Joshua Tree Road Trip: One Day in Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park bridges the desert Southwest with the high desert of California. It is an easy day trip, weekend trip, or road trip destination. Spend the perfect day driving through and hiking some of the park’s trails. Then spend the night under a sky overflowing with stars. This is the perfect day trip to Joshua Tree
The word “Joshua Tree” symbolizes something different for each generation.For the early Mormon settlers who named the tree, it took on a Biblical reference. For my generation, it is intricately attached to a U2 Album.
But for anyone from any generation, the silhouette of the Joshua Tree is synonymous with the high desert of California.
So what’s the best way to explore this National Park? A road trip, of course! Whether its a day trip from nearby cities or connected to a longer tour, you’ll want to know what to do and where to stay.
Here is our guide to a perfect Joshua Tree Road Trip.
One Day In Joshua Tree – Driving Guide
The map above highlights what we cover in this post. These are some of the stops to see on a driving tour of the park. Take a hike to see some of these spots. I recommend timing your visit either early in the morning for the sunrise or later in the evening for some stunning sunsets and night skies.
Planning A Day Trip to Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park can make an excellent day trip from Los Angeles, San Diego, or even Las Vegas. Or part of a road trip connecting California’s National Parks like Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Big Sur.
Others prefer to explore more of its desert neighbors like the Grand Canyon or Zion National Parks.
Getting to Joshua Tree National Park
The best part of Joshua Tree is that it’s a great stopping point on a west coast or southwest road trip. Within a day you could be at the Pacific Coast, the Sierra Mountains, or the valleys and canyons of the Southwestern United States.
National Parks Near Joshua Tree
- San Bernardino National Forest 56 miles; 1 hour
- Sequoia National Forest 216 miles; 3-½ hours
- Death Valley National Park 248 miles; 4 hours
- Sequoia National Park 311 miles; 5 hours
- Grand Canyon National Park 361 miles; 5-½ hours
- Zion National Park 344 miles; 5-½ hours
- Yosemite National Park 387 miles; 6-½ hours
- Big Sur National Park 477 miles; 7-½ hours
Closest Airports To Joshua Tree
Even closer are some of the nearby cities and airports should you fly in for your road trip.
Here are the nearest regional airports to Joshua Tree
- Indio/Palm Springs Airport 45 miles; 45 minutes
- Ontario International Airport (San Bernardino) 94 miles; 1-½ hours
- John Wayne Airport (Santa Ana) 122 miles; 2 hours
And here are the nearest International airports
- Los Angeles International Airport 146 miles; 2-½ hours
- San Diego International Airport 166 miles; 2-¾ hours
- McCarran Airport (Las Vegas) 183 miles; 3 hours
- Tijuana International Airport 183 miles; 3 hours
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport 226 miles; 3-½ hours
Airports for suggested road trips to Joshua Tree
- Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (for a Grand Canyon road trip) 351 miles; 5 hours
- St. George Muni airport (for a Zion road trip) 307 miles; 5 hours
- San Francisco International Airport (for a Yosemite road trip) 505 miles; 8 hours
Important Things When Visiting Joshua Tree National Park
Entrance Fee $30 for a week; $55 for the annual pass
Except for 6 days throughout the year when the entry fee is waived
Range from $15 per night at primitive sites to $25 for campgrounds with bathroom facilities.
Water is scarce and temperatures can be hot in the summer.
Bring plenty of water for hiking or camping.
Pack warm clothes. Low temperatures in the winter can be downright cold. But even summer nights can feel chilly compared to daytime highs.
Did you know?
The famous landmark from U2’s 1987 Joshua Tree album was not actually photographed in the National Park?
Instead it is located outside of Death Valley, just off of HWY 190. So if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, try GPS coordinates 36.330824, -117.745298. Although the tree has since fallen and been vandalized, there is a plaque nearby commemorating it.
Best Times To Visit Joshua Tree National Park
Not surprisingly, Joshua Tree gets extremely hot in the summer. Surprisingly, it gets pretty cold in the winter. Spring and fall are much more comfortable times to visit.
The chart below shows that the average temperatures are nearly identical in March and November.
However, notice the spike in visitors in March. Peak visitors come to see the desert flowers showcase their colors marking the end of winter. You can still catch a glimpse of some blooms in April if you want to go when the crowds die down a little bit.
So, when is the best time to visit Joshua Tree? Spring and fall have similar temperatures so are the most comfortable. So the choice comes down to seeing the rare desert flower but dealing with a more crowded park. Or enjoying the solitude in the fall.
Best Joshua Tree Guide Books
Recommended Joshua Tree Maps
Of course, sometimes you want a physical map with you. Whether you like them for navigating off-grid or just like them as souvenirs, you can’t go wrong with National Geographic maps.
Recommended Gear for Joshua Tree Hiking
You always want good quality kicks for any hiking. The most important aspect in Joshua Tree is ventilation, especially in the summer months. Merrell is one of my personal favorites, and especially the Moab. It’s comfortable, lightweight, and supportive.
This daypack is the perfect companion for a hike in Joshua Tree. It is lightweight, comfortable, and the mesh straps keep your shoulders a little cooler. Great for the minimalist, and you can’t beat the price.
For those that want a little more out of their bag, Osprey offers a whole line to fit your needs. The nice thing about this one is the hydration sleeve/tablet compartment. This makes it versatile for hiking and working. And it has enough room for extra camera equipment for some great shots of the Joshua Tree landscape or night skies.
Or if you want a little more color for your daily backpack, try this one out from USOutdoor.
Any time you’re out hiking, water is the one thing you should have with you. Even more so in the desert. You can bring a simple Nalgene or stainless steel canteen. But I prefer an insulated one just to keep my water from getting too hot.
For longer hikes you will want to bring even more water. CamelBak is synonymous with hydration and this one fits perfectly into your day pack. I use this one for everything from day hikes, snowboarding in the winter, and even on some long trail runs.
So, there are more expensive cameras out there with a few more bells and whistles. But at a certain point, the features don’t help create better pictures. You are better off spending more money on higher quality lenses. I like the fact that this one comes with a zoom lens for some close ups.
I have had the older model of this one for over 10 years and still get great quality shots. Especially if I want to shoot night skies.
Wide angle lens
Speaking of night skies, you will want a wide angle lens to capture the full landscape. I have this one and taken amazing shots from Iceland to Japan and right in my own back yard.
Again, you could spend more money later. But this takes crisp pictures and is a great value.
The only way to get clear shots is to stabilize the camera with a tripod. And the best tripod is the one you have with you.
I love my Slik mini. It’s stable and fully adjustable for any terrain. And best of all it fits into any backpack, rucksack, or carry on. That means I always have it with me for perfect landscape and night photography.
7 Best Things To Do On Day Trip To Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree lies between two of America’s deserts: the Mojave and the Colorado. The Mojave is higher in elevation and supports the actual Joshua Trees. While the Colorado is lower in elevation and hotter which makes a comfortable home to more traditional desert plant life.
You could hike or backpack through the park if you would like. But a lot of the sites can be seen a short distance from your car. This is especially welcome during the hot summer months when temperatures top 100° F (38° C).
Maybe the last thing you would expect in the desert would be a reservoir. And you’re right, since half of the year this one is empty during the dry season.
Originally built by cattle ranchers trying to eke out a living in 1900, it still stands as a testament to their fortitude and resourcefulness.
Take a short 1 mile hike on the Barker Dam Loop Trail. Just be sure to bring your own water since even in the rainy season it’s not the freshest you can get.
Speaking of water, Keys View offers an overlook to the Salton Sea and San Andreas fault. With the Coachella Valley laid out before you, it makes a great back drop for sunrise shots if you can get here early enough.
Its about a 20 minute drive off of the main Park Boulevard, but only a quarter mile walk to get the best views.
One of the most visited attractions in the park, skull rock is right off of the main drive. It’s easily accessible for a quick pic. Or take the 1.7 mile hike from Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Joshua Tree pays homage to Arches National park with its own Arch Rock. Its cool to see what erosion can do over time and how the landscape has slowly changed.
You can take a quarter-mile hike from the White Tank Campground if you are staying there or a slightly over 1 mile hike from the Twin Tanks trailhead.
Cholla Cactus Garden
This one is especially popular in the springtime when the flowers are blooming. Home to the misleadingly named Teddybear Cholla, it features a variety of desert fauna along a short, flat trail.
But you don’t have to wait for spring to enjoy a quick walk through the cacti and creosote bushes. This is a great way to get to know some of the native species of the Colorado Desert.
Another desert surprise is the Ocotillo plant. It doesn’t wait for spring to bloom, but simply a short shower is enough to trigger its blossoms.
If you are in the park shortly after a sprinkling, be sure to stop for a quick shot of these Pinto Basin succulents. Another short hike along the drive, its well worth a stop.
Another quick hike to a Joshua Tree treat is Cottonwood Springs. Just down the road from the Cottonwood campground, this oasis provides water to some other unique desert species: Cottonwood trees and some of the parks rare fan palm trees.
One of only five oases in the park, its well worth the 0.2 mile round trip hike. It’s a stark contrast to the arid terrain of the rest of the park, and highlights the diverse ecosystems in Joshua Tree.
—Should I Stay or Should I Go?—
After a long day driving through Joshua Tree you have three choices – stay the night, head back, or continue on a longer road trip.
At 5,000 feet above sea level and far from city lights, Joshua Tree has some of the darkest skies in Southern California. In fact, the International Dark Sky Association named it an International Dark Sky Park. That means this is the perfect place to spend the night.
Here are the best options for that:
Camping in Joshua Tree
The National Park itself has 9 campgrounds. Two of them, Black Rock and Cottonwood have potable water and a dump station for RVs. Although these two campgrounds have flush toilets, they do not have showers at the facility.
The other 7 campsites have pit toilets and no running water. However, you can get water at the ranger stations nearby.
For any other camping needs such as ice, firewood, or marshmallows Yucca Valley is just outside the park and only a few minutes drive from the Black Rock Campground. Other nearby towns for supplies include 29 Palms and Palm Springs.
Six of the campgrounds require reservations during the busy months of September through May. Three of them are first come first serve.
Sites fill up fast, but there are other options. Joshua Tree is surrounded by campgrounds and RV parks. Here is a list of some of the available ones.
There are two designated BLM areas where you can camp for free in dispersed camping. Although there are no facilities, it is an option when the campsite is full or you are saving some cash.
Glamping in Joshua Tree
For those that prefer a slightly more refined camping experience while still enjoying the outdoors, have you considered glamping?
Luxury tents, RVs, and airstreams offer a shower and a real bed for a relaxing night under the stars.
For example, at the Castle House Estate Yurt you can stay in a large bell tent complete with a queen size bed and all the comforts of home. Running water is nearby with an outdoor shower and shared bathroom facility.
On the same property is the Castle House Guard Tower. A medieval style tower finished with everything you need to get a good night sleep before the next day’s adventure.
Get in on the ground floor for a Bubble Hotel startup coming soon near Joshua Tree. Check out their fundraiser on Indiegogo to track their progress and be the first to stay in one of the clear domes made for stargazing.
RV Rental in Joshua Tree
If you like all of the features of camping but would prefer a more comfortable bed, look no further than renting an RV. Choose to drive a motorhome, tow a camper, or have one delivered directly to your site.
RV Share connects RV owners with RV renters. It is like a mobile version of Air-b-n-b.
Hop in this Coachmen Leprechaun and drive yourself around the park. You’ll have all that you need for up to 6 people to camp under the stars while sleeping in air conditioning. Or have this 33’ trailer delivered to your campsite.
Where To Stay In Joshua Tree Without Camping
No problem! There are tons of options around. From small cottages and hotels to one-of-a-kind accommodations.
Joshua Tree Vacation Rental
Starting in Yucca Valley, the Joshua Tree Hidden Tower is just outside of the park. Built in 2018 next to a historic water tower, this rustic cabin is a comfortable home base just minutes from the park entrance and hiking trails. With large french doors and a patio, stay up watching the stars or wake up with the morning coffee. It’s a way to be in the desert with all of the conveniences of home.
For a complete list of vacation rentals near Joshua Tree, VRBO has some great cabins and cottages for a place to call your own for a night.
Hotels Near Joshua Tree
The Little Paradise Hotel in Palm Springs is a highly rated boutique hotel just under an hour from the park. Backing up to the San Jacinto State Park with views of the mountains offers beautiful views while you cool off by the pool.
Just down the street is the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. With on-site amenities like a spa, restaurant, and bar as well as two swimming pools. This is the perfect way to unwind after a day exploring Joshua Tree.
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Summary – PLANNING A PERFECT DAY TRIP TO JOSHUA TREE
To sum it all up, a day trip to Joshua Tree is an excellent way to explore the desert’s natural beauty for a day, a weekend, or part of a longer road trip. An easy drive from San Diego and Los Angeles makes it the perfect getaway for those seeking solitude in the high desert.
It is also within a day’s drive from some popular parks. Compare it to the Grand Canyon or Zion and Bryce Canyon to experience the diverse plant life and landscape of the American Southwest. Or contrast it to the lush forests of Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park’s breathtaking mountain vistas.
Whatever your trip entails, spend a day among the iconic Joshua Trees and a night among the stars.