Itineraries

The Perfect Joshua Tree Itinerary:
2 or 3 Days in California’s High Desert

My blog posts likely contain affiliate links, including for the Amazon Associates program.
If you click, book, or buy from one of these links, I may earn a commission. Read more in my Privacy Policy.

One of the best parts of living in California is the wide range of weekend travel opportunities. From my home in the Bay Area, I can easily explore wine country (Santa Rosa or Napa), the coast (Mendocino or Carmel-by-the-Sea), the mountains (Yosemite or Tahoe), the forest (the Coastal Redwoods or Giant Sequoias), or the desert (Joshua Tree or Death Valley) – all with a short 2-3 hour travel time by plane or car.

Speaking of Joshua Tree, it’s one of my favorite National Parks in California. After visiting this wonderland of rocks and spiky trees with a friend for the first time in 2018, Mr. V and I made a return stop during our road trip honeymoon in 2020. These two trips cemented Joshua Tree National Park as one of the coolest places I’ve been on earth – and convinced me that everyone should visit this tiny pocket of unique flora, fauna, and geology at least once.

Joshua Tree Itinerary Hero

If you’re planning a trip to Joshua Tree and uncertain where to start, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, I’m sharing all of my advice about visiting – way beyond just what to do for the two or three days you have to spend in the area. You’ll discover when to visit, what to do, where to stay, and what to pack, too. By the end, you’ll have all the info you need to plan an epic Joshua Tree itinerary for your own trip. Read on and start planning your next great California adventure!

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Yuhaviatam/ Maarenga’yam (Serrano) and Newe (Western Shoshone) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in July 2019, and was updated for 2022 travel in September 2021.
If you see any inaccuracies, please let me know in the comments.

Joshua Tree vs. Joshua Tree National Park

It’s easy to get confused when you’re planning a trip to Joshua Tree… because some articles will be focused on Joshua Tree, California and others are about Joshua Tree National Park, which is right next door. Some will even focus on both, like this one! To clarify the issue, here’s a quick description of each.

Joshua Tree is a town located along California State Route 62 between the communities of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. It’s home to 7,400 people, delicious restaurants, funky shops, and one of three entrances to Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park is a relatively new national park, only established in 1994. Named for the native Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) that is endemic to part of the park, it’s 1,235 square miles of sweeping land, rock formations, and unusual plants that have adapted to the unique climate. Joshua Tree National Park protects the land where the higher Mojave Desert and the lower Colorado Desert meet, and it’s unlike anywhere on earth.

There are three entrances to Joshua Tree National Park: a west entrance in Joshua Tree, a north entrance in Twentynine Palms, and a south entrance off Interstate 10 near the small town of Chiriaco Summit.

Oh, and in case you’re not confused enough, Californians also call it “J-Tree” which usually means the National Park – but could mean both! (Is your head spinning yet?!)

Joshua Tree Travel Tips

Before jumping into lists of what to do and how to fit it all in, I wanted to spend a short time covering some of the top questions about visiting Joshua Tree and planning your itinerary. Start here and all your questions will be answered!

When to Visit Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is considered a “high desert;” it is a very dry climate with elevations between 2,000 feet and 4,000 feet above sea level. This means it has the weather of a desert… cranked up to 11 due to the elevation. This means that the sun shines hotter by day and the nights are even chillier than in lower elevation deserts.

What does this mean about when to visit Joshua Tree? It means that summers are hot and winters can be quite cold – even snowy/frosty at night under the right conditions. Thus the best time of year to visit Joshua Tree is in the spring or autumn. During these transition seasons, the days are warm or hot but not blazing and the nights aren’t too cold for stargazing.

If you’re visiting specifically to go stargazing, I recommend going in the autumn; the Milky Way will be more visible than during the spring months.

How Many Days in Joshua Tree

If you’re reading this post, you likely have either 2 days or 3 days to visit Joshua Tree. But is this the right number of days? Will you have a good time, and have enough time to see it all?

The perfect number of days in Joshua Tree is however many you have. However, if you want more specifics, I think spending 1-4 days in Joshua Tree is just right. It’s not a big enough park to merit a week unless you’re camping and hiking a lot.

One day in Joshua Tree is a bit short, but you can pack a lot in despite that. Four days will give you plenty of time to explore both inside and outside the park. 2 days in Joshua Tree is a great duration for a weekend trip, and you can enjoy even more if you have a full 3 days in Joshua Tree.

How to Travel to Joshua Tree

Whether you live in SoCal or are flying in for a trip, you’ll probably be driving to Joshua Tree from Los Angeles. From LAX, it’s a 2 hour, 40-minute drive to the town of Joshua Tree. You could also fly into Palm Springs, and make the 1-hour drive from there (though you’d enter through the Cottonwood entrance to JTNP, which I don’t cover in this post.)

For the purposes of this post, I’ll assume you’re staying in Joshua Tree or Twentynine Palms, as I did. It takes between 30-60 minutes to get into the heart of Joshua Tree National Park from any of the entrances, so it’s possible to do a day trip to Joshua Tree from L.A., but it’s going to be a long day of driving!

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to get to Joshua Tree (the town or the national park) without a car; there’s no shuttle in Joshua Tree National Park. Cars at LAX can be super expensive, so book in advance to get the best deal; I’ve always had pretty good luck with Sixt, Alamo, and Enterprise when renting cars in Southern California.

Getting Oriented in JTNP

Since most of my Joshua Tree itinerary focuses on time spent in the National Park, I want to spend a quick second getting oriented. There are two main roads in the park: Park Boulevard which connects the Twentynine Palms entrance to the Joshua Tree entrance, and Pinto Basin Road which intersects Park Boulevard and runs south(ish) to the Cottonwood entrance.

Most park sights are along Park Boulevard, which is what I focus on primarily in this post. There are a few spots on Pinto Basin Road too; I’ve noted the location of each in the “Top Sights in Joshua Tree National Park” section below.

There are also a few smaller roads: Keys View Road (with spurs for Lost Mine Road and Juniper Flats Road), Barker Dam Road, and a few others that I’m pretty sure are just dirt roads and only open seasonally. In any case, the smaller roads all spur off Park Boulevard, so again: almost everything I recommend in this Joshua Tree itinerary is on that one road.

What to Pack for Joshua Tree

In addition to the essentials I recommend packing for all California travel, there are a few extras I recommend bringing specific to a Joshua Tree trip:

  1. A big, big, big water bottle. Or a few water bottles. Enough that you have a gallon of water per person, per day.
  2. A sun hat or baseball cap to help protect you from the sun, in addition to sunscreen.
  3. Any gear specific to the activities you plan to do: good hiking boots, climbing gear, camping gear, etc.

Beyond that, you don’t need anything special! Joshua Tree is an accessible place that receives millions of visitors each year. They all vary in ability and knowledge of the wild, and most don’t bring technical gear – you probably don’t need it either.

5 Top Things to Do in the Joshua Tree Region

Despite being both a relatively small park and small community, there is a lot to see and do in Joshua Tree. It’s actually surprising how much you can do both inside and outside the national park. Here are some suggestions to help you structure your own trip.

1. Explore Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Driving past Joshua Trees

Obviously, the main attraction is to visit Joshua Tree National Park – that’s most likely why you’re here! (Unless you’re a festival-goer wondering what to do in between sessions at Coachella, but really, how did you end up on my blog?!)

It’s $25 for a seven-day pass to enter Joshua Tree National Park, so make the most of it during your trip! You can easily spend three full days seeing the sights in Joshua Tree, much less getting out and hiking or exploring the surrounding region doing some of the other activities I recommend here. You can also use the America the Beautiful pass for entry, which can save in the long run if you love visiting National Parks.

2. Go Hiking or Rock Climbing

If you love the outdoors, it’s no surprise that there are some amazing places to experience them here. There are hiking trails all over Joshua Tree National Park and the surrounding area; there are also great rock climbing routes both inside and outside the park.

No matter what physical activity you get up to, be sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water. It’s incredibly dry in the desert, and it’s really easy to run out of water if you don’t plan ahead. There are no water stations in the park, so if you don’t bring water, you won’t be able to get any.

Even if you don’t think you need sunscreen, bring that too. Higher elevations mean the sun is even more harsh, and everyone sunburns.

3. Take Advantage of  BLM Lands & Trails

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - 49 Palms Oasis

Most of the land surrounding Joshua Tree National Park is actually managed by the Bureau of Land Management. That means it’s open to the public, but most people don’t realize that or plan to take advantage of it. There are some great trails here too, in case you don’t get enough hiking done in the national park.

49 Palms Oasis trail (pictured above) is an ambitious trail; all the locals I met said it takes 2-3x longer than the signage suggests for a 3-mile hike, but it’s worth it to reach the palm-fringed oasis at the end.

4. Go Stargazing or Try Astrophotography

Joshua Tree has amazing dark skies overhead, and it’s a popular spot for stargazing with limited light pollution and clear, high-altitude skies. I put together a whole resource on how to go stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park shortly after my trip last year. There are some important rules for stargazing in the park after dark if you plan to do that.

If you love the night sky and photography, you also might try your hand at capturing the night sky with some astrophotography. A few quick tips:

  1. You’ll need a tripod and remote so your pictures are steady.
  2. Set your ISO between 1600-3200 and play with your shutter speed to see what you capture.
  3. Bring extra batteries – it’s surprisingly cold at night in the park, and your batteries will drain faster than you expect.
Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Sky's the Limit Observatory

There’s also a small observatory, Sky’s the Limit, located close to the Twentynine Palms park entrance. If you’re visiting Joshua tree on the weekend, they occasionally hold public star parties where you can look through the telescopes brought by area volunteers. This is a great place if you want to see the stars but aren’t super familiar with the night sky, or don’t want to go into the park on your own at night.

5. Visit Pioneertown

Twenty minutes northwest of Joshua Tree (the town), Pioneertown is quite the experience. An old TV/movie set that still stands today, you can walk through the old town past storefronts showing what life was like as the west was settled.

On weekends, you can watch a gun show, where local actors take on historic characters to bring the history to life. It’s a great way to pass the afternoon, followed by a drink at nearby Pappy & Harriett’s.

11+ Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is not a huge park, relatively speaking, but there’s still so much to see and do that it’s hard to cover it all in a single post; you certainly won’t see it all during 2 days in Joshua Tree – or even 3 days! Here are some of the best things to do, top sights, and best hikes in Joshua Tree.

1. Arch Rock (Pinto Basin Rd.)

Located near White Tank campground, a 0.3-mile short hike winds through the massive rock formations to show you to beautiful Arch Rock. It’s easy to get turned around in this labyrinth of boulders, so look for signs explaining the geology to stay on the path.

2. Barker Dam (Park Blvd.)

It might not seem like the 1.5-mile loop that takes you past Barker Dam is ambitious… but this popular hike is deceivingly tough. First, parts of the hike are on sand, which slows you down. There’s also little shade from the blazing sun overhead, so it’s easy to overheat or get dehydrated on the 45-60 minutes it can take to do this trail. Barker Dam is a beautiful midway point though!

3. Cholla Cactus Garden (Pinto Basin Rd.)

One of my life philosophies includes sacrificing sleep for travel… and Cholla Cactus Garden is absolutely worth waking up early for. If you visit at sunrise as I did, expect to see photographers set up carefully among the highly-prickly cacti waiting for the first rays of light to sparkle on the thorny spikes in every direction… and honeybees that pollinate on the cactus flowers that will chase you off if you get too close!

4. Hall of Horrors (Park Blvd.)

For all my rock climbers, the Hall of Horrors is one of the main rock climbing spots in Joshua Tree, but there’s also a trail here if climbing’s not your style (it’s definitely not mine!). The trail is only a 0.6-mile loop and it’s a popular stop among birders because there are some beautiful California wildflowers and other vegetation in the area that attract them.

5. Hidden Valley Trail (Park Blvd.)

Joshua Tree Itinerary - Hidden Valley

Some trails are named perfectly – Hidden Valley Trail is one of those trails. The 1-mile trail enters through a break in a massive formation of boulders to work its way around the interior of a massive ‘bowl’ of rocks. This is a great hike in the morning or afternoon when the rocks provide respite from the sun at certain points in the hike.

6. Keys View (Park Blvd.)

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Keys View

Unlike some of the other places mentioned, Keys View doesn’t require any hiking and is accessible to visitors of all abilities. A drive up Keys View road takes you past massive juniper trees to the top of a ridge where you can look west across the whole of the Coachella Valley. This is a great spot to watch the sunset, obviously!

7. Lost Horse Mine (Park Blvd.)

Joshua Tree Itinerary - Lost Horse Mine

I’ll be honest, Lost Horse Mine is one of the hikes I’ve always wanted to do in Joshua Tree, but haven’t been able to squeeze it into a visit yet. If you’re looking for a longer hike, this is the one to plan into your Joshua Tree itinerary!

A 6.8-mile loop trail takes you to the Lost Horse Mine, which operated between 1894 and 1931, and produced 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver. I love mining history and am getting more into hiking, so this is a must-do for me on my next trip!

8. Desert Queen Mine (Park Blvd.)

Another relic of Joshua Tree’s pre-park days, Desert Queen Mine operated from the 1890s to 1961 – making it one of the longest running mines in the area. Today you can access it via a 3.4-mile loop trail at the end of several dirt roads in the park. (I note that they’re dirt because they may close seasonally and your rental car may not be allowed on them, so the hike might be longer depending on when you visit!)

9. Ryan Ranch (Park Blvd.)

Joshua Tree hasn’t always been protected land: at the end of the 19th century, miners set up here and operated one of the most profitable gold mines in the area. Today, you can visit the ruins of the old adobe house and mine, as well as a small cemetery. It’s a 0.8-1.2-mile trail across flat, sandy, unshaded land to reach the estate (don’t forget your water!).

10. Skull Rock (Park Blvd.)

Joshua Tree Itinerary - Skull Rock

Skull Rock is one of the most visited sights in the park because it’s right along the main road. Formed naturally by erosion, Skull Rock lives up to its name, looming over visitors. There isn’t much hiking to do in this area, but you can scramble over some of the rocks in the area for a different perspective on the landscape.

11. Split Rock Loop (Park Blvd.)

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Split Rock

Split Rock is another popular rock to see, where a massive boulder has cracked through the passage of time. There’s a 1.9-mile loop trail through the surrounding countryside, which takes you past other monstrous boulders and Joshua trees.

Bonus: Visitor Center (Joshua Tree Entrance)

Of course, you should also swing by the Joshua Tree National Park visitors center since you’re spending so much time in the park. The building is located near the Joshua Tree/west entrance, and has displays about the history, flora, and fauna of the park. You can also get some really cool souvenirs at the gift shop here.

A 2-Day or 3-Day Joshua Tree Itinerary

Joshua Tree is a perfect weekend destination; it’s close enough to a major city that you can fly in, drive to the area, and explore within 2-3 days before departing back home. So whether you have two days or three days, here’s how to put together a perfect Joshua Tree weekend itinerary.

Day 1: Get Oriented with a Scenic Drive

Joshua Tree Itinerary - Winding Road

Despite its small-but-mighty size, Joshua Tree National Park has only three two-lane roads throughout the park; it can take a while to get through the park.

Once you arrive at the park, get your park pass (or flash that America the Beautiful Pass) and spend the remainder of your day getting oriented to the park. A great option is to do the route from the Twentynine Palms entrance to the Joshua Tree entrance, so you can pass some of the big sites and get oriented.

Be sure to stop at Skull Rock, and make note of the various pull-outs (like Hall of Horrors, Ryan Ranch, and Keys View Drive). Depending on what time you arrive, you might even have time to do a little bit of hiking. Split Rock Trail is a great option in the cooler afternoon/evening hours.

Unless you’re camping in the park, you’ll need to drive back out to Joshua Tree or another community where you’re staying. For dinner, head to Joshua Tree Saloon, followed by tasting one of the 10+ margarita options at La Copine. I also recommend ordering a pizza from TK to-go, to use as lunch tomorrow (unless you brought other food). Otherwise, you’ll need to leave the park midday to get lunch.

Call it an early night, because tomorrow’s a long, jam-packed day!

Day 2: Sunrise, Sightseeing, Sunset, Stargazing

From before sunrise until after sunset – this is your big day to see as much of Joshua Tree National Park as possible!

Set that alarm and rise at zero dark thirty (before sunrise!). Jelly Donut opens early (4am!) with fresh donuts and monster-sized coffees, which makes it a perfect spot to grab some fuel for the day ahead.

Make the 45-minute drive to Cholla Cactus Garden. This is a popular spot to watch the sunrise above the mountains and you’ll probably see a lot of photographers here if the weather is particularly good.

After the sun is well up, head back up Pinto Basin Road and park at the Arch Rock access parking lot, which is on the way back toward the main part of the park. You can’t park at White Tank Campground unless you’re staying there, so the hike is a bit longer from the designated parking area. This little loop is a great introduction to the unique geology of the park.

If you brought lunch with you, you can stay in the park for the remainder of the day, but be aware that it’s hot and you need plenty of water if you plan to do anything outside during midday. If you choose to head out of the park for lunch or to avoid the heat, I totally get it – that’s what I did on my first trip, too!

Braving the heat? Okay, sounds good! I’d head to either Barker Dam Trail and/or Hidden Valley Trail to hike during the hottest hours of the day. Neither is fully shaded, but both have sections that limit your exposure to the sun. Don’t forget to drink lots of water and use that sunscreen!

In the afternoon, you can plan another hike. Ryan Ranch is a lovely stroll, or you could aim for a more ambitious trail like Lost Horse Mine. (If you’re just coming back into the park, I would still do Barker Dam and/or Hidden Valley.)

Joshua Tree Itinerary - Keys View Sunset

If you visit during the spring or autumn as I recommend, the sun will set around 6-7pm; stay in the park and make the drive up to Keys View to watch the sun go down beyond the San Jacinto Mountains across Coachella Valley. Otherwise, be sure to check sunset times so you don’t miss it.

Tonight’s the night for stargazing! While you wait for the sky to get completely dark after sunset, head back out to town for dinner. Opt for Pie for the People if you haven’t tried them yet, or head to Mexican Street Tacos in Twentynine Palms for really authentic flavors.

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Stargazing

Then drive back into the park and use one of the roadside pullouts to stargaze to your heart’s content. Joshua Tree is arguably the best place for stargazing in this part of the country!

Day 3: Explore Beyond the Park

If you have 3 days in Joshua Tree (instead of just 2 days), you could head back into Joshua Tree National Park… or you can explore some of the other experiences in the area.

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - 49 Palms Oasis

Start the morning with a hike to 49 Palms Oasis or one of the other BLM trails on the park edge. Then head back to town for brunch at 29 Palms Inn or a breakfast sandwich from Natural Sisters Cafe. Treat yourself to a cool snack from Fosters Freeze if the day is particularly hot.

In the afternoon, make your way to Pioneertown. Depending on which day you visit, you might see the gun show – you can always peer into the storefronts and get a sense of the wild west days that inspired this TV and tourist destination. Grab lunch or dinner at Pappy & Harriett’s as makes sense for your timing. Then it’s one final night (more stargazing?! ✨) before you head on your way home.

Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree National Park

1 Day in Joshua Tree - Camping

Because Joshua Tree is one of the most popular national parks in California (another is Yosemite, obvs), all of the communities around the park have loads of accommodation options.

All of the options mentioned below are in the Yucca Valley/Joshua Tree/Twentynine Palms area, rather than south of the park near Palm Springs or Indio. (I’ve never stayed in that area, so I don’t want to recommend randomly!)

You can also camp in the park if you book in advance or turn up early enough.

National Chain Hotels near Joshua Tree

From Motel 6 or America’s Best Value Inn to Holiday Inn or Best Western, you have your choice of hotels in towns like Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. Most hotels fall in the $125-$150 per night range. Almost all hotels in this area are in the 2-star and 3-star range.

If you’re looking for luxury accommodations, you’ll be better served by staying in Palm Springs south of the national park.

Independent Hotels near Joshua Tree

Prefer to stay local? There are choices:

  • 9 Palms Inn is a funky, colorful roadside motel right along Highway 62. Rooms start from $69 per night, book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
  • Harmony Motel is located close to ‘downtown’ Twentynine Palms and has surprisingly comfy rooms with homey touches. Rooms start from $95 per night, book on Booking.com.
  • 29 Palms Inn is slightly off the beaten path but mostly on the way to the Twentynine Palms park entrance. The property feels like a true oasis in the desert. Rooms start from $105 per night for cabins, $125 for adobe bungalows, and $150 for guest rooms.
Joshua Tree Itinerary - Camping

Camping in Joshua Tree

One thing I love about Joshua Tree is that it only has a few roads and only eight campgrounds. Despite recent bad behavior by some visitors, there isn’t a lot of human impact on the land, and that’s what makes it special.

Four of the campgrounds in J-Tree are booked by reservation during the peak months between October and May: Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, and Jumbo Rocks.

The other four campgrounds – Belle, Hidden Valley, Ryan, and White Tank – are first-come, first-served all the time. Reservation campsites are also first-come, first-serve during the hot summer months when the park is less crowded. You can book a spot in advance on the recreation.gov site.

Vacation Rentals near Joshua Tree

There’s a fair amount of backlash against the vacation rentals that are popping up literally everywhere in the Joshua tree area. Locals are definitely feeling the negative effect of outside investors coming in to build camps and houses just for travelers… but also, there are some really amazing options if this is how you prefer to stay:

Oh, and if you want a total splurge, SkyHouse is a destination in its own right (from $1,652 per night; book on Booking.com)

Have other questions about visiting Joshua Tree? Let me know in the comments and I’m happy to answer!

Help others discover this post too!

I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

24 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *