Who’s ready for a Joshua Tree day trip adventure?! I have to confess it took me a long time to visit Joshua Tree National Park in California, because I wasn’t sure it was worth it.
It’s just a bunch of weird-looking trees? That doesn’t sound like anything special. How wrong I was!
With cool hikes, rock climbing fun, and scenic viewpoints, Joshua Tree ended up being one of my favorite national parks. I’ve taken three separate day trips to Joshua Tree over the past few years, and have now learned the absolute best way to spend an 8- to 12- hour day in the park.
You can see a lot during one day in Joshua Tree! There are unusual natural formations like Arch Rock, Jumbo Rocks, and Skull Rock. Scenic overlooks where you can view the entire Coachella Valley. Century-old attractions like Wall Street Mill.
And, of course, there are plenty of those joshua trees, which look especially cool at sunrise and sunset.
In this article, we’ll go over my favorite Joshua Tree one day itinerary, followed by several alternate activity suggestions which you can substitute for any of the items in the list, in case you want a different experience.
If you’re also planning a one day trip to check out Joshua Tree, here’s where you should consider spending your time in the park!
JOSHUA TREE TOURS FROM OUR PARTNERS:
Joshua Tree Day Trip Planning: Sunrise & Sunset Times, Weather, Food
When planning a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park, you’ll ideally want to be in the park for both sunrise and sunset. If you’re driving from a distant city like Las Vegas, you probably won’t arrive before sunrise. So you’ll have to skip item #1 on our day trip itinerary.
But if you can make it to the park for sunrise, do it! Here’s a site that lists the sunrise and sunset times for every day of the year. Consult the chart and plan your day trip accordingly.
That same website displays the sunset times as well. You’ll need those times too, because our itinerary ends with a sunset trip to Cholla Cactus Garden.
Next, double check the weather forecast. Temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park can get extremely hot during the summer months. From June through September, average high temperatures exceed 90 F (32 C.)
Meanwhile, December through February can be chilly, with highs topping out in the 58-63 F range (14-17 C), and even colder temperatures at the higher elevations.
For that reason, I suggest visiting during the spring or fall. March through mid-May are great times to visit – you may even get some wildflowers! October and November also provide comfortable temperatures.
Finally, bring plenty of foods and beverages. Bring a few gallons of water to refill your bottles, and some Gatorade to replenish those vitamins that you’ll be sweating away.
Important: There is no food available in the park at all! No stores of any kind. So bring breakfast and lunch from a nearby grocery store.
I usually go with room temperature meals like tuna and crackers, jerky and cheese, apples, nuts, and granola bars. For more suggestions, see our post about the best road trip snacks.
Joshua Tree Directions from Major Cities (Los Angeles, Las Vegas)
Joshua Tree is a great day trip opportunity since its southern California location puts it near many big cities. When you’re looking at a map of directions to Joshua Tree, keep in mind that most of the good stuff is in the northern side of the park.
So you’ll most likely enter using the entrance in the northwest part of the park, which goes through the town of Joshua Tree itself.
The closest major city to Joshua Tree is Palm Springs. It’s only an hour by car from Palm Springs to the northern Joshua Tree entrance via Route 62.
From downtown Los Angeles, you’re looking at two hours and 15 minutes on I-10, if there’s no traffic. I highly suggest leaving before 6 am to avoid the morning rush hour freeway madness. And return back to LA in the evening, after rush hour.
The drive from San Diego is about 2.5 hours, but again you’ll have to consider traffic. So leave early! From Las Vegas, the drive is 3.5 hours, and from Phoenix it’s 4.5 hours.
Folks coming from those cities probably won’t be able to do a proper day trip and may have to stay overnight instead.
The park has a few visitor centers, notably the Joshua Tree Visitor Center by the north entrance and the Cottonwood Visitor Center by the more remote southern entrance.
Note that if you follow my itinerary, you won’t be able to stop into any of the visitor centers, because this day trip schedule begins before sunrise and ends after sunset.
Now then, here are some of the attractions, activities, and things to do in your one day in Joshua Tree National Park. Remember to bring lots of water and sunscreen!
Hotel Guide: Where to Stay in Joshua Tree
Ok, one last section before we start going over the itinerary. As I strongly suggest being in Joshua Tree for sunrise and sunset, the ideal option is to spend the previous night in a local hotel. That way you can wake up early and be inside the park less than 20 minutes later.
High Desert Motel. The High Desert Motel is probably the cheapest motel in the town of Joshua Tree. It’s a very basic motel, but it will save you quite a bit of money. Some nights are as cheap as $59. And it’s also the closest hotel to the national park entrance – it’s only three city blocks from the visitor center!
Super 8 Yucca Valley. Here’s another basic property, but as a national chain, it’s a step up from the High Desert Motel. It’s only a 10-minute drive from the town of Joshua Tree, and this area has tons of grocery stores, fast food outlets, and gas stations.
Pioneertown Motel. Pioneertown is an awesome little Old West-themed town that was originally built as a movie set! The motel here is more expensive, but staying in Pioneertown would be a unique experience. It’s 20 minutes west of the town of Joshua Tree.
The Best Joshua Tree One Day Itinerary
Here it is, the map of my suggested itinerary for a single day in the park. There are 7 primary stops. Feel free to pull over at pullouts or informational boards along the way. This itinerary has a bit of extra time built in so you can travel at a relaxed pace.
The schedule assumes you’re coming in from the northwest park entrance, in the town of Joshua Tree itself. If you travel here from Palm Springs or Los Angeles, this will be your route.
If you come to Joshua Tree from the south (Phoenix) or the northeast (Las Vegas), you can do this itinerary in reverse, starting with sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden.
Recommended Joshua Tree One Day Itinerary:
6 am Hidden Valley Trail for sunrise
8 am Barker Dam hike (or Ryan Mountain hike)
10:30 am Keys View overlook
11:30 am Hall of Horrors slot canyon
1:30 pm Jumbo Rocks & Skull Rock climbing
3:30 pm Arch Rock hike
5:30 pm Cholla Cactus Garden for sunset
The roads to Barker Dam and Keys View are dead-end roads (unless you have an off-road vehicle), so that explains why the map shows some backtracking between stops.
Stop #1: Hidden Valley Trail at sunrise (6 am)
Consult those sunrise charts to determine the exact time to start your day. This article assumes you’ll be visiting during spring or fall, so we’re starting our day at 6 am just as the sun begins to rise.
Coming in the park from the north before dawn, head towards the Hidden Valley Trail parking lot. (Enter “Hidden Valley picnic area” into your GPS.) This is a cool place to be when the sun rises.
It’s a 25-30 minute drive to the parking lot from the town of Joshua Tree, and at that hour you’ll be able to zip right into the park without having to fight traffic.
If you get there early enough, you can get some cool pics of the joshua trees framed by the night sky with the tiniest glimpses of light starting to appear on the horizon:
As the sun continues to rise, it will illuminate the surrounding mountains, creating lots of nifty photo opportunities.
The Hidden Valley Nature Trail is a flat, one-mile loop, so it won’t take long to complete. There are plenty of rock formations here to climb if you’re so inclined.
Stop #2: Barker Dam Hike (8 am)
The 1.3-mile Barker Dam Hike is a loop trail that takes a little less than an hour to cover, perfect for day trip visitors to Joshua Tree NP. Doing it early before the sun emerges is ideal.
The beginning of the hike has a decent amount of plant life, with cacti of various types, small spiky plants, a few Oak and Juniper trees that are adapted for desert life, and even a few patches of grass and flowers.
You’ll reach the dam about halfway through the hike. The dam has some history – it was built in 1900 to hold water for cattle and miners. It’s a good spot to sit for a while and eat breakfast or a morning snack.
These days, the dam creates a small reservoir used by the park’s wildlife. Depending on the season, you may find a large pool of water, or not much at all.
Continuing on the trail will take you past several large joshua trees. That’s what you’re here for, right? This is a good chance to see them up close.
After doing the Barker Dam loop, try the Wall Street Mill Trail if you like. It’s right next door. You can walk over without driving.
The Wall Street Mill hike takes visitors to an old mining mill that was used to process gold a century ago. The full hike is 2.2 miles and takes around 45 minutes.
I don’t necessarily recommend doing the full Wall Street Mill hike, because there isn’t much to see on the way, shade is minimal, and the mill is surrounded by fencing, so you can’t get very close.
However, I do recommend taking 10-15 minutes to do the very beginning of the hike. Look to your left as you walk, and you’ll see Wonderland Ranch, aka the Ohlson House. This is a section of ruins from a ranch in the early 1900s.
You can walk inside the abandoned buildings and get some cool photos. Do that, and then return to your vehicle and continue on to the next stop!
Alternative Option: If you prefer a more strenuous hike, replace Barker Dam on your itinerary with Ryan Mountain. Ryan Mountain is a 3-mile hike with 1100 feet elevation gain. Scroll to the end of the article (“Alternative Activities for a Joshua Tree One Day Itinerary”) to read more about the Ryan Mountain trek.
Stop #3: Keys View (10:30 am)
Here’s another must-see item to add to your Joshua Tree itinerary. Perhaps the most scenic of Joshua Tree’s scenic viewpoints is Keys View. Located at 5185 feet, this point offers views down into the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, and the San Andreas Fault.
Keys View is a popular sunset location, because it has an expansive view to the west. If you want to rearrange your schedule to be here at sunset, go for it! We’re doing it mid-morning, since that’s when it best fits into our schedule.
You can drive right up to the lookout point. Be ready for very high winds. You won’t need to spend more than 10-15 minutes here, but the views and selfie opportunities make it worth it.
Supposedly on clear days, you can see all the way to Mexico. But due to air pollution, most days you’ll have to settle for seeing Mount San Jacinto’s 10,000-foot peak (that’s near the summit of the Palm Springs aerial tramway) or San Gorgonio Mountain at 11,485 feet.
Stop #4: Hall of Horrors slot canyon (11:30 am)
Here’s a lesser-known wonder that you won’t find on any of the park brochures. It’s a specific section of slot canyon that is short, but is one of the quirkiest and coolest activities in Joshua Tree National Park.
It’s called the Hall of Horrors. Why such an intimidating nickname? Probably because of this:
Don’t be alarmed! While the Hall of Horrors is narrow, most of it is wide enough for anyone to comfortably walk through. There are just a couple of brief sections, like the one above, where you have to wiggle your way through a tight opening.
The super-narrow parts are only a few feet long. You can get through the whole hall in less than 30 minutes, so it’s actually not that challenging. But the incredible photos make it look a lot more difficult!
It’s a little tricky to locate the Hall, since it’s not on any park maps. We have a separate article explaining how to find the Hall of Horrors.
The walk from the parking lot to the canyon is less than a mile, and the rock formations around the Hall of Horrors make for great scrambling and climbing.
I like to find an area in a shady part of the rocks to settle down and enjoy lunch. This itinerary leaves plenty of time to explore the Hall and break for lunch before moving on.
Stop #5: Jumbo Rocks and Skull Rock (1:30 pm)
Next, head east to Jumbo Rocks. Exploring this section is one of the coolest things to do in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s always a highlight of the park for me!
As its name indicates, Jumbo Rocks is a section full of huge rock formations. Visitors can jump, climb, and play on them. You don’t need any ropes or special equipment here to get really high into the air.
Climbing over, through, and around these rocks for a solid hour makes me feel like a kid again. It is always so much fun. Just watch your step – nobody wants sprain an ankle in a beautiful place like this!
Less than a mile from Jumbo Rocks is the famous Skull Rock. Can you guess why it’s earned that name?
Yes, folks believe that the holes in the side of the rock could be eye and nose holes, which make it look like a skull. It sorta does, right? Skull Rock is a popular spot for selfies and family photos.
You can hike from Jumbo Rocks to Skull Rock if you desire (it’s 0.7 miles each way.) Or, just drive to the Skull Rock parking lot.
Like Jumbo Rocks, the Skull Rock area also has plenty of rocks to climb around on. So if you’re short on time as you work through this itinerary, just skip Jumbo Rocks and come straight to Skull Rock to get your fill of scrambling and climbing.
Stop #6: Arch Rock (3:30 pm)
Here’s yet another cool rock formation. In fact, this one may be my favorite in the park! Arch Rock is exactly that – a rock that has taken on an arch shape over the years.
The walk to the rock is short (just a half-mile) and mostly flat, so anybody can make it to the rock. Some minor scrambling is all that’s needed if you want to stand in front of the arch.
You’ll need a friend standing on a rock ledge on the other side of the canyon to get just the right shot.
Arch Rock is another popular spot on everyone’s Joshua Tree itinerary, so expect lots of other tourists to be around. You may have to wait a few minutes to get your photo. But it will be worth it!
As with most stops on this Joshua Tree day trip, there are additional rock formations and dirt trails surrounding Arch Rock. If you’re ahead of schedule, take some extra time to explore these side trails. They are far less crowded than the main hiking trails.
Stop #7: Cholla Cactus Garden for sunset (5:30 pm)
There aren’t any joshua trees at the Cholla Cactus Garden. Instead, there are tons of cholla cacti, and they look amazing in the “golden hour” just before sunset! Once again, consult the sunset charts to determine what time you need to be at the cactus garden.
IMPORTANT! The Cholla Cactus Garden is situated next to a small mountain. That means that the sun goes down here well before the official sunset time you find on the charts.
Depending on time of year, the sun will be hidden behind the mountain as early as 1 hour before official sunset time. And you’ll want at least 30 minutes to take pictures during golden hour.
So to be safe, get here at least 90 minutes before the official sunset time. In spring/fall, the official sunset time is often around 7 pm, so parking here at 5:30 is a safe bet. You don’t want to arrive here for sunset only to find that the sun is already long gone!
The cholla cactus is a stump, prickly cactus that is often just a couple feet high, though some can be taller than humans. They’re also called “teddy bear cholla,” because of the way they look fuzzy and cuddly from a distance.
Don’t get close, though – they are very sharp and will stick to your clothes! Hundreds of them are grouped together here in the Cholla Cactus Garden.
Visitors are expected to remain on the boardwalks. But the garden is large enough that you’ll have plenty of cactus to explore, and you can still get close enough to get an up-close look at this unique plant.
Sunset at Cholla Cactus Garden is a great way to end a Joshua Tree day trip. From here, you can head back to your hotel, or begin the drive back home if you are not staying overnight.
Alternative Activities for a Joshua Tree One Day Itinerary
I happen to think my basic day trip itinerary is pretty solid! But if you want to mix it up a bit, here are some other spots you may want to consider including on your own itinerary.
Lost Horse Mine
Here’s another abandoned mine from many years ago. Getting to Lost Horse Mine requires a 4-mile roundtrip trek. I don’t think this hike is as fun as some others in the park, but some folks may want to add the Lost Horse Mine trail to their Joshua Tree day trip itinerary.
Important: If you do any hikes in Joshua Tree, bring lots of water, and go with a friend or tell someone where you’re going! Desert heat is no joke. As a reminder of the danger, rangers have posted signs all over the park with the personal stories of hikers who’ve perished over the years.
Ryan Mountain is the highest point (5457 feet elevation) in the park that you can hike to. It’s one of the more strenuous hikes in Joshua Tree, but for experienced hikers, it’s not too bad: about 1100 feet elevation gain over 1.5 miles to the summit.
This is my favorite hike in Joshua Tree. If you’re going to take on this hike, go in the morning, when the sun is partially hidden behind the mountain.
I started the hike around 9 am, and fortunately there was still quite a bit of shade on the way up.
Give yourself 2-3 hours to complete the Ryan Mountain hike and spend some time soaking in the views at the summit. If you consider yourself a serious hiker, do Ryan Mountain instead of Barker Dam.
Here’s another opportunity to see historic ruins. Head to Ryan Campground and take the short hike (just 0.6 miles each way) to reach Ryan Ranch – or what’s left of it. Only the frames of a couple buildings remain.
But they’re cool because they are adobe structures, rather than the brick and wooden ruins found elsewhere in the park. This area also has a small cemetery with around 10 grave sites.
If you’re only going to visit one old ranch, Keys Ranch would be the one. The Keys family lived in this ranch for 60 years, starting in 1910, as they built a successful mining operation.
The buildings here are still very well-preserved, including a schoolhouse, store, and the main ranch house. The old vehicles and mining equipment are still here too.
The only catch? Keys Ranch is closed to visitors unless you’re on a guided tour with the National Park Service.
Tours are usually only available from October through May. Click here to find out if there’s a tour happening while you’re in town. Reservations are required.
Cottonwood Springs + Lost Palms Oasis
The one main attraction in the often-ignored southern section of Joshua Tree National Park is Cottonwood Springs.
The spring formed centuries ago as the result of an earthquake and has been used by the Native Americans who lived here, and the many animals like bighorn sheep who come to drink from it.
There’s a campground here, plus a number of good hikes. Mastodon Peak is a three-mile loop trail with cool views. For a longer hike, follow the trail to Lost Palms Oasis (7.5 miles roundtrip) to see the park’s largest concentration of California fan palm trees, tucked in a ravine between two rocky hills.
Fortynine Palms Oasis
Fortynine Palms Oasis is accessible via a separate park entrance from the town of Fortynine Palms. This 3-mile hike takes visitors to an oasis with palm trees that provide lots of shade, a rarity in Joshua Tree! That makes it a nice place to sit for lunch.
Note: As of early 2023, rangers have decided to indefinitely close Fortynine Palms Oasis to visitors, in order to allow bighorn sheep and other wildlife to have undisturbed access to it, since it’s a rare water source in this mountainous part of the park.
The Wildlife of Joshua Tree National Park
While you’re driving around and hiking, keep an eye out for critters of all kinds. Rattlesnakes are the biggest dangers during hikes, so watch your step.
Bighorn sheep are found on some of the mountains. I have yet to see sheep in Joshua Tree NP, although the sheep signs are everywhere.
I’ve seen roadrunners on every trip to the park. Look for them scurrying along the ground. Meep meep! Less common park animals include foxes, desert tortoises, and jackrabbits.
Smaller animals like lizards are somewhat common. Here’s a zebratail lizard I saw under some shrubs in the Jumbo Rocks area.
Birds sightings are frequent, including orioles, wrens, quails, hawks, thrashers, and owls.
Camping at Joshua Tree National Park
If you choose to turn your 24-hour visit into an overnight, grab a spot at one of the campgrounds.
There are more rocks than trees here, and temperatures range from very hot in summer to quite cold in winter, so plan accordingly.
The park has nine campgrounds, most of which fill on weekends. You’ll probably want to make a reservation, or come during the summer offseason (June-September.) Most are $15-20 a night. Some have flush toilets, while others have pit toilets. See the park’s full list of campgrounds.
A note about U2’s Joshua Tree album cover
If you’re a rock music fan, you may wonder about stopping by the spot where U2 shot the album cover to their masterpiece The Joshua Tree album. Well, it turns out that’s an entirely different park.
The album cover was shot near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park (yes, Death Valley has some joshua trees too.) That’s a full 4-hour drive away. And the exact tree on the cover is no longer standing.
So basically, there’s not much actual U2 history to be found in Joshua Tree National Park. But it’s still cool if you wanna blast “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” while you drive through the park.
Do you have any suggestions to add to a Joshua Tree one day itinerary?