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How to Plan a Day Trip to Joshua Tree; 7 Beautiful Sights

Joshua Tree Itinerary: 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

In October, we took a road trip from Phoenix and spent a couple of days relaxing in Joshua Tree.

We spent a couple of days with my family in a vacation rental since we were with my 92 year-old grandfather.

It turns out to be a relaxing family vacation or there are plenty of activities to do for the more adventurous.

We had been planning a Joshua Tree road trip for years so we were excited to go.

As part of the 80’s generation that grew up with U2, I had a certain expectation from Joshua Tree. (It turns out the famous tree isn’t even in the park – more on that later).

But for anyone from any generation, the silhouette of the Joshua Tree is synonymous with the high desert of California.

At any rate, here are a few of our tips from our recent road trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

We’ll cover some of the basics on what to do and where to stay, including some of the things we did to make it a chill weekend trip.

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).

What is amazing about this Joshua Tree itinerary is that it takes you through most of the popular sights in the park.

And you can do the whole drive on your way in or on your way out of the park.

These areas are divided quite distinctly by the fauna. It seems that, at least from the north entry you see Joshua Trees everywhere as soon as you drive into the park.

Then you crest a hill and only see Cholla Cactus. Another hill and the landscape is dominated by the Ocotillo.

Its a spectacular drive through Joshua Tree National Park. You can hardly believe this can all be seen in one day trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

One Day In Joshua Tree Itinerary Map

Trip map courtesy of Wanderlog, a trip map maker

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. Almost all of these are viewable from the road.

But, you can take a short walk to get a little closer if you like.

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.

Barker Dam

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.

Keys View

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Key’s View overlooking the San Andreas Fault and the Coachella Valley

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 few hundred feet to get the best views.

It is also accessible. Even though my grandpa is in a scooter, it was easy enough to drive to the top of the overlook right next to the parking spot.

Just make sure the scooter battery is charged. It’s a steep hill going up.

Or you can drive around from the other side for a more gentle slope. It is a circle loop you can see in the picture below.

Key's View is accessible for scooters and wheelchairs
Parking at Key’s View is accessible.

Skull Rock

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Almost There!

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.

I’ll give you one guess where it gets its name from!

A Driving Tour of Joshua Tree brings you right to Skull Rock
Skull Rock can be seen from the road.

Arch Rock

Parking for Arches Rock is a short hike away.

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

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Cholla Cactus Garden

Before you get to the Cholla Cactus Garden, the most dominate plant is the Joshua Tree.

But there is some sort of line where they stop growing only to be replaced by these big cacti.

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.

Ocotillo Patch

Ocotillo-Patch-Road-Sign-in-Joshua-Tree

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.

There is another line that you cross where the cholla stops and the Ocotillo start. It seems that none of the plants can live together, but they each dominate their space.

While the Joshua Tree looks like giant fireworks, the Ocotillo looks like a tornado.

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.

Cottonwood Springs

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.

Nearby is the visitor’s center at the south entrance. It’s just off of I-10 and the main road will take you all the way through the center of the park and into Joshua Tree and 29 Palms.

If you are driving from Phoenix like we were, this was our last stop before heading back. After a beautiful drive through Joshua Tree, we were ready for a 3-1/2 hour drive home.

Cottonwood Springs Visitor Center At the South End of a Joshua Tree Day Trip
Cottonwood Springs is just inside the South entrance to Joshua Tree National park.

How to Plan the perfect Joshua Tree Road Trip  

Now that you know what the perfect day trip to Joshua Tree is, you’ll want to know how you can plan your own road trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

Let’s start with the basics. We’ll cover where to stay. Should you choose camping, glamping, hotel, or as we did a vacation rental?

Then we’ll go over some of the logistics for visiting.

But first of all, we have to start the day off right. So, let’s hit the best coffee in Joshua Tree:

Featured Coffee: Joshua Tree Bali Kintamani. This was one of the best coffees we have had in a while. It is a light roast, but to me it had a nutty, sweet flavor.

It’s definitely on the pricey side, but I would buy it any time I’m in Joshua Tree.

Ok, now that you have your coffee, let’s get to lodging.

Where to Stay in Joshua Tree National park

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

We love to camp. Especially someplace like Joshua Tree with an abundance of clear nights and dark skies.

In fact, camping can actually be healthy for you. So we camp whenever possible.

However on this trip we had to skip the camping. We were with my grandpa who is struggling to get around.

But if you decide to camp, there are plenty of options.

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. 

VRBO

We stayed at one of the most amazing properties in Joshua Tree. We will have to write a full review soon, but if you have to choose this is the option to splurge on.

Joseph is an amazing host and has thought of everything. He made sure we were comfortable and that all of the amenities were in good order.

Most importantly, it was spotless. We have had to leave some vacation rentals in the past. So cleanliness is a priority for us.

We could not have had a more relaxing and enjoyable stay.

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. 

For more deals, check out Agoda Hotels.

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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 

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. 

Planning A Day Trip to Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park can make an excellent day trip from Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, or as we did from Phoenix.

Or part of a road trip connecting California’s National Parks like Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Big Sur. 

Others prefer to turn it into a Southwest road trip by adding stops at 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

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

Camping Fees 

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, maybe try GPS. The U2 Joshua Tree coordinates are 36°19’51.0″N 117°44’43.1″W

Although the tree has since fallen and been vandalized, there is a plaque nearby commemorating it.

Best Times To Visit Joshua Tree National Park

  1. October – the weather cools off a little and the crowds dissipate.
  2. March/April – more crowds, but the weather is still mild and the desert plants are in full bloom.

Not surprisingly, Joshua Tree gets extremely hot in the summer. But 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.

Johsua-Tree-Weather-Chart-Average-High-and-Low-Temperatures-in-Joshua-Tree-National-ParkJoshua-Tree-Visitor-Chart-Monthly-Average-Numbers-of-Visitors-to-Joshua-Tree-National-Park-Each-Month

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.

Joshua-Tree-Desert-Blooms-Springtime-in-Joshua-Tree-National-Park

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.

We chose October which proved to be a great combination of beautiful weather in the 80’s and very small crowds.

So for us, October is the best time for a day trip to Joshua Tree.

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

Hiking Boots

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.

Daypack

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.

Dakine Heli Pro 20L Backpack - Women's B4bc Floral One Size

Dakine Heli Pro 20L Backpack – Women’s B4bc Floral One Size

Comfortable enough for a day hauling books around campus as well as home to plenty of pockets for all of your mountain adventures, this durable pack from Dakine can handle it all. The Heli Pro 20L Backpack is made out of a burly DWR Coated 600D polyester with a ski/snowboard carry and features a snow tool/shovel pocket, a hydration compatible laptop sleeve and a fleece lined goggle pocket. The ergonomic women’s specific design ensures that you’ll be able to move with comfort and confidence, while the always-impressive versatility ensures that Dakine’s Heli Pro 20L Backpack will be your go-to for years to come.


Great deals on Camelbak products! - USOUTDOOR.COM

Water Bottle

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.

Camera

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.

Tripod

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.

Best Joshua Tree Guide Books