Joshua Tree day trip tips and advice. Our guide to visiting Joshua Tree in one day. Information on our recommended itinerary, accessible hikes and tips on what you need to know to spend one day in Joshua Tree in summer. 

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 exploring Joshua Tree National Park, California.

I had known about Joshua Tree for years before we arranged this trip but I had never paid careful attention to its location. I know it was in the West of the USA, but I had wrongly placed it close to Utah and Arizona deserts and this meant I had pencilled it in for our next trip to the USA, when we are hoping to explore that area.

However, Joshua Tree is nowhere near there! Joshua Tree National Park is in California, to the East of Los Angeles and it is easily reachable from the city  with a few hour drive.

This ‘discovery’ and the decision to go happened at once.

We booked a hotel in the area and counted down the days to our desert road trip adventure!

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! 

The road in the Northernmost part of Joshua Tree national park, the main one we followed during out Joshua Tree day trip itinerary

The Northern loop in Joshua Tree National Park, with its easy and well kept road

Practical info for a Joshua Tree day trip in summer

Joshua tree National Park in in California, about 3 hours by car from Los Angeles and less than 1 hour from Palm Spring

The main roads crossing the park 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 centres 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 tavelling in high season or with kids, I highly recommend to first stop at the visitor centre. Here you can get tickets and also the junior ranger booklet that will help kids engage with the park and learn about its peculiar landscape (more about this later in this same post).

What is special about Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua tree is where two different desert systems meet: the Mojave desert and the Colorado desert. 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 tree.

How did the Joshua Tree get its name? The Joshua Trees are not trees but types of yucca: however, they can be as tall as 40 feet and indeed do look like trees, bearing blooms between February and April. Their got their names 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 is home for 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!

 

Boulders and an isolated Joshua Tree roadside

The otherworldly stillness of the Joshua Tree National Park landscapes, with boulders, Joshua Trees and relentless sun

How to get there: Palm Springs to Joshua Tree

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 (affiliate link*, please see below for full details). The choice proved to be a good one.

*This is an affiliate link, which means if you click on it an make a purchase, we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please note that we paid in full for our stay in this hotel and we recommend it based on our own experience of it.

The hotel is well equipped to cater for families,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.

 

Sunset at Cottonwood entrance, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Sunset at Cottonwood entrance, Joshua Tree National Park, California

Sunset at Cottonwood entrance, Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Sunset at Cottonwood entrance, Joshua Tree National Park, California. The Southern part of the park does not have Joshua Trees but different plant species

Apologies for the blurry photo but I couldn’t resist a picture in this special place!

The following morning, we took the Northerly route and entered from Joshua Tree village.

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: 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.

Joshua Tree in one day: suggested itineraries

Like any national parks the best way to explore Joshua Tree is to take a few days and enjoy the many hikes available. However if, like us, you only have limited time, you can still get a great sense of the park with just one day of exploring.

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:

  • 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 travelling with kids, this is a great option as here is where some of the family friendly hikes are located
  • 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 by many considered a park highlight, especially if visiting Joshua Tree with kids. 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 who meet in the park

Since we only had few hours at our disposal and the drive back to LA ahead of us, we opted for the shorter loop and we were not disappointed. These were out highlights.

detail of Joshua tree terrain

A lot of work goes into the preservation of Joshua Trees and many areas of the park are easily accessible

One day in Joshua tree with kids:arrival and orientation

We entered Joshua tree but its North Westerly entrance. 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. Little Ms E, drops of sweats on her little forehead, screamed there was too much sun and Mr M complained we were doing something dangerous. ‘Why are we going to the desert in summer? It’s hot and there are rattlesnakes!’

In fairness, he had a point: going to the desert in the middle of the day in July is not a brilliant  idea. However,  this was the time of the year we found ourselves in California, we didn’t know if we would ever have the opportunity to go back   and so we were going – I was positive I would have not missed out on Joshua Tree, pretty much no matter what!

We left Palm Springs in the middle of the morning. The peculiar landscape of this desert town was rolling in front of us with its distinctive and oneiroid character. Here, barren mountains form the dusty backdrop to a vast landscape, tall palm trees and slow turning windmills suggesting human presence in an area nature has clearly claimed for itself.

As you get closer to the park entrance, the tall palm trees slowly disappear and so do the expensive palm springs resorts.

Buildings get lower, the air gets dustier and the unique inhabitants of his part of the world make their first appearance:the Joshua trees!

The kids got out of their daze when they saw the first tree: it’s a truffula tree! Mr M said and we couldn’t disguise a giggle: the similarity with Dr Seuss Truffula trees is exactly how we had built up expectations for Joshua Tree and we sighted a sigh of relief when the trees matched and surpassed the already high expectations. The park was soon renamed Truffula Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree national Park with kids: Mt M looking at a Joshua Tree

Mr M contemplating Truffula Trees!

Our fist stop was at the visitor centre. It is always a good idea to talk to the rangers, both to make yourself known to them and to get tips. In our case, we got even more than we expected since they told us about the Joshua tree national park junior ranger programme.

This programme is an educational initiative that allows kids to engage with the park in a way that is both fun and educational. Our two were given two booklets with information and games and were told that should they be able to complete all the  tasks them, on their return to the centre they would get their junior ranger badge!

They were hooked. The booklets have age specific information and games such as animals and plants to spot, physical sensation too observe (how do the rocks feel when you sit on them? Are they hot, soft, rugged etc) . We were very impressed with the booklets and even more by the care the rangers took to check the kids knowledge: to be a junior ranger, you need to know your stuff, they don’t just hand it out to you for nothing!

The rangers also gave us great pointers on the best hikes for kids and armed with this knowledge, we finally drove into the park.

Need to know: GPS devices are not reliable is Joshua Tree National Park and there is no mobile phone signal. Even without kids, do stop at the visitors centre to get a paper map of the area

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.

The Joshua tree lansdcape with boulders, grasses and yucca

The rocks and yuccas that make Joshua Tree unique

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.

Barker dam

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!

Cap Rock

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 Joshua Tree National Park, California

Famous skull rock is roadside and can be seen even without hiking

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).

Other Joshua Tree hikes and Joshua Tree points of interest

  • Keys view. If you have time, we hear the view from here is stunning since it expands across Coachella Valley and San Andreas fault. Go on a clear day for maximum visibility (we didn’t)
  • Gold mines: moderate hike will allow you to reach some of the goldmines in the park. Recommended trails are Lost Horse Mine (2-3 hours) and Wall Street Mill.
  • Ranger led programmes run regularly and offer interesting insight into the preservation challenges faced by the park

Interesting fact bout Joshua tree for kids

  • 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
  • Joshua tree boulders are distinctive and formed over million of years
  • Joshua Tree in a National Park under the care of National Park Rangers
  • You can be a ranger too! Take the junior ranger booklet available at the visitor centre and take the time to read, complete the games and answer the questions. At the end of your visit, go again to the rangers and let them test your knowledge: if you have learned how to protect Joshua tree, you will be ask to take the ranger pledge and will receive a badge and a (paper) ranger hat!
  • In the fall, special programmes for kids take place including some Dr Seuss inspired ones such as the ‘I speak for the tree’ initiative

Joshua tree with kids: 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 coloured clothing allowing perspiration
    • A sun hat
    • Sunglasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Closed toes shoes for hiking
    • Drinking water (a lot of it!): water is available at the Oasis visitor centre, Black Rock campground, Cottonwood Visitor Centre, 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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