Joshua Tree day trip itinerary and advice. Our guide to visiting Joshua Tree in one day. Park information, recommended itinerary, Joshua tree hikes and tips on what you need to know to spend one day in Joshua Tree National Park.
If I had to pick just one day as a the most special, emotional and unique out of all out travels, it would have to be the one we spent visiting Joshua Tree National Park, California.
Located to the East of Los Angeles, the park is easily reachable from the city with a few hours drive and it is even closer to Palm Springs, less than one hour away from the park entrance.
We visited Joshua Tree NP during a hot summer and loved every minute of our scorching and dusty adventure. Since then, Joshua Tree has stayed as one of my favorite places in the world and one I recommend everyone to visit.
Here is how to plan on day in Joshua Tree NP.
Interested in more outdoors adventures in California? Check out our post about Muir Woods, for a taste of how varied the California landscape can be!
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Practical info for a Joshua Tree day trip
Joshua tree National Park is in California, about 3 hours by car from Los Angeles and less than 1 hour from Palm Spring.
There are two main roads crossing the park and they are easily accessible by car (no special vehicle needed). RVs can access the park but are not allowed on some of the smaller roads leading to excursions set off points.
The park is served by three entrances: the Southern entrance near Cottonwood, the West entrance near Joshua Tree Town and the Western entrance (just a little farther along the same road) near Twentynine Palms.
There are visitors centers at the Joshua Tree entrance (Joshua Tree visitors centre), in Twentynine Palms (Oasis visitors centre) and in Cottonwood (Cottonwood visitors centre), plus kiosks just at the entrance of the park.
Especially if traveling in high season or with kids, I highly recommend to first stop at the visitor centre. Here you can get park entrance tickets, updated information and also the junior ranger booklet that will help kids engage with the park and learn about its peculiar landscape.
What is special about Joshua Tree National Park?
The Eastern part of the park is the Colorado desert and lies below 3000 feet above sea level.
The Western part of the park is the Mojave desert and is distinctly different: the elevation here is above 3000 feet and the landscape has boulders, Mojave yucca and the famous Joshua trees.
How did the Joshua Tree get its name?
The Joshua Trees are not trees but a type of yucca: however, they can be as tall as 40 feet and indeed do look like trees, bearing blooms between February and April.
They got their name from Mormons settlers in the area, who thought the tree reminded them of the prophet Joshua, with its arms stretched towards the heavens.
Despite the harsh conditions of a desert environment, Joshua Tree National Park is home to many species of animals: birds, tortoises, iguanas and bighorn sheep are among the most innocuous but rattle snakes live here too so caution is important!
Joshua Tree NP weather
Joshua Tree sees very different weather conditions in summer and winter.
Summers are scorching hot. The days are usually clear and dry and the sun strong with temperatures well over 100 F during the day and still above 70 F at night.
Temperatures are comfortable in the spring and fall, with an average highs around 85°F (29°C) and average lows around 50°F (10°C) respectively.
Winter brings cooler days, around 60°F (15°C), and freezing nights. It occasionally snows at higher elevations.
Visiting Joshua Tree NP in summer? Our experience
We visited Joshua Tree in late July. It was a scorching hot July morning and the thermometer in our car was steadily rising: 39, 40, 42 C….
The air conditioning was offering some relief but the kids were not happy. In fairness, they had a point: going to the desert in the middle of the day in July is not a brilliant idea.
However, if this is the time you find yourself in California, don’t be discouraged: a visit to Joshua Tree in summer is still possible.
Just be ready for the heat. We strongly advise to move early and avoid entering the park at lunchtime, like we did. The temperature then is truly unbearable.
On the positive side, the peculiar landscape of this desert experiences an incredible stillness under the summer sun, giving the park its famous alien appearance.
Joshua tree landscape
The landscape of Joshua tree is often defined as otherworldly and indeed it is hard not to feel like you have suddenly crossed into a parallel dimension and are now roaming the surface of a different planet.
The paved road sneaks seamlessly across the desert, its two sides embraced by vast, dusty plains turning into low mountains in the distance.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe the lack of other visitors, maybe the evocative Joshua trees, but the stillness in the air was almost total, the silence deafening and the feeling of being part of a painting rather than a real place almost overwhelming.
The moment we looked into the expanses of Joshua Tree National park will never leave my memory. It is the moment travellers live for, the one when your thoughts evaporate in beauty and the feeling of being takes over.
Day trip Palm Springs to Joshua Tree NP: where to base yourself
The Joshua Tree Southern entrance is accessible from Interstate 10. The other two entrances are served by hwy 62.
To make the most of one day in Joshua Tree we opted to spend the night nearby.
We chose Indian Wells, near Palm Springs, as a base and booked one night in the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort and Spa hotel. The choice proved to be a good one.
The hotel is well equipped to cater for families, it has a gorgeous pool (not to be sneered at with that heat!) and is very well located to visit the park.
From the hotel, we were able to reach the Southern entrance to the park in about 40 minutes and the Northern one in about an hour.
We used both options: on the first evening, we left the hotel in the late afternoon and got to the Southern park entrance just in time to see the sunset.
If you are thinking of organizing a trip from Palm Springs to Joshua tree, we highly recommend to plan your first night in a good hotel in this area. You can find a good selection of hip Palm Springs hotels for all types of travelers here
This way, you have time to visit the park at sunset and again in the morning, before driving to your next destination.
The drive between Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park
We drove into Joshua Tree NP twice: in the evening we used the Southern Entrance and the following morning we used the other two accesses
In both cases, we found the journey from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree easy and traffic free. The roads are fast and well kept.
However, we did notice a lack of signs for the park, especially when approaching it from the South.
What is regularly indicated are the nearby towns but the park itself doesn’t get a mention until you are quite close to it.
This is worth noticing if you want to avoid draining your phone battery life trying to figure out on google maps where you are!
In terms of stops along the road, you do find towns along the way if heading North while interstate 10 tends to cross a more barren landscape.
I recommend you stock up on water and food in Palms Springs.
One day in Joshua Tree National Park: arrival and orientation
Joshua Tree National Park is served by 3 visitors centres.
- Oasis Visitors’ Centre, in Twentynine Palms (open 8.30 am to 5.00 pm)
- Joshua Tree Visitors’ Centre in Joshua tree (open 8.00 am to 5.00 pm)
- Cottonwood Vistors’ Centre, 6 miles inside the South entrance (open 8.30 am to 4.30 pm).
Need to know: GPS devices are not reliable is Joshua Tree National Park and there is no mobile phone signal.
How to plan your day in Joshua Tree NP
The main thing you need to decide when planning one day in Joshua Tree NP is if you want to hike, and in that case for what length of time, or you prefer to drive only.
If you want to hike, it is important to start your day early so you can be back before the midday sun. Our recommended one day itinerary in Joshua Tree NP for leisure hikers is:
- Early morning: start early and pick a hike suitable for your level of fitness (see options below). The park Northern loop has several short hikes to choose from
- Midday: get out of the midday sun before it hits. Use this time to go to one of the visitors centre or to drive to Keys View
- Afternoon: drive across the park to explore Cholla Cactus garden and the southern part of the park.
- Evening: make the most of the park’s dark sky to go stargazing.
Our recommended one day Joshua tree itinerary for non hikers is:
- Morning: drive around the park Northern loop. Stop at viewpoints and don’t miss roadside attractions such as Skull Rock
- Lunchtime: stop for food and water (bring your own, see below) or pop into a visitors centre to see the time for ranger talks and activities, usually taking place in the late afternoon.
- Afternoon: drive across the park and leave from the Southern entrance to catch a glimpse of the different landscapes in the park
- Evening: make the most of the park’s dark sky to go stargazing
Please note: crossing the park, even with just a few stops, will take a few hours.
Take into account the time needed to reach your accommodation on return when deciding which route to take. If short on time, our recommendation is to stick with the Northern Loop.
Joshua Tree in one day: suggested itineraries
If you look at the Joshua tree map you will clearly see there are two main ways to explore the park: one is driving the whole length of it, following the main road and the second one is to only stick with the northern part of the park and drive the Northern loop.
Both option have advantages.
Joshua tree NP Northern Loop
The Northern loop is short enough to drive.
If you don’t stop, you can drive it in less than 2 hours and still be able to see some of the park’s main attractions, including the actual Joshua Trees, who only live in this area of the park.
If short on time, this is an excellent option as it keeps you reasonably close to park entrances at all times.
Joshua tree NP Southern Entrance
The Southern part of the desert is less scenic and mostly barren but is the only one that brings you to Cholla cactus which is one of the park’s highlights.
Depending on your next destination, the long driving time can be worth it as it will allow you to see the difference between the Mojave and the Colorado desert that meet in the park
Joshua Tree Hikes Tips
Joshua Tree National Park has great hikes of different length and level of difficulty. They are all on the short side and they are ideal even if you only have one day in Joshua Tree NP.
Because of the peculiar conditions of the desert environment, before going on a hike it is worth taking into account the rangers’ recommendations.
Some safety tips to hike Joshua Tree National Park:
- Avoid the heat: try finish your hike before 10 am or go after 5pm (check sunset times before heading off).
- Stay hydrated: the recommendation is to drink one gallon of water per person, per day
- Bring snacks and electrolyte drinks to avoid losing precious energy and salts.
Joshua tree hikes: short walks and nature trails
- Bajada (0.25 miles): wheelchair accessible. Bajada, desert plants.
- Barker Dam (1.1 miles): with historical sites and big horn sheep
- Cap Rock (0.4 miles): wheelchair accessible. Boulders, Joshua trees, desert plants.
- Cholla cactus garden (0.25 miles): densely concentrated cholla cacti
- Cottonwood springs (0.1 miles): palm oasis and cottonowood trees
- Discovery trail (0.7 miles): boulders, skull rock, spit rock loop
- Hidden Valley (1 mile): rock enclosed valley
- Hi-view (1.3 miles): Joshua tree forest
- Keys view (0.25 miles): accessible overlook over San Andreas Fault and Mt St Jacinto
- Oasis of Mara (0.5 miles): desert oasis, wheelchair accessible
- Ryan Ranch (1 mile): old ranch road with historic adobe structure
Joshua Tree hikes: moderate effort
- Lost Horse Mine (4 miles): One of the most successful gold mines in the park. Out and back.
- Mastodon Peak (3 miles): Loop. Craggy granite peak, gold mine.
- Pine City (4 miles): Out and back
- West side loop (4.7 miles): Loop. Ridges and washes
- Split Rock Loop (2.5 miles): Loop with side trip to Face Rock
- Wall Street Mill (2 miles): Out and back, gold mining site and rusted cars
One day in Joshua Tree National Park with kids
Joshua tree is a bit of a treat to visit with kids. There are plenty of child friendly hikes in the park and the National Park service here run the junior ranger program, which is aimed at children. Below you will find a quick overview of child friendly hikes,
Child friendly hikes in Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua trees is criss-crossed by many hiking paths but not all of them are suitable for kids. These are the ones the rangers recommended to us.
The hike to Braker dam is a 1.8 km long and takes about 1 hour. This is one of the easiest hikes for kids and comes with an little extra: barker dam is where big horn sheep gather in summer so animal encounters here are likely to happen!
Another easy hiked with an added plus: it is wheelchair (and therefore stroller) accessible. The hike is short, about half a kilometer and can be done in 30-40 minutes
Skull Rock and discovery trail
Skull rock is guaranteed to make an impression on kids as it definitely looks like a giant…. skull!
The hike starts from the rock and connects to Split Rock. It’s an easy enough hike of about 1.1 km (roundtrip).Skull rock is visible from road too so if you are in a hurry or not interested in hikes, it makes for a very easy photo op.
Cholla Cactus garden
We didn’t stretch to this part of the park but many parents remember this as a highlight with kids.
The walk is described as short and easy, about 0.4 km, and it crosses an area with thousands of naturally growing cholla cacti. Be careful with kids as the cacti are very prickly (wear closed toe shoes) and, in summer, the area sometimes get swarms of bees (read here about safety in the park).
Backpacking in Joshua Tree
Backpackers need to register for a free permit at a back country board.
There are 13 back country registration boars throughout the park and you can also find information here.
Campfire and pets are not allowed in the back country.
Interesting fact bout Joshua tree
- Joshua Tree is where two different desert system meet: the Mojave, or high desert, and the Colorado desert, or low desert
- Despite its name, the desert is not void of life! Many animals live here including bighorn sheep, birds, jackrabbits, kangaroo rats
- In Joshua tree you have several types of rattlesnakes and tarantulas
- Joshua Tree has been inhabited for over 10.000 years
- The Joshua Tree boulders are distinctive and formed over million of years
- Joshua Tree became a National Park in 1936
- In the fall, special programs for kids take place including some Dr Seuss inspired ones such as the ‘I speak for the tree’ initiative
Joshua Tree National Park: what to bring
This list will change depending on the time of the year you are visiting and your plan for the day. At a very basic level, make sure you have:
- Lose fitting, light colored clothing allowing perspiration
- A sun hat
- Closed toes shoes for hiking
- Drinking water (a lot of it!): water is available at the Oasis visitor centre, Black Rock campground, Cottonwood Visitor Center, West Entrance and Indian cove ranger station
I hope you enjoyed our itinerary and tips for a Joshua Tree day trip! You can find additional information about visiting this stunning park as a family here
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