail was beautiful. It only took us 20 minutes, but we found a group of climbers and watched them for a while and chatted about the intense, sandbagged climbing in Joshua Tree.

I had only climbed in the park once, and we only bouldered. I remember what my skin looked like at the end of that day (hint: lots of cuts and flappers). My climbing partner at the time took a nasty fall and scraped so much skin off his ankle that I swear I saw bone. Thankfully, that was the worst injury of the trip.

Barker Dam Trail at 11:45 a.m. This trail is not far from the Hidden Valley campground, so on a whim Nina and I drove to the trailhead and went for our second mile hike of the day. The trail takes you scrambling over rocks, next to caves, up and down and all around, until you see the old dam wall. Hiking a little bit further leads you to some petroglyphs in a cave.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park
Photo by Lydia Mae Orendain

Cholla Cactus Garden at 12:55 p.m. Next, we decided to take a scenic drive across the park and head to the Cholla Cactus Garden. It’s a bit of a longer drive, but it is one of my favorite parts of the park. You head down this curvy road and finally see flat land that spans for acres and acres of just Cholla cacti. Don’t get too close to them; I heard that they can jump at you! There is a 0.25-mile loop that takes you through the garden.

Hannah's friend Nina taking a photo of the Split Rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park
There is Nina taking a photo of Split Rock. Photo by Hannah K

Split Rock at 1:30 p.m. The Split Rock Loop Trail is another popular climbing area with the famous split rock (as seen in the photo above). We saw some climbers heading down this trail and followed along to see which great wall they were going to head to. It was a short stop, but nice to get out of the car and stretch our legs.

Skull Rock at 2:00 p.m. Skull Rock is arguably the most popular area because of the rock that looks like a skull. People climb up into the eyes to take pictures. This area is great for rock scrambling, a lunch break, or to hike a 1.7-mile trail to the skull rock. Of course, you can drive right up to it, but the trail is far more interesting! For time we just drove up to it, saw it, scrambled around, and left.

A rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park
That’s Nina at the bottom—isn’t she a cutie? (Hi Nina!). Photo by Hannah K

Hall of Horrors at 2:15 p.m. Hall of Horrors is a beautiful rock formation not too far past Skull Rock when driving back to the West Entrance. We didn’t stay here too long, but we did do a quick loop around the rock formation, saw some people scrambling to the top, and made our way back to the car.

Hit the town at 3:00 p.m. We made our way out of the park and went to the small town of Joshua Tree. The main street is probably two or three blocks long but has great culture. From the pie place, to the yoga studio, to my favorite Three Sisters Cafe, the town has just as much to offer as the park itself! We spent about 20 minutes walking the street and then made our way back to Los Angeles—stopping on the way to pick up some vegan quesadillas.

And that is how we spent six hours in Joshua Tree, not including driving time of course. It was a long day filled with beautiful sites and a perfect blue sky. Now I’m not saying this was the perfect way to see the entire park, but it worked for us and for anyone who wants to see a lot in a little amount of time, this really did the trick.

I recommend camping in the park, of course; the night sky is one of the best attributes of the desert landscape. But if you’re looking for a city escape, Joshua Tree is a perfect option. Want to chat about Joshua Tree or other cool places? Hit me up through my profile and let’s chat! Or if you want to read about some other crazy things I’ve done, check this out, or read about some weird things people see on trail, and of course, check out this article about how not planning trips is not a good idea (although I think in this case it worked in our favor).

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Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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