Cholla Cactus Garden Joshua Tree National Park

While certainly most famous for the Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree national park has a variety of other plant life that is well worth exploring. Just like it’s worth taking the time to stop to see the Ocotillo in the southern part of the park, it’s most definitely worthwhile stopping at the Cholla (pronounced choy-ya) Cactus Garden located in the Pinto Basin (which usually only receive 4 inches of water a year) near the center of Joshua Tree national park.

Cholla cactus garden Joshua Tree national park

It’s a pretty amazing sight, and the Cholla cactus looks terrifyingly like a cactus that you would never want to mess around with. In fact, there is a great quote on the information sign before entering the cactus garden:

“If the plant bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.” — J Smeaton Chase

cholla cactus

The cactus garden has a short 1/4 mile nature trail that is definitely worth taking, but be sure to leave the dogs behind (they aren’t allowed and wouldn’t fare too well against the Cholla) and keep a close eye on children so they don’t try to touch the cactus (the spines are needle sharp).

Cholla cactus garden path

One thing you will immediately notice is that it appears that a fire recently swept through the area burning the base of most of the Cholla in the garden:

Cholla Cactus fire

The truth is that this is natural and simply the dead spines of the Cholla cacti, and none of these have ever been burned. Even with the dark discoloration, the plants are healthy with the upper portion of the plant continuing to grow new stem segments. These segments with drop off as the plant gets older which will then produce a new plant.

I had not expected to see the Cholla cactus garden while driving through Joshua Tree, but I’m definitely glad that I made the stop. The sheer concentration of them in this one area is breathtaking and certainly a sight to see. In many ways, they were just as impressive as the Joshua trees, just in a different way. If you find yourself anywhere near the garden while driving through the park, it’s a stop that you won’t regret making even if it takes you a little bit out of your way.

Ocotillo Joshua Tree National Park

While best known for the Joshua Tree for which the national park was named after, that’s not the only plant that can be found within the Joshua Tree national park‘s boundaries. In fact, if you decide to focus exclusively on the Joshua Trees (of which there are plenty which will mesmerize you for countless hours), you will end up missing a plethora of other interesting plants which inhabit the park. With only a bit of effort, you will find that there are numerous other plants within the park that can capture your attention. One of the most interesting plants found within the park is the Ocotillo.


Don’s confuse this unusal looking plant, ocotillo (Fouquteria splendens), for a cactus. The thorny, multi-stem shrub is in fact a woody deciduous plant. Unlike other deciduous shrubs, which normally grow leaves in the spring and drop them in the fall, the ocotillo may grow and drop leaves as often as five times during the year. Its leaves aren’t season dependent but rain dependent.

ocotilla shrub

ocotilla branches

You will also find that these plants attract the desert bees and when the new leaves are sprouting on the Ocotillo, there will be a buzz found throughout the shrub.

ocotillo leaves

I found these in the southern part of the park where they were prevalent and stood out in the landscape. it’s worthwhile stopping to take a look at one and examine it a bit more closely and it’s a wonderful desert plant to photograph against the deep blue sky.

Barker Dam Loop Joshua Tree National Park

The Barker Dam loop trail in Joshua Tree National Park is often suggested for those with children since it is an easy 1.5 mile loop. The trailhead is east to find since it is right at the Barker Dam parking lot. You can also take the spur path off the main loop to see pictographs and petroglyphs and there are plenty of boulders for kids to climb to expel any excess energy they may have.

pictographs on Barker Dam trail at Joshua Tree National Park

While it is also possible to walk across Barker Dam, this activity is better suited for those that are older and have no fear of thin walking uneven paths with a drop off on either side as this video shows:

Photo courtesy of Omar Omar

Rock and Awe: Joshua Tree National Park

Submitted by: Terry Tyson, A Hiking Fool and his Photo Log

Impressions: Joshua Tree National Park is weird. And wonderful. And just a little mind-blowing. Imagine giants carefully (but playfully) stacking boulders as big as buses to create secrete canyons, petroglyph-filled grottoes and massive rock walls. Add to this scene evidence of hard-scrabble miners who lived and died seemingly at the whim of this almost alien landscape. That’s what it’s like there.

Well, it’s like that and so much more. Like any desert environment, its true nature is only fully revealed when you spend some time absorbing all that the park presents.

The park can certainly be viewed and awed over by merely driving from one gate to another. The stacked boulders are impressive beyond words, but the visitor who ventures just beyond the paved road is treated to beauty that’s hidden from the highway. Even the most casual of hikers will be able to enjoy the mysterious landscape more fully.

It’s best to find a place to park near a boulder stack, get out and just sit there and slowly and quietly take it all in.


1. It’s the desert so it’s hot during the summer. Sometimes because of it’s elevation it can turn surprisingly cold to the point of snowing, so be sure to check the weather before arriving.

2. It’s the desert, so bring lots of water. Camping is primitive (no electricity or running water) and day use areas are equipped with tables and chemical toilets. Any water you do find is for the locals only, i.e. Big Horn Sheep, coyotes and the like.

3. The town of Joshua Tree is a funky village with colorful locals. A few good places to eat can be found there, but only a few. Twentynine Palms is much larger and more ordinary, but offers traditional lodging, markets and eateries.

3. Don’t forget a hat and other considerations (sunglasses, sunscreen, etc.) for being in the sun all day.

4. The visitor center in Joshua Tree is worth a stop. There are knowledgeable rangers, a deli and a few shops nearby. Pay your entry fee there to make getting into the park faster.

5. The park is a world renown rock climbing destination. A casual scan of the many rock faces will no doubt reveal more than a few clinging climbers.

Must-sees: Two short nature trails are worth the price of admission alone: Barker Dam and Hidden Valley. Easy and spectacular. There’s a cave bearing petroglyphs near Barker Dam worth looking for.

Lost Palms Oasis and the “Maze – Window Rock Loop” provide two very different and exciting experiences for hikers.

Joshua Tree NP; Stacks, cracks and branches

Barker Dam; After a wet winter, water for wildlife

The Locals

Terry Tyson also had this to say: If you can stay until after the sun sets, you’ll be treated to a night sky that you might not have seen for many years. On moonless nights, the Milky Way is bright enough to read by.

This is my suggestion for the Best Day Hike in Joshua Tree. For those interested in more photos, you can view a photo set of the Joshua Tree National Park.