Joshua Tree National Park is a desert oasis, climber’s paradise, and a photographer’s dream, all in one! This national park attracts everyone, from astrophotographers to adventure junkies.
The national park sits at the convergence of two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado. This ecosystem has unique geology and plentiful opportunities to spot wildlife.
Joshua Tree National Park has so much to offer. It’s easy to navigate, allowing you to see the major highlights in a single day. Joshua Tree is the perfect weekend trip from major cities like Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
Read on for all the details on the perfect day in Joshua Tree National Park.
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Why You Should Visit
Joshua Tree National Park is most known for its namesake Joshua Trees. These prickly trees are cousins of the agave, most often found in the Mojave Desert. Joshua Trees can live well over 150 years, particularly in protected areas like the national park.
But the park has more to see than just Joshua Trees. Amongst the densely packed trees, you’ll find giant, lava-formed rocks, gathered and stacked high above the ground. These unique rock formations draw climbers from all over the world.
If you want to escape to the city and spot desert-native wildlife, Joshua Tree National Park is for you!
When to Go
Unlike many national parks, Joshua Tree is the least busy in the Summer, due to extreme heat. In the Summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees.
Most visitors choose to explore the park from October to April, when temperatures are cooler during the day. I recommend visiting in late Fall or early Spring, when temperatures stay between 40 and 70 degrees.
If you choose to camp in Joshua Tree in the Winter, bring warm layers, as overnight temperatures will be near freezing from December to February.
Getting There and Getting Around
Joshua Tree National Park is under 3 hours from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas, making it an easy weekend escape. Or the perfect add-on to a Southern California road trip!
Getting to and around Joshua Tree National Park requires a vehicle as there is no park shuttle. The park roads are paved, so no need for an all-wheel drive vehicle. Any car will do!
Where to Stay
Unlike many national parks, Joshua Tree is surrounded by a populated area. The towns of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, and Twentynine Palms are just outside the park limits.
Joshua Tree is known for its campgrounds. The most popular campground in the park is Jumbo Rocks Campground. As you might guess from the name, the campground sits in the shadow of massive, lava-formed boulders. Many climbers choose to camp here for its proximity to climbing.
From May to September, the park’s slow season, most of the park’s campgrounds are first-come, first-served. During peak season, from October to April, reservations are required for the park’s most popular campgrounds. You can book sites at Black Rock, Cottonwood, Indian Cove, and Jumbo Rocks campgrounds through Recreation.Gov. These sites, particularly Jumbo Rocks, will fill up early, so I recommend booking 6 months out when reservations become available.
If in-park campgrounds are full when you arrive, consider camping outside the park on Bureau of Land Management land. I recommend using freecampsites.net to locate dispersed camping spots near the park.
The sprawling desert landscape around the park has allowed for many residential developments. Any of the surrounding towns have plenty of Airbnbs, at relatively low prices! You’ll find anything from glamping sites to large, poolside estates.
I choose to stay in a beautifully decorated, mid century style Airbnb. And let me tell you, there was nothing more relaxing than the porch swing after an early day of hiking.
While you may have a more luxurious experience staying outside the park, it will mean early wake up calls. It takes about an hour to drive into the heart of Joshua Tree National Park from the surrounding towns.
What to Pack
Joshua Tree National Park is an arid-desert environment. Desert hikes require more preparation than other landscapes. Be prepared for your trip to the Joshua Trees by carrying all the essentials to keep yourself safe and happy!
- America the Beautiful National Park Pass. This pass grants you access to all the USA national parks, plus many other federal lands, for only $80 a year. This pass covers you and everyone in your vehicle! To compare, the entry fee to only Joshua Tree National Park is $30.
- Water, tons of water. Dry desert environments require you to bring double the amount of water you normally would. While some places in the park have water bottle refill stations, I recommend bringing at least 5 gallons of water. We kept a large water jug in the back of the car for emergencies. When hiking in dry, hot environments you will dehydrate faster. Plan to bring at least 2-3 liters of water with you on every hike, even if you aren’t straying far from the car.
- Sun Protection. Even in cooler Winter months, the UV index is high and the park is unshaded. Protect your skin and your eyes with a sun hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen (reapply every few hours!).
- 10 Hiking Essentials. Don’t get caught out on the trail without proper supplies. While this itinerary only covers short day hikes, it’s important to be prepared. I’ve had to use my first aid kit on a trail only a mile from my car. Be prepared with a first aid kit and wilderness survival tools, like a knife, fire starter, emergency shelter, and whistle. Check out my detailed post on the 10 Hiking Essentials for more information.
- Snacks and Lunch. Joshua Tree National Park has no dining options within the park. Prepare for your long day of exploring by packing lunch and plenty of snacks ahead of time. I like to pack things that don’t need refrigeration, like PB&J, protein bars, trail mix, and beef jerky.
- Extra Layers. The key to comfort in Joshua Tree is layers. Even in the hot Summer months, mornings and evenings in Joshua Tree National Park can be chilly. Always keep extra layers, like a fleece pullover or merino wool zip up, in the car. If you are visiting in the Winter, be sure to pack a warm hat, gloves, and a down jacket for after sundown.
- Headlamp. Getting those perfect sunrise photos means getting to the park in the dark. Hike safely with a headlamp. You’ll keep your hands free and avoid trampling vegetation and wildlife along the path.
- Offline Maps. I always recommend downloading the area’s map offline in the Google Maps app ahead of time. This will ensure you’re able to navigate around the park without cell service (which won’t be available within the park). For offline hiking maps, I recommend AllTrails Pro. But that said, it’s still a good idea to pick up a park map at the entrance station or visitor center.
- DSLR Camera and Tripod. The best way to capture the park’s beauty is with a DSLR camera. It doesn’t have to be fancy, I have the Nikon D3300, replaced by the D3500. My photographer boyfriend has the Canon Mark III. Secure your camera to your backpack when hiking with the Peak Design camera clip. Low light photography, like sunrise in Joshua Tree, require a tripod. Bring a collapsible tripod along, preferable one that will fit in your backpack.
1-Day Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary
I know, I know, that was a lot of information. But now we’ve arrived: here’s the perfect 1-day itinerary to explore the highlights of Joshua Tree National Park.
Start Your Day at Cholla Cactus Garden
If you do one thing in Joshua Tree National Park, this should be it. Cholla Cactus Garden is one of the best Joshua Tree sunrise spots! As the sun creeps over the horizon, the garden illuminates and glows as the cacti catch the morning sun.
Drive straight through the park to the Cholla Cactus Garden. As you drive through the dark, keep a watch for wildlife. We saw multiple coyotes and a giant owl sitting on the road at 4 am.
Walk along the ¼ mile dirt trail to photograph the glowing cactus. Plan to arrive at least 45 minutes early to capture the light from dawn through the morning golden hour.
Read More: 5 Best Joshua Tree Sunrise Spots
Explore and Climb Arch Rock
Head back along Park Boulevard to explore (and climb!) Arch Rock. This unique arch sits atop a stack of boulders, formed from lava pushed up through the fault line.
Unlike many national parks, Joshua Tree allows you to climb along the boulders. Get out, explore, and get your picture on top of the popular Arch Rock.
Arch Rock is next to White Tank Campground, one of the park’s popular first-come, first-served campgrounds. Please be respectful to campers when visiting, particularly early in the morning.
Photograph Skull Rock
Continue along Park Boulevard to another famous rock formation, Skull Rock. Find a parking spot along the road and make the short trek out to the skull look alike. In the morning, the rock should be quiet, before crowds swarm in the afternoon.
Snap a photo of the “skull” from the path off Park Boulevard. If you’re looking to explore the area more, take the 1.7 mile loop out to Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Hike Hidden Valley or Ryan Mountain
If you’re looking for a challenging hike, make the 3 mile round trip hike to the summit of Ryan Mountain. From the summit, you can observe sweeping views of Joshua Tree National Park. But be warned, this short trail is steep, covering over 1,000 feet of elevation in just 1.5 miles to the summit. This popular trail should be hiked in the morning, particularly in the Summer, before high temperatures hit in the afternoon.
If you’re looking for a family friendly, easy hike, choose the 1 mile loop through Hidden Valley. This valley was once enclosed by rocks. It only became accessible after the rocks were removed by settlers, revealing the Hidden Valley. Here you can spot many Joshua Trees and Yucca plants. This hike is perfect for kids who want to climb and explore the boulders.
After your hike, find a shaded picnic spot near Hidden Valley picnic area, eat some lunch, and relax for the afternoon.
See Sunset at Keys View
An hour or two before sunset, make the scenic drive out to Keys View, stopping to capture the Joshua Trees in the late afternoon sun. Be sure to arrive at the Keys View parking lot at least 45 minutes before sunset. This scenic spot is popular and parking will fill up as sunset approaches.
Bring your tripod and find a spot along the ledge at the viewpoint. As the sun fades, purples and pinks will illuminate the valley below, providing grand views of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.
After sunset, head back along Keys View Road to take photos of Joshua Trees in the last light of the day. A tripod is crucial for these epic last light photos.
More Joshua Tree Adventures
If you have more time in Joshua Tree National Park, consider hiking the 1.1 mile round trip trail out to Barker Dam for sunrise or sunset. This easy loop takes you to a historic water tank built by early cattle ranches. Keep a lookout for bighorn sheep along the way!
Joshua Tree National Park is known for its dark skies. Spend some time in the park to catch a glimpse at the star-filled sky either during a new moon or after the moon has set at night. For night sky viewing, I like to refer to the Clear Dark Sky charts for guidance on star and Milky Way visibility.
Side Trips Near Joshua Tree National Park
If you’re looking for relaxation, make the 1 hour trip to Palm Springs, a town known for its spas and getaways.
Joshua Tree’s proximity to big cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas, make it the perfect road trip destination. Explore Southern California before venturing up the coast on the Pacific Coast Highway!
Add more national parks to your road trip! Nearby parks include, Channel Islands, Death Valley, and Grand Canyon.
Tips for Visiting Joshua Tree
- Stay safe in the desert. Bring plenty of water and sun protection any time you are in the park. Be sure you have at least 2-3 liters of water per person before setting out for a hike. Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat, even in chillier Winter months.
- Book campgrounds early. Popular campgrounds, like Jumbo Rocks, will book out early during peak season from October to April. Make a reservation 6 months out when reservations open up.
- Buy a national park pass. The America the Beautiful national park pass gets you into all the USA national parks, plus tons more federal lands, like national forests! And all for only $80 per year. You can buy your pass at the national park when you arrive or purchase online a few months before your trip (allow plenty of time for the pass to be mailed to you!). The pass covers everyone in the vehicle, as long as you are there to present your pass and a valid photo ID.
- Don’t miss these sunrise spots. The Joshua Trees and Cholla cactuses come alive in the golden morning. Don’t miss seeing the park in the soft light – it looks so different than it does at midday!
- Always check the national park website before visiting. The park regularly publishes closures, including visitor centers, campgrounds, and hiking trails. Check the site before heading into the park to get the latest information. You can find important alerts right on the Joshua Tree National Park home page.
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