An unexpected gem: Hiking Joshua Tree National Park

After living in the desert for eight years, I was not in a hurry to visit Joshua Tree National Park, in eastern California.  More of the same?  No, hiking Joshua Tree National Park definitely offered some new Couch Potato hiking opportunities with dazzling scenery.

Skull Rock - Joshua Tree National Park

An alien on Mars? No, this is the rock formation known as Skull Rock on “Park Boulevard” in Joshua Tree National Park.

An Oasis in the Desert

Entering from the Oasis Visitor Center, we took the opportunity to see the exhibits, and then headed out to the wheelchair-accessible Oasis of Mara trail.  Only a half-mile long and paved, the trail gives a good view of the shaggy California fan palm trees that benefitted from the water at the oasis.  There are interpretive stands along the way to explain what you are seeing.  For instance, Indians left the area about a century ago and settlers planted cottonwoods and willows.

The Oasis of Mara at Joshua Tree National Park is an easy beginning introduction to the park.

After seeing the Oasis of Mara, we headed into the rest of the park.  The entrance gate, where you would pay $15 for a carload of people – with the pass good for a week – gives you miles to drive until you reach the campsites and hiking trails.  The trail descriptions in the brochure do not begin to provide a complete view of what each trails offers.  We arbitrarily chose the Hidden Valley Trail first.

Hidden Valley Trail

With only about a mile to hike, the Hidden Valley Trail would appear to be an ideal Couch Potato hike.  There are sections that are totally flat, but there are areas where you would climb step-like granite rocks.  The trail is definitely not for wheelchairs and, if you are a beginning hiker, you would want to pace yourself and bring water.

A flat area of the Hidden Valley Trail offers some contrast of colors and contours.


Climbers have climbed the vertical crevice in this formation in Hidden Valley at Joshua Tree National Park.


The granite rocks are rounded, golden-colored mounds that are quite unusual.  As you weave your way on the trail, you find yourself looking at the climbers, spiderlike on the nearly vertical surfaces.

Pets are not allowed on the trails, so it was with great surprise that we saw a dark, furry Samoyed dog heading toward us on the trail.  The poor thing had gotten away from his owner.  We briefly adopted the dog and a kind person offered a plate to give the dog water.  Eventually, the owner turned up.

Note: Cell phone reception is extremely poor in the park, so we couldn’t contact the park rangers or the dog’s owner, whose number was on the dog’s collar.

There are restrooms, but they are the open pit in the shed variety, so best to use the restrooms at the visitor center.

Barker Dam

With a late start in the park, we ran out of time to try out the Barker Dam trail. Although only a one-mile loop, there was a mob of tourists who descended at the same time, so we opted just to see the entrance to the trail, which was flat.

Anyone who makes the trip to Joshua Tree National Park will find some new vistas to explore.  There is not much going on in the adjacent towns, so enjoy your slice of nature and the peace.

And, as we always caution, bring water, sun block, hats, a hiking pole and comfortable, protective shoes.  Bring your own snack and food supplies if you’re going to be visiting, since there is no snack bar inside the park.

How to get there, where to stay, food options

Located near the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree National Park has three entrances, two on the north off route 62, and one off Interstate 10 near Indio.

If you’re visiting, several accommodations are available in Twentynine Palms.  We enjoyed our stay in the one-year old Holiday Inn, which has terrific amenities, including the complete breakfast, plus heated pool and spa, and a great workout facility. The staff was also friendly and extremely helpful.

There are other name brands like Fairfield Inn and some local motels to spend the night in the Twentynine Palms area.

We picked up some great sandwiches at Staters, a local supermarket.  There are restaurants with cuisine options ranging from Mediterranean, to fast food, to ribs, etc.

Enjoy your hike!