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One Day in Joshua Tree National Park: The Top Things to See and Places to Go

Scraggly Joshua trees can be seen on a Joshua Tree day trip
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Are you planning a fun day trip to Joshua Tree National Park?

If so, then this is the perfect guide for you. We’ve got everything you need to know about visiting Joshua Tree in one day. From where to park and what trails are best for your skill level, we’ll show you how to make the most of your time at this beautiful desert oasis. You won’t want to miss out on any of these amazing sights!

If you only have one day in Joshua Tree, but still want to see it all, here’s our list of must-see attractions that will help ensure your visit is unforgettable. Our expert advice will help make sure that even though there are tons of things to see and do in Joshua Tree National Park in one day, that doesn’t mean it has to be overwhelming or exhausting.

With just a little bit of planning ahead, we’ll show you how easy it can be to enjoy the best of a Joshua Tree day trip.

Land Acknowledgment: This post promotes travel to native lands for the following nations: Yuhaviatam/Maarenga’yam (Serrano), Cahuilla, and Newe (Western Shoshone). We honor all Indigenous caretakers of these lands and waters, the elders who lived here before, the Indigenous today, and the generations to come.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thanks for supporting The Parks Expert! For more information, view my privacy policy.

Things to Know Before You Go

Joshua Trees below rocky mountains
NPS/Brad Sutton

About Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeastern California. It encompasses two deserts: the Colorado and the Mojave. The park takes its name from the unique Joshua trees that grow there. These can only be seen in the high Mojave desert of the park. In the low Colorado desert, you’ll find unique cacti like the cholla and shrubs like ocotillo.

Joshua trees at sunset near Quail Springs

Did you know Joshua trees are not trees? They are actually a type of yucca plant and a member of the Agave family! The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is native to the Mojave Desert. You may find a few stragglers in the Sonoran desert or San Bernardino Mountains, however. These famous, scraggly plants give the park its name.

Joshua Tree National Park was first designated as a national monument in 1936 by President Franklin D Roosevelt. In 1994 it became a national park. Today, it’s one of the most popular national parks in the country. The Joshua trees make Joshua Tree National Park one of the most unique places in California.

Entrance Fees

Aerial view of Joshua Tree National Park West Entrance

There is a small fee to enter the park. If you’re visiting more national parks in California, or in nearby states like Arizona or Nevada, it’s worth purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass. This costs $80 and is valid for 12 months from your purchase. It will get you into all the national parks, national forests, fish and wildlife refuges, and other federal public lands that charge a fee.

If you don’t have a pass, entrance fees for Joshua Tree National Park allow you to visit for a full week. Even if you’re just making a Joshua Tree day trip, you’ll need to pay for a full seven days. It’s a good excuse to spend more than one day in Joshua Tree.

Cyclists on Park Boulevard

The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle. If you’re driving a motorcycle, it’s $25 per motorcycle. For individuals hiking or bicycling into the park, it’s $15 per person. Again, these prices will grant you access to the park for 7 days.

How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park

Sunset over the mountains with a Joshua tree in the foreground
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Joshua Tree National Park is in a prime location for day trips from nearby cities. It’s also a great destination if you’re on a southern California road trip or making your way across the country.

Here are some distances and drive times from nearby cities. These destinations are perfect for anyone interested in a day trip to Joshua Tree. I’ve also included distances from nearby national parks in case you’re interested in a longer road trip.

  • Indio: 40 minutes, 32 miles (to South Entrance)
  • Palm Springs: 45 minutes, 34 miles (to West Entrance)
  • Orange County: 2 hours, 115 miles (to West Entrance)
  • Los Angeles: 2 hours, 130 miles (to West Entrance)
  • San Diego: 2.5 hours, 160 miles (to West Entrance)
  • Las Vegas: 3 hours, 180 miles (to North Entrance)
  • Phoenix: 3.5 hours, 230 miles (to South Entrance)
  • Death Valley National Park: 4 hours, 240 miles (to North Entrance)
  • Grand Canyon National Park: 6 hours, 365 miles (to North Entrance)
Hiker at Fortynine Palms Trailhead

As for nearby airports, consider flying into one of the airports below. From there, I recommend renting a car to travel to Joshua Tree. As you’ll see below, there is no transportation within the park, so a car will be necessary.

  • Palm Springs International Airport (PSP)
  • John Wayne Airport (Santa Ana, SNA)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • San Diego International Airport (SAN)
  • McCarran Airport (Las Vegas, LAS)
  • Sky Harbor (Phoenix, PHX)

Pets

Dog on a Dirt Road

Like many national parks, Joshua Tree does not allow pets on trails. The only exception is the short, paved Oasis of Mara trail.

Pets, including emotional support animals, are only allowed in developed areas, such as parking lots or campgrounds. An easy way to help you remember where to bring your pet is they are permitted anywhere a car can go.

Pets must be on a leash at all times. They cannot be left unattended. Don’t forget to clean up after your pet!

Things to Bring

Hiker during Sunset

Joshua Tree is filled with jagged rocks and cacti, so I recommend wearing closed-toe shoes. Hiking boots are best if you’re going on longer treks in the desert or climbing any rocks.

Make sure to bring plenty of water! The summer months can get hot here, and you’ll need to stay hydrated on your Joshua Tree day trip. There is no water in the park, so come prepared. Bring your water bottle to fill up before you enter the park.

It’s also a good idea to protect yourself from the sun since it can get pretty strong in Joshua Tree National Park. Wear sunscreen (at least SPF 30) and bring sunglasses or an umbrella if necessary. A wide-brimmed hat would also come in handy.

Monsoon clouds from Live Oak Picnic Area

If you plan to do any hiking, be sure to bring a first-aid kit. There are many Joshua Tree day hikes that could lead to injuries or mishaps if people aren’t well prepared.

Also for hikers, plan to bring a day pack. This will help you carry snacks, water, and other necessities. My favorite backpacks are from DeuterOsprey, and Gregory.

Hikers will also want a map since there is no cell reception in the park. This guide will also help you plan out your hikes.

Other items I recommend bringing include bug spray (especially during the summer months), binoculars, and simple snacks like granola bars and trail mix.

Lastly, don’t forget your camera so you can capture your day in Joshua Tree.

Transportation

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) forest

Unlike some national parks, there are no shuttles in Joshua Tree. I highly recommend renting a car for your visit as it’s the only way to get around. There are a few different roads you’ll be able to travel while visiting the park.

Pinto Basin Road connects the north and south sections of Joshua Tree. It also serves as your transition between the Colorado and Mojave deserts.

Park Boulevard runs between the west and east portions of the park. This will be the busiest road within park boundaries and the most difficult to find parking.

Keys View Road brings visitors to a few hiking trails. It also terminates at the famous Keys View, the highest point you can drive to in Joshua Tree.

Geology Tour Road is a great, less crowded option for day-trippers with 4-wheel drive and high clearance vehicles. This unpaved, bumpy road will reach you everything you want to know (and more) about the geology of Joshua Tree.

Blooming Ocotillo at Night

Weather

Joshua Tree is situated among two desert ecosystems. As such, it is very hot in the summer and chilly in the evenings year-round. Check the current weather in the park.

When to Visit Joshua Tree National Park

Snowing near Hidden Valley

Due to its desert climate, the best time to visit Joshua Tree is in the winter months between October and April. This is especially true for hikers who don’t want to hike in the heat of the day.

Spring is a great time for anyone interested in wildflowers. This is, however, one of the most popular times to visit thanks to the cooler weather.

Joshua Tree is still a great place to visit in the summer, but you should take precautions. Hike in the morning before it’s too hot, bring plenty of water, and wear sun protection.

Where to Stay Near Joshua Tree

Camping at Hidden Valley Campground

I highly recommend camping in Joshua Tree if you can make a reservation. Otherwise, here are some options nearby:

Near the Oasis Visitor Center (Twentynine Palms): Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn, Twentynine Palms Resort, El Rancho Dolores, Sunnyvale Garden Suites

Near the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (Joshua Tree): Safari Motor Inn, High Desert Motel

Near the Cottonwood Visitor Center (Indio): Royal Plaza Inn, Best Western, Travelodge

In Palm Springs: Margaritaville Resort, Hilton, Andreas Hotel & Spa, Vagabond Motor Hotel

Important Tips for Your Joshua Tree Day Trip

Hidden Valley area at sunset

Bring water and food. There are no services available inside the park, so you should bring all your snacks and meals with you. There are plenty of places to purchase food in the nearby communities of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree. Despite the park’s desert locale, there are no water refill stations in the park. I recommend bringing a gallon or two of water with you and using that to refill your water bottle(s) throughout the day. Keep them in a cooler if you can.

Book your campsites early. Camping in Joshua Tree is a great way to see the park. You’ll be close to all the attractions so you can beat the crowds in the morning. Plus, Joshua Tree features an amazing night sky on clear nights. That said, camping is also very popular. You’ll want to book your campsite as early as you can on Recreation.gov.

Don’t rely on cell reception or wi-fi. While you will pick up service in the towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree, phone signal is hard to get while inside the park. Bring a map with you so you aren’t relying on your phone for directions.

Parking Lot Full Sign at Twin Tanks Parking Lot

Arrive at busy locations early. Parking lots will fill at popular attractions throughout the day. To find parking, make sure you prioritize visiting the busiest spots as early as you can. This will also help you avoid long lines at the entrance station.

Buy a National Parks Pass. I mentioned this earlier, but want to re-emphasize how much money you’ll save in the longer run. If you visit national parks (or other federal public lands) often, this is worth the investment. Get your national parks pass today.

Stay safe in the desert. Wear sun protection and drink plenty of water. Avoid hiking in the hottest times of day, especially on the exposed trails in Joshua Tree.

Joshua Trees are fragile. Do not attempt to climb on them or hang from them. Leave no trace by staying on trail. Don’t litter and leave everything you find behind for others to see when they visit the park.

Check the official website before you go. It will always have the most up-to-date information on any closures or other need-to-know information for your trip. Click here to check it out.

A couple Joshua trees seen during a Joshua Tree day trip
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

One Day Trip to Joshua Tree National Park: The Ultimate Itinerary

Now that you know how to get to Joshua Tree, how to get around, and what items are necessary for a Joshua Tree day trip, it’s time to make a plan! I’ve created an itinerary with some of my favorite activities and sights within Joshua Tree National Park. This will help you determine how to make the best of your day trip to Joshua Tree.

Cholla Cactus Garden and Pinto Mountain; teddybear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) at sunset

How to Use This Itinerary

This Joshua Tree itinerary allows for a lot of flexibility. We give you multiple options so you can pick and choose how you’d like to spend one day in Joshua Tree.

When I was in Joshua Tree for one day, I started at the Cottonwood Visitor Center and worked my way north. This worked best for the direction I was traveling. Depending on where you are starting/ending your Joshua Tree day trip, you may want to rearrange this itinerary.

For more ideas, check out my list of the 17 top things to do in Joshua Tree.

Comet NEOWISE over Queen Valley

Joshua Tree Day Trip Summary

Start your day at the Cottonwood Visitor Center to get your bearings. Or, if you’re an early riser, start in the Cholla Cactus Garden at sunrise. Either way, stop here and at the Ocotillo Patch as you make your way north. Then, view some of the classic rock formations and go for a short hike. If there is availability, join a park ranger to tour Keys Ranch. Finally, end your day trip at Joshua Tree with sunset from Keys View. If you have time, find a quiet, dark place to gaze at the stars.

Cottonwood Visitor Center

Ranger Keith Flood Helps Visitors at Cottonwood Visitor Center

The Cottonwood Visitor Center is located near the south entrance of the park. It’s open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round.

Stop here as you make your way into the park. Knowledgeable park rangers can help you plan your trip and alert you to any closures you may not know about. It’s also a great place to pick up a park map, stamp your passport book, grab a junior ranger booklet, and purchase some souvenirs.

Ocotillo Patch

Ocotillo plants tower toward a partly cloudy sky
NPS/Kurt Moses

Continue your way north through the stunning Colorado Desert. You may not see any Joshua trees yet, but you will as you cross into the Mojave.

Make a quick stop at the Ocotillo Patch to view these fun cacti-looking shrubs. It’s a joy to walk through and take a closer look.

Allow about 30 minutes to drive here from Cottonwood.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Fuzzy looking cholla cacti below a purple cloudy sky
NPS/Brad Sutton

Continue north to the Cholla Cactus Garden. It’s only a few miles from the Ocotillo Patch, so it won’t take you too long to get there.

This is one of my favorite spots in all of Joshua Tree. The deceptively cute cholla cacti surround you as you walk along the trail. Make sure to stay on the trail as these cacti host incredibly painful needles!

Cholla cactus at sunset near North Backcountry Board

If you’d like to start your day early, this is a great place for sunrise. Sunlight will peek over the mountaintops and cast a beautiful yellow and orange glow on the cholla cacti. It’s definitely worth the early morning wake-up call.

Classic Rock Formations

Rock boulders cast in yellow sunlight
NPS/Kurt Moses

Keep driving north on Pinto Basin Road. Soon, you’ll start to see your first Joshua trees as you inch closer to the Mojave desert. Before you know it, you’ll be surrounded by them!

Some famous rock formations are the first attractions as you continue driving.

A natural rock shaped like an arch frames the moon in a blue sky
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Arch Rock is the first one you’ll come across. Parking can be difficult near the White Tank Campground. The park recently built a parking area for Twin Tanks/Arch Rock, and if that is full there are a few pull-outs to use. Parking is not allowed in the campground for day use. If you can’t find parking, I recommend moving on to some other cool rocks.

If you do find a parking space, why not check it out? The trail can be difficult to find. It starts across from campsite #9 in White Tank. The walk itself is an easy 1.4-miles roundtrip. You can also wander around other rocks nearby.

Twin Tanks Trailhead

Once you arrive, there may be a line of people waiting to climb up the rock for a photo.

Once back at your car, continue north for a short while and then turn left at the next intersection. This will bring you down Park Boulevard.

A rock shaped like a human skull, a popular sight to see on a one day trip to Joshua Tree
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Skull Rock is the next famous rock formation. You can either view it from the highway or attempt to park and walk around. This area is popular and parking may not be possible.

A pile of granite boulders in the desert
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Split Rock is also not too far from there, but requires a hike. Across the street is the Jumbo Rocks Campground which has, as you can imagine, enormous rock formations. If you have time, it’s worth a stroll. If I were you, I’d save that energy for Hidden Valley, which also has plenty of rocks to view and climb.

Other well-known rocks in Joshua Tree are Cap Rock, Elephant Rock, and Face Rock. If you ever return to the park for more than just one day, they’re worth exploring, too.

Lunch at Hidden Valley Picnic Area

Granite rocks below a blue sky
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Next, head to Hidden Valley Picnic Area for lunch. There are tables here surrounded by Joshua trees, rock formations, and a lovely scenic view. While here, check out a map and determine which hike you want to do.

We purchased burritos from Mexican Street Tacos, a quirky and small place in town, and brought them into the park with us to eat. In true California style, some of the burritos have french fries in them (and they’re delicious!).

Go For a Hike

Hiker on the Fortynine Palms Trail

The park’s deep valleys and jagged peaks make it a great place for hiking. With over 800,000 acres of land to explore, you can hike through dense forests with towering trees or steep-walled slot canyons.

There are some great options for nearby hiking trails. Depending on your fitness and the weather, you may be able to do 1 or 2 of these hikes.

With the exception of Lost Horse Mine, all of the hikes below are within a few minutes of the Hidden Valley Picnic Area. For more ideas, check out my post on the best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park.

Hidden Valley Nature Trail

Clouds over Hidden Valley

This trail is perfect for new hikers. It’s flat and only 1 mile long. It’s great if you’re short on time or looking for an easy walk.

The area is popular for rock climbing, so you may see some climbers ascending the granite boulders that surround you. It’s also full of beautiful Joshua trees and other desert plants.

Barker Dam

Barker Dam

Barker Dam is a popular trail in Joshua Tree. It leads to a dam used to help bring water to early residents in the area. If you’re lucky, you may see some water in the pool (after a rainy day or season).

The trail is an easy one-mile loop. Along the way, you’ll get beautiful views of Joshua trees and granite boulders. There are also interpretive signs to teach you about the history of the area. If you’re lucky, you might see some bighorn sheep!

Ryan Mountain

A few Joshua trees below Ryan Mountain
NPS/Robb Hannawacker

Ryan Mountain is one of the more strenuous options for your afternoon hike. I wouldn’t choose this one if you’re spending the day in Joshua Tree in the heat of the summer.

This popular 3-mile hike leads to the summit of Ryan Mountian. You’ll gain 1,050 feet in 1.5 miles as you make your way to the top. I would allow 2-3 hours for this hike.

Wall Street Mill

Wall Street Mill

If you’re looking for a longer hike, the Wall Street Mill is perfect. It’s a great option if you have another couple of hours to spare in Joshua Tree National Park.

The trail leads past abandoned mines and ends at an old mill that was built into a rock canyon. You’ll gain 400 feet along your journey as it climbs up and down. This trail is about a mile and a half long, so allow at least an hour for your hike.

Hall of Horrors

Sunset at Hall of Horrors climbing area

The Hall of Horrors is a short jaunt from the parking area and has some great photo ops along the way. It’s an easy stroll around the rock formations. If you can find the right notch, you can also explore the Hall of Horrors itself.

Climber steward rappelling in Hidden Valley Campground

This is another popular spot for rock climbers if you’re interested in watching.

Lost Horse Mine

Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail

Lost Horse Mine is a 4-mile out-and-back hike that takes 2-3 hours. It’s on the moderate side. It’s also very popular. When the parking area is full, park rangers will close the road and allow one car in for every car that leaves.

If you are able to snag a parking place, this hike leads you to one of the park’s best-preserved gold mines. The mine is dangerous to enter, but interesting to view.

This hiking trail begins from the road to Keys View.

Tour Keys Ranch

Keys Ranch Historic Vehicle and Main House

Instead of a longer hiking trip, you may be interested in touring Keys Ranch. Keys Ranch is a historic ranch from the early 1900s. If you are able to schedule a tour with a park ranger, I highly recommend adding this to your Joshua Tree itinerary.

Learn more about Keys Ranch and how to obtain tickets here.

Sunset at Keys View

Waysides at Keys View

To end your day trip in Joshua Tree, start heading to Keys View. Plan to arrive at least an hour early to find a parking spot (be there earlier if you can).

From the short, 1/4-mile paved trail you have stunning views over the valley below. You can see the San Andreas Fault, Mount San Jacinto, Mount San Gorgonio, and the Salton Sea. On a clear day without smog, you can even see all the way to Mexico!

Watching the sunset from Keys View is the perfect way to bid farewell to this beautiful park.

Dinner in Joshua Tree

Before leaving the area, I recommend having dinner in Joshua Tree. A local and tourist favorite is the Joshua Tree Saloon, a fun venue with amazing food and drinks. It’s also near some shops in town if you’re still interested in acquiring some souvenirs from your day trip to Joshua Tree.

Stargazing

The milky way above the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park
NPS/Lian Law

If you have time to spare, it’s worth sticking around to stargaze. The mountains and Joshua trees make for great foreground pieces in night sky photography.

Some great places to stargaze include Keys View or Hidden Valley. Try to get away from the road and car headlights if you can.

Pin the Expert’s Joshua Tree Day Trip Itinerary

While this area deserves a few days to properly see it all, we hope this one-day Joshua Tree itinerary helped you plan a day trip. Sometimes, one day is simply all you have to spend.

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot us an email or leave us a note in the comments. We’d also love to hear about how you spent your day trip to Joshua Tree!

If you only have one day in Joshua Tree, but still want to see it all, here's our list of must-see attractions that will help you plan a Joshua Tree day trip.
If you only have one day in Joshua Tree, but still want to see it all, here's our list of must-see attractions that will help you plan a Joshua Tree day trip.
If you only have one day in Joshua Tree, but still want to see it all, here's our list of must-see attractions that will help you plan a Joshua Tree day trip.

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