Hiking Joshua Tree National Park’s Most Popular Trails

In March, I traveled to Joshua Tree National Park with my dad and brother.

We hiked some of Joshua Tree’s most popular trails. Here are some notes, photos, and recommendations from each of them.

Joshua Tree sunset

Getting there

We flew into Palm Springs a little before lunch. After renting a car, we grabbed a bite to eat at La Bonita’s before leaving the city—I heartily recommend their tortas. Keep in mind that the dining choices become more limited once you reach Joshua Tree.

The trip from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree took us about 50 minutes. Instead of camping in the park, we rented an Airbnb near the park’s entrance. This turned out to be a great decision for the trip: it meant we didn’t have to worry about taking backpacking gear on a plane, and it also meant we could enjoy hot showers, Wi-Fi, and plenty of room—not to mention relax on the porch each evening. The place we stayed included a little wood-burning stove and comfortable outdoor seating.

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Walking up the road to our Airbnb.

Joshua Tree hiking itinerary

We spent two full days hiking on this trip. To be honest, we didn’t do much planning before we arrived. Instead, we grabbed a map on the way in and did a bit of research online each night to prepare for the next day—another benefit of staying somewhere with Wi-Fi. We landed on two hikes for each day, and stopped at any interesting turnouts, scenic places, or smaller hikes en route.

Joshua Tree National Park hiking

Overall, it felt like we got a good amount of hiking in without pushing it. Since we went in early March, the weather hovered in the upper 70s. It was an enjoyable temperature, but sunscreen was a must. Anyone of reasonable fitness could do what we did, as long as it wasn’t attempted in the warmer months.

Here’s our itinerary:

Day 1

  • Ryan Mountain
    • 3.1 miles | 1,063 ft. gain
  • Ryan Ranch
    • 1.2 miles | 25 ft. gain
  • Lost Horse Mine trail
    • 4.2 miles | 587 ft. gain

Day 1 mileage: 7.5 miles

Day 1 elevation gain: 1,675 ft.


Day 2

      • 49 Palms Oasis
        • 3.3 miles | 635 ft. gain
      • Pine City Trail & Desert Queen Mine
        • 5.1 miles | 165 ft. gain
      • Cholla Gardens
        • n/a


Day 2 mileage: 8.4 miles

Day 2 elevation gain: 800 ft.

Joshua Tree hikes

Ryan Mountain

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Ryan Mountain was our first hike in Joshua Tree. Although it led to one of the highest points in the park, the elevation gain paled in comparison to many other hikes back home in the Cascades.

Keep in mind that there will be lots of people on this trail—we even passed a school group there for a field trip.

I’m happy we decided to do this hike first. When you reach the summit, you get a bird’s-eye view of the park and can start piecing the landscape together. The trail is well marked, and if you’re in good shape, you’ll make it to the top in no time. Take a few minutes to enjoy the summit once you get there and get a lay of the land.

The view from Ryan Mountain

Ryan Ranch

After Ryan Mountain, we stopped by Ryan Ranch. This was less of a hike and more of a short walk to the remains of a homestead, but it was noteworthy because it started the story we’d slowly unwrap throughout the trip. At the ranch, we saw the remains of several buildings and the spring that made living there possible.

I left Ryan Ranch wishing there was a way to see how it looked in its heydey. (Maybe one day it will be possible to throw on a pair of 3-D glasses to look over the landscape and see a digital reconstruction of what it looked like!) Normally I’m a fan of getting outdoors as a way to get away from screens and technology, but in situations like this, it would be pretty cool to aide in our understanding of our surroundings.

The remains of Ryan Ranch

The whole park feels like it’s straight out of a Western novel, and the story outlined on the information sign at the start of the trail to the ranch really enhances that notion. Reading about the group of people who scratched a living out of the desert was fascinating, as was seeing the remains of the pipe the Ryans used to pump water 4.5 miles to the Lost Horse Mine, our next destination.

Lost Horse Mine

Lost Horse Mine continued the story we started at Ryan Ranch. At various points on this trail, you’ll pass the water pipes used to pump water across the desert and think about how brutal it must have been to construct them.

To be honest, this trail isn’t very noteworthy or interesting, which makes it feel much longer than it is. The terrain and landscape don’t vary too much, and the path is wide and well-traveled.

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The remains of the mine are enclosed by a chainlink fence, but that hasn’t stopped some hooligans from carving into and otherwise defacing the surviving structure. Unfortunately, that was a common theme throughout the park—I guess it’s a byproduct of the park’s increasing popularity and accessibility.

49 Palms Oasis

Palms at 49 Palms Oasis

The palm trees surrounding 49 Palms Oasis.

After a while, you don’t expect to see much vibrant or lush landscape in the desert. You see some color—yes, even some green—but most of it blends into the dusty, dull background (which is awesome in its own right). That’s why oases stand out so prominently.

This hike leads you right to one. The palm trees appear out of nowhere, a patch of green drawing humans and animals alike near. We stopped for a bite to eat beneath the trees and enjoyed a short respite in the shade before heading back out. 

Pine City Trail & Desert Queen Mine

 

Pine City Trail

Pine City Trail

Pine City Trail was my personal favorite hike on the trip. It was also the only hike we did that wasn’t included on the park-supplied map (big hat-tip to Brian Eagen for blogging about it at Modern Hiker).

We still passed people, but it felt more remote than the other hikes we did. While most of the others tended to feel more like guided nature walks, this felt a bit more out there. It wasn’t remote by any means, but it did have a different feel.

Pine City Trail has an awesome payoff. After the maintained trail ends, just continue for a bit (at your own discretion and risk, of course). Navigate the ridge to the far edge for incredible views of rock formations and a cliff leading to the valley below.

Spectacular views toward the end of Pine City Trail.

One of the spectacular views toward the end of Pine City Trail.

Pine City Trail and Desert Queen Mine share a trailhead, so after we made it back from Pine City we hopped over to the Desert Queen Mine trail. This was short and uninspiring, but it was neat to see all the holes the miners had bored into the mountain.

Cholla Gardens

Next, we headed down to the Cholla Gardens.

Cholla Gardens Joshua Tree

We were unfortunately a bit early in the season to see the cacti in bloom. While we caught a few blooming, it looked like most were still on the way. Still, this was quite a sight. The way the evening light hits the spines gives the cholla a glowing, ethereal feel that reminded of a crowd bowing to the sun. It’s quite something. 

Special considerations for Joshua Tree hikes

Joshua Tree hiking
      1. You need a permit to enter the park. I have an interagency America the Beautiful pass, which grants access to National Parks and National Forests. That pass is totally fine here. You can also get annual and weekly passes specific to Joshua Tree. If you have any questions, stop by the ranger station in town.
      2. Bring lots of water. Seriously. It’s the desert. Heat stroke and even death = no bueno.
      3. Take other precautions: wear sunglasses and sunscreen.
      4. Practice Leave No Trace: people have already had a profound impact on the natural beauty of the park.

More Joshua Tree resources

Joshua Tree sunset

This was an awesome trip, and different from most of the hiking I normally do. There are hikes for all fitness levels. I enjoyed the historic sites and history, but I’d love to come back for a backcountry camping trip and get a bit further away from the main track.

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