Day hikes in Joshua Tree National Park: Hiking off-trail

During a time when many vacations are not possible, outdoor activities in road trip-accessible locations offer the ability to safely social distance. asked me to share my favorite activities and tips for exploring the outdoors near Joshua Tree, so start here as you plan a safe and responsible vacation.

I love a guiding company that doesn’t ‘dumb down’ experiences for guests. Joshua Tree Excursions definitely doesn’t take the easy route, literally or figuratively. If you’re looking for day hikes in Joshua Tree National Park, guide and owner Kelly Crawford is who to get to know. He challenged us during a five-hour hike through Joshua Tree National Park, during which we went off-trail to trek, scramble, and climb the park’s famous granite boulders. He allowed us to rise to the occasion during moments of challenge in the terrain, and gave us confidence that we could all do it. And we did.

Hiking off-trail in Joshua Tree National Park

The Joshua Tree Excursion experience starts when you book it, as Kelly prides himself in offering a fully customizable day or weekend. If you want a mellow hike through the park with a knowledgable guide, they can certainly do that, but they can also offer hikes that involve bouldering, climbing, or backpacking. Joshua Tree Excursions will even set up your entire camp for you (at a site in the park or in the backcountry) and can even provide all meals.


Most families will simply want a day of hiking off-trail, as day hikes in Joshua Tree National Park are short enough to be do-able. It’s is an excellent place for off-trail adventuring. Families experienced in backcountry hiking can certainly hike off-trail in Joshua Tree on their own, with the right navigational tools (and knowledge in using them). However, even though we’re familiar with all this, we’re not familiar with the desert landscape of Joshua Tree, so hiring Joshua Tree Excursions is a good solution.


Our trip off-trail started with our group of adults loading up in Kelly’s 4wd vehicle and entering the park. Anyone without day packs was provided one to use, along with plenty of water. Given the length of the hiking experience (ours was 5 hours) I do think it would be helpful to also have a few healthy snacks. We parked at the Barker Dam trailhead, and Kelly took some time to go over local geology, flora, and fauna.

Joshua Tree Excursions’ motto is ‘journeys, not destinations’, and we realized this concept was more than just a slogan right away, when we left the well-worn trail almost immediately. Kelly explained that we’d be hiking approximately five miles off-trail, in a large loop with time for shorter side excursions and exploration.


We hiked through sandy washes, weaved past beds of cacti (pausing to learn each variety’s name), and climbed over rocks and boulders. It was exactly the type of hiking my kids love, so I’ll definitely be heading back to Joshua Tree with them again. Usually, I am perfectly content to hike on the trail, but I must say, Kelly’s version was much more fun and exciting. I felt like a kid again as I jumped, scrambled, and explored.

We stopped often for mini-lessons on Joshua Tree (and to drink water), and to take photos. While we didn’t have a precise destination, we did hit upon some landmarks that were amazing to see, such as Garrett Arch, the ‘cube’ (a huge square-shaped rock), and the Wall Street Mine (abandoned historic stamp mill). At a few junctions, such as at Garrett Arch, there was an option to climb higher up (or wait below).


The level of difficulty was what I’d call intermediate, but others may call advanced. This is where the customized trip comes into play. When planning a trip with Joshua Tree Excursions, it’s important to explain not only what you hope to do, but your level of fitness and experience in the outdoors. Either way, I guarantee you can do more than you think you can!

We ended just before sunset and drove back to the Joshua Tree Excursions office below the park.

Pricing: Customized hiking trips usually start at $124 per person. Yes, this is a serious investment during your trip, but I believe it to be a worthwhile one. Kelly can provide families with an experience beyond what almost all can do themselves.

Lodging options nearby:

Lodging near Joshua Tree ranges from family-friendly roadside hotels to unique rentals to B&Bs. We have sampled quite a few options, all of which match the free-spirited nature of Joshua Tree, California itself. Within the park proper, car camping is beautiful as well, especially during the cooler months. In the heat of summer, you’ll probably want to find area lodging.

Don’t forget:

  • sunscreen
  • hats for everyone
  • sunglasses
  • water (more will be provided)
  • backpack (provided if you don’t have one)
  • long pants for hiking in (cacti hurt legs!)
  • snack such as a granola bar
  • a tip for your guide
  • trekking poles are a good idea if you’re not scrambling (but hiking)


Bonus stop: After your day with Kelly, be sure to go back up to the park entrance at dark for a Sky’s the Limit presentation of the night sky. Offered on Saturday nights and some additional (see list of dates), this non-profit observatory offers the most accurate orrery in the world (a orrery is a replica of the solar system laid out on the ground, with the sun in the middle and the planets in their paths around it, set to real time). This, and the nature path around it, can be enjoyed at any time during the day, but at night when open, the observatory also has volunteers on-hand to give a star presentation, complete with high-powered telescopes for viewing planets and stars.

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