The Best Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary

Sunset seen on a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park

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. A day trip to Joshua Tree is the perfect way to explore California’s desert landscape.

The national park sits at the convergence of two deserts, the Mojave and 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 a perfect day trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

A joshua tree in front of a mountain range on a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park

Your Guide to a Day Trip to Joshua Tree

Planning a road trip around California? Check out these inspiring posts!

Planning a trip to Joshua Tree National Park? Get this free guide to camping in Joshua Tree, the only way to stay inside the park!

All About Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

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, a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park is for you!

Entrance Fees

You have several different options for getting into Joshua Tree National Park:

  • Weekly Joshua Tree National Park Pass: $30
  • Annual Joshua Tree National Park Pass: $55
  • Annual America the Beautiful National Park Pass: $80

I highly recommend opting for the annual America the Beautiful national park pass. It gets you into every national park, plus national forests and historic sites. To break even, you only need to visit 2 to 3 national parks each year!

Click here to buy your America the Beautiful national park pass.

While there isn’t an option to buy only a day pass for your day trip to Joshua Tree, the national park service does offer several free entrance days each year:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day (3rd Monday in January)
  • First Day of National Park Week (3rd Saturday of April)
  • Great American Outdoors Act Signing Day (August 4)
  • National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
  • National Public Lands Day (4th Saturday in September)
  • Veterans Day (November 11)

Joshua Tree by the Numbers

  • Area: 1,238 square miles (it’s the 15th biggest national park!)
  • Annual Joshua Tree Visitors: 3 million people visited Joshua Tree in 2019 (it’s the 10th most popular park!)
  • Most Popular Months to Visit: November, December, March, April
  • Average Daily Visitors in Peak Months: ~10,000-15,000
  • Least Popular Months to Visit: July to September
  • Average Daily Visitors in Slow Months: ~4,000-5,000
  • Average Summer Temperatures: High 99 / Low 73
  • Average Winter Temperatures: High 63 / Low 38
A joshua tree is silhouetted against the sunset

What to Know Before Your Joshua Tree Day Trip

Planning a national park trip can be stressful. But I’m here to make it easy for you! Here are my top tips you need to know to plan an epic day trip to Joshua Tree National Park, including:

  • Best time to visit
  • How to get to Joshua Tree
  • How to get around Joshua Tree in one day
  • Where to stay near Joshua Tree
  • What to pack for your trip

Important Tips for Your Joshua Tree Day Trip Itinerary

  • 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 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! 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 light. 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.

Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree National Park

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.

A joshua tree along Geology Tour Road in Joshua Tree National Park

How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park

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!

If you’re flying to Joshua Tree National Park, you can choose to fly into several airports, like Palm Springs, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles. I like to use Skyscanner to check for cheap flights to different airports.

Once you find your flight, plan to rent a car at the airport. Joshua Tree National Park has a few different off-roading scenic drives. If that interests you, be sure to rent an AWD vehicle. If not, opt for a less expensive sedan instead.

Will you be driving to Joshua Tree instead? Check out these distances from nearby major cities:

  • Los Angeles: 2.5 hours
  • San Diego: 3 hours
  • Las Vegas: 3 hours
  • Phoenix: 4.5 hours

How to Get Around While Visiting Joshua Tree

Unlike other national parks, Joshua Tree does not have a park shuttle. To get around the park, you’ll need your own vehicle. All the main park roads are paved, so if you don’t plan to do any off-roading, you don’t need an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

In peak season, parking at Joshua Tree can be difficult. To avoid crowds and find parking with ease, plan to start your day early before 9 am.

Tent and camp chair at a campsite in Joshua Tree

Where to Stay: Joshua Tree National Park

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. Check out these places to stay in Joshua Tree.

Camping in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is known for its campgrounds. The most popular campground in the park is Jumbo Rocks. 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 the boulders.

In the slow season from May to September, 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.

These campgrounds are reservable through Recreation.Gov:

These sites, particularly Jumbo Rocks, will fill up early, so I recommend booking 6 months out.

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.

Planning a trip to Joshua Tree National Park? Get this free guide to camping in Joshua Tree, the only way to stay inside the park!

Airbnbs Near Joshua Tree National 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.

There are also several hotels and motels nearby. Click here to find a hotel near Joshua Tree National Park.

Viewing sunset from Keys View in Joshua Tree National Park
Sunset at Keys View

What to Pack for Joshua Tree National Park

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!

  • America the Beautiful National Park Pass. This national park 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. 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.

One Day Joshua Tree Itinerary

I know, I know, that was a lot of information. But now we’ve arrived: here’s the perfect itinerary to explore the highlights of Joshua Tree National Park in one day.

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.

Sun glows behind a field of Cholla Cactus in Joshua Tree

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.

Arch Rock in Joshua Tree National Park

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.

Skull Rock in Joshua Tree National Park

Hike Ryan Mountain or Hidden Valley Trail

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.

Ryan Mountain hike in Joshua Tree National Park
Ryan Mountain Trail

If you’re looking for a family-friendly, easy hike, choose the 1 mile loop through Hidden Valley Trail. 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.

Hiking the Hidden Valley Trail in Joshua Tree National Park
Hidden Valley Trail

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 an epic last light photo.

Sunset from Keys Viewpoint in Joshua Tree National Park

If You Have More Than One Day in Joshua Tree

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!

Rocks are reflected in the water of Barker Dam at sunrise
Barker Dam at Sunrise

Joshua Tree National Park is known for its dark night 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.

Nearby Trips to Add to Your Joshua Tree Itinerary

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 more of 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.

A view above the expansive Grand Canyon in Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park

Frequently Asked Questions About a Day Trip to Joshua Tree

Can you do Joshua Tree in a day?

Yes! Joshua Tree is one of the best national parks to see in only a day. In one day you can see the highlights of Joshua Tree, including Cholla Cactus Garden, Ryan Mountain, and sunset at Keys View.

How do I spend a day in Joshua Tree?

A day in Joshua Tree should cover the highlights. Start your day at Cholla Cactus Garden before exploring Arch Rock and Skull Rock. After that, make the hike to the summit of Ryan Mountain. End your day with sunset at Keys View.

How much time do you need in Joshua Tree?

To see the highlights of Joshua Tree National Park, you only need one day. If you want to explore the park’s backcountry or off-road drives, plan to spend at least 2 to 3 days in Joshua Tree.

Is Joshua Tree worth the trip?

Yes! Joshua Tree is definitely worth the trip. From unique teddy bear cholla cactus to Joshua trees and boulders, Joshua Tree national park is incredibly diverse. This park has something that everyone will enjoy.

What should you not miss in Joshua Tree?

If you only have a day in Joshua Tree, don’t miss sunrise and sunset. This is the best time of day for seeing the park. Catch the sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden and sunset at Keys View.

What is the best time of year to go to Joshua Tree?

The best time of year to go to Joshua Tree is in the late fall or early spring. Most visitors choose to see Joshua Tree from November-December or March-April. This is when temperatures are comfortable during the day and night.

How much does it cost to get into Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree National Park charges $30 for a weekly admission pass to the park. You can opt for an annual pass to Joshua Tree for $55 or an $80 annual pass to all 63 national parks instead!

Do I need hiking boots for Joshua Tree?

If you plan to do any hiking, like the trail to Ryan Mountain or Hidden Valley, then yes, you need hiking boots for Joshua Tree. If you only plan to drive around the park and explore Cholla Cactus Garden, then you do not need hiking boots.

Do you need reservations for Joshua Tree?

No reservations are required for entry to Joshua Tree National Park at this point. Some campgrounds in Joshua Tree need reservations, like the popular Jumbo Rocks campground. Other campgrounds are available first-come, first-served.

Is Joshua Tree open 24 hours?

Joshua Tree National Park is open 24 hours, 365 days per year. Visitors can enter the park at any time but will be required to pay entry upon entering and exiting the park during the day.

Is Joshua Tree free at night?

Joshua Tree National Park does not man the entrance stations to the park at night. This means visitors entering and exiting at night will not be required to pay entry.

Is Joshua Tree safe at night?

Yes, Joshua Tree is safe at night. The roads are paved and lit. The park is also patrolled at night by rangers. The biggest danger at night is animals crossing the road. Be sure to use your high beam headlights when driving and use caution to avoid hitting wildlife when driving.

Does Joshua Tree get cold at night?

Since Joshua Tree National Park is in the desert, temperatures drop significantly overnight. Even in hot summer months, temperatures can get into the 50s and 60s overnight. In the winter, temperatures are typically in the 30s overnight.

Exploring Joshua Trees along Park Boulevard in Joshua Tree National Park

Final Thoughts on One Day in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is the perfect park to explore in just one day – just enough time to see the highlights!

If you only have time for a day trip to Joshua Tree, don’t miss:

  • Sunrise at Cholla Cactus Garden
  • Exploring Arch Rock and Skull Rock
  • Hiking Ryan Mountain or Hidden Valley
  • Sunset at Keys View

Planning a trip to Joshua Tree National Park? Get this free guide to camping in Joshua Tree, the only way to stay inside the park!

Looking for more experiences for your California bucket list? Check out these posts!

Is visiting every national park on your bucket list? Don’t miss this guide on the best things to do in all 63 United States national parks!

Want to share your thoughts, tips, and advice with me and other readers? Have questions about your trip? Head down to the comments section below!

This post may include some affiliate links, where I earn a small commission if you choose to make a purchase, all at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products or brands that I use. Any income helps me continue sharing national park tips and itineraries for free.

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