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 or Giant Redwoods), or the desert (Joshua Tree, this post!) – all with a short 2-3 hour travel time by plane or car.
If you’re looking for a good getaway, consider spending a weekend in Joshua Tree! Among all the amazing national parks in the U.S., Joshua Tree is one of the most otherworldly. As you drive uphill onto the plateau, spiky Joshua trees rise from the rocky ground and massive boulders loom suddenly into view appearing to rise from the desert floor they nearly blend into.
Based on a trip I took last year to Southern California with blogger friend Marissa (can you spot her above?), I’ve pulled together all the research, suggestions, tips, and experiences from our three days in Joshua Tree. If you want to plan a trip of your own, here’s everything you need to put together the perfect Joshua Tree weekend itinerary.
The Difference Between Joshua Tree & 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 other 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 inhabits 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 northwest 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?!)
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.
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. Also, cars at LAX are super expensive. If you choose to rent a car, I’ve always had pretty good luck with Sixt, Alamo, and Enterprise for this particular road trip.
Places to Stay Near Joshua Tree National Park
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.
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:
- Silver Bullet is an off-grid airstream and very on-vibe for Joshua Tree right now (from $145 per night; book on VRBO)
- The Bird’s Nest, a gorgeous design-forward spot you won’t want to leave (from $268 per night; book on VRBO)
- The Home with a Dome is a perfect place to stay if you love stargazing (from $349 per night, book on VRBO)
- Serendipity, a funky earthy spot with a pool to help pass the hot desert days (from $403 per night, book on VRBO)
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.
Top Things to Do in the Joshua Tree Region
You might wonder how much there really is to 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.
Explore Joshua Tree National Park
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.
Go Hiking or Rock Climbing
If you love the outdoors, it’s no surprise that there are some amazing places to experience them here. Most of the places I mention in the section about What to See in Joshua Tree National Park have hiking trails – some also have rock-climbing routes, like the Hall of Horrors (I mention this more below!).
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 very few 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.
Take Advantage of BLM Lands & Trails
Most of the land bordering 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. 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.
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:
- You’ll need a tripod and remote so your pictures are steady.
- Set your ISO between 1600-3200 and play with your shutter speed to see what you capture.
- Bring extra batteries – it’s surprisingly cold at night in the park, and your batteries will drain faster than you expect.
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 option 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.
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.
What to See 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 – much less a single weekend. Here are some of the highlights from my trip. (Yep, I did manage to see all this in just three days!)
Located near White Tank campground, a short 0.3-mile 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.
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!
Cholla Cactus Garden
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.
Hall of Horrors
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 flowers and other vegetation in the area that attract them.
Hidden Valley Nature Trail
Some trails are named perfectly – Hidden Valley Nature 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.
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 out across the whole of the Coachella Valley. This is a great spot to watch the sunset, obviously!
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!).
I’m not sure on the stats, but I’d guess 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.
Split Rock Loop
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.
Where to Eat near Joshua Tree
There’s a wide variety of food options between Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. To narrow it down, here are the best places I ate during my trip. These spots passed the research phase and Instagram checks to see how delicious their food looked… and it all lived up to its hashtag-worthiness.
Joshua Tree Saloon
Located where the park entrance road meets State Route 62 in Joshua Tree, it’s hard to miss the Joshua Tree Saloon. It looks exactly like what you’d expect an old western saloon to look like! Inside, you’ll find a classic American-style restaurant with Old West motif… thankfully the menu is decidedly modern! There seemed to be a lot of locals in here (singing karaoke of all things!) and it’s a good spot for a beer and burger.
Rising early to catch a sunrise in Cholla Cactus Garden? Swing by this old school bakery for a donut and huge coffee before you do. To make the 6:15 sunrise, I was up at 5:15 – and Jelly Donut opens at 4:00 am, so they beat the sun and me.
29 Palms Inn
Joshua Tree and the surrounding towns are getting a reputation for having some hip brunch spots and bars (La Copine in Yucca Valley was also recommended) – a natural condition for an Instagram-worthy destination like Joshua Tree.
In addition to having rooms, 29 Palms Inn has a restaurant and bar that’s worth a stop even if you’re not staying there. Offered only on Sunday, Brunch options include French Toast, Huevos Rancheros, and Scrambled Tofu.
Pappy & Harriett’s
Located near Pioneertown, Pappy & Harriett’s is of a similar vein to Joshua Tree Saloon. It’s a relic restaurant, harkening back to the days of cowboys and settlers on these arid desert plains; thankfully, you can still get modern fare like steak, ribs, and Tex-Mex here.
It’s also a popular spot for live music, so plan ahead if you’re coming for dinner to make sure they won’t have a crowd. (Even for mid-afternoon lunch, I had to wait!)
Natural Sisters Cafe
Traveling with a meat-free friend, Natural Sisters Cafe was high on our list to try. This spot is unsurprisingly super-popular for brunch and lunch, and the menu features omelets, bagel sandwiches, and soups and salads. They also have fresh-squeezed organic fruit and veggie juices (this is where I discovered I don’t love green juices!).
Pie for the People
That line out the door on a weekend night? It’s at Pie for the People, a pizza counter with loads of seating – but never enough for the crowds who clamor for a slice or whole pie. They always have some pizzas which you can order by the slice, or you can custom-order a whole pizza… but be prepared to wait up to an hour between the line and the time it takes to make your pizza! (It’s worth it!)
On a hot day in Joshua Tree, there’s no better place to stop for a snack than Fosters Freeze. This mid-century style ice cream parlor has cool treats like sundaes and shakes, plus air conditioning if you don’t want your ice cream to melt the minute you walk outside.
A 3-Day Joshua Tree Itinerary
With all that info – the best things to do, what to see, and where to go/eat/stay – you’re set to start planning your trip! I like to end all my 3-day guides with a suggested itinerary; you can obviously adjust this Joshua Tree weekend itinerary as much as you want to make it perfect for your trip and what you want to see.
Day 1 – Get Oriented with a Scenic Drive
Joshua Tree National Park is pretty big – and with two-lane roads throughout the park, it can take a while to get through the park. After driving from L.A., get your park 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.
Depending on what time you arrive, you can see or hike briefly at Split Rock, Skull Rock, Hall of Horrors, Ryan Ranch, and/or Barker Dam. I’d pick 2-3 of these that sound interesting and do them on the first day, so you don’t overload your plans for tomorrow! (Skull Rock and Barker Dam are the best options, if you need more guidance from me on the choice.)
Call it an early night (maybe try one of the 10+ margarita options at La Copine after dinner at Joshua Tree Saloon) because tomorrow’s a long day!
Day 2 – Sunrise, Skip the Midday, Sunset, Stargazing
Marissa and I set up with many other photographers to capture the sunrise.
Get an early start. Grab fuel at Jelly Donut and catch the sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden if the weather is good enough for it. Afterward, stop at Arch Rock, which is on the way back toward the main part of the park. Then consider doing 1-2 more short hikes before the sun gets too hot. If you haven’t visited yet, Split Rock Trail, Hall of Horrors or Ryan Ranch are all good morning hikes.
No matter the time of year, it gets hot during the midday in the park. Head back out to town for lunch and a nap by the pool or maybe even a dip. ??
Once the sun has passed overhead, head back into the park. Hidden Valley is a good afternoon hike since parts of the trail will have some shade. As the sun starts to go down, head for Keys View to see the full show.
If you’re not hungry yet, consider waiting for the sky to go dark and start stargazing at one of the roadside pullouts. Otherwise, you can easily head back into town, grab dinner, and come into the park once night has fully arrived. ? Pie for the People is a good option since you can grab a couple slices and bring them back into the park.
Day 3 – Explore Beyond the Park
On your third day, you could head back into Joshua Tree National Park… or you can explore some of the other experiences in the area. Start the morning with a hike to 49 Palms Oasis or one of the other BLM trails on the park edge.
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 for 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.
There you have it! Based on all my on-the-ground research, all the driving and eating and photographing everything we encountered, you now have all the knowledge to plan your own Joshua Tree weekend itinerary.
Have other questions about visiting Joshua Tree? Let me know in the comments and I’m happy to answer!