I never expected to fall in love with the desert, and then I visited Joshua Tree National Park. Whether you have a half day in Joshua Tree, or are looking to do Joshua Tree in one day, I’ve compiled the perfect Joshua Tree itinerary so that you too can experience falling in love with this piece of the California desert!
This post may contain affiliate links. This means I’ll get a commission (at no extra cost to you!) if you purchase through my link. Please see my Disclosure page for more information.
Located in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the most underrated National Parks in the state. The landscape feels straight out of another world, and the skies are some of the darkest you’ll find. Are you into hiking? There’s a ton of cool hikes in Joshua Tree. Want to rock climb? Come on through. Want to stargaze? Joshua Tree is a designated dark skies location!
The Basics Before You Visit Joshua Tree (+ Tips)
Location: The main park entrance is located about 140 miles east of Los Angeles, 175 miles northeast of San Diego, 40 miles east of Palm Springs, and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas. It’s about an hour drive each way for a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs, about 2.5 hours from Los Angeles, and almost 3 hours from San Diego and Las Vegas. If you’re coming from a larger city, make sure you factor in local traffic.
Entrance Fee: $30 single vehicle fee, valid for 7 days. If you plan to visit multiple National Parks in a year, I strongly recommend buying a national parks pass.
Park Entrances: There’s three (3) park entrances. The West entrance is located a few miles off the town of Joshua Tree and will put you in the west/north side of the park, where the Joshua Trees are located. This is the most popular entrance and long lines will often form, even in summer. The North entrance is located by the town of 29 Palms, and will give you access to the Indian Cove campground. The South Entrance is located off Interstate 10, about 25 miles past the town of Indio. This is the main entrance for the Cottonwood campground and will put you in the Sonaran desert – keep in mind there’s no Joshua Trees in this part of the park.
No Cell Service: there’s no cell service in the park, so plan accordingly. I strongly recommend you download an offline map of the area on google maps straight to your phone so you’re able to navigate without cell service if you need to.
No Gas or Food: there’s no gas station or food vendors located within the park boundaries, so come prepared. Fill up your tank before you reach the park. If you’re entering from the west or north entrance, there’ll be gas and restaurants in the towns of Joshua Tree and 29 Palms, respectively. If you’re entering at the south entrance, get gas and any last minute supplies in Indio.
Dress in Layers: I’ve included more detailed information below on what to wear and pack for Joshua Tree, but it bears repeating that you need to dress in layers when you’re visiting this park. Temperatures in the desert can wildly fluctuate throughout the day, so pack a sweater! Dressing in layers is the best way to be prepared Joshua Tree National Park.
Hiking Trails: stick to the hiking trails when hiking anywhere in the park. Few things are scarier than getting lost in the desert. From what I gathered, most hiking trails are marked by small rocks on either side, creating the trail.
Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree National Park
There’s something to do in Joshua Tree no matter the time of year, but the main things you need to weigh when planning when to spend one day in Joshua Tree National Park is crowd size and weather.
The fall, winter and spring months are the most popular times to visit the park, mainly because the weather is much milder! The fall season starts in October, when the average high temperature for Joshua Tree falls to 83 degrees fahrenheit, with the low at 52 degrees fahrenheit. Between November to March, the highs hover around the 60’s, with lows falling to near freezing. During the summer months (June through September), temperatures can soar to over 100!
Because of this huge difference in temperature, crowds will be larger between October to April, and you can expect full parking lots at some of the most popular attractions later in the day.
It really makes a difference to start your day at dawn during this time. The light in the park right after sunrise is soft and beautiful, and you’ll likely have the park to yourself!
Because the weather is much hotter, crowds in the summer months are significantly thinner, even on weekends. I still recommend starting your day in Joshua Tree as early as possible even during the summer. This way, you’ll avoid the blistering summer sun, especially if you’d like to hike around the park. Hikes past 10 or 11am aren’t recommended during summer months, so plan accordingly!
Joshua Tree One Day Itinerary – What to See and Do
The best way to see everything on a joshua Tree one day trip (below) is by driving through Joshua Tree. Get to the park super early in the morning to avoid crowds, and enter through the west entrance.
The one day itinerary (Joshua Tree National Park) below is how I spent a day in Joshua Tree after accessing the park from the west entrance. I like to drive down to the southernmost attraction, and work my way back.
This means that you’ll double back, but I think it’s best to do it this way. Leaving the park through the west entrance will give you quicker access to gas stations and restaurants right after leaving the park. After a long day exploring, you’ll definitely appreciate this!
You can of course modify the order in which you do these activities depending on what entrance you use, or what you prefer to do! You could enter the park through the southern entrance and work your way up to the west entrance, your choice! Hopefully, you won’t be asking “How do I spend a day in Joshua Tree?” after reading everything below!
What Can You Do in Joshua Tree in One day?
See the Joshua Trees
When I first visited Joshua Tree National Park, I assumed I’d be seeing Joshua Trees everywhere. So imagine my disappointment when I learned that Joshua Trees only grow on the northern side of the park!
The reason for this is that the park is actually at the meeting of two deserts with different elevations and biodiversity. The Mojave desert boundary reaches the north side of the park, and the Colorado desert dominates the southern and eastern portions of the park.
Joshua Trees are found throughout the Mojave area (the north side), and you’ll see them driving into the park from this area. The Colorado desert landscape, however, is dominated by smaller desert plans, namely the cholla cactus.
To see the Joshua Trees from up close, park at any one of the pullouts along the main park road at the beginning of your drive. Keep an eye out for the Joshua trees as you do your drive, you can’t miss them!
Cholla Cactus Garden
- Hike length: 0.25 mile loop
- Difficulty: easy
The Cholla Cactus Garden is one of those attractions in Joshua Tree that you cannot miss. This is a great place to see the sunrise early in the morning, and to take in a beautiful example of biodiversity in the desert. Right after sunrise, the morning light lights up the sky beautifully, and makes the cholla look stunning.
You’ll have to drive down about 12 miles south of the West entrance to where the Colorado desert begins to reach the Cholla Cactus Garden. You’ll know you’re getting closer when you start to see the landscape changing and getting shrubbier. Soon you’ll come to signs pointing you to the Cholla Cactus Garden parking lot – pull into this lot.
The Cholla Cactus Garden is a short, nice little 0.25 mile loop through several acres of cholla cactus. It’s a super easy walk that allows you to see tons of cholla cactus, standing proud against the desert landscape. This is a great place to get some stunning pictures of Joshua Tree National Park.
Do be careful though and stay on the path. The cholla cactus are very prickly!
- Hike length: .37 mile loop from White Tank Campground
- Difficulty: easy
One of the more famous landmarks in Joshua Tree is Arch Rock, an aptly named rock formation in the shape of a large arch. It’s one of many rocks and boulders in Joshua Tree perfect for climbing, exploring, and taking pictures.
From the Cholla Cactus Garden, make a u-turn to head back north on Pinto Basin road, and you’ll come across the sign for the White Tank Campground. Arch Rock, a natural rock formation in Joshua Tree shaped like an arch, is just a short, unmarked hike away from the campground.
However, unless you’re staying at White Tank, parking is extremely limited. The first set of parking spots is located right by the campground bathrooms – if you find a spot here, take it!
The second set of parking spots (really only 2-3 spots, and 2 of them are marked as accessible parking only) is located a little further into the campground.
Another alternative is to park at the larger Twin Tanks parking lot right up the road and do the short hike from there to Arch Rock. Because of the popularity of this spot, parking lots can fill up really quickly, and you’ll often find lines to take your picture at Arch Rock – Joshua Tree itself.
- Hike length: none needed, but optional 2.5 mile loop beyond Split Rock
- Difficulty: moderate
Another interesting rock formation that can be seen in a Joshua Tree National Park day trip is Split Rock, a large, towering boulder that’s “split” right down the middle.
This is a really cool and impressive attraction that doesn’t get as much love as Arch Rock or Skull Rock, so the crowds will be thinner.
There’ll be signs on the road pointing you to the Split Rock parking lot. Follow them through a short but sandy, unpaved road to get to the parking lot. You can see Split Rock straight from the parking lot without even having to get out of your car, but there’s a picnic area and hiking trails if you’d like to spend more time here.
- Hike length: none needed, but optional 1.7 mile loop
- Difficulty: easy
Probably the single most famous rock formation in the park, Skull Rock has been shaped by water to resemble a human skull. There’s a depression for the eye sockets, and it does eerily look like a skull.
There’s roadside parking right next to Skull Rock, as well as a parking lot right across the street. Because this is such a popular attraction, the parking spots are usually full. If you do manage to get a spot, you can climb up Skull Rock to get closer – but plenty of other people will be trying to do the same! Instead, take your photos of the rock from the road, or from the parking lot across the street!
Note: you can also hike to Skull Rock from the Jumbo Rocks campground, so keep that in mind if you’re planning to stay longer than a day.
Face Rock + Elephant Rock
- Hike length: 0.5 mile from Skull Rock on Discovery Loop Trail
- Difficulty: easy
Right across from Skull Rock you’ll find the parking lot and trailhead for Face Rock, a large rock formation that’s supposed to resemble a face. I say supposed because it took me forever to see the face in the rock!
You need to do a short hike to get to Face Rock, and you need to be careful to follow the trail, it’s easy for the trail to disappear and get lost. As you follow the trail, you’ll come up to a viewing point complete with a telescope where you can get a clear view of Face Rock.
If you turn towards where the road is, you’ll see a huge rock formation that looks like an elephant. Personally, I thought this was a much cooler find than Face Rock and would recommend the trail just Elephant Rock alone!
Hall of Horrors
You need to stop at Hall of Horrors, if only because of the spooky sounding name! Hall of Horrors isn’t actually a spooky place, it’s an area of the park where you’ll find many rock formations, Joshua Trees and desert shrubbery.
There’s many climbing routes here and you’ll see climbers on your visit. If you’re not an experienced rock climber, make sure you wear sturdy shoes (hiking boots) and watch your step. It’s easy to scamper up the boulders and not realize how high you’re climbing.
- Hike length: .25 mile loop
- Difficulty: easy
You’ll need to do one of the most beautiful drives in the park to get to Keys View, where you’ll find breathtaking, panoramic views of the Coachella valley, below. From Keys View you can see the Salton Sea, and all the way down to Mexico on a clear day.
Pictures of this place really don’t do it justice, but it’s an absolute stunning location you must visit while you’re in Joshua Tree.
To get there, you’ll take a well paved road surrounded by Joshua trees on either side for about 20 minutes from the main park road. At the end of the drive, you’ll come to a roundabout parking area. Snag a spot wherever you can, and do the short quarter mile walk up some steps to take in the view.
Because this is at a higher elevation, it tends to get pretty chilly in this part of the park. Bring a sweater! While we were here in the middle of the day, I’ve heard (and can easily imagine) that it’s a great location to watch the sunset.
- Hike length: 1 mile loop
- Difficulty: easy
Another really popular attraction in Joshua Tree is the Barker Dam, a dam or water tank built by cattle ranchers decades ago. Barker Dam is accessed through a 1 mile loop hike through Joshua trees and rocks.
It’s not a very difficult hike, but there’s not much shade along the way. Bring a good hiking hat, sturdy shoes, and a reusable water bottle if planning to go on this hike.
I don’t recommend doing this hike in the summer as the water levels plummet and the dam doesn’t look very impressive.
Having lived most of my life in a large metropolitan area, I’m not really used to seeing the stars at night. I think most of us aren’t used to clear, dark skies, and that’s a shame because the night sky is beautiful!
I don;t think any trip to Joshua Tree National Park is complete without spending some time to stargaze in the park. The park is one of few places remaining with dark enough skies for you to see shooting stars, constellations, and even the Milky Way. It’s absolutely stunning, and worth sticking around until after sunset to take it all in.
If you plan to practice your night photography while you’re here, make sure you bring the following things with you – no, bringing just your camera isn’t enough, ask me how I know!
- Tripod: night photography requires longer exposures, which require your camera to remain steady. You need a tripod if you want to get pictures of the stars. This is the one I have (because it’s cheap and works just fine).
- Camera. Obviously, you need a camera, ideally a DSLR. If you’re on the fence about buying one, just get it. I have an old Canon T5 and it still serves me well.
- Remote switch: if you plan to take exposures longer than 30 seconds, you’ll want a remote switch so your camera doesn’t shake while you’re trying to hold the shutter button. Again, ask me how I know.
What to Pack to Joshua Tree
- Water: this is a must pack whenever you’re visiting the desert. There’s no facilities in Joshua Tree National Park, and it can get scorching hot so make sure you pack enough water for the day. Fill up a reusable camping jug like this one or buy individual gallon jugs and put them in your car for the trip. Bring extra if you plan to do any hiking, or will be visiting in the summer.
- Reusable Water Bottle: bring a reusable water bottle to have water accessible with you when you’re going on hikes. This is one of my favorite water bottles because it keeps everything super cold. This other one is also great, affordable, and my everyday go-to.
- Hat: there’s almost no shade in Joshua Tree, so bringing a hiking hat or sunhat is an absolute must. I’ve made the mistake of doing some of the hikes in the park without one and immediately regretted it. If you don’t have a hiking hit, this one is an affordable option.
- Sunblock: always, always, always bring sunscreen when you’re going to the desert. The sun can be scorching, so protect yourself from a nasty sunburn. This is my favorite sunscreen brand because it’s eco friendly and doesn’t smell like a ton of chemicals.
- Sunglasses: the sun is hard to avoid in the desert, so do yourself a favor and bring some cheap but cute sunglasses on your trip to Joshua Tree.
- Hiking Shoes: don’t make the mistake of only wearing your sneakers to Joshua Tree if you plan to do any hiking. The hikes are very sandy and rocky, and you’ll want shoes with good grips if you’ll be exploring and climbing rocks. This is a good pair of hiking boots to add to your closet.
- Daypack: we always bring a daypack when we travel anywhere to keep all of our supplies easily accessible. This is especially important in Joshua Tree where you’ll want to carry plenty of water and supplies when going out into the desert.
- Snacks: there’s no stores or restaurants in the park, so bring plenty of snack on your trip. These granola bars are a great, filling option
- Hand sanitizer: now more than ever, don’t travel without it. Plus, it’s good to have when using the bathrooms in the park with no running water.
- First Aid Kit: no hiking trip is complete without a first aid kit – you never know what could happen! You should always keep a first aid kit in the car, and this one is a good option.
- Flashlight: even if you don’t plan to stay in the park after dark, you very well could be driving home in the dark, and it’s helpful to have a flashlight with you
- Map + Compass: the National Parks website has hiking trail maps and general maps of the park. You should print these out and keep accessible during your trip, just in case. Similarly, bring a compass if you plan to go hiking. You don’t want to get lost in the desert!
- Camera: you’ll want to take plenty of pictures in the park, so bring your favorite camera!
- Change of Clothes: After a long day exploring the desert, you’ll want to change into some clean clothes before driving back home. I recommend bringing socks, a sweater, a tshirt, and breathable shorts.
If You Have More Time
While you can easily take in a lot of the major attractions in Joshua Tree National Park in one day, I prefer to do a camping trip (2 to 3 days in Joshua Tree) whenever possible.
Camping at the park is a lot of fun. I really love camping, and in Joshua Tree, camping is a great way to stargaze without having to worry about driving home in the dark.