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How to Make the Most of One Day in Joshua Tree National Park

How to Make the Most of One Day in Joshua Tree National Park
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The sun rises over the mountain ridge, bathing the cactus garden in warm light. Slowly, heat starts to build, forming a shimmering mirage. Slowly, stretched shadows shorten, and then disappear. Everything seeks shade from the blazing sun. I may love living near water, but there’s something entrancing about the desert.

Home to otherworldly plants and unusual rock formations, Joshua Tree National Park is particularly special: it encompasses the point where two deserts meet. The Colorado and Mojave deserts have distinctive climates and are home to unique species – but the park is the place where they overlap, and the Seussical Joshua tree lives in close proximity to the cuddly-looking Cholla.

I took a trip to Joshua Tree National Park in the spring of 2017 with an adventurous blogger friend. We spent our visit hiking, exploring the sights, eating at local restaurants around the park, and stargazing. Afterward, I came home keen to help people see that they can easily visit the park – whether that’s for a weekend or just one day while staying nearby in Palm Springs.

Read on for my suggestions on how to plan an itinerary that makes the most of one day in Joshua Tree National Park. You’ll have all the info you need to follow my suggestions or modify it for your own interests.


Planning Your Visit to Joshua Tree National Park

Before we dive into my suggested itinerary for one day in Joshua Tree, there are a couple important logistics you’ll need to know to plan your trip. I always include a section like this because national parks have special rules you should know before you go.

Driving & Parking in Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Scenic Drive

There are three entrances into the park, and two main roads:

  • Park Boulevard, which runs from the park entrance near the town of Joshua Tree to the entrance near Twenty Nine Palms
  • Pinto Basin Road, which connects to Park Boulevard in the north and runs south to the entrance near Chiriaco Summit

You can take your private vehicle into the park on these roads, and some other internal roads in the park too (like Keys View Road).

Throughout Joshua Tree National Park, there are parking areas and roadside pull-outs where you can park your car and get out to access rock formations and hiking trails. As always in national parks, you cannot do any off-roading or park off the road or where there isn’t space to park. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and know where you want to go and when the crowds will be smallest! (I provide tips in this one day Joshua Tree itinerary, below.)

Joshua Tree National Park Entrance Fees 

As part of the National Park system, Joshua Tree operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.

Here are you options:

You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Joshua Tree NPS website.

Accommodation In & Near Joshua Tree National Park

There are four main options for accommodations in and near Joshua Tree: camping in the park, national chain hotels, independent hotels, and vacation rentals. If you only have one day in Joshua Tree, I recommend camping so you can make the most of the only day you have.

There are eight campgrounds in Joshua Tree. Four campgrounds are booked by reservation during the peak months between October and May: Black RockCottonwoodIndian Cove, and Jumbo Rocks. You can book a spot in advance on the recreation.gov site.

The other four campgrounds – BelleHidden ValleyRyan, and White Tank – are first-come, first served year-round. Reservation campsites are also first-come, first-serve during the hot summer months when the park is less crowded.

For other accommodation options:

What to Do in Joshua Tree National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Road inside the park

If you have only one day in Joshua Tree, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Sunrise in Cholla Cactus Garden
  2. Sightseeing Joshua Tree’s Rock Formations
  3. Morning Hike
  4. Lunch in Town
  5. Afternoon Hike
  6. Sunset at Keys View
  7. Dinner in Town
  8. Stargazing (Optional)

Here are more details on each of those activities and how to do them.

Watch Sunrise in Cholla Cactus Garden

Take in Some of Joshua Tree’s Sights

If you rise and shine early for sunrise, the next few hours after sunrise are the best time to try and see Joshua Tree’s top sights – because there won’t be as many crowds or issues finding parking as later in the day. After seeing these, you can go elsewhere in the park for a hike or rock climbing session, or set out on one of the hikes from these spots directly.

Some of the park’s most famous rock formations and sights include:

  • Skull Rock – A natural formation with an ominous look, Skull Rock is located right along the main road and draws crowds and creates traffic – but it’s still worth seeing.
  • Arch Rock – One of the park’s most famous arches, it’s a short 0.3-mile hike from White Tank Campground to see it.
  • Split Rock – You can’t tell in my photo, but this massive boulder has split almost in half. The two halves are currently sitting together, but you can walk around the rock to get a sense for the scale of how big it is.
  • Keys View – I recommend visiting Keys View for sunset, but you can always visit during the day too. It’s a pretty epic scene, looking out from Joshua Tree National Park across the Coachella Valley.

There are also some cool sights along some hiking trails, which you could head straight to… so read on for that!

Take a Hike (or Climb!)

Joshua Tree is an adventure playground, and you can take the most advantage of this by doing a hike or climb in the morning hours before the heat of the day sets in fully. There are so many options; here are some hiking options I recommend in Joshua Tree National Park:

TrailDifficultyDistanceElevationEst. Time
Hidden Valley Nature TrailEasy1.0mi100 feet1 hour
Ryan RanchEasy1.0mi135 feet1 hour
Barker DamEasy1.1mi50 feet1 hour
Split RockModerate2.5mi150 feet1.5-2.5 hours
Lost Horse MineModerate4.0mi550 feet2-3 hours

These are all pretty easy hikes, and ones I did or would do – and I’m not a huge hiker. The Joshua Tree National Park website has a great breakdown of all the hikes in the park, difficulty, and advice on how to plan for them.

If you’d rather do some rock climbing, the NPS has a ton of resources about best practices for climbing in the park. A couple of the routes I saw climbers on (but didn’t climb myself) were Hall of Horrors and near Ryan Campground; you should also check to see which routes are closed before planning your trip.

Rest in the Midday

Once the heat of the day sets in, it’s a good idea to take a break from the park for lunch and to refill your water bottles.

From most places within Joshua Tree National Park, it’s a 30-45 minute drive out of the park to a nearby community. This obviously depends on which way you go, but you can plan 2-3 hours for a lunch break including travel time.

If you choose to head out toward Twenty Nine Palms, you can also stop for a cool treat at Froster’s Freeze (pictured above). This is a throwback California chain for fast food and ice cream, and a local spot off the main roads.

Stretch Your Legs

Afternoons in Joshua Tree are hot, so be sure to refill your water supplies before heading back into the park. (Remember – there are no spots to get fresh water in the park!) Then head back out for another easy hike.

Some good options are Barker Dam (pictured above) and Hidden Valley Nature Trail, two loop trails that both have some coverage to help you get a break from the sun while hiking.

Enjoy Sunset from Keys View

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Keys View

Once the sun stars to go down, there’s one place to be: Keys View. Take the road up to the parking area, and you can enjoy some sweeping views of the surrounding countryside in every direction.

I recommend trying to get here between 30-45 minutes before sunset, so you can find a parking spot and area to see the sun set beyond the San Jacinto Mountains across the Coachella Valley. You’ll get to enjoy the views during the day, and have a primo spot for sunset.

Grab Dinner in Town

Unless you’re camping in the park, it’s time to drive back out and grab some dinner. There’s nowhere quite like Joshua Tree Saloon for giving you that Old Western vibe at the end of the day. Inside you’ll find a watering hole that draws locals and tourists, and has a standard pub menu. If you’re lucky, you might get to enjoy karaoke while eating dinner, like I did! ?

Go Stargazing (Optional)

It takes about 90 minutes from sunset to darkness when you can see the stars in all their glory. If you want to see why Joshua Tree was certified as a dark sky park, it’s worth the time to drive back into the park for stargazing. (Obviously, if you’re camping in the park, you’ll have this on your itinerary for sure!)

If you’re not staying in the park, the best place to go stargazing is at one of the roadside pull-outs anywhere in the park. I’ve written a full guide for stargazing in Joshua Tree if this is on your list.

Joshua Tree Weekend Itinerary - Joshua Trees

There you have it – a way to see most of Joshua Tree in one day. Admittedly, this barely scratches the surface, and if you have more time, I have a guide for spending 3 days in Joshua Tree too. Do you have questions about making the mots of 1 day in Joshua Tree? Let me know in the comments!


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Ian

Monday 22nd of March 2021

Hi there! Thanks so much for this great list! If I plan to do most of the hikes listed, do you have any specific order that makes the most sense? If I’m starting at the cactus garden and working my way from there? Thank you!

Valerie

Saturday 27th of March 2021

Ian, I recommend checking out the NPS map of the park – but the order I listed in my post should be the best way to do it!

sal

Sunday 7th of February 2021

Do you know of any restrictions during Covid time?

Valerie

Thursday 11th of February 2021

Sal, I recommend checking out the Joshua Tree National Park site itself. I've got it linked several times in this post!

Saba

Monday 12th of October 2020

So helpful! Thank you!

Valerie

Tuesday 13th of October 2020

Glad to help! Have a great trip!