I have to confess it took me a long time to visit Joshua Tree National Park, 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 was only in the park for about 8 hours, but next time I plan on camping there for a few days.
You can see a lot during one day in Joshua Tree. So if you’re also planning a Joshua Tree day trip, here’s where you should consider spending your time in the national park.
Joshua Tree Day Trip: Getting Here from Major Cities
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 doing what I did – leave by 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 1/2 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 day trip and may have to stay overnight instead.
Now then, here are some of the attractions and activities you can do in your one day in Joshua Tree National Park. Remember to bring water and sunscreen!
Barker Dam Hike
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.
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. It’s a good spot to sit for a while and eat lunch or a snack. 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.
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.
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 Mount San Jacinto’s 10,000-foot peak or San Gorgonio Mountain at 11,485 feet.
This was the highlight of the park for me. Just 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 made me feel like a kid again. It was so much fun.
Beyond that, if you’re a hardcore rock climber with the proper equipment, you can have a lot of fun throughout the park on Joshua Tree’s hillsides and rock formations.
Those are the three main attractions you should try to squeeze in during a quick visit to Joshua Tree. 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 cover was shot near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park. 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.