How to Plan an Amazing Day Trip to Joshua Tree
If you want to spend a day hiking through a desert landscape and clambering over otherworldly, massive boulders, Joshua Tree is the place for you! While I think anyone could easily spend a full two or three days in the area, spending one day in Joshua Tree is a great way to experience this uniquely beautiful national park.
I’m a California native who has lived in Southern California for most of my life, so I’ve spent plenty of time adventuring through Joshua Tree and exploring the surrounding area.
In this guide, we’ll talk about exactly how to plan the perfect day trip to Joshua Tree. With the itinerary outlined below, you’ll have a chance to see some of the park’s coolest sights, and spend the day hiking through one of California’s best national parks.
We’ll also go over a few helpful tips to make the most of your short (but packed!) visit.
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Can You See Joshua Tree in One Day?
I do think you can do Joshua Tree in one day, because it is one of the more day trip-friendly US national parks.
In fact, as a Los Angeles resident, I know plenty of people who regularly head over to the park for a quick daytime getaway!
Of course, you can’t see absolutely everything in one day. The itinerary below focuses on the northwest corner of the park, where the bulk of the most popular sights are located. The hikes in this area are on the shorter (and easier) side, so it’s easy to move from activity to activity.
That said, with more time, you’d be able to fit in some of the longer hikes in more remote regions of the park. If you’re considering spending some extra time in Joshua Tree, you’ll find a section on additional things to do below.
You can also take a look at our two-day Joshua Tree itinerary for more inspiration!
Tips for Spending a Day in Joshua Tree National Park
There are a few things you should keep in mind before you embark on your day trip to Joshua Tree.
One is that there aren’t any places to grab food or water within the park, besides a few water stations (which unfortunately aren’t located in the more popular areas).
With this in mind, bring snacks, lunch, and a lot of water with you. Don’t forget snacks for the drive home, as well! If you want to buy lunch in town to bring into the park, you’ll find a few recommendations in the eating and drinking section later in this guide.
You should also note that there aren’t any gas stations within the park. Since you’ll be doing a fair share of driving, fill up your tank in the town of Joshua Tree or Yucca Valley before entering the park. As you leave, be sure to stop by for another top off before making your way home.
Another thing to know is that cell service is pretty limited within the park. The park is fairly easy to navigate, especially the area that you’ll be exploring in the itinerary below.
Most of the spots are located right off of Park Boulevard or Pinto Basin Road, and signage is clear in the area. However, it’s still a good idea to either download the Google map of the area for offline use (here’s how) or bring a map with you.
Finally, I recommend buying your park pass in advance online. Once you’ve ordered your pass, you can either download it to your phone or print it out to show to the park ranger.
While this isn’t absolutely essential if you’re visiting during the off-season, this can be super beneficial during busier times (particularly early spring!). They’ll often open a separate line for people who already have passes, which can save you a bit of time.
How to Spend One Day in Joshua Tree: A Perfect Day Trip
If you have just one day in Joshua Tree, here’s a stop-by-stop guide on exactly how to spend your time.
We’ll start with trails and points of interest on the northwest side of the park, and then make our way southeast. Heads up: you’ll want to enter the park through the West Entrance Station, and then exit at the end of the day through the North Entrance Station.
You’ll be spending plenty of time on your feet and out in the sun, so wear your most supportive shoes and bring lots of sunscreen! If you didn’t arrive in the area with lunch for the day, make sure to stop and grab food in town first.
Hike the Hidden Valley Nature Trail
First up on the Joshua Tree day trip itinerary is the Hidden Valley Nature Trail, which is about a 15-minute drive from the West Entrance Station. There are plenty of parking spots right by the trailhead, so parking should be a breeze.
This easy loop trail is a mile long, and has very little elevation gain. It’s one of my absolute favorite hikes in Joshua Tree, as it’s incredibly scenic.
On this hike, you’re surrounded by massive rock formations that create a valley, and pass by plenty of Joshua trees, cacti, and other desert plants. There are also a lot of great easy spots to clamber up rocks and take in the view from above!
While the Hidden Valley trail is short (you’d likely finish it in under half an hour if you keep moving), it’s easy to spend a lot of extra time here clambering over rocks, going a bit off trail, and taking in the views.
Keep an eye on the clock and make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to hit the next spots on the itinerary!
Explore Jumbo Rocks
Next up is Jumbo Rocks, which is about a 15-minute drive down the road from Hidden Valley Nature Trail. You’ll want to park on the road (Park Boulevard), near the entrance to Jumbo Rocks Campground.
As the name suggests, Jumbo Rocks is super concentrated with massive sculpted rock formations. It’s one of my favorite spots in the park for clambering up rocks, as you can easily get up to a super high vantage point for amazing views of the park.
While most boulders here are not too hard to climb (I’ve managed, and I am by no means a rock climber!), you’ll still want to be sure you’re wearing good shoes with traction.
Typically, people visiting Jumbo Rocks will do the 1.6-mile trail that goes around the campground. While that’s a great hike, I recommend exploring the area on the opposite side of Park Boulevard from the campground instead.
In my experience, it’s generally less crowded, and has some of the most incredible rock formations in the park.
There isn’t a set trail here, but you’ll see plenty of walking paths that lead you towards the enormous and very climbable rock formations. Just start exploring and checking whatever areas look cool to you!
There’s a walking path entrance on Park Boulevard that is directly across the road from the entrance to the campground (where you’ll be parking your car).
Since you won’t be following a specific trail, be mindful of where you’re going and where the road is. That said, this area is located right off the road, so it’s pretty easy to find your way back to your car.
Hike the Split Rock Loop Trail
Next up is another hike at Split Rock Loop Trail, which is less than 5 minutes down the road from Jumbo Rocks. This trail passes by many cool rock formations, and you’ll also see plenty of desert plants along the way.
There are a few parking spots right at the trailhead, but they can fill up quickly, especially if you’re visiting during a busier season. If you can’t park there, you’ll have to park on Park Boulevard and just walk up to the trailhead (it’s about half a mile). In my experience, park rangers will typically put up a sign indicating the lot is full.
At this point, you’ll probably be ready for lunch. There’s a picnic area with a few tables right by the trailhead where you can eat. Alternatively, you can start the hike and find a nice spot to take a lunch break!
The easy trail is 2.5-miles long, and has a 275-foot elevation gain. The first time I hiked it, I did find that it’s a bit hard to follow, but I was still able to complete the full loop!
If you have an AllTrails Pro account, it’s definitely not a bad idea to download the map on the app for offline use.
Hike the Arch Rock Nature Trail
After exploring Split Rock Loop Trail, you’ll make your way over towards Arch Rock, which is about a 10-minute drive away. For this trail, you’ll park at this lot, where the trailhead is located.
Once you start the hike, you’ll walk a short distance before crossing to the other side of Pinto Basin Road. After crossing the road, you’ll continue making your way towards Arch Rock.
Arch Rock Nature Trail is an easy 1.4-mile trail with less than 100 feet of elevation gain. The coolest part of the trail comes at about half a mile in, where you’ll hit a super dense collection of rock formations.
This is where you’ll find the heavily photographed Arch Rock, as well as plenty of other interesting boulders. If you’re visiting during a busier time, expect to wait in line for a bit to take a photo by the rock.
While the trail technically loops back around right at Arch Rock, I suggest taking some time to climb over the boulders and explore the rocky area.
There’s lots to see and explore in this area – just be ready to climb over some rocks! It can also be easy to get turned around as you’re exploring the off-trail rocky area, so be sure to stay aware of where Arch Rock and the trail are located.
Poke Around (HA) Cholla Cactus Garden Around Sunset
The last stop of your day trip is Cholla Cactus Garden, which is a little over 10 minutes down the road from the Arch Rock parking lot. There is a small parking lot here, but you can also easily park on the street if it is full.
This “garden” – which is located right off the road – is concentrated with tons of cholla cacti, which have almost translucent needles. Around sunset, these needles glow in the golden hour sun, so it’s a really cool sight to check out! Depending on when you’re visiting, you may spot some other desert flowers in bloom, as well.
There’s a walking path around the area that is approximately a quarter-mile long. As tempting as it may be, I highly suggest you stay on the path and keep your distance from the cacti.
They are famously very spiky, and can latch onto your clothes or skin. They are not fun to deal with, so play it safe!
What to Do with More Time in Joshua Tree
If you have some extra time to spare, there are plenty of additional things to do in the park and the surrounding area. I’ll recommend a few activities below, but if you’re staying in the area for a full two days, I suggest checking out our Joshua Tree weekend guide.
The itinerary includes all of the spots mentioned above, as well as additional hikes, sights, and activities to enjoy while in the area. You’ll also find campsite and hotel recommendations.
Get in Even More Hiking in the Park
Of course, there is plenty more to see within the park if you have extra time.
Below, I’ve listed out a few different hiking trails and points of interest I recommend fitting into your itinerary if you have more than a day in the park (or just got an early start!).
The first four spots are located off of Park Boulevard, near the other trails mentioned in the above itinerary.
The last trail in this list is located in the very southern section of the park.
The Barker Dam Nature Trail
Barker Dam Nature Trail is an easy hike that is just over a mile long. It passes by a dam that was built by cattlemen around 1900, as well as a large boulder that has Native American petroglyphs.
The dam is also a popular spot for bighorn sheep sightings, so keep your eyes peeled!
The Wall Street Mill Trail
The trailheads for Wall Street Mill Trail and Barker Dam Nature Trail are right next to each other, so you can do both if you have the time.
This easy trail is 2-miles long, and leads out to a two-stamp gold ore crushing mill that operated from approximately the early 1930s to the mid 1960s.
Along the way, you’ll also pass by other remnants of the early to mid-20th century, including the remains of an old house, an abandoned rusty car, and a windmill and water pump.
Hall of Horrors
If you want to spend a bit more time hiking amongst massive boulders and Joshua trees, you’ll want to check out this spot.
The loop trail is super easy, and just a bit over half a mile long. However, if you’re looking for a bit more of an adventure, you can go off trail to explore a slot canyon named the Hall of Horrors.
You will need to do some rock scrambling to actually get to this slot canyon, so make sure you’re wearing shoes with good traction.
The Ryan Mountain Trail
Another great trail nearby is the Ryan Mountain Trail, which is a 2.9-mile out-and-back trail. This is a more challenging hike compared to the options above, particularly because it has an elevation gain of 1,062 feet.
You’ll be walking uphill to the peak for the first half of the hike, but will be rewarded with gorgeous panoramic views of the area.
The Lost Palms Oasis Trail
This trail is perfect for anyone looking for a longer and slightly more challenging hike.
The out-and-back trail is 7.5-miles long, and has an elevation gain of 1,046 feet. It leads hikers out to a palm tree oasis, which you can scramble down to if you’re up for it.
The Lost Palms Oasis Trail is definitely a less popular option since it’s located so far south in the park, away from the most popular sights. That said, it’s still an incredibly cool spot to check out if you have the time and energy.
Since this trail is longer and located about an hour south of most of the other spots mentioned in this itinerary, you’ll only be able to fit it in if you have an additional half day (or more) to spend in Joshua Tree.
Drive Up to Keys View
Of course, there are other things to do if you’re not up for more hiking. If you’ve had enough time on your feet, you can still get incredible views of the park (with minimal effort!) at Keys View.
This mountain peak is accessible by car, and is just about a 10-minute detour off of Park Boulevard, near many of the other popular spots mentioned above.
Once you park, you can walk over to the short paved loop path and enjoy the sweeping views of the mountains and the Coachella Valley below. If it’s clear enough, you’ll spot the Salton Sea to the left. If you can time it right, I’d recommend heading up there to enjoy the sunset.
Explore the Town of Joshua Tree
Many people focus on the park itself and skip checking out the town of Joshua Tree when they are in the area. However, if you have some extra time, it’s definitely worth exploring the town.
In addition to the restaurants and cafes in the area (you’ll find recommendations below), there are a few fun clothing, home goods, vintage, and gift shops in the small town center, such as Coyote Corner, Ricochet Vintage Wears, and Roaming Travelers Boutique.
If you’re in town, a unique spot that you definitely won’t want to skip is the World Famous Crochet Museum. This super small and very colorful museum is located in a converted drive-through photo stand, and is packed with lots of different crochet pieces. It’s always open and free of charge, though there is a suggested donation of 25 cents.
If you’re willing to drive about 10 minutes from the center of town, another cool spot worth checking out is the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Noah Purifoy was a visual artist, and this free outdoor museum features some of his recycled materials sculptures and installations.
Check Out Pioneertown
Pioneertown (which is located about a 20-minute drive west of Joshua Tree) was built back in the 1940s to be used as an old west film set. The false storefronts still stand today (and the space is still occasionally used for film and TV), so it’s a fun spot for visitors to explore.
There are also some real stores and restaurants in town. If you want to eat and drink while in the area, you should stop by Pappy & Harriet’s and/or The Red Dog Saloon. You can find out more about these spots in the next section.
Eating and Drinking Near Joshua Tree National Park
While you certainly won’t be able to find food in the park itself, there are plenty of great places to eat and drink in the town of Joshua Tree and the surrounding area.
Here are a few of the spots I recommend checking out.
Pre-Park Breakfast & To-Go Lunch
The Dez: This spot – which is located in the town of Joshua Tree – is one of the best places to grab lunch to bring into the park. The restaurant offers plenty of healthy to-go meals (including vegan and vegetarian-friendly options), including buddha bowls, sandwiches, and even charcuterie boards. The Dez also has coffee and tea if you need a little pick-me-up when you arrive.
Roadrunner Grab-and-Go: Another place I recommend stopping by to grab lunch to-go is Roadrunner, which is also located in the town of Joshua Tree. The restaurant has salads, sandwiches, charcuterie boards, snacks, and additional pre-made items. They also serve breakfast and coffee.
Natural Sisters Cafe: If you want to enjoy a healthy breakfast in town before making your way to the park, I suggest stopping by Natural Sisters Cafe. The cafe is fully vegetarian (with plenty of vegan options), and serves a variety of dishes, including bagel sandwiches, a vegan breakfast wrap, biscuits and gravy, and a veggie sausage and egg slider. Natural Sisters Cafe also offers juices, smoothies, coffee, and tea.
Joshua Tree Coffee Company: If you need your caffeine fix, this is the place to go for a great quality cup of coffee. Joshua Tree Coffee Company has an excellent selection of drink options, including lattes, flat whites, cold brews, and teas.
Post-Park Dinner & Drinks
Joshua Tree Saloon: This popular old west-style bar and grill is a great option if you’re looking to grab dinner and drinks in town after a day of exploring the park. Joshua Tree Saloon serves burgers, sandwiches, tacos, steak, seafood, and more, as well as beer, wine, and cocktails. The saloon also frequently has live music.
Crossroads Cafe: This diner is another excellent choice in town if you need dinner after a day of hiking. Crossroads serves burgers, sandwiches, salads, tacos, beer, wine, and more, and has vegan and vegetarian options. The diner also serves breakfast and lunch daily.
Pappy & Harriet’s: If you end up visiting Pioneertown, you’ll want to grab something to eat at this old-west style bar and grill, which often has live music. Pappy & Harriet’s serves classic grill food, including hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches, and ribs. You can also order beer, wine, and cocktails.
The Red Dog Saloon: Another fun spot in Pioneertown is this saloon. In addition to beer, wine, cider, and cocktails, The Red Dog Saloon offers a wide selection of dishes for lunch and dinner, including vegetarian and vegan options. The menu features ribs, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and more. They also have breakfast on the weekends.
How to Get to Joshua Tree National Park
Let’s talk about getting to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs and Los Angeles. Note that you 100% need a car to explore Joshua Tree National Park, since there isn’t any sort of shuttle service in the park (and you can’t reasonably walk from point to point).
With that said, we’re going to talk about the routes and things to keep in mind when driving out to Joshua Tree.
From Los Angeles
As I mentioned earlier, Joshua Tree is a popular day trip spot for Los Angeles visitors and residents.
That said, the drive is about two and a half hours from Downtown L.A. to the entrance on the west side of the park, so you’ll definitely be spending a lot of time in the car in just one day!
Of course, this drive can be even longer depending on how bad traffic is and where exactly in L.A. you’re coming from.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to drive back home after a day of hiking, driving around the park, and being out in the sun. It’s also very important to note that, if you’re following the above itinerary, the drive back will be longer mile-wise than the drive to your first stop in Joshua Tree.
This is because you’ll be ending at Cholla Cactus Garden, which is further in the park. This adds about 34 miles to your drive back home (approximately 45 minutes).
Some people may be able to handle all of this, but if you’re not so sure, consider staying overnight near the park. If you decide to go for the day trip, I highly recommend getting to Joshua Tree no later than 10:30am (but earlier is definitely better!) so that you don’t feel rushed and can head back home at a reasonable time.
Also note that the earlier you leave Los Angeles, the lower your risk is of hitting traffic.
The Route to Joshua Tree
The road trip from L.A. to Joshua Tree is just over 130 miles one-way. From Downtown, you’ll get on Highway 10 east, and follow it for 97 miles until you reach exit 117 for Highway 62 (AKA Twentynine Palms Highway).
You’ll follow the highway for 27 miles, right into the center of the town of Joshua Tree, and then turn right onto Park Boulevard.
Drive for about 6 miles until you reach the entrance station, and then make your way into the park.
The Route Back to L.A.
If you’re ending at Cholla Cactus Garden, you’ll drive north for 10 miles up Pinto Basin Road, until you hit Park Boulevard.
Turn right on Park Boulevard, and continue driving for 8.5 miles, passing the North Entrance Station about halfway through.
Turn left onto Highway 62, and then make your way back home on the same route you took to get to the park.
From Palm Springs
Compared to Los Angeles, it is a lot easier to make a day trip to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs.
The drive to Joshua Tree should take just around an hour, so you’ll have more flexibility to spend extra time in the park or grab a leisurely dinner (or pre-park breakfast) in the town of Joshua Tree or the surrounding area.
It’s also unlikely that you’ll hit any serious traffic, beyond possibly having to wait in line to get into the park.
As noted above, however, keep in mind that your drive back home will be longer than your drive to Joshua Tree, since you’ll be ending your day deeper in the park at Cholla Cactus Garden.
The Route from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree
The drive from Downtown Palm Springs to Joshua Tree is just about 38-miles long, and is super straightforward.
Drive north on North Indian Canyon Drive for 13 miles, until you hit Highway 62. Turn right onto the highway, and follow it for just over 20 miles, until you hit the town of Joshua Tree.
Turn right on Park Boulevard, and drive for 6 miles to the park entrance.
The Route Back to Palm Springs
From Cholla Cactus Garden, drive north up Pinto Basin Road for 10 miles, and then turn right on Park Boulevard. Drive for another 8.5 miles, until you hit Highway 62.
Turn left on Highway 62, and then make your way back home on the same route you took to get to Joshua Tree from Palm Springs.
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