Complete Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary And Guide (2023)

Joshua Tree National Park is like stepping into the pages of a real-life Dr. Seuss book. Twisting Joshua trees, chubby teddy bear-like Cholla cacti, and lumpy rock formations stretch across the desert landscape. This park is a unique addition to any Southern California trip. Our guide will help you plan a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, including an itinerary for one day in the park.

Complete Joshua Tree NP Itinerary And Guide

Designated as a National Park in 1994, Joshua Tree encompasses two distinct desert ecosystems – the high Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert. Two massively different desert ecosystems and their transition zone in one park!

Quick stats:

  • 795,156 acres (3,218 square kilometers) – larger than the entire state of Rhode Island
  • Highest point: 5,814 ft (1,773 m) at the summit of Quail Mountain
  • Lowest point: 536 ft (163 m) at the southeastern boundary of the park
  • 2021 visitors: ~3,064,400. Just outside the top 25 most visited National Park sites. However, as the closest National Park to both Los Angeles and San Diego, it gets extremely crowded during popular times.

Unsurprisingly, the star of the show is the famous Joshua tree. With their Seuss-esque shapes, they are everywhere in the northern part of the park. Head south and the much smaller Cholla Cacti take center stage. Besides cool looking plants, the park has human history dating back over 10,000 years and, if you keep your eyes open, wildlife like desert tortoises, roadrunners, and coyotes. Massive granite rock formations throughout the park provide a large-scale natural playground. We love how you can go off-trail for hours of rock scrambling and climbing.

What is a Joshua tree? The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is a member of the Agave family. The most common place to find Joshua trees is in the Mojave Desert where they provide invaluable habitat for birds, mammals, insects, and lizards. Interestingly, they do not have tree rings, so their age can be somewhat mysterious. Sadly, Joshua trees are facing extinction from climate change, wildfires, and large-scale development and could no longer have a viable habitat by 2100. As to how Joshua trees came to be called that? Apparently, that’s long been a mystery that may never be fully solved.

Where is Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree National Park lies in Southern California, east of Los Angeles. The nearest major cities are Los Angeles (130 miles), San Diego (165 miles), Palm Springs (40 miles), Las Vegas (190 miles), and Phoenix (225 miles). Click here for a Google Maps location.

Palm Springs is the nearest airport, but tickets are often significantly more expensive than other cities. Depending on your travel plans, it may be worth checking out other options. For example, we used Ontario Airport since our trip ended back in Los Angeles.

Park Entrances and Maps

Joshua Tree National Park has three entrances.

  • West (Main) Entrance off Hwy 62 in Joshua Tree
  • North Entrance off Highway 62 in Twentynine Palms (lines are shorter here on weekends and holidays)
  • South (Cottonwood) Entrance off Hwy 10
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Getting Around Joshua Tree

You will need a car to get around Joshua Tree National Park. The park does not have a shuttle service or public transportation.

If you plan to take any of the backcountry roads, you will need a high-clearance 4WD. If you plan to stick to the main areas of the park, a standard car works fine.

Joshua Tree National Park Entrance Fee

Joshua Tree charges an entrance fee year-round. We recommend buying an America The Beautiful National Parks Pass. The pass is good for 12 months and works at all National Park Service sites.

If you truly don’t think you would get value from an annual pass, you can buy a $30 Joshua Tree National Park pass valid for 7-days on recreation.gov. Print your pass or save it on your phone. Cell service in the park is non-existent.

You can also consider planning your trip to take advantage of free National Park entrance days.

Don’t wait for the gate! Buy your entrance fee in advance. The entrance gate lines are LONG! If you already have a pass, you get to bypass the last part of the line.

If you arrive outside of the staffed Park entrance hours (for example, for sunrise), you can still enter the park since the gates never close. However, when you exit, you will be required to show your pass/receipt or pay on exit.

Best Time to Visit Joshua Tree

You can visit Joshua Tree National Park all year. Since it’s a desert, it receives very little precipitation and is never “snowed in” like some other parks.

Summer is hot! In July and August, expect temperatures over 100F. Do not hike midday during summer (if your shadow is shorter than you, it’s time to take a break).

In our opinion, the best time to visit is between October and April. Nighttime temperatures are cold (this is the high desert!), but daytime temperatures are great for being outside and adventuring.

We visited in early February, and the weather was perfect. We needed light coats and beanies at sunrise, but temperatures quickly warmed to comfortable.

Some other things to know to help you plan the best time for *your* visit:

  • Summer is the best time to see the Milky Way, but it is visible from April to September.
  • January typically gets 1 day of snow. Although snow is possible from November through February.
  • If fall and winter have enough rain, the wildflower season runs from February to May.

How Many Days Do You Need in Joshua Tree?

With so many hiking trails and endless rocks to scramble, you could easily spend days here without getting bored. We had 24 hours and accomplished a lot. Check out our 1-day Joshua Tree itinerary and 24-hour Joshua Tree itinerary to get a sense of how much time you need.

At a minimum, we recommend one full day. Two days would be ideal, particularly if you visit in hotter months with limited midday hiking hours.

Where to Stay at Joshua Tree National Park

Camping

Camping is the only option for sleeping inside the park. With over 500 campsites, you have many locations to choose from, but only if you book in advance. Most campsites can be booked up to six months in advance on recreation.gov. Booking in advance is essential from February to May.

Hidden Valley, White Tank, and Belle Campgrounds are first-come, first-served. These campsites are highly competitive on holidays, weekends, and every day from February to May.

During summer, Hidden Valley Campground is the only open first-come, first-served campground. Some portions of reservable campgrounds also close.

For more information on camping, visit the National Park Service website.

Staying Outside the Park

We stayed in Twentynine Palms, and this is the location we would recommend. There are a few restaurants, a well-stocked grocery store, and several hotel/motel options. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites, which worked great for us. The Twentynine Palms entrance is only 12 minutes away.

Joshua Tree is the town closest to the West Entrance. The town has a few lodging options, but the grocery stores are less convenient than Twentynine Palms.

You can also stay in Palm Springs and day trip to Joshua Tree National Park. We have not done this, but have friends that prefer to do that. Staying in Palm Springs gives you access to resort life, golf, and more restaurant choices. Palm Springs is 75 minutes to the Joshua Tree West Entrance.

Things To Do in Joshua Tree National Park

Earn a Junior Ranger badge

Like most National Park Service sites, Joshua Tree NP offers a Junior Ranger program. The Joshua Tree Junior Ranger book is a beautiful full-color booklet with some amazing drawings of flora and fauna. Besides completing age-appropriate activities, aspiring Junior Rangers need to attend a ranger program or visit an exhibit in a visitor center.

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Take a Hike

Hike. Rock scramble. Joshua Tree is great for doing both on the same hike. We’ve listed some of our favorite hikes below. Other popular hikes that we haven’t done include Cap Rock and Split Rock Loop. For a complete list of hiking options, visit the National Park Service website.

A note on Barker Dam Trail. Barker Dam Trail is frequently recommended. Personally, we found it ‘meh’. Maybe if the dam is full, it’s more worthwhile. I recommend spending your time on other trails, such as Hidden Valley or Ryan Mountain.

Hidden Valley
  • Round-trip distance: 1 mile (1.6 km)
  • Elevation gain: 100 feet (30.5 m)
  • Difficulty Rating (NPS): Easy
  • Trailhead: Hidden Valley picnic area
  • Trail type: Loop

Rumor has it that cattle rustlers used rock-enclosed Hidden Valley as a natural holding pen until they could move stolen stock. The park service blasted a larger entrance, so it’s not quite so hidden anymore.

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Arch Rock Trail
  • Round-trip distance: 1.4 miles (2.1 km)
  • Elevation gain: 100 feet (30.5 m)
  • Difficulty Rating (NPS): Easy
  • Trailhead: Twin Tanks parking lot (aka Arch Rock trailhead)
  • Trail type: Lollipop (0.6 mile trail to 0.2 mile loop)

Arch Rock is the prime destination of this trail, but you can weave in and around the granite rock piles to your heart’s desire. You may even find your way to Heart Rock. Parking is limited and can be a problem in peak season.

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Skull Rock
  • Round-trip distance: 1.7 miles (2.7 km)
  • Elevation gain: 160 feet (48.8 m)
  • Difficulty Rating (NPS): Easy
  • Trailhead: Skull Rock parking east of Jumbo Rocks Campground
  • Trail type: Loop
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Oasis of Mara
  • Round-trip distance: 0.5 miles (0.8 km)
  • Elevation gain: None
  • Difficulty Rating (NPS): Easy
  • Trailhead: Oasis Visitor Center, Twentynine Palms (outside the main park)
  • Trail type: Loop

This is the easiest oasis to reach. The paved trail is stroller and wheelchair accessible. Even pets are allowed! If you are heading to the southern part of the park, Cottonwood Spring Oasis near the Cottonwood Visitor Center is another good option.

Ryan Mountain
  • Round-trip distance: 3.0 miles (4.8 km)
  • Elevation gain: 1,050 feet (320 m)
  • Difficulty Rating (NPS): Challenging
  • Trailhead: Parking area between Sheep Pass and Ryan Campground
  • Trail type: Out and back

Seek the Hall of Horrors

Part way finding, part rock scramble, and part slot canyon, the search and discovery are part of the fun! The signs will get you close, but the entrance is unmarked so only the truly adventurous find it.

Catch the Glow at Sunrise in Cholla Cactus Garden

An early start is required, but the early bird will get the view! Cholla Cactus Garden is the best place in Joshua Tree NP for sunrise! Be sure to plan for drive time. You don’t want to miss sunrise by a few minutes.

The Cholla Cactus Garden is where the Mojave Desert region meets the Colorado Desert region. The ecosystem transitions here and you won’t see any Joshua trees! An easy, 0.25-mile trail meanders through thousands of unique Cholla cacti. They may look like adorable and teddy bear-like, but don’t get too close. Their love is prickly.

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Admire the View from Keys View

Keys View offers sweeping panoramic views over the Coachella Valley. Located at the end of Keys View Road, the viewpoint takes about 20 minutes to reach from the Park Boulevard turnoff. Take the 0.2-mile wheelchair and stroller-accessible trail for the best view.

The view includes the Santa Rosa Mountains, San Jacinto Peak, and San Gorgonio Mountain. Down in the valley, you can see the San Andreas Fault and the Salton Sea, which is 230 feet below sea level.

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Sit Back & Relax for Sunset

Pull over along Park Boulevard somewhere between West Entrance and Quail Springs trailhead. Anywhere will do. You can get out of your car and walk into the desert until you’re happy with the view. Then watch as the sunset silhouettes the Joshua trees.

Other recommended spots to try are Cap Rock and Cholla Cactus Garden.

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Admire the Tallest Joshua Tree in the Park

The tallest Joshua tree in the park is just a little west of Bighorn Pass Road (well before Sheep Pass Campground Road). If you keep your eyes peeled on this stretch, you can’t miss it towering above the other trees.

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Visit Historic Keys Ranch

Bill and Frances Keys spent 60 years ranching and mining in the Mojave Desert. Learn more about their life and visit the ranch, school room, workshop, and more at this National Historic Register homestead.

Tours of the Keys Ranch typically run from October to May. The tour lasts 90 minutes and requires 0.5 miles of walking. You must reserve the tour ahead of time on recreation.gov. A fee applies for anyone over 6 years old.

You can find more information on the National Park Service website.

Channel Your Inner Geologist on Geology Tour Road

Geology Tour Ride is an 18-mile backcountry road that traverses a wide variety of the park’s geology. 16 markers along the route correspond to this guide. spots highlighted in this guide.

To drive the entire 18-mile Geology Tour Road, you will need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle (and know how to use it). However, you can access the first few miles with a normal vehicle. Make sure you turn around at the 4WD warning sign at Squaw Tank (marker 9) unless you’re sure your car can handle deep ruts and soft sand.

Stargaze

As a designated International Dark Sky Park, Joshua Tree NP is one of the best places to stargaze in Southern California (and the world!).

Anywhere in the park works for stargazing, but Pinto Basin Road between Cholla Cactus Garden and Cottonwood has the least traffic and darkest skies. In the northern part of the park, the park rangers recommended the intersection of Park Boulevard and Geology Tour Road.

A more organized way to enjoy Joshua Tree’s dark skies would be at the Sky’s The Limit Observatory & Nature Center Night Sky Festival every September.

Joshua Tree One Day Itinerary

We have two different “one day” Joshua Tree NP itineraries, depending on whether your visit is all on a single day or is 24 hours spanning an overnight. Ideally, we recommend the “24-hour” version, but either will work.

24 Hours in Joshua Tree National Park

This itinerary assumes you arrive late afternoon on Day 1 and depart late afternoon on Day 2.

  1. Orient yourself at the visitor center. We highly recommend the outstanding volunteers at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center before the West Entrance. Whichever visitor center you choose, pick up the park brochure and Junior Ranger books. This is a great chance to ask the rangers questions.
  2. Enjoy sunset along Park Boulevard.
  3. Settle in for some stargazing or just head home for the night.
  4. Wake up early to enjoy sunrise in Cholla Cactus Garden.
  5. Hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock.
  6. See Skull Rock and clamber around Jumbo Rocks
  7. See the tallest Joshua Tree in the park
  8. Survive the Hall of Horrors.
  9. Hike through Hidden Valley
  10. Enjoy the view at Keys View.
  11. Head to your next destination. Don’t forget to turn in your Junior Ranger book and get sworn in at a visitor center on your way out of the park!

One Day Joshua Tree National Park Itinerary

If you only have one day to visit Joshua Tree National Park, we recommend you enter through one entrance and exit through another. Ideally, you enter West Entrance and exit through the Cottonwood Spring entrance. This will minimize backtracking. Sights in the northwestern part of the park are closer together. Starting there will let you get more done before the heat of the day becomes a problem or you lose daylight.

  1. Orient yourself at the visitor center. We highly recommend the outstanding volunteers at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center before the West Entrance. Whichever visitor center you choose, pick up the park brochure and Junior Ranger books. This is a great chance to ask the rangers questions.
  2. Hike through Hidden Valley
  3. Enjoy the view at Keys View.
  4. Survive the Hall of Horrors.
  5. See the tallest Joshua Tree in the park
  6. See Skull Rock and clamber around Jumbo Rocks
  7. Hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock.
  8. Meander Cholla Cactus Garden.
  9. Head to your next destination. Don’t forget to turn in your Junior Ranger book and get sworn in at a visitor center on your way out of the park!

Things to Know About Visiting Joshua Tree National Park

  • Preserve Joshua Tree for the future and Leave No Trace.
  • NO WATER INSIDE THE PARK. Fill your bottles and, ideally, a large reusable container, before you enter the park.
  • The park does not have shops or food vendors. Pack lunch, snacks, and plenty of water.
  • The weather is changeable. Wear layers and sun protection.
  • Prepare for hot weather hiking. Wear sun protection, carry enough water, and don’t hike when your shadow is shorter than you.
  • Make sure your tank is full or fully charged. The park does not have gas stations or charging stations.
  • Always check current trail and road conditions.
  • There is no cell service in the park. Download offline maps and park passes beforehand.
  • Buy your pass in advance to avoid long lines at the entrance.
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Joshua Tree National Park is an amazing, unique landscape. We hope you enjoy the park as much as us! If you have questions or want to share your trip report, please drop a comment.

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